Wednesday, August 22, 2012

1851 - Get Me Some Strychnine...and Burn This Letter!

In today's post I feature an absolutely tantalizing letter in my collection from 1851 between two brothers. 

First - the letter...and then some biographical details!

Hanover [New Hampshire - almost certainly Dartmouth College]
March 11, 1851

Dear Br[other] William -

Though I promised to write you a long letter I'm afraid you will have to wait a little while longer for I've got 5 minutes to write in - What I want to say is this, when you come I want you to fetch me some strichnia [sic] & I will make it right with you.  I will tell you when I see you why I don’t get it here.  Could you get my gunstock [?] fixed at A? I want to get new parts made excepting the plate and hammer - I left home Saturday - the folks  there were about the same as when I wrote you - I'm pretty well and hope to see you soon.

Your aff[ectionate] Br[other] Chase

"Burn This"

1851 Letter Chase Parsons to William Parsons - Collection of James M. Schmidt

GREAT letter, right?!?!  Why on earth did he need some poison and why did he need his gun fixed?!?!  And why did he want his brother to burn the letter?!?!  I'm not saying he's responsible for any foul play in Hanover in 1851, but...Yikes!

The two brothers are Chase Prescott Parsons and William Moody Parsons. 

The Indiana Historical Society holds some of the Chase Parsons papers and you can see a great finding aid here.  It includes these biographical details:

Chase Prescott Parsons (1832-1879), a native of Gilmanton, Belknap County, New Hampshire, attended Dartmouth College from 1850 to 1853. He moved to Evansville, Indiana, about 1858. He had been teaching in a [one-room?] school in Gilmanton, but had been sick and had come west for his health.

After a successful year of teaching in Evansville, Parsons spent a year selling machines, but found he did not have sufficient capital. Returning to Evansville in February 1860, he resumed teaching for the remainder of the school year. In the summer of 1860 he sold schoolbooks on the road, and then spent the school year 1860-1861 teaching in nearby Washington. By 1861 he was courting Hattie Howes of Evansville. Married in 1863, they lived first with her parents and then had a house of their own. Eventually the household included two daughters and a son, and also a German hired girl. By 1866 Parsons was selling insurance, over a territory that extended down the river to Cairo, Illinois. He also had an extensive greenhouse.

About 1874 Parsons went back to teaching, in the new high school in Evansville-- Latin, English, History, Analysis-- though he thought very little of the school board. Hattie's mother died in 1875, and Parsons's mother in 1879. Parsons himself died a few months later, from some sort of lung trouble. The widow and children stayed in Evansville with the help of friends. By 1887 the 17-year-old son, Lewis Parsons, was working as a stenographer for the Evansville and
Terre Haute Railroad. He was active in the Temperance Society and in Methodist meetings.

Dartmouth Colleg holds other Parsons family papers.

Strychnia, of course, was a 19th-century name for strychnine, an extremely poisonous compound.  19th century chemistry textbooks and other works have excellent descriptions of the source, preparation, and action of strychnia.  Trypical is this description from John William Draper's A Text-Book on Chemistry for the Use of Schools and Colleges (1848)

Strychnia occurs in Nux Vomica, St. Ignatius's Bean, in the poison Upas Tieute, and other vegetable products. It may be extracted from nux vomica seeds by boiling them in dilute sulphuric acid, and then acting with lime and alcohol as described in the case of quina.

Strychnia requires 7000 parts of water for solution, and communicates to it an intensely bitter taste. It is one of the most violent poisons known. Its alkaline powers are well defined, and it produces a complete series of salts. It is soluble in hot alcohol, but not in ether. The antidote for an over-dose of it is an infusion of tea.

Strychnine was used to poison animals and humans and reports appeared in medical examiner summaries and in court cases.  Here is an interesting book on one murderous poisoning

On Poisoning by Strychnia: With Comments on the Medical Evidence Given at the Trial of William Palmer for the Murder of John Parsons Cook (1856)


Mark said...

Great tension! You should definitely include this in a book:)

Jim Schmidt said...

Mark - I know, right?!?! It would be great if included in a book or short story...I put some of this stiff out there hoping it will insoire others to perhaps use it as well! I have other great letters I'll be posting from time to time. Thanks for stopping by! jim