The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio


March 18, 2012

The McAdams mystery


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.

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