Did Nellie Horan poison her family? A historical murder mystery in Whitewater.
Four members of the Horan family suddenly fell ill and died over a period of two years in the early 1880s. When strychnine was found in the stomach of the final victim, suspicion fell on her sister, Nellie Horan. A jury acquitted the young woman of murder, but the evidence still suggests something more nefarious.
Buried in Calvary Cemetery on a hill overlooking the UW-Whitewater sports complex is a family plot attesting to a particularly tragic story from the town’s long and weird history.
Bridget Ellen “Nellie” Horan, her sisters Anna and Agnes, and their parents Joseph and Judith are interred here.
Nellie most likely killed them all.
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The Horan family arrived in Whitewater from the nearby town of Koshkonong in 1880 with $5,000 – equivalent to about $127,000 in today’s money. They were described as being high-ranking members of the Whitewater community.
But that wouldn’t last long.
Judith died first in 1882. Her death was unexpected and described as having been in “great agony” with symptoms acknowledged by physicians at the time as being consistent with poisoning. But there was no reason to suspect foul play, so no investigation was conducted.
Joseph died six weeks later. He fell ill suddenly and “expired during terrible spasms and convulsions,” as reported by the New York Times.
They left their money to their four unmarried daughters: Gertrude (who didn’t live in Whitewater), Anna, Nellie and Agnes. As the youngest, Agnes was left the largest share.
At Joseph’s funeral, Agnes was said to be hysterical and threw herself upon her father’s grave.
Just over two months later, Agnes herself was dead at the age of 17. Her share of the inheritance passed on to her remaining sisters.
Whitewater authorities began to think someone had it out for the Horan family, though they were unable to identify any suspects or motives.
For Anna and Nellie, life returned to some semblance of normal after that. Anna was a dressmaker, and Nellie worked as a typesetter for a local newspaper called The Register. There were no more mysterious deaths for a couple years. The residents of Whitewater forgot about the tragedy that befell the Horan family.
Then, on November 30th, 1884, Anna suddenly fell ill.
After a few days, Anna asked her business partner, Miss Wakeman, to send for her sister. When Nellie arrived, she gave Anna a dose of what was supposed to be opium powder. But, after much suffering, Anna was dead just hours later on December 2nd, 1884.
The coroner found strychnine in her stomach.
“It is believed that some person has been pursuing the family for years, and that Miss Anna is the fourth victim,” the Milwaukee Daily Journal wrote on December 6th. “Who that person is nobody pretends to say with enough facts to warrant an opinion. Officers are understood to be at work on the case, and should the chemist establish the girl was poisoned, some startling developments may be expected. The public is greatly mystified.”
Funeral preparations were underway when a young girl confessed to seeing Nellie buying strychnine at the drugstore a few days prior to Anna’s death. The contents of Anna’s stomach were sent to specialist Professor Bode in Milwaukee for chemical analysis, who confirmed the presence of the poison.
Nellie was soon charged with her sister’s death.
At her trial, Nellie said she bought the poison to deal with the rats at the office of The Register.
“She was prepossessing, though not beautiful,” The New York Times wrote of her appearance in court. “Tall and graceful, she was intelligent and striking.”
The jury had a difficult time believing she could have committed murder, and deliberated a mere 12 minutes before acquitting her.
The New York Times reported:
“There was a great sensation in court. The accused girl shook hands with the Judge, jury, and counsel, and left for Whitewater with her sister and the young man to whom she was to have married, and who stuck to her through the whole trial.”
Some papers falsely reported that, upon the discovery of strychnine in Anna’s stomach, Nellie ingested the poison herself and confessed to murdering her family, as well as an unknown fifth victim, before she succumbed.
In fact, after she was acquitted, Nellie married a man named John Byrnes and lived well into her 70s. She died of natural causes on October 23, 1938 and was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Whitewater beside her family.
All of whom, with the exception of Gertrude, she most likely poisoned to death.
This story was originally published by Cult of Weird as part of an article called Monsters, Murderers, and Spirit Mediums in Whitewater.