The McAdams Mystery

Four of the McAdams family tombstones, Edgewood Cemetery, Ashtabula, Ohio

If it hadn’t been for Zech, I would have missed the graves I was searching for altogether.

“You said the name was McAdams?” he called out.

“Yes, McAdams,” I affirmed.

“I have a McAdams here,” he replied. “The stone is badly weathered, but I can make out the name McAdams.” I walked over to where Zech stood and joined him in studying the fragile marker. I was able to make out the name Julia and a little further below the name McAdams. If Zech had not been standing at the right spot, and the sunlight illuminating it at the correct angle, the stone would have been nearly impossible to read.

Zech and I carefully examined the surrounding tombstones and found the graves of the McAdams family. The graves of Alexander McAdams, his first wife Rebecca, and their children (ages spanning from eight to twenty-one), and also the grave of his second wife, rest within the oldest section of Edgewood Cemetery in Ashtabula. Although eight members of the McAdams family are buried here, only a couple of their stones still stand and those that remain are hard to read, worn smooth over the years. I wondered what happened to the missing stones and hoped that they had merely fallen over and were buried by time..

If the stones could still be read they would show that the five children and Rebecca, Alexander’s first wife, had all died over a period of four years. Nothing exists on the remaining stones that would hint at the cause of death, but all are believed to have died from arsenic poisoning at the hands of one of their own – the killer is believed to be the eldest daughter, Jeanette.

Alexander and Rebecca lived on a farm roughly a mile and a half east of Ashtabula. The couple had at least six children: Jeanette, Abigail, Julia, Walter, Luther, and Arthur.

Jeanette was the oldest of the children and was known around the community for being tall and beautiful. Her looks had attracted many of the neighboring boys, but she never showed any interest in them. She was described as having a wild side and, in her mid teens, she tired of the rural life she led and moved to Cleveland to seek out a much different life than the one she had in Ashtabula.

Jeanette returned to the family homestead in February 1848. She was placed in a room with her sister, Julia. On February 27, 1848, Jeanette came downstairs and announced that Julia was sick. Only a couple hours after the symptoms appeared, Julia passed from this life. Julia was only fourteen years old when she became the first of the McAdams family to be interred in Edgewood Cemetery. Jeanette left soon after the funeral and nothing was thought about her odd behavior, nor was the sudden death of Julia questioned.

On New Year’s Eve of 1849, Jeanette reappeared on the family’s front porch. That evening while Arthur was lying on the floor, he suddenly started convulsing wildly. The following day Arthur passed at the age of eight. On January 4, the family gathered at Edgewood Cemetery to bury Arthur next to his sister.

That same evening Abigail, who was twenty-one years old, mentioned to her mother that Jeanette kept a set of men’s clothing hidden in the bedroom and that Jeanette would dress up in them and sneak out the window at night. The next day Abigail would join Julia and Arthur in death. Abigail was able to relate to her parents that she had felt fine until she ate the piece of candy Jeanette had offered her.

The day after Abigail’s death, Jeanette disappeared again, only to reappear on August 10 of that year. Nothing out of the ordinary happened the first couple of days Jeanette was home, but on August 15 Walter was the next to perish. Walter, who was fourteen at the time, had spent the day working with his father taking staves to the dock. He said he was not feeling well and went upstairs to rest. Jeanette followed him and offered to watch over her sick brother – Walter perished that evening. Note: A modern newspaper account states that Alexander and Walter had taken slaves to the docks that day, but it is a misprint. The two earliest mentions I could find state they had taken staves (cut lumber) to the docks that day.

Once again, Jeanette disappeared, going to Cleveland the day after Walter’s death, but she would not be gone for long. In September – I have not been able to find an exact date but one article states that she appeared after being absent for a month – Luther was out playing when he returned home complaining of not feeling well. He would not survive the night and joined his four siblings in Edgewood Cemetery.

Jeanette remained at the homestead for a couple days. Alexander and Rebecca would both become sick after eating a meal prepared for them by Jeanette, but neither of them died from the meal. Jeanette left for Cleveland once again.

During the winter of 1850-1851, Rebecca came down with a sickness and at the beginning of February Jeanette reappeared at the front door. Alexander once again left her in to help care for her mother.  On February 6 Jeanette took tea to her mother’s room and before the end of the night her mother went into convulsions and died.

After Rebecca’s funeral Jeanette once again left for Cleveland. The neighbors who were already convinced that Jeanette was killing her family members were now terrified. If she would kill her loved ones they worried that nothing would stop her from killing complete strangers.

A couple months later Jeanette would show up once again at her father’s home. She had given him a letter that she wanted mailed to Cleveland. Curious about it, he opened the letter and read of his daughter’s plan to poison him. It took the threat on his own life for Alexander to finally banish Jeanette from his home.

Alexander would remarry a lady named Eliza. Their marriage was short lived and Eliza died in June 1863. Their marriage produced no children.

Local legend claims that many years later a dirty tramp showed up at Alexander’s house and he provided a meal for the hungry figure. During the meal he recognized that the tramp was his daughter Jeanette. After the meal they boarded his wagon and he drove her out of town never to see her again.

Reading through the story I found myself asking a lot of questions that I could not discover a good answer for.

My immediate question was why it took so long for Alexander to banish her from his home. Immediately after Julia’s death, local rumors thought Jeanette was the one responsible, but Alexander, as far as I can determine, never took action against his daughter until it was his own life that was threatened. Was his love for his daughter so strong that he was blind to her actions? I would hope this was not the case. Did he merely think it was a coincidence? Again, I would hope not.

Another possibility that jumps to mind is maybe Jeanette knew something about the lives of her parents that prevented them from doing anything. Did Alexander or Rebecca have some dark secret that they did not want exposed? I have never read anything that would suggest this but I cannot help but think it may be a possibility.

Why did Jeanette kill her family? Looking at what little exists regarding the deaths of the McAdams family, I have to question Jeanette’s motives. It was obvious that she was not killing them for a large inheritance and I found nothing to prove that she would have gotten anything with the death of her family.

The only clue that exists that might reveal a motive was Abigail questioning the suit of men’s clothing and Jeanette’s sneaking out of the house at night. Was Jeanette involved in illegal activities and wanted to make sure her activities remained a secret, even at the cost of her own family? Many of the townsfolk saw a shabby-looking tramp in the area whenever Jeanette was at home. Some townsfolk recognized the tramp as being Jeanette, so what was the reason she attempted to disguise herself? What was the purpose of her sneaking around?

But something else keeps nagging at me about this case that, while I cannot prove it is true, just won’t go away. One thing that is mentioned about Jeanette is her wild side. I’ve read in a couple different places that children and young adults during the 1800s who were described as “wild” were sent to an asylum or other hospital. Is it possible that Jeanette had a mental disorder of some sort and her parents originally sent her away to get help? Maybe the disappearances after the funerals were to send her back to seek more help but she kept escaping and returning home? Again I have no proof of this being the case but for some reason it keeps coming to mind. If she didn’t want people to realize she was around then it would account for her disguise and strange behavior.

How many others did Jeanette poison? The unofficial record states that she is believed to have killed her five siblings and her mother/ I cannot help but wonder if others suffered the same fate that she bestowed upon her family. Historically, nothing else exists that hints at her being involved in any other poisonings.

What happened to Jeanette? After her last appearance at the house dressed as a tramp, it is recorded that her father drove off with her and returned alone. She disappears into history at this point. Some claim that she went off to fight in the Civil War (or served as a spy during it) but there is nothing to support that claim.

Other rumors claim she ran off and joined a group of gypsies. This was a common theory at the time for any person who disappeared – they joined the gypsies or were abducted by them. I doubt this is the case.

There is one theory that has been suggested that may hold some sad truth to it. This theory is: when Alexander drove her away that final time, he killed her and buried her body in an unknown location. While there is no evidence to Alexander killing his daughter, the fact that she was never seen again does make me believe he might have known more than he ever revealed. After all she did kill five of her siblings and her own mother, so Alexander may have been a victim of his own grief and anger and did the unthinkable. Again there is nothing to prove this, but it is a theory that has been presented and would explain why she was never seen again.

There is one more theory I need to present, while I do not think it holds merit, it is a  possibility. Jeanette had absolutely nothing to do with the deaths of her family and was merely a victim of circumstance. I personally find this theory doubtful. For a family member to die every time she visited meant somebody really had patience and really hated her to make it look like she was responsible for their deaths.

Zech and I left those lingering questions with the graves of the family as we left Edgewood Cemetery that day, knowing that time has prevented the mystery from ever being fully solved.

If you choose to visit Edgewood Cemetery I ask that you do so with the respect that the area deserves.

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