Though Blanche Chesebrough was an old woman by the time she wrote her memoirs, she describes the key events of her earlier life in novelistic detail. She recalls precisely what gown she was wearing when she performed at Carnegie Hall with the Musical Arts Society—the way the sunlight sparkled on the water the day she met Roland Molineaux aboard the yacht Monhegan—the furnishings of the room in which she and Henry Barnet first made love.
So it seems odd—and highly significant—that she is unable to say exactly what happened on that fateful afternoon in early September, 1899, when, with startling suddenness, she renounced her relationship with Barnet and reconciled with Roland.
True, she remembers that it happened over lunch at the Waldorf Astoria. She recalls the table by the “great windows that opened on Fifth Avenue” and the “throngs of passersby” visible through the panes. She even remembers that she and Roland dined on filet of sole and drank white wine.
But as for what brought about her sudden change of heart, she claims a complete loss of memory. “In some way—I hardly remember—Molineux and I bridged the separation between us,” is all she writes of that moment.
It is hard not to conclude that Blanche is being deliberately evasive here: that she simply prefers not to recall—or not to confess—the real reason for her surprising turnaround. Still, it is possible to speculate.
We know from her memoirs that Blanche’s dearest dream was to visit Paris. It was a dream, as she had discovered by then, that she was unlikely to realize as the wife of Henry Barnet, whose financial circumstances were far less comfortable than Molineux’s. Roland himself had just returned from a month-long vacation in Europe—proof positive that it was he, not Barnet, who was more likely to give her the kind of life she craved. Indeed, had Blanche accepted his earlier proposal, she would have been at his side on his trip. Her dream would already have come true!
While it is fair to assume that Blanche made some such calculation on that autumn afternoon, it is impossible to know exactly what was going through her mind. One thing is certain. By the time she left the restaurant, she had agreed to give up Barnet and marry Roland.
“Before the end of our luncheon,” she writes in her memoir, “I had promised Roland I would again wear his ring—and this time with a pledge!”
However Roland managed to persuade Blanche to marry him—whatever inducements he offered—he couldn’t change her feelings for Barnet. In the days following the luncheon at the Waldorf, she found herself “consumed” by thoughts of her lover. His “influence over” her—that power “which from the beginning had so swept me off of my feet”—had in no way diminished. Try as she might “not to think of him,” she yearned “to see Barney.”
She left messages at his club but received no reply. Finally—after a protracted silence that left her baffled and hurt—he telephoned her at Alice Bellinger’s.
Yes, he knew about her engagement to Molineux, he said. He had “heard about it from someone at the Racquet Club.” Despite the coldness in his voice, the mere sound of it brought a terrible longing to her heart. “I suddenly wanted him back more than anything the world.”
He agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to see her. They met in her apartment on an evening in late September. Barnet was understandably angry. What did Blanche expect of him? he demanded. She had erected an insuperable barrier between them by agreeing to wed Molineux.
“That is silly,” she said. “There are no barriers. Can’t we remain friends.”
He gave a harsh laugh. “That is ridiculous.”
“But why?” she persisted.
“Good God!” he cried. “Molineux knows perfectly well that you and I have been seeing each other. You must know that. He hates me!”
“That is preposterous,” Blanche said. “You two are old friends. He doesn’t hate you.”
“The enmity is veiled,” said Barnet. “But if he ever knew I saw you again, it would be open hostility. You ought to know that. This is goodbye—it has to be.”
Before Blanche could respond, Barnet took her in his arms and “kissed her with savage abandon.” Then—pushing her away from him—he turned and strode from the room.
Blanche followed him into the hallway and “cried out to him” as he hurried down the stairs. But Barnet, turning a deaf ear to her pleas, “made no reply.”
“I stood there on the lower landing of the stairway,” Blanche writes in her memoir. “I believed he would return. But he went straight out the door.”
She never saw Henry Barnet again.
In addition to his duties as night watchman of the Knickerbocker 1 Athletic Club, Joseph Moore—a 40-year-old Englishman—performed valet services for various members, including Henry Barnet.
Early on the morning of Friday, October 28, 1898, Moore received an urgent summons to Barnet’s room. He found the 32-year-old clubman stretched out on his bed, ashen-face and clutching his stomach. The normally dapper Barnet was wearing only an open-collared shirt and trousers, as though he’d been stricken while getting dressed for the day. His breakfast—which had been brought up to his room earlier—lay untouched on its tray.
“Moore,” gasped Barnet. “Call Dr. Phillips.”
Hardly had he spoken the words than Barnet let out a moan, leapt from the bed, and ran for the toilet. As Moore made for the staircase, he could hear the sound of violent retching through the closed door.
The residence of Dr. Wendell C. Phillips—a surgeon at the Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital and a longtime member of the KAC—was located on Madison Avenue, only a block away from the clubhouse. By 9:00 AM—less than 15 minutes after Joseph Moore dispatched an errand boy to his home—Phillips was standing at Barnet’s bedside.
“Hello, old man,” he said. “What’s the matter?”
Before Barnet could answer, he was seized with a spasm of sickness and had to dash for the bathroom, where he suffered another bout of simultaneous vomiting and diarrhea. Minutes later, he staggered back to bed, a ghastly pallor suffusing his face.
Phillips checked his pulse, which seemed normal. He also examined Barnet’s throat. There was some inflammation of the membrane, though—in Phillips’ professional opinion—“no more than would be present when a person was vomiting."
Phillips concluded that Barnet was suffering from “an irritant substance in the stomach” and asked if he had eaten anything unusual.
“It was that damned Kutnow’s Powder,” answered Barnet with a groan.
He explained that, after overindulging in food and drink the previous evening, he had awakened at around 8:00 that morning feeling unwell. As it happened, he had received a sample tin of “Kutnow’s Improved Effervescent Powder” in the mail a few days earlier. Supposedly made of salts from the Carlsbad mineral springs, Kutnow’s—a competitor of Bromo-Seltzer—was promoted as a surefire remedy for “biliousness, sick headache, loss of appetite, sour stomach, constipation, drowsiness, nervousness, gout, jaundice, and rheumatism.” Potential customers could receive a free sample by sending in a letter with their name and address.
Barnet wasn’t sure why the little tin had been sent to him, since he hadn’t requested it. Still, as he was in the habit of treating his hangovers with Kutnow’s, he didn’t think twice about taking a dose. Almost immediately, however, he had gotten dreadfully ill.
Phillips went downstairs to telephone a local pharmacy for some remedies. He then returned to sit with Barnet, who lay shivering beneath a heavy wool blanket when he wasn’t in the bathroom throwing up and voiding uncontrollably.
After an hour or so, Phillips returned to his home, leaving Barnet in the care of Joseph Moore. Phillips checked on his patient two more times during the day. By 5:30 PM, Barnet seemed greatly improved—so much so that, as Dr. Phillips would later testify, he saw “no reason to come again.”
Though the vomiting and diarrhea had abated by the following day, Barnet still couldn’t manage to eat. Swallowing food was too painful. His throat was agonizingly sore. Even his tongue hurt.
On Sunday, October 30, he went downstairs for the first time in two days and sought the advice of a friend, Colonel Austen, who suggested that Barnet get a second opinion from Henry Beaman Douglass, a fellow KAC member and prominent New York physician. A telephone call was promptly placed to Douglass’ home.
A graduate of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Douglass had interned for two years at the Presbyterian Hospital, then studied overseas in Paris, London, and Berlin before returning to New York. In addition to his private practice, he served as Adjunct Professor of Diseases of the Throat at the Post-Graduate Medical College and assistant surgeon and pathologist at the Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital.
Within a half-hour of receiving the call, Douglass arrived at the Knickerbocker Athletic Club. He found Barnet in the cafe with Colonel Austen. Leading the doctor into the adjoining reading room, Barnet explained what had happened on Friday after he had swallowed the Kutnow’s Powder.
“I was a damned fool to take something that came in the mail,” he said. He then described his current symptoms—the burning throat and painful tongue.
“Well, I can’t examine you here, old man,” said Dr. Douglass.
Taking the elevator to the second floor, they proceeded to Barnet’s room, where Douglass peered into Barnet’s throat and saw (as he later testified) a “membrane on the right tonsil and uvula.” He immediately concluded that Barnet had a case of diphtheria.
Leaving Barnet in his room, Douglass went out to a drug store called Schoonmaker’s, where he purchased two culture tubes. He then returned to the club, took samples from Barnet’s tonsil, and departed again, this time for his lab in the Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital.
When the cultures were analyzed, they revealed “streptococci in large numbers,” though no evidence of “diphtheritic bacilli.” Nevertheless, Douglass remained convinced that Barnet had a mild case of diphtheria and treated him accordingly, with injections of anti-toxin.
Over the next few days, Barnet—who was attended around-the-clock from that point on by two trained nurse, Addie Bates and Jane Callender—seemed to be in a convalescent state, though his tongue and gums continued to bother him.
By Friday, November 4, Barnet’s mouth was still inflamed and his tongue ulcerated. Curious about the content of the Kutnow’s Powders, Douglass brought the sample tin (which Barnet had saved) to a chemist named Guy P. Ellison for analysis.
No sooner had Ellison removed the cover of the tin than he detected the odor of bitter almonds, typical of “salt of cyanide.” Taking a tiny amount on the tip of one finger, he tasted it and found that the Kutnow’s had a “metallic, corrosive taste,” also characteristic of cyanide.
Ellison then performed a series of tests on the powder—first adding hydrochloric acid, then iodide of potassium, and finally heating it slowly in a test tube. The results clearly showed that the Kutnow’s Powder contained cyanide of mercury.
When Douglass received the report, he decided that the sores on Barnet’s tongue and gums were probably “mercurial stomatitis”—i.e., an inflammation of the mucous membranes of the mouth produced by the ingestion of mercury. But that conclusion set off no alarm bells in Douglass, who saw no reason to alter his original opinion.
It’s natural to wonder why—when Dr. Douglass found evidence that Barnet had ingested mercury and pharmacist Ellison discovered cyanide in the Kutnow’s Powder—neither of them suspected that the patient was the victim of foul play. The answer—bizarre as it seems—is that both mercury and cyanide, along with many other toxic substances, were standard medicinal ingredients in the late 19th century.
The soothing syrups and aromatic bitters and revitalizing tonics so popular in that elixir-crazed period might have been utterly worthless, giving great-grandma a mild high while allowing whatever disease was killing her to run rampant through her system. But the medications prescribed by legitimate physicians were often no better, and in many cases far worse. American medicine in the post-Civil War era had not yet emerged from the Dark Ages, as even a cursory glance at the 1899 edition of the venerable textbook, the Merck Manual, makes alarmingly clear.
It was a time when formaldehyde was routinely prescribed for the common cold, arsenic for asthma, strychnine for headaches, morphine for diarrhea—and mercury for everything from anemia to yellow fever. A woman with morning sickness might be treated with a heaping spoonful of belladonna, a constipated man with a cup of turpentine oil, and a colicky baby with a chloroform-soaked rag placed over its nostrils. Gargling with cyanide of mercury was a recommended cure for sore throats.
It was clear to Dr. Douglass that Barnet had consumed mercury. But then, so had millions of other Americans who customarily took calomel, one of the most commonly prescribed remedies of the time. In addition to its supposedly salubrious effects, calomel (also known as mercurous chloride) frequently produced ulcerations of the tongue, gums, and throat, caused teeth to fall out, and occasionally destroyed entire jawbones.
In short, despite the absence of “diphtheritic bacilli” in the culture and the presence of cyanide of mercury in the Kutnow’s Powder—Dr. Douglass was absolutely convinced that the symptoms displayed by Barnet pointed to only one diagnosis: a case of mild diphtheria.
There had been no communication between Blanche and Barnet since their stormy confrontation several weeks earlier. But her ex-lover—the man who had awakened her to a “full realization of sex”—was always on her mind.
During the first week of November, a dinner was to be held for General T. L. Watson, president of the New York Athletic Club. Roland was one of the organizers. Invitations had been issued to select members of rival clubs, including the Knickerbocker. Blanche, who always enjoyed these affairs, became even more excited when she learned that Barney was on the guest list.
She was keenly disappointed, therefore, when word reached her that Barnet was too ill to attend. She was also surprised. “I recalled how strong and vital he was, in what apparently perfect health,” she would record in her memoir. “I was anxious for more detailed news and called the club to make inquiries. They repeated only what I already had learned, that he was suffering from a serious attack of diphtheria.”
When Roland arrived at Alice Bellinger’s a short time later, Blanche rushed to meet him at the entrance way.
“Barney is ill,” she cried. “Under the care of physicians at the club. Have you heard?”
“Yes,” he calmly replied.
“I want to send him flowers,” she said. “And a message.”
Using Alice’s telephone, Blanche called Thorley’s Flower Shop and ordered a “huge box of shaggy chrysanthemums.” “They seemed more appropriate for a man,” she writes in her memoir. “They lacked cloying perfume and possessed a sort of rugged beauty.”
She also wrote a letter to Barnet. Enclosing it in an envelope, she called a messenger who conveyed it to Thorley’s, where it was placed inside the flower box. The letter read:
I am distressed to learn of your illness. I arrived home Saturday. I am so exceedingly sorry to know that you have been indisposed. Won’t you let me know when you are able to be about? I want so much to see you. Is it that you do not believe me? If you would but let me prove to you my sincerity. Do not be cross any more and accept, I pray you, my very best wishes.
Blanche waited to hear back from Barnet. But she never received a reply.
The flowers were not delivered until early the following day, Monday, November 7.
Barnet was asleep when they arrived. When he awoke, his day-nurse, Addie Bates, told him that he had received a big bunch of lovely chrysanthemums, along with a note.
Barnet asked her to read it to him. Addie proceeded to do so. When she was done, he closed his eyes and, in a voice barely above a whisper, said: “I wonder how she knew I was ill?”
Two nights later—at around 4:00 AM on November 9—Barnet awoke from a troubled sleep and struggled out of bed.
He had been growing weaker by the day and seemed so unsteady on his feet that his night-nurse, Jane Callender, urged him to lie back down at once.
Barnet refused. Despite the sponge-baths he had been receiving, he felt unbearably filthy and was determined to give himself a thorough washing. Above the objections of Miss Callender, he made his way to the bathroom and shut himself inside.
When he emerged a half-hour later, he barely had the strength to make it back to his bed.
Alarmed at his condition, Nurse Callender telephoned Dr. Douglass, who arrived at the Knickerbocker in short order. A brief examination of Barnet was all Douglass needed to see that his patient was in the throes of heart failure.
Barnet’s brother, Edmund, was immediately summoned to his bedside. At Edmund’s urging, two other physicians were called in for an emergency consultation. Each examined Barnet in turn. Each confirmed Douglass’s grim diagnosis.
Barnet clung to life for another ten hours. His death, late in the afternoon of Thursday, November 10, 1898, was officially attributed to a weakened heart caused by diphtheria.
A memorial service for Henry Crossman Barnet was held at the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue and 10th Street in Manhattan at 2:00 PM on Saturday, November 12. A tearful Blanche was among those in attendance.
Exactly one week later, she took part in another ceremony. On Saturday, November 19, 1898, at the Church of Heavenly Rest on Fifth Avenue and 45th Street, Roland Burnham Molineux—as he had long vowed to do—took Blanche Chesebrough for his lawful wedded bride.
—Harold Schechter is a professor of American literature and culture at Queens College (City University of New York), and the author of many true-crime books about American psychopathic killers. The Devil’s Gentleman will be released in October by Ballantine Books.