For all of her unhappy life, Isabelle Phelps claimed to be haunted by the ghost of her cat. It was the spirit of this dead cat, she said, that drove her to murder.
Isabelle was born around 1850 in Yankeetown, Ohio, a sparsely populated crossroads village in Fayette County. She was by all accounts a beautiful child, but strange. Isabelle described herself as possessing the “face of an angel and the eyes of a devil.” Orphaned at the age of ten, Isabelle was reluctantly adopted by a miserly aunt who kept a boarding house and consigned Isabelle to all the drudgework. When Isabelle turned 16, her aunt threw her out.
Isabelle believed that her wretched life was all her own fault, because of a crime she had committed when she was just three years old. A mere toddler, Isabelle killed her pet cat. The deed gnawed at her mind for the rest of her days. In a manuscript autobiography, Isabelle, who referred to herself as “Dixey,” explained her unhappiness [Cincinnati Enquirer 7 January 1911]:
“Cats are killed by grown-ups every day, so why mention this against Dixey, not yet out of her babyhood? For a very good reason; the shade of the unhappy cat menaced and wrecked her entire life.”
Making her way alone in the world, Isabelle found a community looking for teachers. With the assistance of a cousin, she was hired and taught school.
“The schoolteacher’s life was not cheerful, and not congenial to a life so morbid and a nature so constructed as Dixey’s. All the time, the shade of her cat followed her and tormented her mind and brain. She became more morbid, more seclusive, and her tormented nature took on new and deadly developments. Her mind was filled with evil, which shown from her eyes.”
It is unclear how long the teaching stint lasted. When Isabelle showed up in Cincinnati, the city directories list her as a sales lady. It appears that she was by then self-employed, peddling toiletries on the streets. It must have been a strained existence. She lived in the 600 block of Richmond Street, an address well into the low-rent side of the West End.
As Isabelle aged into her fifties, she appeared mostly rational, but when she began to speak of her “unseen enemies” she unnerved her listeners. While in Cincinnati, Isabelle visited an attorney to seek advice because persons unknown were poisoning her food. She began to make statements, unconnected to any conversation, that struck her acquaintances as more than a little unbalanced. According to the Enquirer [21 January 1911], she told a visitor:
“I think I am an Anarchist, but that is not as bad as being a member of the Black Hand.”
(The Black Hand was how the Mafia or La Cosa Nostra was described in those days.)
Eventually, Isabelle took to the road and was seen peddling in Dayton, Miamisburg, Lebanon, and Middletown, before arriving in Hamilton, Ohio, where she took rooms with the Walker family. Louis Walker worked in a mattress factory, and cared for his wife, Jennie, a semi-invalid. Jennie befriended the woebegone Isabelle, or so she thought.
Isabelle developed the impression that the Walkers were drugging her food, except for the tomatoes. She began eating little more than tomatoes and conscientiously made her own coffee from her own private supply.
Breakfasting with the Walkers on January 8, 1911, Isabelle rose from the table and walked into the kitchen to get, she said, a second cup of coffee. Returning to the dining room, Isabelle pulled a revolver from her waistband, placed it against Louis Walker’s head and pulled the trigger. She then fired several wild shots at Jennie Walker, none of them striking their target. With Jennie Walker screaming for help, Isabelle dressed and walked a mile to the Butler County Courthouse, where she surrendered to Sheriff Andy Graf.
“I am sorry I shot Mr. Walker,” Isabelle said. “I should have killed his wife, for she has been putting drugs in my food, and is in league with my secret enemies.”
It will be no surprise to learn that Isabelle was charged with lunacy. After the testimony of several witnesses, many brought from Cincinnati, she was found insane. Isabelle was originally confined to an asylum near Dayton. In 1915, she was transferred to the brand new Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. She died there, a victim of cholera, in 1926.
We may assume that the ghost of her cat finally found eternal rest.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities