It was a suspected murder plot seemingly poured from the pen of Agatha Christie. And it happened in Andover a century ago, when nurse Bessie Mae Skeels stood accused of being a cold-blooded killer who poisoned her patient and four members of her own family.
An English immigrant, Skeels moved to Lawrence with her second husband in 1905. After his death, she supported herself by teaching elocution and calisthenics.
Shortly after moving to Andover, Skeels started a job as a day nurse inside the grand home at 35 School St. on Thanksgiving of 1916. After first assisting Rosamond Gay, a wealthy stroke victim confined to bed, Skeels nursed her daughter, Florence, who was feeble herself.
Misery had stalked Florence from an early age. Her mother and father, a landscape designer who developed a master plan for Abbot Academy, separated shortly after her birth. After she attended Smith College and briefly taught at Abbot Academy, maladies and melancholy eclipsed her intelligence and quiet wit.
Afflicted with ailments of both mind and body, she became a fragile, 90-pound recluse prone to crying jags.
The life steadily receded from Florence in the fall of 1917 until her death on Dec. 13 at the age of 43. While Dr. Charles Abbott listed the cause of death as a cerebral hemorrhage, Judge Jeremiah Mahoney, a neighbor of the Gays who noticed “queer doings” going on in the house, suspected something more sinister.
Skeels had notified the Andover police of robberies at the house several times, but officers never found signs of forced entry. They did, however, notice broken locks on chests and items missing.
At Mahoney’s suggestion, state police detective Richard Griffin visited the boarding house at 60 Chestnut St. where Skeels lived, accompanied by Edith Luce, Florence’s cousin.
Luce identified pillow slips, curtains, rugs, a piece of black lace and other family heirlooms in the nurse’s possession. Skeels insisted they had been gifts from the Gays.
At the request of District Attorney Henry G. Wells, spades once again turned the turf at Spring Grove Cemetery to exhume Florence’s body. A new autopsy determined she had died of “arsenical poisoning.”
Griffin paid a call to the nurse’s boarding house on May 7, 1918, to arrest her for stealing but instead let her go when she told him her brother had taken ill.
Traveling to Bayonne, New Jersey, to care for her brother, Skeels couldn’t nurse him back to health. He died on July 7, two days after their sister-in-law’s passing. Authorities noticed that the nurse’s parents had also been under her care when they passed in recent years.
Was it more than just a coincidence?
Skeels returned to Andover on Aug. 25 to finalize plans for her impending nuptials to Alfred Lundgren, who lived at 53 Whittier St., and worked at the S.K. Ames Butter Store.
The following day, however, Griffin returned to the nurse’s boarding house to arrest her for larceny. Having discovered that Skeels had purchased arsenical solutions in Andover and Bayonne, the detective warned that a murder charge would likely follow.
“My God, it can’t be possible!” exclaimed Skeels, who then went to her bathroom and put her mouth over the gas cock, presumably to kill herself.
Skeels spent her wedding day under police guard at Lawrence General Hospital. After being charged with murdering Florence Gay, Skeels was indicted in New Jersey for poisoning her brother when an autopsy revealed elevated lead levels.
More on the sensational murder trial that followed in the next column.
Andover resident Christopher Klein is the author of four books including "When the Irish Invaded Canada." More at www.christopherklein.com.