A Sin of Passion

Clarance Richeson

But this had been a sin of passion, not of principle, nor even purpose.
~Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter.

The Rev. Clarence Virgil Thompson Richeson was sorely tempted by the sins of the flesh and paid the ultimate earthly price for his weakness.
In 1911, the 35-year-old Richeson was betrothed to a wealthy heiress and daughter of a Boston Brahmin when he had the misfortune of impregnating one of his conquests, an 18-year-old choir singer named Avis Linnell. As a result of the difficult position he found himself in, like so many others, Richeson chose murder as the solution to his problems.
For years Richeson, quite the rake, had managed to avoid paying any serious costs for his many affairs of the heart and other human failings. There were some consequences, it is true, but the minister always seemed to land on his feet somewhere.
Born in Rose Hill, Virginia, Richeson eventually found himself at the William Jewell College outside Kansas City, Missouri.
n.b. One of Richeson’s classmates at Jewell was Dr. Bennett C. Hyde, accused murderer of Col. Thomas Swope.
There he became engaged to the daughter of a professor. Up until the announcement appeared in the Boston newspapers of Richeson’s engagement to Violet Edmands, the Missouri woman considered herself Richeson’s fiancee. She wasn’t alone.
Expelled from Jewell College for cheating on exams shortly after he was ordained as a Baptist minister, Richeson worked as a streetcar conductor and served as a fill-in minister around Kansas City. Eventually he found a position at the Budd Park Baptist Church. While serving there he became involved with a widow who was not a member of his congregation. One Sunday she reportedly showed up while he was preaching, prompting him to faint while at the pulpit. At another church three young ladies stood up at a service and each asked the minister if he planned to follow through on a promise to marry her. Richeson’s fiery sermon that day had been about how mothers had a responsibility to keep close tabs on their daughters to avoid sin.
After the service he fled town, never to return.
In 1906 Richeson appeared at Newton Theological Seminary near Boston, receiving his degree in 1909. While at Newton, he was held in comtempt by many of his classmates and instructors.
“The politeness of a polished Southerner and the natural conceit of a handsome man are the main characteristics of the Rev. Mister Richeson,” said the Rev. Nathan Wood, a classmate. “He went out of his way to be courteous and I often thought that those who did not know him would likely believe him to be insincere.”
Richeson was called to a congregation in Hyannis, Mass., where he met and romanced Avis Linnell whom he baptised and induced to join the choir. Shortly after they met, Avis began wearing a diamond ring and was telling her friends that she was engaged to the minister.
Within a year of taking charge of the Hyannis congregation, Richeson was involved in a conflict with his deacons. The church elders considered him impetuous and disapproved of his coarse language. There was also a problem with a missing $50 that had been left by a parishioner in the minister’s study. Richeson claimed to have been robbed, but shortly after the theft, the deacons learned that he had sent a $50 money order to a woman friend in Salt Lake City.
A man who would never drown because he was born to hang, Richeson soon ended up better off than he was in Hyannis.
He accepted a call to a Cambridge congregation, receiving a significant increase in his annual salary (from $300 in Hyannis to $2,100 in Cambridge. Before leaving Hyannis, he told friends that it was his intention to remain in Cambridge only a short time, to marry Avis, and to leave the country to serve as a missionary in China. All of this was a flat-out lie. For a man like Richeson, Cambridge, the haunt of Puritans like Increase Mather, was an ideal hunting ground for a man who wanted the best and worst in life.
Richeson convinced Avis to accompany him to Boston to study music at a conservatory there. It would be important that a minister’s wife be schooled in music, he said. In Boston Avis lived alone at the YWCA.
The Immanuel Baptist Church in Cambridge was frequented by some of the city’s wealthiest and most powerful families, including that of Moses G. Edmands, whose daughter, Violet, soon caught Richeson’s eye. He began juggling his time between the two young ladies.
As his relationship with Violet became more serious, Richeson moved to distance himself from Avis. Using the excuse that the diamond in her ring was loose, he took the engagement ring from her “to be repaired.” She never received it back.
In October 1911, an announcement appeared in the Boston papers that the Rev. Richeson and Miss Violet Edmands were engaged. When Avis learned of this she collapsed into tears, only to recover when Richeson assured her and her family that the item was gossip that had been printed by mistake.
The engagement was no mistake, however. Invitations had been mailed for a late October wedding.
Richeson’s schemes collapsed shortly after the engagement was announced when Avis revealed that she was pregnant. The minister knew that there was no way he would be able to talk his way out of this dilemma and began to take steps to remedy the situation.
“How long ago he learned of the girl’s condition can never be known, for the girl did not even take her mother into her confidence,” said Chief Inspector Joseph Dugan, who headed the investigation into Avis’s death. “But we do know that when the formal invitations to his marriage of Miss Edmands were sent out…Miss Linnell’s condition was desperate.”
On Friday, October 13, Richeson appeared at the drug store of William Hahn in Newton and made a strange request. Mentioning that he had a pregnant dog, Richeson reportedly told Hahn “I want a poison that will kill the puppies without killing the dog.” Hahn assured him that no such poison existed, so Richeson asked for potassium cyanide to kill the dog.
The next day, Richeson met with Avis and gave her a vial of medicine that he said would cause an abortion. In fact, the vial contained enough poison to kill 10 people. Richeson banked on the plan that Avis’s friends would assume that she committed suicide after learning her beloved minister had become engaged to another woman.
What his plan did not include was the likelihood of an autopsy which would not only reveal the presence of poison, it would show Avis was with child. More importantly, he did not count on was that Avis would tell her friends at the YWCA that she had had lunch with the minister and that he had given her some “headache medicine.”
Around 11 p.m. October 14, Avis retired to the bathroom of the YWCA and swallowed the vial of potassium cyanide, probably expecting that it would cause a spontaneous abortion. Instead, she began gasping for air and was discovered nearly dead by her housemates. She died that night.
When the autopsy revealed that she was pregnant and that she had taken a large dose of cyanide, police for several hours believed that she had killed herself. She was subsequently buried in the gown she made for her wedding.
Within a day or so they became suspicious of Richeson because of his behavior. One of Avis’s friends called him to let him know that Avis had died and he first denied even knowing her, then asked “why did you phone me? Tell her parents.”
At the same time that the druggist Hahn was telling police that he sold cyanide to Richeson, the minister fled his lodgings and took refuge at the Edmands home. Both Moses Edmands and his daughter expressed their support for Richeson to police who desperately wanted to speak to the preacher.
After a day-long stand-off, Richeson finally agreed to accompany police downtown and he was arrested for Avis’s murder. Although the Edmands family continued to support Richeson, paying for special meals to be sent to him in jail and for his attorney, it became clear that the October 31 wedding would have to be postponed. Violet Edmands fled Cambridge for parts unknown while her family began returning the gifts that were being delivered.
Asserting his innocence, Richeson resigned his pastorship in November, shortly after he was indicted by a special grand jury. The indictment was handed down almost to the minute that his wedding to Violet was to begin. The matter was set for trial in January 1912.
On December 20, 1911, Richeson mutilated his genitals using a piece of tin he managed to secret in his cell. Although the injuries were not life-threatening, doctors were not able to save his penis and finished the job he had started. It was unclear whether Richeson intended to commit suicide or was simply punishing himself for his sins.
Two weeks before he was to stand trial, “under the lashings of remorse,” as he called it, Richeson stood before the court and admitted that he deliberately intended to kill Avis.
There was but one penalty for his crime and Richeson was sentenced to die in the Massachusetts electric chair.
On May 21, 1912, 1,900 volts of electricity surged through Richeson’s body as he sat in the chair. He amazed the witnesses to the execution by demonstrating the “real spirit of manhood when death looms,” according to one account.
“It was surely a revelation of God’s power which was granted, because Richeson died a far better man than he ever lived,” said the prison chaplin.
Violet Edmands never married after the scandal. She left the rarefied Boston lifestyle and devoted her life to social service and missionary work, spending time in Japan until the memories of the Avis Linnell murder faded from the public memory. She died in 1939.