June 21, 2012

A new series: Tales of True Crime in Montana

By Christine Kirkham
Coordinator, Montana Digital Newspaper Project
The Montana Digital Newspaper Project team examines dozens of historical Montana newspapers each week, enumerating the issues and pages. Project deadlines don’t allow time for reading, but occasionally a headline leaps off the page. For me, the crime beat offers the most compelling tales—always lurid, often tragic, and wholly fascinating.

Today's post, Rough on Rats, is the first in our True Crime series. I'm retelling it from reports published in the Anaconda StandardButte Intermountain, and Butte Daily Miner on April 26-27, 1894.

Detail from Rough on Rats sheet music
ROUGH ON RATS was a black paste sold in 15- and 25-cent boxes. According to Fenner’s
Complete Formulary
(1888), it was comprised of arsenic, sugar, lard and “ivory black,” a pigment made
from charred bones. [Detail from “Rough on Rats” sheet music, found at Music for the Nation]

Tales of True Crime:
No. 1--Rough on Rats 
It was Thursday, a typical morning in Butte’s St. James Hotel, across from the train depot. Longtime boarder Bill Scallon strode downstairs for his usual early breakfast before heading off to work at the Montana Central RR. Also in the dining room that morning was the hotel proprietress, Mrs. Henry Jefferson, along with Bill Williams, employed by McQueeney’s transfer line, and C. F. Jones, a foreman with the Northern Pacific. Stopping in for a quick bite was Ernest Hardcastle, a Union Freight clerk who rented a bed up the street. Hardcastle was the first to finish, eating quickly, then rushing off.

It was still early, but hotelier Henry Jefferson was already harried. Sometime after 5:30 a.m., his cook, Andrew Leo, arrived and began to prepare breakfast for the hotel’s 30-odd guests. What happened next is disputed. According to the Standard, the cook argued with the dishwasher and after an extended shouting match, Leo quit and stormed out. The Intermountain states that the argument was between Henry and Leo, while the Daily Miner explains that Leo had behaved strangely for several days and “the supposition is that he is not right in the upper story.”

Despite the backroom melodrama, by 6:30 fresh coffee, oatmeal, and other dishes had been served, and Henry was off attending to hotel business. Within fifteen minutes, screams summoned him to the dining room, where he found his wife violently sick. Williams and Jones were incapacitated, crumpled in their chairs. Scallon lay unconscious on the floor. Despite excruciating pain, Mrs. Jefferson managed to convey her suspicion: they’d been poisoned!

Rough on Rats box
ROUGH ON RATS ads claimed it also destroyed mice,
roaches, flies, beetles, moths, ants, skunks, weasels,
gophers, moles and muskrats. [Image courtesy
of Worthpoint]
Henry sprang into action, running uptown in search of help. He found a physician and together the two men sprinted back to the hotel. When they arrived, the diners’ condition had worsened, and Scallon was near death. Quick action saved four lives. The doctor injected Scallon with a stimulant to restart his heart, and he distributed an antidote. Within hours, the unlucky quartet was recovering. In the commotion, poor Ernie Hardcastle had been forgotten. Shortly after leaving the hotel, he’d become too ill to make his way to work. He was discovered later that day, alone in bed. After treatment, he, too, recovered.

Detectives started their investigation in the kitchen, where they immediately noticed the familiar red and white label of ROUGH ON RATS, a common household product. The open box rested in full view on a shelf near the stove, leading reporters to speculate that after his outburst, Leo silently re-entered the kitchen long enough to spoon some ROUGH ON RATS into the simmering oatmeal. He was never apprehended.
The Butte Intermountain, April 26, 1894, page 5

Hundreds of stories like "Poison in the Oatmeal" can be found on the Library of Congress web site Chronicling America, where over 30,000 pages of historical Montana newspapers are available for searching and viewing. Stay tuned for the next installment in this series.

And keep a close eye on your breakfast.