Many crime drama television shows use the “ripped from today’s headlines” motif to develop new episodes. But perhaps TV writers might do well to spend a little more time in their local libraries looking at old newspapers, because old crime stories make for just as compelling drama.
Take, for example, the odd case of Marion Lambert’s death from poison. Will Orpet’s 1916 trial for her murder has something useful for any of the top shows in the genre.
Marion Lambert’s case continues to fascinate because there are still so many unanswered questions surrounding it. The jury rendered its verdict which ended the justice system’s interest in the case; but (spoiler alert) simply acquitting Orpet of the crime does not resolve the question of just how did the young lady come to die of cyanide poisoning?
The easy answer is that she killed herself, but there is scant evidence to support that theory. Alternatively, one could assume that the jury just got it wrong and that Will Orpet did kill his ex-girlfriend. There is circumstantial evidence bolstering the prosecution’s theory of the crime, but most of that can be explained away.
The problem so vexed one of the defense experts that he spent another four decades trying to come up with a reasonable explanation of how Marion’s life ended. He did, but even Dr. Otto Eisenschiml’s theory has some holes.
In all likelihood we’ll just never know what really happened in that snowy wood in a Chicago suburb in 1916.
Marion and Will were not children of privilege although they lived among the glamorous estates of the well-to-do of Chicago that stretched along the shore of Lake Michigan. Marion’s father was the superintendent of the Kuppenheimer family estate, while Will’s father oversaw the vacation property of Cyrus McCormick.
They met in the summer of 1915 when Will returned from his sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin to summer with his family. Marion was a 17-year-old schoolgirl who had just completed her junior year at the time and to call her innocent would be a monumental understatement — part of the situation that led to her death was that she believed she had become pregnant after a bit of above-the-waist heavy petting with the older college boy. Her autopsy revealed that not only was she not pregnant, she was very likely a virgin when she died.
She was described as a pretty, brown-haired girl who was generally happy, level-headed, and (despite her ignorance of human biology) not given to hysterics. One friend described her as often being “the life of the party.”
At the outset of the trial, the press was less favorable to Will Orpet. A New York Times reporter who covered his trial described him as “a palid, slender youth…of sharply regular features, somewhat vain of his college opportunities and undisciplined as to character.”
Wire service reporter Honor Fanning was even more brusque: “A girlish, brown-haired boy is on trial here, charged with murdering his sweetheart. Weak-chinned, delicate, violet-eyed, red-lipped, he surprises everybody by the contrast between his fragile appearance and his strong composure.”
Will and Marion saw much of each other that summer and communicated frequently by mail. He did not save her letters, but she preserved his. They revealed a young man head-over-heels in love — or at least one who played the role to get a little action from a naive high school girl.
When the summer fling ended and Will returned to Madison, the letters continued and it was in the course of this fall correspondence that Marion apparently revealed to Will her belief that she was pregnant. In response to this announcement, rather than explain the facts of life to her, Will sent her a jar of watered-down blackstrap molasses, telling her it would induce an abortion.
The concoction apparently served its purpose — it is not an abortifacient — and the relationship between the two young lovers returned to normal.
Sometime in January 1916 a rumor reached Marion that Will was engaged to be married. In response, Marion once again claimed to be pregnant and demanded that Will come back to Lake Forest to discuss the situation face to face.
Will’s actions before leaving Madison to meet Marion on February 9, 1916 were highly suspicious. He admitted that he took steps to establish an alibi that he was in Madison that day, but claimed it was because he was afraid that if he was seen in Lake Forest word would reach Marion’s parents and his own, who all had reasons for not wanting him there. Marion’s parents objected to the attention the college boy was paying to their young daughter and Will’s parents expected him to “remain faithful to his college duties in Madison.”
To rebut any potential sightings, Will wrote three letters — to Marion, his mother, and Marion’s friend Josephine Davis — post-dated for February 9. On February 8, he gave the letters to a friend, Otto Peterson, to mail on February 9, and headed back to Lake Forest.
Will carried with him another bottle of molasses and, by way of Milwaukee, returned to the McCormick estate where his parents were living. In Milwaukee he telephoned Marion and arranged to meet her the next morning in Helm Woods, a remote location on her way to school. Will arrived in Lake Forest in the evening and spent a cold night hiding in a garage on the McCormick estate.
His choice of sleeping quarters would come back to haunt him after he was arrested for Marion’s murder — stored in the garage were gardening supplies used on the estate, including cyanide of sodium, a potentially fatal poison, although much less lethal than potassium cyanide.
The next morning he met Marion and they walked through the snow into the woods. According to Will, they talked very little and the subject was the future of the relationship. Will testified at his trial that he told Marion there was little point in their continuing to correspond, and that he offered her the molasses “medicine” which she refused to take.
Marion apparently became enraged with Will’s rejection and demanded that he marry her because of her perceived pregnancy. At his trial Will avowed that he had never had intercourse with Marion, and the defense was able to elicit testimony from Marion’s friends that she had confided with them that she was not with child.
The couple argued, Will testified, for nearly two hours. In the end Will turned to leave and turned when he heard her cry out in pain.
“Something made me look around, I don’t know what, and I saw Marion lying on the ground,” he testified. “I returned, knelt over her for maybe a minute. I noticed the moist powder in her hands. Her eyes were glazed.
“Then a kind of fog entered my brain,” he continued. “I don’t remember much after that except that upon reaching the road I threw away the ‘medicine,’ made my way on foot to Highland Park, caught a train and that evening arrived back at Madison.”
When Marion failed to return home that evening, her parents called the school and were told that the girl had not been in class all day. They began a frantic search, but cold and darkness forced them to call it off for the day.
Searchers were fortunate that the night had been a calm one, with no wind. The next morning Marion’s father and a neighbor picked up her footprints leading away from a trolley station into the woods.
At a large oak tree about 100 yards into the woods, Marion’s footprints were joined by a man’s. The tracks indicated that the couple stopped once to talk and another time to rest on a log. The searchers followed the meandering trail until they found Marion’s body.
According to testimony at the trial, Marion Lambert’s frozen body lay curled in the snow; her head rested on her left hand “as though she were asleep,” and she still held her schoolbooks.
There was no sign of struggle and Marion’s clothes were undisturbed.
The man’s footprints revealed what his last actions had been: they led about 10 yards away from the body, then returned to it, and finally, the man had run away toward a nearby highway. It was clear that the man fled quickly based on the length of his stride.
The medical examiner discovered a bloody froth on Marion’s lips, and in the palm of her hand there were traces of white powder, which was quickly identified as potassium cyanide.
The cause of death had been identified as poisoning, but the manner of Marion’s death remained a mystery. There was no known reason to support a finding of suicide because Marion was known to a very happy girl, described as “lighthearted and carefree.” Her teachers said she was a “model student.”
Homicide was equally unsupported. She had not been sexually molested, nor had she been robbed. She had apparently gone willingly into the woods with the unknown companion.
Police knew that her companion was the key to the mystery so they began searching for him. They only person who fit the bill was Will Orpet.
Will was contacted and expressed shock and dismay at Marion’s death. He was very sorry to hear of it, but told police he had no idea why she might want to commit suicide or be in a place to be murdered.
He explained to them that he had not left Madison in the last month, and his landlady told authorities that it was apparent that he had spent the night of February 8 in his bed.
However, Will did not know that one of Marion’s closest friends had spent the night with Marion on February 8 and that Marion had confided in her that she had received a call from Will at the Lake Forest train station to meet her the next day. Will then admitted calling Marion, but said he had done so from Madison, not Lake Forest.
This was easily checked and when police learned that no calls had been placed from Madison to Lake Forest on that night, Will Orpet broke down and confessed to having been with Marion when she died.
The investigation uncovered the fact that Will had access to cyanide in the garage where he spent the night. It looked extremely bleak for Will when police located a witness who volunteered the information that he had seen Marion and a man walking through the woods on the day she died and that the man had pressed a bottle to the girl’s lips and that the witness then saw her collapse.
When the autopsy revealed that Marion was not pregnant, the possibility of suicide became even more remote. The theory of suicide was rejected when Marion’s friends told investigators that she knew she was not pregnant. Since she was not with child she had no real reason to kill herself when he refused to marry her.
A week after Marion’s body was discovered, Will Orpet was charged with her murder.
The case was widely publicized and when Will went on trial in May, the court had to sift through 1,135 potential veniremen before it found a jury that could be objective in hearing the case.
The general feeling before the opening statements at Will’s trial was overwhelmingly against him, as can be seen in the way he was portrayed in the press: from “a palid, slender youth…of sharply regular features, somewhat vain of his college opportunities and undisciplined as to character” to “a girlish, brown-haired boy…Weak-chinned, delicate, violet-eyed, red-lipped…”
The state opened its case with prosecutor David Joslyn explaining to the jury its theory of the crime.
Will Orpet, wanting to be rid of Marion because of his interest in another woman, used the opportunity of her perceived pregnancy to poison her with cyanide, disguised as an abortifacient.
Joslyn backed up this theory with the circumstantial evidence that Will attempted to establish an alibi placing himself in Madison on February 9 by writing post-dated letters and messing up his bedclothes and lied repeatedly to police when questioned about his whereabouts on the day Marion died.
He pointed out that there was cyanide in the greenhouse where Will spent the night of February 8, and that no container was found near Marion’s body, as one would expect if she had killed herself.
“He took (the poison) into Helm’s Woods with him and administered it to Marion Lambert in liquid form,” Joslyn said. “You can’t swallow a dry powder, especially when death from the fumes comes so quickly as to preclude the act of swallowing.”
Joslyn pictured Marion as a girl “of considerable natural beauty, intelligence, with a disposition whose chief characteristic was unvarying cheerfulness, great modesty, a love of the society of her girl friends, furnishing the life and spirit of each special gathering, entertaining her girl friends at her home constantly, and frequently spending the night with some girl chum.”
Up to the time of her death, he said, she betrayed no thought of death.
The defense countered Joslyn’s picture of Marion as a naive waif in an effort to play up the suicide alternative.
“While the external appearance might have been that of a light hearted girl, while she kept from her parents what she was really doing and what she really thought, the evidence will demonstrate that in the very nature of things she could not have been during the months prior to her death a happy, joyful girl,” responded James Wilkerson, Will’s chief defense counsel. “She carried on a clandestine love affair with young man, which had culminated in anillicit liaison. She was not ‘a mere girl.’”
Wilkerson went on in his opening statement to point out the chief problem with the state’s case: “The evidence will show that there was nothing in what the defendant said or did at his meeting with Marion Lambert on February 9, which indicates that he had the slightest intention of giving her any poison.”
The prosecution and defense agreed that the key to the mystery was whether Marion died by ingesting liquid or crystalline cyanide. If she took cyanide in liquid form, then it was likely that Will gave it to her with the obvious intent that she be killed. If the cyanide was administered in solid form, then most likely Marion had taken it herself.
The defense pointed out that cyanide powder was found in the folds of Marion’s hand, while the prosecution put forward the evidence of several round drops of liquid cyanide found on Marion’s coat. Those drops, Joslyn alleged, were caused when the liquid dripped from the bottle as Marion put it to her lips.
However, the defense was able to establish that drops of cyanide that fell when Marion was standing did not fall in perfect circles, but in teardrop shapes. No matter, the prosecution countered, the drops could have come straight down as Will picked up the bottle of cyanide from beside Marion’s fallen body.
Essentially the testimony came down to deciding which set of chemists to believe — the state’s experts or those representing Will Orpet.
Dr. Ralph W. Webster and Dr. William J. McNally testified for the state that Marion died of liquid cyanide of potassium, and that the spots on her coat were left by drops of the solution.
The prosecution was hampered by the unwillingness of certain witnesses — friends of Will Orpet’s — to testify against him. They were unable to convince Otto Peterson to cross the state line from Wisconsin to tell the jury how he mailed the alibi letters for Will, or his friend from the drug store who sold him the bottle that he used to carry the molasses concoction.
Three defense chemists testified that the poison was taken in powder form and that the cyanide in the greenhouse was not cyanide of potassium at all, but cyanide of sodium, with only a faint trace of potassium.
The greenhouse cyanide ceased to be the prosecution’s murder weapon when the autopsy results were interpreted by the chemists. In order to ingest the fatal dose of cyanide in Marion’s body she would have had to have drunk a quart of the sodium cyanide found in the greenhouse.
The case against Will Orpet fell apart when the defense was able to put two people on the stand who swore that Marion had access to potassium cyanide through her chemistry class, and in fact, the class was working with cyanide in the days before her death. One of the witnesses was Marion’s chemistry instructor who told jurors that he had found her in the laboratory outside class hours — a breach of school regulations.
The implication, correct or not, was that Marion was suicidal and clearly had access to the means of her death.
Dr. McNally sealed the deal when he demanded to be called as a defense witness and testified that further tests on his part determined that the round cyanide stains could not have been made at the time of Marion’s death because of how the poison breaks down when exposed to air. He hinted, but did not overtly state, that the drops were added post-mortem by the prosecution.
The jury deliberated for five hours and took three ballots to acquit Will Orpet. At no point did more than one juror vote in favor of his guilt.
Which leaves us with the question of how Marion Lambert really died. It is not likely that Will Orpet killed her, and despite the defense’s assertion that she was suicidal over the possible loss of her lover, there is scant evidence that she was the kind of girl to kill herself over such a trifle as a summer fling gone bad.
The best solution is the one put forward by Dr. Otto Eisenschimml, one of the defense expert witnesses. Eisenschimml was convinced of Orpet’s innocence, but vexed by the unanswered questions in the case. It took him 40 years to come up with his solution.
In the first place, Marion didn’t commit suicide. In my reexamination of the case, I talked to almost every person still living who had been associated with the girl — her friends, classmates, teachers — and each of them were of this opinion. Marion was an impetuous girl, and given to dramatic acts, but she never was despondent or showed any suicidal tendencies.
Here’s how I theorize the case: Marion desperately wanted Orpet to become engaged to her, even though she knew she wasn’t pregnant. So she decided to try as a last resort to frighten him into accepting her. She obtained a small quantity of potassium cyanide from the school laboratory and took it with her when she went to meet the youth in the woods that day. After Orpet refused to listen to all her pleas, she made her final dramatic effort. She took out the poison and told. him, “If you don’t marry me, I’ll kill myself.” But he just laughed and walked away. So the girl — not realizing the terrible killing power of cyanide — tried to frighten him by taking a slight taste of the poison. It killed her within seconds. She was dead even before she could spit out the powder. If this isn’t how Marion Lambert died, how did she?