The Nolan Family immigrated from Ireland and settled in Stillwater, Ballston, and after the Civil War, in Waterford, all in Saratoga County. The Nolan’s were a large family, a good many had served in the war, and most enlisted for the rewards of the bounty paid to the volunteers.
Michael Nolan, the father of the Nolan girls, had enlisted in the storied 77th Infantry Regiment based out of Saratoga. The 77th fought in many of the war’s epic battles. Michael had enlisted for three years and served out his full term. Prior to the war he resided in Stillwater and was employed as a farm laborer.
After the war, by the time of the 1880 Census, now 38, he was in Waterford employed as a machinist. He and his wife Ellen, 36, raised a family of 5, 4 girls and 1 boy. As the 1890s approached things looked well for the family. Two decades had passed and 3 of the children were now old enough to have taken jobs in the many mills in Waterford. All appeared to be well in the family.
Ella, the oldest daughter, now 21, and second daughter Catherine, at age 19 are employed. The only son, John, now 17 joined them at the mill. Their social activities appeared to change. Ella, it seems was unaffected. Catherine is engaged to be married, but her intended announces he will not marry her while her mother is alive. John has fallen in with a drinking group and developed a love for whiskey. It is now 1893. Up to this time, all signs point to a late 19th-century lifestyle running a natural course. Soon things would change.
On October 23rd, 1893, Michael, age 51 suddenly died. Twenty days later, on November 12, his wife Ellen suffered the same fate. Ella Nolan, the oldest sister also died around the same time. An unexplained exposure to embalming liquid is thought to be the cause of these deaths. Three in an eight-month period. Michael had a $1,000 installment life insurance policy and other properties. By mid-February 1894, Catherine filed the paperwork to administer her father’s estate after he died intestate. With the recent events, she was now the senior Nolan.
John’s attraction to whiskey had become a problem and he was frequently jailed as a result. In one case, he was arrested for abusing a horse of a Waterford liveryman and placed in the Ballston jail. He was there three days before he was deemed sober enough to stand before the judge. Younger sister Mary, 16, was placed in the County Poor House along with her unnamed, 10-week old child, born out of wedlock. John’s activities, the youngest sister, Mary’s illegitimate birth, and the three recent family members’ deaths, certainly demonstrate a family in turmoil.
On June 8th, 1894, only brother John died. He became ill after dinner and died after several days. Dr. Roland Stubbs, the Waterford Coroner, suspicious of all the recent deaths, was able to force himself into the Nolan house and assemble a Coroner’s Jury. Various poisons were found in the family home. Catherine and Elizabeth stated that the house had a severe rat, mouse, and bed bug infestation, thus the need for the assortment of poisons in the home
Collected evidence was sent to Professor Perkins, a Union College chemist, and the presence of arsenic was confirmed. It also came to light that all family members were insured, the others for lesser amounts than the father. Subsequently, sisters, Catherine and Elizabeth were charged with John’s murder and placed in the county jail to stand trial for the death of their brother.
News of this event spread quickly, not only locally, but throughout the country. “Pretty and Perhaps Poisonous” read one headline. “Poisoned for Money, Two Sister Indicted,” read another. Saratoga County and Ballston Spa were bracing for what still another paper referred to as “The Famous Waterford Poisoning Case.”
Calvin E. Keach of Lansingburgh and Irving W. Wiswall of Ballston Spa took on the defense of the Nolan girls. Calvin Keach was awarded by a court order an allowance of $100 to hire an expert on poisons. The prosecution team consisted of Saratoga County District Attorney John Persons assisted by ex-judge Jesse S. Lamoreaux, Horace McKnight, and Charles R. Capp. It should be noted here that the actual trial began on April 24, 1895 and a verdict was reached on April 29th, 1895. Five months later on September 21st, 1895, DA Persons was discovered unexpectedly dead in his doctor’s barn, reportedly of heart failure at age 33.
Due to widespread interest in the case, the courtroom and even the area around the courthouse were packed with curious onlookers each day. The girls were tried separately with Catherine, the eldest, tried first. She appeared in court in mourning clothes and shielded her face with a fan. Mrs. McQuirk, a reporter from the New York World, provided her with the loan of the fan reported to have been used by Lizzie Borden at her trial (Borden was acquitted).
On July 11, 1894, both Catherine and Elizabeth Nolan were placed in the Ballston Jail accused of poisoning their brother John. In April 1895 jury selection was about to begin for the trial of Catherine. The two girls had been incarcerated for well over 200 days. Jury selection took over 3 days and played to a packed house. On April 24, the actual trial began.
The press was focused on the accused. A reporter from The Albany Argus refers to it as the “Famous Waterford Poisoning Case” and described Catherine as follows. “She was becomingly attired in black and was apparently in good health and spirits. She is not a prepossessing young woman, although not by any means ugly. She has a shrewd, but not very intelligent face frequently covered by her fan, with nothing very criminal about it, and the ordinary observer could not believe that she could perpetuate the foul crime laid at her door. She heard the charges read against her and showed no emotion.”
The Prosecution claimed that the poison was given to John in a cup of tea. Catherine had told the Coroner’s Inquest that she later had drunk from that same cup, without washing it, and had suffered no ill effects. The defense claimed that if the prosecution cannot prove that the motive of the crime was to collect on the insurance, there is no case.
Many witnesses and experts were called to testify. The insurance agent testified to the innocence and legitimacy of the insurance policies and that all family members were in attendance at the time of purchase. The Coroner and Professor Perkins presented their findings on the presence of arsenic in John’s body. Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence was provided by the local druggist John Cole, who testified that two days before the poisoning he had sold arsenic to Catherine Nolan.
The defense later had John H. Pynes sworn and report that he was a mill owner and had in his employ both Catherine and John Nolan of Waterford. Catherine was subject to fits and had experienced several at work. He further reported that there were two Catherine Nolan’s who lived in Waterford and both worked in his mill. The other Catherine had red hair. John Cole, the druggist, was recalled and asked if the Catherine he sold arsenic to had red hair? He said she did not.
Almost two days of the trial were taken up in courtroom experiments by chemists for both prosecution and defense on the properties of arsenic, tea, sugar, and milk and how each would react and appear when heated and stirred or unstirred. This was a tedious demonstration and the results were inconclusive.
After summation and closing arguments, the case went to the jury. The time was noted at 12:09. The Nolan’s were originally from Ballston Spa and many, including the recently deceased, were interred there in St. Paul’s Cemetery. Most of the crowd had not left the courthouse when about 12:20, someone allegedly shouted, “Good Heavens, here comes the jury!”
They returned with a full acquittal for both girls, even though Catherine was the only one on trial. After the jury was polled and all answered for acquittal, confusion reigned in the courtroom. It had been packed each day of the trial and the streets were packed as well. Elizabeth was escorted in from jail to be released, the many women in attendance were elated, there were cheers in the street, and the court was never formally adjourned.
Adding to the confusion, Isaac Groff of Saratoga Springs, the jury foreman, approached the bench and commandeered the gavel. Gaining attention, he announced “These poor girls have been in jail for ten months, they have neither money nor property to commence life with again.” He thought it only right that all in attendance should give money to assist the girls. Inside and out of the courtroom hats were passed. A good many dollars and many coins were placed into the hats and presented to the girls.
The New York World Reporter, Mrs. McQuirk, was at Catherine’s side to calm her in the courtroom and cure her of her sobs and tears. She had watched the case with intense excitement. She returned to her own chair and sobbed uncontrollably.
At the conclusion of the trial, the Nolan girls moved into their attorney Keatch’s residence in Lansingburgh, vowing that they would never return to Waterford again.
Illustration: Catherine and Elizabeth Nolan on trial courtesy New York World, April 24, 1895.
Russ VanDervoort is the Waterford Town Historian and leader of the Waterford Canal and Towpath Society.