Nazareth Home Mercantile Store – c. early 1930s

Nazareth Home Mercantile Store - c. early 1930s

Arsenic used to sit on the same shelf with the flour at this store back in the 1930s. That took a lot of trust to say the least…

(Photo courtesy of Darryl Birkenfeld)

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The Devil’s Alphabet: A is for Arsenic

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The Devil’s Alphabet is a series of short articles, some scholarly and others tongue-in-cheek, offering a slightly darker perspective on the South Plains back in the Good Ol’Days. Grandma probably never told you about all the murders, suicides and unpleasant things…

A is for Arsenic

Arsenic was a common household poison found in many cupboards across the South Plains in the 1920s and 1930s. Not only was it cheap, but it also was quite effective for killing prairie dogs, grasshoppers and neighborhood pets. And as one family living outside of Spur discovered, it was also quite lethal when consumed by small children.1

A grasshopper plague put carloads of arsenic into the hands of desperate farmers. Throughout that long Old Testament summer of 1924 the region’s newspapers published helpful articles on how to make arsenic laced bran mashes to entice the grasshoppers to devour the poison with the same zeal they showed for vegetable gardens, feed crops and shade trees.2

The prevalent poison also found its way into biscuits and a Big Spring farmwoman’s family of five dined like grasshoppers. The accidental poisoning did not exterminate any of the hapless biscuit eaters, but it is doubtful that the survivors ever trusted their mother’s cooking again.3

As suggested by the poisoned toddler and nearly deadly biscuits, naturally, the household ubiquity of arsenic facilitated its use for nefarious purposes. The front page of the Lubbock Avalanche Journal for February 2, 1933 proclaimed “Rodent Poison Blamed for the Death of Man”.  The following paragraphs elaborated on the demise of seventy-year-old Emory M. Butler. According to his wife, sometime before noon on February 1 the Lubbock county rancher told his wife he planned to eat an entire box of rat poison. Unable to stop him on her own, the elderly woman sought help from a neighbor across the highway. It was too late. A local physician was called and Butler was sent to the Lubbock Sanitarium where he died later that night. The newspaper subtly points out that eleven months earlier Butler’s suicidal tendencies had prompted him to inhale a large quantity of chloroform before abruptly concluding with a brief assessment of his accomplishments, “At one time he was considered moderately wealthy, and at his death owned Lubbock county property.”4

While Mr. Butler’s rationale for taking his own life might have died with him, the 64th District Court conducted a rather extensive inquiry into the reasons why a Lamb County woman might poison her husband.  It appeared that the stage was set for a tantalizing tale of domestic poisoning, however, appearances are often deceiving.  Following the death of Tom Cook on 15 July 1934, the newly widowed Bera Cook told her neighbors that for the first time in years she “felt free”. The optimistic widow also stated that she planned to wait at least thirteen months before she remarried. The unnerving statements struck the neighbors as odd, yet were dismissed as more inappropriate than malicious.  Mr. Cook was quickly embalmed, buried and would have remained so had some of his relatives not raised their own concerns about their former in-law’s innocence.

The Lamb County sheriff gathered enough evidence to serve an arrest warrant before Christmas. Prior to arresting Mrs. Cook, authority’s disinterred Tom Cook’s body and medical experts found miniscule amounts of arsenic in the contents of the deceased stomach. A much more detailed examination by the state chemist in Austin confirmed that there were small amounts of arsenic, in addition to a larger quantity of strychnine. The presence of strychnine raised new questions about the partially empty bottle of poison found in the couple’s dresser drawer. Arsenic poisoning takes time, whereas strychnine kills quickly.  Since Mrs. Cook was the only person with her husband when he died, she found herself a prime suspect.

When her case came to trial, Mrs. Cook maintained her innocence arguing that she bought the poison for potato bugs and contended that Tom Cook consumed the poison on his own. Her defense was bolstered by testimony from others acquainted with her husband and a much darker portrait of the poisoning victim emerged. One of the witnesses reported that while driving him Lubbock about two weeks before his death, Cook had behaved irrationally, told the driver “turn the car over” at seventy miles an hour before explaining that he “wanted some dope” and “might as well kill himself” if unable to get any. The defense’s witnesses raised an important question for the jury, could Tom Cook’s drug addiction have led to his suicide?  However, there was still the issue of the Cook family suspicions and her nonchalance about becoming a widow. Other neighbors were called upon to help restore the wife’s creditability that the deceased family and sheriff’s office seemed to vehemently doubt.  Another neighbor was called to the witness stand and his testimony challenged the image of the calculating poisoner.  He reported that as he helped Mrs. Cook prepare the body she had not attempted to hide the bottle of poison and pointing to it said, “It looks like I’m losing everything I love.”5

At the conclusion of the trial, the defense attorney had worked his magic well enough to deadlock the jury. Unable to reach a verdict, the judge dismissed the hung jury and declared a mistrial. The new trial was to be scheduled for August, yet it never materialized. Most likely, enough evidence surfaced to enable the state to drop their charges against Bera Cook.

Arsenic poisoning could be accidental or intentional and, despite the Hollywood excitement of arsenic laced soups and custards, quite often, if intentional, it was suicide and not murder. However, the inherently intimate nature of a poisoning in the home does raise questions about the domestic climate. The original jury had been unable to determine if the death of Tom Cook was a drug addict’s suicide or wife’s opportunistic murder. Maybe they wanted a more exciting trial or perhaps they could see something in Mrs. Cook that newsprint could not grasp. Maybe Tom and Bera were just those kind of people…

Oddly, no one made any allegations against Lubbock County’s Mrs. Butler whose suicidal husband died intestate with an estate of over $35, 0000.

 

M.Nicholson-Preuss, Ph.D.

Notes:

1. Lubbock Avalanche, 1 September 1921.

2. Morning Avalanche, 6 June 1924.

3. Big Spring Herald, 9 January 1927.

4. Morning Avalanche, 2 February 1933.

5. Morning Avalanche, 8 March 1935.

6. Morning Avalanche, 10 March 1935.

Post Script:

On 17 August 1935, the following advertisement appeared in the Morning Avalanche:

Bera Cooke sells her house.

Bera Cooke sells her house.