Did Poisoned Ice Cream Kill Harriet Chevraux in 1909?

She might have been on a secret quest downtown to find a cure for syphilis, but we’ll never know.

When Dr. R.L. Thomas attended the dying Harriet Chevraux in her apartment at 2383 Kemper Lane, Walnut Hills, he determined that her case “though remarkable, is not such as to warrant the presence of the Coroner.” Her death, though, certainly was remarkable. With her dying breath, she claimed that an ice cream soda she’d recently enjoyed was poisoned, leading to her demise at age 22 on May 25, 1909.

Harriet Wohlgemuth and Amos Chevreux were married in St. Louis and repeated their vows at the peak of the original 264-foot tall Ferris Wheel in 1904.

Image from the Library of Congress

As her life slipped away, Chevraux told her husband that, two weeks prior, she skipped breakfast and boarded the streetcar into town. According to The Cincinnati Post [May 26, 1909]:

“While in the shopping district, she bought an ice cream soda. After she reached home, she suffered terrible pains in her stomach. Hemorrhages followed. In her statement to her husband, she always declared she had become poisoned by the ice cream soda.”

Her husband, Amos E. Chevraux, a chauffeur, never determined at which particular soda fountain his wife purchased that fatal concoction, so distraught was he throughout his hopeless vigil at her bedside. Dr. Thomas filled out her death certificate and set down the cause as hemophilia, apparently because of profuse internal bleeding. Her burial record at Calvary Cemetery in Evanston attributes the fatality to ptomaine poisoning from eating ice cream, undoubtedly reported by her husband.

It is certainly possible that someone could contract ptomaine poisoning from eating ice cream in Cincinnati in 1909. In fact, it’s somewhat surprising that anybody survived eating ice cream back then. The newspapers regularly reported the tragic deaths of children done in by an ice cream cone or a sundae. The city was only just beginning to employ health inspectors, who described revolting contamination almost everywhere they looked in local food production facilities.

But there is an unusual thread that runs through The Post’s reporting on Chevraux’s death. Three times in a fairly brief article, bichloride of mercury is mentioned in connection with her terminal condition. First, Amos denies his wife employed that chemical compound:

“If the report is true that she was told by any one to use bichloride of mercury for any reason, I do not know of it.”

Then Dr. Thomas is quoted that Chevraux used some sort of tablet, presumably bichloride of mercury, as an antiseptic. Finally, Amos repeats that if she’d ever taken bichloride of mercury, he was positive she never told him anything about it.

The focus on bichloride of mercury, also known as mercuric chloride, is intriguing because, although it exhibited antiseptic properties in minute amounts, as Dr. Thomas suggested, it’s highly poisonous and usually recommended as medicine only for very serious afflictions. The most common affliction for which it was prescribed was syphilis.

As early as the 1500s, mercury and its compounds were utilized in an attempt to cure syphilis and other venereal diseases. It appears that the inspiration for this practice came from the Arab world, where a dilute solution of bichloride of mercury was employed to sanitize wounds. As a treatment for venereal disease, however, the concentration was so toxic that patients frequently succumbed to the treatment rather than the disease. Could Chevraux have gone downtown looking for a cure for syphilis?

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The obsession over this particular chemical compound is curious, because the historical records give no reason to besmirch Chevraux’s reputation. She was born Harriet “Hattie” Wohlgemuth in Switzerland in 1886 and was living in Cincinnati with her parents in 1900 while attending school. How she met Amos Chevraux of Canton, Ohio, is unclear, but both of them were listed as residents of St. Louis when they took out a marriage license on August 13, 1904. Harriet fibbed a bit—just a bit—about her age; she was three months shy of being 18 years old, as she claimed. But the marriage was sanctified by the pastor of St. Francis Xavier College Church in St. Louis three days later.

Perhaps the most exciting event in Harriet’s marriage took place sometime in August of that year. Although officially married in the church, Amos and Harriet repeated their vows in Car 19, the famous “wedding car” of the giant Ferris Wheel at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Throughout the 1904 “Louisiana Purchase Exposition,” couples thronged to the Ferris Wheel to plight their troth 264 feet above the midway. The huge rotating structure was the original Ferris Wheel, designed by George Washington Ferris Jr. for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, then disassembled and shipped to St. Louis. Although her obituary claimed that Harriet and Amos were the first to wed atop the immense wheel, multiple sky-high marriages took place all summer that year.

The St. Louis World’s Fair is reputed to be the event at which ice cream cones were first served in America. Maybe that is where Harriet got her ultimately deadly taste for frozen confections. Whatever the real story, it appears that Harriet Wohlgemuth Chevraux took some secrets to her grave.

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