Sunday, June 12, 2022

June 12, 1902: Stopover for Death in Florida

Early on the morning of June X, 1902, Captain Carter of the Tampa, Florida police got a notice of a body being removed from the Whiting Street apartment of 65-year-old Dr. Frederick Weightnovel (sometimes identified as Dr. Leontieff Theodore Weightnovel).  

Cpt. Carter learned that the body was that of a young woman and that it was taken to the undertaking establishment of J. L. Reed. Weightnovel provided Mr. Reed with a death certificate listing peritonitis as the cause of death.

Reed reported that "he ... found the body badly contorted, the usual offices upon the newly dead having been entirely neglected."

Weightnovel contacted the undertaker at about 7 am.

The body was that of 18-year-old Irene Randall of Quincy, Florida, daughter of tobacco businessman A. A. Randall. Irene had been spending the previous seven months in Tampa with her aunt, Mrs. Laura J. Christian, to learn dressmaking. She had gone home to Quincy, then returned to Tampa on Saturday, June 7. She was met by her cousin, J. Carl Christian. Christian had arranged for her to stay at the home of the Russian-born Dr. Weightnovel for an abortion. 

Dr. U .S Bird and Dr. J. M Grantham performed an autopsy.

Irene's father received a telegram informing him of his daughter's death and asking what he wanted done with the body. Mr. Randall asked that Irene's body be shipped to Midway, which was near Quincy. In the mean time, as the Tampa Tribune of June 20 said, "The fair dead face ... was viewed at Reed's undertaking parlors yesterday by many who had known her in life, including relatives of the deceased who reside in this city. Despite the rigidity of death, the features bore the traces of the agony, physical and mental, which must have been the lost of the young sufferer in her last hours."

After the viewing, Reed shipped Irene's body to Midway as requested.

What of Weightnovel?

Dr. Frederick Weightnovel

According to the June 26, 1902 Tampa Weekly Tribune, "Dr. Weightnovel ... is one of the most conspicuous characters in Tampa. He has been a resident of the city for many years, and claims to be a refugee from Russia, to escape political persecution. He wears the most luxurious head of hair in Florida, and has attracted particular attention during his residence in the city by invariably occupying a front seat at all theatrical performances and taking conspicuous part in every excursion."

The June 20 Tampa Tribune noted that while mourners and the curious were filing past Irene's coffin, Weightnovel "fanned himself industriously in a cell at the county jail, stroked his plenteous beard and hair, and consulted with his attorney...."

According to the June 26, 1902 Tampa Weekly Tribune, "His establishment on Whiting street has always been a subject of suspicion, and he has been generally regarded as a criminal practitioner, who was sharp enough to avoid the courts." 

The police confiscated records and letters.

The father of Irene's aborted baby was identified as a young cigar-maker named Robert Floyd. Floyd denied the allegation. Weightnovel's attorney, Henry Cohen, turned over letters to the police which were purportedly written by Irene during her dying days. According to the June 20 Tampa Tribune, one of the letters was written to Floyd. "In this letter, she recalls to her betrayer the occasion of her ruin, mentioning Amy Droty's notorious resort on Fifth avenue, as the scene, and indicating that she was taken there by force and drugged into semi-consciousness. .... This letter was sealed, addressed, and stamped but not mailed, and was found among the papers in Dr. Weightnovel's apartments."

Irene's parents evidently knew where she was. She had gotten letters from her mother "full of a mother's tenderness and solicitations of grief at the condition to which she had fallen." Cohen planned to use these letters to assert that Irene had undergone an abortion at her home in Quincy and had only travelled to Tampa, whereupon Weightnovel had taken her in.

Christian visited Irene many times during her stay at Weightnovel‘s home. Two days after her arrival, Irene asked Christian to telegraph to Waycross for her trunk.

Testimony about days and dates is evidently jumbled. The abortion was reportedly performed June 6, which was a Friday. But Irene's cousin reported that he visited her on a Wednesday, about a week before her death, and she‘d told him that Weightnovel had performed the abortion the previous night, and that she‘d be ready to go home the following Tuesday. The only date we can perhaps rely upon is the date of Irene's death: June 12.

Arrived June 7? Weightnovel called in another doctor on Tuesday night. She told the doctor what had happened and died on June 12 at 2 a.m.

Weightnovel was arrested and held in default of $2,000 bail.

Public outrage was high against Weightnovel. One letter to the Tampa Tribune, June 20, 1902, read:

It is a well-known and indisputable fact that Dr. Weightnovel, the long-haired quack who murdered the Randall girl, by performing an operation on her has been illegitimately practicing in this city for years and God in Heaven only knows how many poor girls he has butchered and sent to an early grave by his hellish methods. He should be considered in the category of a murderer and as such tried by a jury in the same manner as a midnight assassin... and be compelled to stand the consequences.

It is a reflection on the intelligence of an American people to permit the release of the old scamp and the good people of Tampa should rise up en masse and see that he is properly punished. He is guilty of one of the most heinous crimes known and he is none too good to stretch hemp and the heart-broken parents of the poor murdered girl will never be sufficiently revenged until he and the girl's betrayer are both dangling side by side on a gallows.

Dr. B. G. Abernathy was called in to attend to Irene after the abortion. Abernathy testified that Irene told him she‘d come to Weightnovel about two weeks earlier, that she did well the first day or two after the abortion, but that she became very sick and rapidly declined.

Abernathy diagnosed Irene suffering from blood poisoning caused by retained placenta. Abernathy asked Weightnovel for a curette so that he could perform a D&C, and Weightnovel provided one. Abernathy also returned to his own house to get some other instruments. At some point Weightnovel asked Abernathy to send a telegram to Irene's parents.

State's witness Frank Middaugh testified that on the night Irene died, he‘d heard the cries of a girl calling, “Doctor, doctor," from Weightnovel's house. Middaugh also testified that he saw Weightnovel sitting in a lighted window, fanning himself.

An undertaker testified that he‘d been summoned to remove Irene‘s body, and was asked to do so quietly and discreetly to keep the news of Irene‘s death secret.

Officer Carter, who had arrested Weightnovel, testified that when he made the arrest, Weightnovel picked up a bundle of women‘s clothing, which he rolled up and tried to toss under a table. Carter saw that the clothing was stained and took the clothing into evidence.

Weightnovel was convicted of manslaughter in Irene‘s death and was sentenced to six years at hard labor. The February 5, 1903 Tampa Weekly Tribune noted, "But for the advanced age of the prisoner, Judge Graham would doubtless have given him at least ten years, the maximum penalty in the case being twenty years. If Dr. Weightnovel should go to a convict camp, the first penalty inflicted upon him would doubtless be the removal of his flowing locks and profuse beard."

He appealed and was granted a new trial. One of the grounds was that Carl Christian's testimony regarding statements Irene had made to him were inadmissible because they were not made in Weightnovel's presence. The testimony of Mr. Middaugh that he had seen Weightnovel fanning himself in an easy chair while Irene was screaming in an adjoining room were found inadmissible because they were prejudicial.

Dr. Abernathy, who had been a key witness for the prosecution, died before a second trial could be held.


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