Berrien County, Michigan
Shocking Affair

Submitted and transcribed by Kathy Warren

From the St Joseph Traveler   (St Joseph Library, Berrien County, Michigan)

September 4, 1861


Local and Other Items   


Shocking Affair!


Eleven Persons Poisoned by a Negro


The citizens of Northern Berrien were thrilled with horror, the early part of last week, by the intelligence that John Sutherland, Esq., and his entire family, residing in Pipestone township, some fourteen or fifteen miles from this village, with Dr Fowler and one or two others, had been poisoned by some malignant person, and were lying in so dangerous and critical condition, that deep fears were entertained that they would not recover.


It appears that Mr. Sutherland and his family were absent from home on the Sunday previous, and did not return until Monday morning.  Directly after eating breakfast upon arriving, the whole family were taken ill, and so violently did the malady assail them, that they were unable to communicate with their neighbors, but were forced to seek their beds from which they were unable to move.  Fortunately, about eleven o’clock in the forenoon one of their neighbors happened to pass that way, and observing no stir about the house, called in, and learning the critical condition of the family, instantly gave the alarm.  Mr. Sutherland felt certain from the first that the misfortune to himself and his family, was attributable to some fatal drug, in w hich his neighbors coincided.  Dr Fowler, who resided but a short distance away, in Cass County, was speedily summoned, and their worst suspicions were at once confirmed by his declaring that the sufferers were poisoned.


For some reason, Mr. Sutherland’s people seemed to think that the water was only infected, and upon the Doctor’s arrival, without further investigation, a young lady residing near by, who had come to render comfort and assistance to the afflicted family, proceeded to prepare supper for him.  The Doctor ate heartily, and she partook of a small quantity of the food herself, which resulted in making both sick.  It was then discovered that not only the well, and a spring near by had been poisoned, but that the flour, lard, and butter in the house, had been filled with arsenic.  The young lady threw up the contents of her stomach, and thereby saved her life, but the Doctor lingered along a day or two and finally died.  In the meantime Mr. Sutherland’s infant child also died, and it said the next youngest will probably not survive.  The entire family, nine persons in all, were poisoned, besides the Doctor and the young lady alluded to above.


As soon as it was ascertained that the illness of the family was the work of some malignant person, steps were instituted to discover who the wretch could be.  Suspicion, for reasons hereafter named, at once attached itself to a negro living near by, named Shoemaker, and the next day he was arrested.  Tracks made by  a naked foot were discovered around the house, and were traced through a cornfield toward his dwelling.  Between the negro’s house and Mr. Sutherland, are two cornfields, separated by a plat of greensward, and it seems that upon this plat all traces of the large naked foot tracks were lost, but just on either side, boot-tracks of corresponding dimensions were found, and there were dis tinct all the way to the black man’s house.  The supposed guilty wretch has a foot fourteen inches in length, the exact length of the tracks discovered.  He doubtless pulled off his boots on the grass and proceeded to Mr. Sutherland’s barefoot, and having performed his fiendish work, returned and put them on again, thinking such caution would prevent his discovery.  It has been shown that about ten days previous to the transaction he purchased half a pound of arsenic, at the Drug Store of C.H. Crane & Co., in this village, which he informed Mr. Crane he wished to give to a disease horse.  Rumor says that he also purchased a similar amount at Dowagiac.


The negro had long threatened violence to Mr. Sutherland and family; and all for no reason; unless the fact that Mr. S. wholly discarded him in a social point of view, he considered a reason.  While some others of the people round about countenanced a kind of social equality with the family of Shoemaker, Mr. S and his household would have nothing to do with them.  This excited the malignant nature of the negro, and his threatening finally culminated in the awful damning crime which we chronicle.  A short time since “a raising” came off on Mr. S.’s premises to which Shoemaker was not invited, and it is said this slight, as he considered it, inside him inordinately angry, and stimulated him to an earlier commission of the deed which he medita ted.


The greatest excitement prevailed upon the arrest of the negro; and at his preliminary examination, when the facts we have related, became gradually known, lynching was freely talked of by the enraged populace.  In fact a crowd, with a rope lay in wait for him by the roadside along which it was supposed he would be taken, upon his leaving the justice’s office with the determination of stretching him up on the nearest tree, but the officers conveyed him away by another route.  So conclusive and obvious was the testimony against him that he was taken forthwith to jail.  However, the more people thought the matter over the more incensed they were; and on Saturday night a large crowd from this end of the county went up to Berrien, for the avowe d purpose of taking the culprit forcibly from the jail, and immediately wreaking their vengeance upon him.  But finally it was thought best to let justice take its course, and he was not disturbed.  Our county court set last Monday and the trial of the wretch at his writing (Tuesday) is going forward.  The excitement at the County seat is great, and should the prisoner not be convicted, public opinion is so strong against him that he would be compelled to flee from the county, if indeed he should be so fortunate as to get out of it alive.


Mr. Sutherland is a thriving farmer, and is universally esteemed in common with his excellent family.  The terrible calamity which has visited him is a matter of the most painful regret on the part of this entire region; and it is hoped that the remainder of his family may recover, and be once more restored to the enjoyment of perfect health.  Dr Fowler, who met an untimely end by this affair, was a man of fine abilities, of great moral worth, and a skillful physician.  He was about sixty years of age, and had long been a resident of this neighborhood in which he lived at the time of his death.  His excellence, integrity, and noble qualities of heart had endeared him to a large circle of friends a nd acquaintances, who are weighed down by the painful bereavement which has fallen upon them.  If, indeed, this negro has been the cause of all this agony and suffering, may he receive the punishment which his crime deserves. 


It is said that the latter is worth some property, not the least of which is one hundred and twenty acres of land, and is an industrious man, of some forty-five or fifty-years of age.  He has a wife and several children.


The poison was mixed in the flour in such quantities that several biscuits made from it were thrown to some chickens, which they ate and then fell down and died.  A cat died from the same cause, and a stump was found in the cornfield on the top of which the perpetrator of the deed had scraped from his hand some lard as he passed by, and mouse having crawled out and eaten of it, died before it could quit the place.


At last accounts Mr. Sutherland’s family were doing well, and it is thought would all recover, excepting, perhaps, the youngest child.


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