Monday, January 19, 2015

My column for Calkins Media (Phila. suburbs) this morning:

I distinctly recall my visit to Raiford Prison in the aptly named Starke, Florida. The class purpose: View the state’s electric chair. Infamous “Old Sparky” had wide leather straps that lashed each leg, the waist and upper torso of a prisoner to the oak giant. The doomed man, with an electrode hood lowered over his head, faced a large rectangular window. Behind it were seats for 12 to 32 witnesses. I came away with a shudder. Who would want to be a witness? I had to remind myself that once upon a time executions were a public spectacle — even in Bucks County. Families toting picnic baskets would settle in on the green to see a prisoner die.
Mina was a petty criminal in his native Cuba before being exiled to the United States. After doing time for theft in Philadelphia, he slipped aboard a Delaware River boat. In mid-transit to Trenton in May 1831, he could not produce a ticket and was put ashore in Andalusia. Destitute, he knocked at the first house he encountered, that of Dr. William Chapman and his wife, Lucretia. Mina, a handsome, slender man with curly black hair and an engaging personality, convinced Chapman he was the son of the wealthy Mexican governor of California who would repay the couple for their kindness. Lucretia, vivacious with long auburn hair, had grown apart from her husband, described as lazy and obese. She was drawn to the energetic newcomer, and he seduced her.
Within a month, Chapman began to suffer severe stomach cramps and nausea. Chicken soup made by Lucretia made him sicker. On June 22 he died. Two weeks later, Lucretia and Mina wed in a secret ceremony in New York. While she visited her sister in Syracuse, he returned to Andalusia, where he sold the Chapmans’ household valuables and split for Washington. There he swindled a businessman, initiating a search for him. Authorities located him in Boston and he was arrested.
Meanwhile, a Philadelphia newspaper speculated that Mina and Lucretia conspired to kill Dr. Chapman. His body buried in Hulmeville was exhumed. A medical examiner suspected arsenic poisoning from the odor in his stomach. First-degree arrest warrants were issued. Lucretia took flight but was apprehended in Erie.
In February 1832, her trial got underway in Doylestown, drawing crowds of spectators and wide press coverage. Top Philadelphia defense attorney David Paul Brown, hired at Lucretia’s expense, convinced the jury Chapman died of cholera. A physician buttressed that idea, testifying it was impossible to differentiate between death by arsenic and cholera, a common illness of the time. His star witness was Lucretia’s 10-year-old daughter who testified she ate the same soup as her father and never got ill. The jury freed Lucretia.
The following April, Mina’s trial began. Two court-appointed lawyers represented him and called no witnesses. The attorneys leaned on Lucretia’s acquittal. Evidence that Mina had purchased arsenic, however, swung the jury. Guilty.
On June 21, 1832, the condemned man stood on the gallows before a throng in Doylestown Township. Newspapers compared the scene to “Philadelphia on the Fourth of July.” The prisoner’s last words before the trap was sprung: “Farewell my friends. Farewell, poor Mina, poor Mina. He die innocent. He die innocent.”

No comments: