The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

March 18, 2012

The McAdams mystery

Staff Writer

— In an old section of Edgewood Cemetery, perched near the Ashtabula River Gulf, is a row of worn, simple tombstones that give no hint of the great mystery behind the deaths they represent.

One of them is flat on its back, dust slowly reclaiming its own, yet bearing a surname’s faint outline. Kneel there a moment, close your eyes, trace the shallow letters with your index finger and speak aloud the sensations from your finger tip: M-C-A-D-A-M-S.

Now, open your eyes, and look to the far end of the row, where a barely legible “Eliza” appears for a few minutes every afternoon as the oblique sun opens the tombstone’s eyes.

These are the only clues the cemetery itself lends to this mystery, and in a few more years of rain washing clean the slate of death, those clues also will be gone.

The scribe has upstaged the stonecutter; the paper record survived far longer than the sandstone. According to the cemetery’s record book, the deceased in this row are members of the Alexander and Rebecca McAdams family; Eliza was Alexander’s second wife.

Paper and ink reveal the mystery:

Julia died Feb. 27, 1848, age 14;

Arthur died Jan. 1, 1850. age 8;  

Abagail died Jan. 4, 1850, age 21;

Walter died Aug. 15, 1850, age 14;

Luther, followed a month later, age 12.

Rebecca died Feb. 6, 1851.

What plague or misfortune befell this family? Measles, scarlet fever or small pox? A New Year’s Day fire that claimed one life and left others to linger screaming in pain for days or months before death finally quenched the suffering? Or was this necklace of death strung by the claws of a relentless beast that stalked the farm, or the soft fingers of a family member with dark eyes and even darker motives?


Jeanette McAdams: Tall and beautiful with dark brown hair, pink complexion, a pretty round chin, ready wit and keen eye, she broke many a country boy’s heart as her lithe limbs moved gracefully along the village streets. But genetics had failed to give Jeanette eyes equal to the bounty of her other features. The windows to her world were deep set and filled with restlessness; they captured all light and gave back nothing but questions. They were as dark as the night she adored, for it was this blackness that gave cloak and venue to Jeanette’s “odd practice” of rambling across the countryside while dressed like a man. Jeanette McAdams embraced the night like a spring peeper and the male persona like a gladiator.

Predictably, an eccentric like Jeanette was ill-suited to the monotony of mid-19th century Ashtabula County, and she moved to Cleveland while in her late teens.

Her family lived about 1.5 miles east of Ashtabula Village on the North Ridge (Route 20). The home was on the north side of the road, a few hundred yards west of where Field Brook crosses the highway. If you dine at Bob Evans, it is likely your table is just a few hundred feet from where the old McAdams’ farmhouse stood.

On a cold day in February 1848, Jeanette unexpectedly paid a visit to the homeplace. The family gathered around the hearth that night, catching up on the news of the day and making preparations for the departure of Julia, the couple’s 14-year-old, about to board with a family in the village, where she would attend school.

Julia sang softly as she hemmed a handkerchief and listened to Jeanette’s stories of city life. Glancing Julia’s way, Alexander noticed that although his daughter was still softly singing, her face had taken on a chalky appearance. He made no comment about it, the carefree hours quickly passed and it was soon time to retire. But after Alexander and Rebecca dispersed to their beds upstairs, Jeanette, from the bottom of the staircase, cried out, “Mother, Julia is very sick!”

A doctor was called, but he could only confirm the family’s worst fear.

The child was laid to rest in Edgewood Cemetery. The McAdams family went about their farm work, the grief adding another layer of burden to their labors. Jeanette stayed on and assisted as she could, but never spoke of the dead sibling. And one day, she disappeared — in the wake of her departure, there was a report of a shabby tramp along the road to Cleveland, suggesting Jeanette was once again up to her odd practices.

Deadly fruit

On New Year’s Eve, 1849, Jeanette McAdams returned to her family and gathered around the hearth to spin yarn, play games and await the new year. Arthur, the youngest member of the family, had an appetite for apples that night. Stretched out on a buffalo robe before the fire, his huge pet dog at his side and an abundance of apple slices to eat, Arthur enjoyed an 8-year-old’s version of domestic bliss.

The peace was broken by a single sharp cry from Arthur, followed by an angry growl from the big dog and, from the darkness beyond house, a devilish howling of a wandering canine, an omen of impending death.

Even as the howling faded into the dying year’s ether, Arthur turned pale, convulsed and fell dead.

The day after the funeral, Abagail, 21, and her mother were taking care of the housework when she confronted her mother with a revelation.

“Do you know that Jeanette has a suit of men’s clothing in her room?” Abagail asked. Her mother brushed off the question, but in a moment of privacy, went to the bedroom and confirmed the observation. That night Jeanette donned those clothes and slipped out the bedroom window while the rest of the family slept. The purpose of her nocturnal errand was unknown, but before dawn arrived, Jeanette returned through the window and assumed her role as the beautiful daughter.

Later that afternoon, Abagail turned pale, convulsed and died, but not without providing a clue. Staggering into the room where her mother sat working, Abagail groaned “Mother, I wish I had not eaten the candy Jeanette gave me.” As she spoke, Abagail held onto the mantle with her fingers, which left behind white spots. Her body became rigid, swayed, then collapsed.

Outside was heard the mournful wailing of a dog.

Summer 1850

Jeanette returned to Cleveland after Abagail’s funeral. The grief in the McAdams home was as dark as the January forest that stretched north to the frozen lake. Rebecca questioned the love of a God who would take three of their six children in a span of a few months, and in each case, without the opportunity to say goodbye. Alexander, slouching from weight of his grief and years, struggled to perform the simplest of farm chores. Neighbors whispered as they passed by the house and occasionally saw vapor-like figures moving about the shadows that lingered there.

Summer came, and the burden of grief was lifted slightly by the extended hours of sunlight and additional work demanded by a farm. In early August, Jeanette returned to the farm. Walter, 14, and his father had a good business of hauling staves to be shipped out of Ashtabula Harbor, leaving Jeanette to assist her mother at home.

On Aug. 15, 1850, the son and his father arrived home tired and hungry from their labors. Walter complained of feeling ill and went to his upstairs room; Jeanette followed. An hour later, the boy crawled into his mother’s room, groaning in misery. The wail of a tormented canine was heard in the distance.

Dr. Coleman was summoned, but it was too late. Walter became the fourth stone strung in this necklace of death. Jeanette stayed on long enough to make sure Walter was laid to rest with the other three siblings, then returned to Cleveland.

Only Luther and Jeanette remained of the McAdams’ six children. In mid-September, Jeanette once again appeared at the farm. Luther, who had been playing outside all day, came into the house at evening, looking pale and feeling ill. He died shortly thereafter. As with the others, a howl was heard outside as Luther gasped his last breath.

Rebecca passes

Jeanette vanished for a few months, then returned in early February 1851. Rebecca was ill, and Jeanette’s presence and assistance were welcomed. Late in the evening of Feb. 6, 1851, Jeanette climbed the stairs to her mother’s room with a cup of hot tea, a concoction the doctor had ordered — or so Jeanette claimed. Rebecca accepted the panacea in good faith.

Alexander was downstairs by the hearth when he heard the familiar wail of the dying. Once, twice, then three times the wail was heard, moving closer and closer to the house until it seemed to stand beneath the window of his wife’s room. Entering the bedroom, Alexander heard a groan, the last sound his wife would make.

Rebecca, 51, was laid to rest next to her five children. “Rebecca, Rebecca! The curse has taken you,” sobbed Alexander as the coffin was lowered into the February earth. “Who will be next?”

His eyes survived the mourners and locked into the abyss of Jeanette’s dark soul. “I guess, I am the next; the next, and last,” he murmured.

Three months passed. Jeanette returned to her father’s house, and shortly after arriving, wrote a letter, sealed it in an envelope and asked her father to mail it for her the next day. She showed no concern for the gray-haired, grieving man or that six members of the family had died in a matter of three years. She was much more concerned that the letter be mailed promptly.

Finally, Alexander McAdams could no longer tolerate his daughter’s odd behavior. There had been so many bizarre events surrounding her visits to the farm — her mysterious disappearances at night, the suit of men’s clothing kept in the trunk, the mournful sound heard outside every time a family member died, and, of course, the deaths themselves. Neighbors felt it surely must have been a poison that turned the ruddy children white as chalk and robbed McAdams of the wife of his youth. And they could not help but speak of the shabby man who who wandered into town every time Jeanette came to visit.

McAdams pondered these mysteries as he traveled toward the village with Jeanette’s letter. He could no more contain his doubts than he could his grief. McAdams ripped open the envelope and discovered therein Jeanette’s plan to do away with her father.

Alexander returned to the farm house and confronted his daughter, who quickly gathered her few belongings and left.

A year or so later, Jeanette returned to the village, this time as a member of a band of gypsies. They camped along Field Brook, which ran to the east of the McAdams farm. Alexander took a stroll through their camp one evening and spotted Jeanette. Recognizing her father, she turned and ran into the woods, leaving only the darkness behind.

Years passed with no sign of Jeanette in the village. The Civil War came, and it was rumored that the McAdams girl, who had felt so much at home in the guise of a man, had found work as a spy for the South.

Midway through the war, Alexander’s second wife, Eliza, died at the age of 54, and was laid to rest with the other six loved ones Alexander previously committed to the earth.

One night as old McAdams sat by his fire, rain pelting the window like the relentless grief that hammered his soul, there was a knock at the door. It was a tramp; dirty, ill- fitting clothes hanging on his frame, the stench of poverty on his body, yet no whiskers on his face.

“I want food. I am hungry. I have not had food for two days,” the tramp said bluntly.

As McAdams watched the tramp devour the meal, their eyes met and the old man suddenly recognized therein the darkness of the one who had caused him so much grief.

Jeanette left the familiar abode, head bowed, hands thrust deep into the pockets of her trousers, rain soaking her disguise. Soon darkness was swallowed by night, never to be seen again on the McAdams farm.

Alexander McAdams never asked for formal inquiry into the apparent poisoning deaths of his family. Local doctors did investigate cookware and water as possible culprits. It is likely Alexander, who died in 1876, knew the truth and took it to his grave.