Monday, March 01, 2021

March 1: The Chloroform Murder

Late on the chilly morning of March 2, 1937, two engineering students at the University of Virginia at Charlotte took time between classes to visit the grave of a friend who had recently been killed in a car crash. The cemetery was separated from the campus by a low stone wall. A stile offered an easy way over.

As they crossed the stile, the young men spotted something out-of-place on the campus side of the wall. A young woman lay in the leaves, her face covered with a cloth. The students thought that perhaps the woman was sleeping. They went on their way to pay their respects to their friend.

When the students crossed the stile again to return to campus, they saw that the woman was still lying there, utterly unmoving amid the leaves on the cold ground. They were disquieted. When they got to class they told the Dean of Engineering. The dean called the Albermarle County sheriff.

Sheriff J. Mason Smith had a good idea who the young woman was. The previous evening a frantic Lula Sprouse had reported that her 18-year-old daughter, Cleo, was missing. The high school junior had left home at 4:00 to take in a movie, promising to be home by 6:30. It wasn't like the quiet, studious honor student to stay out late. Cleo was always where she said she'd be when she said she'd be there. Something terrible must have happened to her.

Friends and neighbors had combed the area, looking for Cleo and speaking to anybody who might have seen her. A schoolmate said that he'd seen Cleo walking near the movie theater some time after 6 p.m.  One of Cleo's friends, Ethel Sealock, said that Cleo had pulled up outside her home at around 7:30 p.m. Cleo had been the passenger in a brown sedan driven by a man that Ethel couldn't see. Cleo, the young woman said, had asked Ethel to come driving with her but Ethel said she declined and didn't even get off the porch to approach the car because she didn't have shoes on. 

None of Cleo's other friends or acquaintances could remember having seen her after she'd gotten home from school.

Now Sheriff Smith had to go to the campus to see if the widow Sprouse's worst fears were realized.

He and his men had to shoo away the crowd of curious onlookers who had gathered. Fortunately, nobody had disturbed the body or the leaves that still partially covered it. Sheriff Smith carefully began moving aside the leaves. The young woman lay almost primly, her clothing in perfect order. A small cloth the size of a hand towel covered her head and some object that was propped on her face. 

Was this Cleo? The clothing matched the description given by her mother: green polka dot dress, brown cloth coat, brown stockings, and brown suede pumps Cleo's rings -- one gold and another costume jewelry -- were on the fingers. Sheriff Smith removed the towel. An empty chloroform can was upended over the woman's face. Her nose and mouth were stuffed with cotton. Her mouth and nose appeared swollen and burned. In spite of the injuries, Smith was certain that the auburn-haired young woman was indeed Cleo Sprouse.

As Sheriff Smith finished uncovering the body, five police officers combed the area for any other items that might be related to the grim find. Two looked for footprints. Two canvassed the neighborhood to find out what anybody might have seen or heard. Two others checked the railroad station and taxi stands.

A gas station owner said that Miller, with Cleo in the car, had stopped for gas at his business before heading north away from the city.

A bus driver told the police that he had seen a brown sedan parked near a railroad underpass at the university golf course, which was about 400 yards from the cemetery, between 1:30 and 1:45 on the morning Cleo's body had been discovered. The motor was running, both car doors were open and a bottle was lying on the road.

Meanwhile Sheriff Smith pondered the choice of dump sites. Had the killer placed the young woman's body on the cemetery side of the wall rather than the campus side, it might have gone undiscovered for quite a while. Why had he hidden her where she could be easily stumbled across?

Sheriff Smith carefully packaged the towel and chloroform can and handed them off for immediate transport to the FBI laboratories in Washington, DC. Police took plaster casts of tire tracks near the dump site and collected samples of the mud that might be found on the suspect's tires.

Sherriff Smith went to the Sprouse home and broke the news to the distraught widow. Mrs. Sprouse, prostrated by grief, managed to recount, between sobs, the last time she'd seen her daughter. Cleo's brothers and sister could add nothing of any use in the investigation and struggled to comfort their mother.

Sheriff Smith turned the body over to Dr. W. H. Weaver, University of Virginia pathologist, who took it to the mortuary for a postmortem examination.

The coroner's office bungled their handling of the autopsy. Rather than sending Cleo's organs to experts in Charlottesville, somebody sent them to Richmond, Virginia, where they had ended up in a laboratory at the Department of Agriculture rather than the laboratories of the Department of Health. Once they were located they were taken to the proper laboratory for analysis.
Dr. Weaver concluded that though there were traces of ether in her lungs, Cleo had died from an overdose of chloroform. The cotton that was found in her nose and mouth had been soaked in chloroform. She had also been about three months pregnant. There were no marks on the young woman's body to indicate that she had fought off an attacker. There was no evidence of rape. But the fact that her nose and mouth were stuffed with cotton and the position of the chloroform bottle -- and the fact that her underpants were missing -- led the coroner to rule out suicide. By that afternoon local papers reported, "NO CLUES IN CAMPUS CHLOROFORM MURDER."

The report arrived from the FBI: The corners of the towel showed marks of toothed clamps, similar to what a dentist would use to fasten a napkin to protect the clothing before examining a patient. The towel itself was the type that dentists used for this purpose. A technician had recovered a thumbprint on the bottom of the chloroform can. 

The type of chloroform was not intended for use as anesthesia but, according to a University of Virginia professor of pharmacology, was the type typically used for euthanizing animals. Anesthetic chloroform was dispensed in small bottles, while "technical" chloroform, which was not purified to remove elements such as hydrochloric acid and phosgene, was sold in cans like the one found on Cleo's face. 

Given the presence of a dental napkin with the tooth marks of clips, Sheriff Smith concluded that his suspect would be one of the sixteen dentists in the Charlottesville area. Sheriff Smith had prints made of the teeth of a recently discovered body that had nothing to do with the case and sent plainclothesmen out to visit the dentists, hand them the photos in order to get thumbprints, and bring them back. One of the prints collected this way matched the print that the FBI had recovered from the cloth: the print of 52-year-old Richard D. Miller DDS.

Miller had a very positive reputation in town, considered a pillar of the community. He told police that a can of chloroform had been missing from his office since February. He kept it in his office as a solvent to use in making fillings, not as an anesthetic. He said that he had been treating Cleo and had stepped out of the exam room to take a phone call. Upon returning to the exam room, he said, he had found Cleo closing the cabinet door.

According to Miller's clinic records, Cleo had indeed been a patient. He'd been treating her roughly twice a week for over a year.

That evening, after Miller had gone home, police entered his office with the help of a skeleton key. In a cabinet of the immaculate premises police found dental napkins that appeared to be identical to the one found on Cleo's face. Cleo's name was in Sprouse's appointment book for a 4 p.m. appointment on March 1.

This was considered sufficient to bring Dr. Miller in for questioning. The next day, police arrested Miller at his office, leaving a patient still in the dental chair. They walked him the six blocks to the police station through a growing crowd of people who wanted to see the Chloroform Murderer. As the evening wore on, so many people gathered that the porch collapsed under their weight.

Miller denied that he had been involved in Cleo's death. Then he got up and looked out the window. When the crowd of perhaps a thousand people outside saw him they started shouting in outrage. He begged police to keep him safe from the crowd. Police slipped him out the back door to the station and loaded him into a vehicle for transport to jail. During the ride he made a confession.

He said that he had known Cleo for about nine months and had been treating her for problems with her gums. She had come to him requesting an abortion, and when he had refused she threatened to claim that he was the father of her baby. Under this pressure, he said, he had agreed.

Rather than do the procedure in his office, he had driven her in a borrowed car to a place about six miles north of Charlottesville with the intention of doing the abortion in the vehicle. The place where Miller said he'd pulled the car over to do the abortion matched the location where a bus driver said that he'd seen a brown sedan parked, engine running and doors open, the night Cleo had died.

Miller told police that he had accidentally administered too much chloroform, resulting in the girl's death within about a minute.

He said that he had waited until dark then driven back to town, intending to bring Cleo's body to an undertaking establishment and confess to the police, but that he had panicked and decided to pose her body in hopes that her death would be deemed a suicide.

Miller spoke at greater length during a nearly five-hour questioning at the jail. He then wrote out a confession.

The police went to the site where Miller said that Cleo had died and took plaster casts of tire tracks there, as well as mud samples. They also searched for surgical instruments that Miller said he'd brought along then thrown away in panic. They were never able to locate them.

J. Hubert Carver, a car salesman, went to the police voluntarily and told them that Miller had expressed interest in buying a car and had borrowed a brown sedan to try it out. He had picked it up at around 4:00 pm and returned it about four hours later, "reeking of chloroform." Carver said that he also found fragments of absorbent cotton in the vehicle.

Once Cleo's body was released it became a bit of a tourist attraction as people streamed through the undertaking establishment to see it in an open casket. Perhaps 200 children made their way through the building between when school was dismissed at 2 pm and when Cleo's body was relocated to the family home. There, her distraught mother wept over the coffin as her surviving children struggled with their own grief.

Though some people had suggested that classmates from Lane High School serve as pall bearers, Cleo's family said that her classmates really didn't know her well and "she rarely went around with boys."

At the burial, Mrs. Sprouse collapsed as around 400 mourners and curious townspeople gathered around the grave. The pastor had to stop the ceremony to berate photographers.

Miller was indicted for first-degree murder because prosecutors believed that he had deliberately killed Cleo. They believed that his story about an intended abortion was concocted to allow a lesser charge. Wouldn't Miller have performed an abortion in his office, where he had safe and familiar anesthetics on hand, rather than in a borrowed car using chloroform that  he ordinarily used as a solvent? Why couldn't he lead police to the place where he said he'd ditched the instruments? 

His attorneys originally planned to plead insanity on the grounds that Miller had suffered brain damage when he'd accidentally shot himself while hunting seven weeks earlier, grazing his temple. Since the middle-aged father of two had been otherwise perfectly normal since the incident, this defense didn't fly. 

Miller eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 16 years in prison. Mrs. Sprouse had originally opposed a plea deal, wanting the man who had been not just the family dentist but a family friend to face trial for first-degree murder.

Watch The Chloroform Murder on YouTube.


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