Jennie Cramer Murder Trial: 1882
Great American Trials Smith, Tom
Defendants: Blanche Douglass, James Malley Jr., Walter Mal ley
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Samuel F. Jones, Levi N. Blydenburgh, William C. Case, Timothy J. Fox (both Malleys); Louis C. Cassidy (James Malley); Edwin C. Dow, William B. Stoddard (Douglass)
Chief Prosecutors: Tilton E. Doolittle, Charles Bush
Judge: Miles T. Granger
Place: New Haven, Connecticut
Date of Trial: April 25-June 30, 1882
Verdict: Not guilty
SIGNIFICANCE: Possible witness bribery and an overly specific grand jury indictment helped wealthy defendants elude responsibility for one of Victorian New England's most notorious crimes.
At daybreak on Saturday morning, August 6, 1881, a fisherman found the lifeless body of a young woman floating by the West Haven, Connecticut, shoreline. She was Jennie Cramer, the twenty-year-old daughter of a German immigrant and his wife, who lived in nearby New Haven. Cramer's death shocked the city, for she was well known for her beauty and high spirits, especially among local young men.
One of her most persistent admirers was James Malley Jr., nephew of wealthy dry goods store owner Edward Malley. James Malley had called on Cramer at her father's cigar shop and sent her messages from his uncle's store, where he worked as a clerk. Cramer seemed uninterested in Malley's attentions, but she accepted several of his invitations to go walking or have dinner. The pair was always accompanied by James Malley's cousin Walter—Edward Malley's son—and a woman named Blanche Douglass, whom Walter had met in New York.
Despite her popularity with local bachelors, Jennie Cramer's moral character was considered to be spotless. Consequently, her mother was frantic when Cramer did not return home on the night of Wednesday, August 3. When she turned up on Thursday morning, Blanche Douglass accompanied her. Douglass assured Mrs. Cramer that she and Jennie had spent the night at a rooming house called the Elliott House, where no gentlemen were allowed, but Mrs. Cramer surmised that Douglass was no lady.
"Don't you know that you are disgracing yourself and disgracing your parents by staying out overnight?" Mrs. Cramer cried. "If you carry on like that we must find a place for you to stay when your little sister comes home. We can't have you here!" Mrs. Cramer left the room sobbing. When she regained her composure, Jennie was gone. Mrs. Cramer was terrified by the possibility that Jennie had taken her banishment threat seriously. Guilt-ridden, Mrs. Cramer visited James Malley at his uncle's store that afternoon and accused him of introducing her daughter to bad company. Malley replied that Blanche Douglass was a perfect lady and that the two young women had spent Wednesday night at the Elliott House. Nevertheless, he promised to bring Jennie home or contact the Cramers if he saw her. On Friday, the Cramers received a note from Malley stating that neither he nor Douglass were aware of Jennie's whereabouts. Saturday morning, the Cramers learned that Jennie was dead.
An Inquest's Second Thoughts
Because West Haven lacked a city government, investigating the death fell to a six-man coroner's jury. Bruises on the body nearly led to a conclusion that Cramer had drowned, but an official autopsy was conducted when one juror expressed second thoughts. The autopsy revealed that Cramer had not drowned. Hardly any water was found in her lungs and there was evidence that she had been raped within 48 hours of her death.
When the inquest sought clues about Cramer's last hours, Douglass and "the Malley boys" were called to testify. Douglass now said that she and Cramer had spent Wednesday night at the Malley mansion, where they had been singing and drinking wine alone with James and Walter. When Douglass felt ill, she convinced a reluctant Cramer to remain with her at the mansion all night. In the morning she accompanied Cramer home and witnessed the quarrel with Mrs. Cramer. Douglass swore that she last saw Cramer passing on a streetcar about noon on Thursday.
James Malley testified that he last saw Cramer when the two women left the mansion Thursday morning. Asked about his whereabouts on Friday night, he said that he was at home and that his entire family would swear to it. "My father came to me after the newspaper reports were concluded and asked me where I was Friday night," he replied, peculiarly modifying his answer. "No, he came to me and said, 'It's a lucky thing for you that you were home Friday night.'" Walter Malley echoed his cousin's testimony, adding that he thought that Cramer had gone to her brother's home in New York, accompanied by Douglass.
Other witnesses, however, swore to have seen Cramer with one or more of the trio on Thursday or Friday. It was also learned that Blanche Douglass was a New York prostitute, not Walter Malley's fiance, as newspapers had reported. Detectives arrested her in a bordello and returned her to West Haven, where she was charged with perjury. Walter and James were arrested shortly thereafter.
According to the inquest autopsy, Cramer's body tissues indicated that she had ingested a fatal dose of over three grains of arsenic hours before her death. Verdicts were returned on September 3, holding James Malley "criminally responsible" and Walter Malley and Blanche Douglass "morally responsible" for the death of Jennie Cramer by "poison and violence."
The case was immediately referred to West Haven's local court, where numerous witnesses placed Cramer with the defendants at times conflicting with their stories. The West Haven trial seemed to dispose of one report that Cramer had been on a carousel at the town's Savin Rock amusement district, accompanied by a man with a black mustache. Margaret Kane produced her mustachioed companion and claimed to be the woman on the flying horses that Friday night. Kane said that a dizzy spell prompted her to say, "My God, I'm paralyzed!" a comment attributed by others to Jennie Cramer.
James Malley's sisters and a servant testified that he had been at home on Friday night, but the defense could not overcome suspicions that the defendants were lying. The case was referred to New Haven's Superior Court for a full trial. Meanwhile, the case became an international sensation and the Malley family's reputation declined. James' and Walter's haughty attitude did not win them public sympathy, nor did Edward Malley's dismissal of the tragedy with the blithe comment, "Boys will be boys." Amid rumors of bribery, prosecutors seethed over increasing memory lapses suffered by witnesses. A dime pamphlet bearing Cramer's portrait on the cover and containing the testimony leading to the arrests enjoyed a second printing, thanks to the Malley family's efforts to buy up every available copy at local bookshops.
The Elm City Tragedy
On January 17, 1882, multiple charges against all three defendants were consolidated by New Haven's grand jury into a single count of first-degree murder. Cramer's body was exhumed to address arguments that she, like many Victorian girls, habitually ate arsenic to improve her complexion. An examination found little of the substance in her bones, discounting the defense's claims.
When the case finally went to trial on April 25, 1882, prosecutor Tilton Doolittle charged that Walter had brought Douglass to New Haven for the purpose of helping James to "ruin" Cramer. The conspiracy succeeded and Cramer had been poisoned with liquid arsenic for fear that the crime would be discovered.
Despite confusion over dates and times, the defendants' version of Cramer's and their own whereabouts were opposed by a parade of prosecution witnesses, many of whom had testified in the earlier proceedings. A woman who lived opposite Elliott House repeated that she had seen Cramer there alone on Wednesday night and together with the Malleys and Douglass on Thursday. A New Haven waiter testified that he had served Walter, Douglass, and Cramer at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, casting doubt on the story of the party at the Malley mansion. A drugstore clerk recalled serving Cramer and Douglass sodas on Thursday night. A married couple disputed Margaret Kane's story, insisting that it was Cramer who claimed to be stricken on the carousel. The defense offered a sole witness, a doctor who disagreed with medical reports that Cramer had been raped. He also proposed that she had drowned and that the arsenic in her system was the result of habitual use.
In final arguments, one defense attorney theorized that Cramer had committed suicide. Another emphasized the Malleys' alibis, belittled the prosecution's scientific evidence, and said that too little attention had been given to the possibility of a drowning. Douglass's attorney argued that even if Cramer had died of arsenic poisoning, the state had introduced no evidence that the defendants administered it to her. Yet it was the grand jury's decision to charge the defendants only with murder that doomed the prosecution's quest for justice. On June 30, 1882, Judge Miles Granger instructed jurors that they were only to decide if the defendants had murdered Jenny Cramer with arsenic—the accused were not on trial for rape or for telling lies.
The jury acquitted the defendants in less than an hour. Douglass, James, and Walter were freed, but charges that the Malleys had bought their freedom dogged the family for decades. Despite Walter Malley's outspoken desire to discover the real killers, the Cramer case remains unsolved.