Poisoned candy put a pall over Plymouth’s Christmas in 1910

Echoes of our past
William Wangemann for The Review

Back in the early part of the 20th century the Christmas and New Year holidays was a festive and very social season. It was consid- ered a must to visit family members’ and friends. Everywhere, people dressed in their Sunday best, could be seen going from house to house carrying armloads of gaily wrapped gifts. It was a season of parties, dances, family reunions, much more so than today.

But for three families in Plymouth, the Christmas season of 1910 was to be one of near tragedy, and fear, for instead of receiving holiday goodwill, they became the victims of an attempted murder plot.

On a cold winter evening Mr. and Mrs. E. E. Eastman and their daughter Sarah returned home after an evening spent watching a basketball game. As the Eastmans approached their front porch they noticed a package wrapped in Christmas wrap and addressed to Sarah. There was no indication as to who the mystery package was from.

Sarah picked up the book-sized package and carried it into the house. After hanging her wraps away and thinking the package was from one of her many friends, she eagerly opened the box. As Sarah lifted the cover she was delighted to find row after row of fine chocolates. In most households in 1910 chocolate candies was a rarity, so the box was passed around with both Sarah and her father eating several pieces of the delicious candy.

Within less than an hour both Mr. Eastman and his daughter were violently ill. Both of the Eastmans suffered similar symptoms - severe cramping, muscle spasms and diffi culty breathing.

Mrs. Eastman, becoming increasingly alarmed at the condition of her husband and daughter, called their family doctor who hurried to the Eastman home. When he arrived at the home of his patients the doctor was shocked at the condition of Mr. Eastman and his daughter. After several hours of treatment Sarah began to show signs of recovery, but her father showed little improvement.

The family doctor had reservations as to whether or not his patient would survive. Finally, after a long and anxious night, it be came clear that Mr. Eastman would live.

What was the mysterious illness that had struck down E.E. Eastman and his daughter? To the astonishment of everyone the doctor announced that the symptoms the Eastman’s exhibited were consistent with strychnine poisoning!

The doctor further stated that he felt the source of the poison had been the chocolate candy the Eastmans had eaten. Word of the poisoning spread around Plymouth like wild fire.

As strange as the case was up to this point, this was just the beginning - it was to become even more bizarre.

As this story began to unfold it would, in time, include a detective from the famous Pinkerton Detective agency as well as the chief of police from Sheboygan and require all the resources the Plymouth Police Department had.

The small city of Plymouth was in a state of shock. Three prominent families had received boxes of chocolate candy laced with strychnine, a deadly poison. At first it was thought that surely some dreadful accident had taken place during the manufacturing process whereby the deadly poison had inadvertently been induced into the candy.

However, upon careful examination of the chocolates, it was found that some unknown person had carefully sliced the bottoms off the chocolates, removed some of the contents, and then poured the strychnine into the candy.

Strychnine is a bitter tasting white powder that was readily available in those days. Often it was used as rat poison in and around homes.

Once the poison had been placed in the candy the bottoms of the chocolates were then replaced, leaving very little evidence that the candy had been tampered with. It was further determined that some of the pieces of candy had more poison in them than others.

As luck would have it the candy that members of the Eastman family ate contained a lesser amount of the poison. Had they eaten one of the other pieces of candy death would have resulted. In fact, the chemist who examined the candy said that some of the chocolates contained so high a dose of strychnine that enough of the poison was present to have killed several people. There now was no doubt, someone had tried to murder the members of three Plymouth families by poisoning them.

The Plymouth Reporter and the Sheboygan Press proclaimed “A dastardly crime has been perpetrated!” Plymouth was stunned. In every barber shop, on the streets and in the taverns little else was talked about. Things like this just did not happen in Plymouth. Rumors abounded - there was talk that an arrest had been made and a confession had been obtained, but it was just that, a rumor.

Plymouth Police Chief O’Connell was baffled. A crime of this magnitude was beyond his experience and he clearly needed help. Soon Sheboygan Chief of Police Scheck and a detective from the famous Pinkerton Detective agency were called into the case.

Authorities promised an intensive investigation and a quick arrest of the guilty person or persons. It would turn out they were being just…a bit optimistic.

The pressure on local authorities was intense; the people of Plymouth wanted an answer. Who was the dastardly fiend who tried to kill members of three prominent families? And what connections did they have to one and another? But even more important was the question why? Why had this been done?

Mr. Eastman was associated with the Plymouth Veneer Co. and a member of the County Board. The second victim, Wm. Holling, was the brother of under Sheriff John Holling, and the third and last victim, Mr. J.E. Curtis, was identifi ed with the Plymouth Brewing Company.

None of the families were connected in any way that would cause some “unknown deviate or person with a depraved mind” to try and kill them. Rumors began to fly that influential people in the community were trying to hinder the investigation fearful of the outcome. Charges and counter charges were angrily hurled back and forth. Soon the families of the victims offered a $500 reward (over $10,000 in today’s money) for the arrest and conviction of the person or persons guilty of leaving the poison candy on the porches of the three victims.

On Jan. 31, 1911, it was reported that an arrest had been made in the poison case. All of Plymouth was buzzing with excitement. Who was this foul criminal was on everybody’s mind.

The announcement that everybody was waiting for was made by Sheriff Hoppe. They were holding in the county jail one Louis Brickner, 28, who lived just outside of Plymouth and was described by the Sheboygan Press in the unrestricted prose of the day as being “not too bright, and girl crazy.” What this had to do with the case was never explained.

When word was received on the streets of Plymouth that the alleged guilty party was in jail, the city of Plymouth rejoiced. It was further learned that Detective C.P. O’Brien of the Pinkerton Detective Agency was the man who cracked the case. At this point authorities were making no comment as to what evidence they had that would cause them to arrest Brickner.

The case took another twist when it was announced that a young lady in Plymouth had turned over to police an obscene post card she had received which was mailed from Elkhart Lake. At the time the card was mailed, Brickner lived in Elkhart Lake. It was further noted that the handwriting on the post card and the cards attached to the poison candy seemed to match.

The city of Plymouth was in a high state of excitement - the guilty party was locked safely in the county jail. The District Attorney assured everyone that Louis Brickner would pay for his crime with a long jail term. The state further claimed the evidence against Brickner was so impelling that he could not refute it.

Bail on Brickner was set at $2,500 (over $52,000 in today’s money) and as the Press of the day stated “The family was not in circumstances” and could not raise the bail. On Feb. 1, 1911, the day after his brother was arrested, Otto Brickner, who lived in Sheboygan, came forward and claimed that his brother Louis could not have committed the crime he was accused of as Louis had been in Sheboygan on the day and during the hours he was alleged to have placed the poison candy at the three Plymouth homes.

A preliminary hearing was set for Feb. 8 at which time it would be the duty of the state to prove they had reason to believe that a crime had been committed. Detective O’Brien of the Pinkerton agency, who it was said developed most of the evidence in the case, returned to Plymouth from Chicago to testify and present his evidence.

It seems that the state’s case was built around the fact that handwriting on the notes attached to the poison, the obscene postcard a young Plymouth women received, as well as a letter that was sent to the mayor of Plymouth, alleged to have been written by Brickner, were all written by the same person. The state had also secured the services of a nationally recognized expert on handwritings from Milwaukee, Mr. John F. Tryrall.

On the day of the preliminary hearing the courtroom was jammed with spectators. The Pinkerton detective, the District Attorney and the defendant, represented by Attorney Rooney of Plymouth, were present. The case was called and at this time District Attorney Collins stated that the handwriting expert was not available and asked for an adjournment of 10 days. Brinkner’s attorney protested but the adjournment was granted.

When the case was called before Judge Chaplin on Feb. 23, 1911, District Attorney Collins stunned the spectators when he asked for a dismissal of the charges against Brickner. It seems that the handwriting expert had come to the conclusion that Brickner had not written the notes on the poison candy or any of the other documents it was alleged he had written. Granting the request of the district attorney, all charges against Brickner were dismissed.

The March 16th, 1911 addition of the Sheboygan Press carried the story that interest in the case had waned, and no further action would be taken.

To this day the poisoning is unsolved and remains an enduring mystery.

Both Joy and I wish all our readers a blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year

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