Friday, October 13, 2023

October 13, 1838: The Doctor at the Boarding House

 Elizabeth "Eliza" Sowers was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1817. At the age of around 20, she moved in with the family of Mr. Nixon, superintendent of the paper mill where she was working on the banks of the Schuylkill river.

In 1837, Eliza began keeping company with a young man named Charles Cornman, who lived near Norristown. The couple planned to marry.

Then, in 1838, Eliza learned that she was pregnant.

A Philadelphia boarding house owner named Mary Kingsley reported that on October 4, 1838, a Dr. Henry Chauncey appeared at breakfast time. "He made me make some tea of a powder that looked like black pepper." The tea was given to 21-year-old Elizabeth "Eliza" Sowers, who until the previous May had been a worker at a paper mill in Manayunk, NJ. She'd been brought to the boarding house -- one of unsavory reputation -- by Chauncey the day before.

At around 2:00 the following morning, Eliza called to the boarding house owner. "She said she was very bad. She said, 'I won't take any more of that doctor's medicine; it will kill me.'"

Chauncey returned later, performing some sort of procedure upon Eliza with something "which shined and looked like a knitting needle," according to the owner of the boarding house. Chauncey said that Eliza was "the most difficult person he had ever operated on. Said the medicine he gave her was too powerful, and had acted too quick."

Eliza died on October 13, at around 2:30 in the afternoon, from the ministrations of Dr. Chauncey. Chauncey and Nixon arrived at Eliza's family home that evening to say that she had died of "impacted bowels." A second doctor, William Armstrong, had signed a death certificate to that effect.

Eliza's brother was having none of it. He demanded that Eliza's body be exhumed and examined, revealing the real cause of her death.

The three men went to trial using a defense based on attacking the reputations of Eliza, her family, her fiancé, and the woman who ran the boarding house. Armstrong and Nixon won acquittals, and Chancey was convicted only of malpractice, not the double murder of Eliza and her unborn baby.

Testimony of Susan Sowers, given Tuesday morning, January 8, 1839: Eliza had moved in with the Nixons about the middle of May. While living there she helped Mrs. Nixon with the housework. Prior to that she had lived at Mr. Buddy's for about two weeks. Prior to that she worked at the Exstein's Paper Mill,, where Nixon was superintendent. She went back to live with her mother and sister for a few weeks in Manayunk, then left home on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 3, looking "well and hearty." She brought with her 2 dresses, 2 petticoats, a pair of corsets, 2 chemises, 3 pair of stockings, a merino handkerchief and a merino shawl, together with 20 dollars of her own money, 5 dollars that my sister Catharine sent with her, and a dollar which Mrs. Buddy sent with her."

"She said she was going to the city to see Miss Lafferty and Mrs. Drake's family. I first heard of her death on the 13th of October, on a Saturday night; between the time she left home and the time she died, we had heard nothing of her. At that time I was not at home, but at Mr. Rambo's. 

On Saturday night, about candle light, Mr. Nixon came to tell me of her death. He came in and said, "Susan! I want to see you." 

I said, "What do you want me for, Nixon?"

He told me to come and see. 

When we got out of the house he didn't speak for about 3 minutes. "Susan," says he, "there is sad news for you."

Says I, "What in the world is it, Nixon?" 

He said Eliza was dead. 

"Oh!," says I, "Nixon, it' can't be. Where is she?"

He said, "She is in town."

N: Eliza has not been regular for some time. I expect that was the cause of her death.

S: That can't be the cause of her death.

Nixon introduced Susan to Dr. Chauncey, who shook hands with her and said he was there to inform her of Eliza's death.

S: Oh, doctor! Is it true that she is dead?

C: Yes, she is dead.

Susan asked where Eliza was, and Chauncy said that she was at his house. 

S: Is anything done? Is she laid out?

C said no, he left her as she died. She had come to his house on Friday, saying she was on her way home from visiting friends. He said that she was unwell so he advised her to stay the night. That night at around 7:00 she was taken ill with severe pain in her bowels. He sat up with her all night and never left her until her death at around 4 am. She had died, Chauncey said, of inflammation of the bowels.

S: Oh, doctor! If I could only have got to see her before she died."

C said that only due to Nixon did he know where to go to notify the family. Before she died, Chauncy said, Eliza said that she wanted to see her mother, brothers and sisters. Chauncy told Susan that she had lost a fine and beautiful sister, then began crying. He said that he had done all in his power to save her, even calling in Dr. Armstrong, a "first rate doctor in the city" "for fear there would be some hard thoughts." 

Susan asked about Eliza's possessions. Chauncy said that he hadn't had anything with her, just about $15 in cash.

Mr. Nixon and Mr. Buddy brought Eliza's body to the family home. Susan found it odd that Eliza was wearing her white stockings and a chemise but was otherwise just wrapped in a coarse sheet. The clothing that Chauncy sent with Eliza's body -- two dresses, a pair of stockings, a chemise, and a petticoat -- weren't Eliza's. The stockings had blood on them. Eliza's money was missing.

Nixon came to the house on Sunday morning, asking about funeral arrangements. 

Eliza was buried at 10:00 the morning of Monday, October 15.

That evening, Nixon came to the house to speak to Susan. Nixon told Susan that he had recommended that Dr. Chauncy to Eliza. Susan summoned her brother, Isaac. They had a vague conversation with Nixon. Nixon gave Susan ten dollars.

Early Wednesday morning Nixon returned to the house


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