Strange Bedfellows

When Mary Frances Creighton died in Sing Sing’s electric chair in 1936, executions of women were fairly unusual. But Creighton’s execution was even stranger than most — she was unconscious when she was placed in the chair, having fainted from terror about a half-hour earlier.
Eight days before her date with the executioner, Mary Frances became literally paralyzed with fear requiring a wheelchair to move her, regardless.
Unconscious, she was wheeled into the death chamber in a wheelchair after which a crew of guards hefted her large, inert body into the chair and attached the electrodes. Witnesses confirmed that she was out cold and not already dead when the 2,000-volt current raced through her body.
Whatever last words she might have shared before she fainted were never published.
Half an hour after Mary was executed, her partner in crime, Everett Applegate, sat down in the chair, proclaimed his innocence, prayed for his prosecutor, and died.
Mary Creighton and Everett Applegate were executed for the 1935 murder of Applegate’s 220-pound wife, Ada; each had an independent reason to want her out of the way.
ruthmarycreightonTheir strange saga begins in 1934 when the Applegate family, Everett, Ada, and their 12-year-old daughter, moved in with the Creightons in an effort to save money during the Depression. Applegate and John Creighton, both veterans, knew each other through their work with the American Legion.
The two families shared a cramped, four-room bungalow in Mineola, New York, and the close quarters quickly gave rise to problems.
“Uncle Everett” became enamored with the Creighton’s pretty 14-year-old daughter, Ruth, and the 36-year-old federal employee seduced the girl in the lighting booth at her school during a play rehearsal. Ruth later told her mother that “she became a bad girl” that night. Mary Creighton did nothing about the statutory rape.
Over the next several months Applegate continued to rape a compliant Ruth, with Ruth even sharing the bed with Applegate and his wife. Both she and Applegate admitted that they engaged in intercourse several times beside the (apparently) sleeping Ada Applegate.
Although he was no longer intimate with his heavy-set wife, Applegate was not lacking for lovers. In addition to his relationship with Ruth, he was also sexually involved with Mary.
everettapplegateWhether or not Ada Applegate or John Creighton knew of these affairs remains in dispute.
Sometime in the summer of 1935 it was decided that Ada was in the way. Just who decided this and who agreed to kill her also remains in dispute. At trial, the prosecution argued that Mary wanted Everett to marry Ruth and that Everett, who was more than happy to take on an attractive, innocent girl half his age, wanted Ada out of the way.
In addition, Mary, who had something of a dark past, was concerned that Ada, a gossip, was going to reveal her secret to her neighbors.
One thing that isn’t disputed is that Mary Creighton was not afraid to use poison to take care of problems. In 1923 she and her husband stood trial for the murder of her mother-in-law. There was no doubt that John’s mother had been subjected to massive doses of arsenic from rat poison but the jury was unable to establish that it was Mary or John who provided the fatal doses.
Mary’s 18-year-old brother, a sufferer of consumption, also died from a dose of rat poison. She was acquitted of that crime, as well.
Ada became ill in late August with gastrointestinal problems and was hospitalized for more than a week, where she recovered.
In September 1935, shortly after she recovered, Ada was given an egg nog prepared by Mary. Within hours she was dead. Because of her size (at the time she had been taking weight-loss pills containing amphetamines and had dropped from 260 pounds to 220), the initial assumption was that she had died from heart problems.
It was at this point that an amateur detective named John Schlembach became involved in the case. Schlembach, who had taken the civil service exam to become a police officer, was working as a bakery delivery driver. The Creighton/Applegate home was one of his customers and Mary Creighton was $18 in arrears on her bill. Schlembach, who had to make up the loss out of his own pocket, pressured her to pay what she owed and Mary struck back by filing a sexual harassment complaint with Schlembach’s boss.
Schlembach was absolved of any wrongdoing, and in the course of things became convinced that something was amiss in the Creighton/Applegate home. In discussing the strange relationship between the Creightons and Applegates with another customer, Schlembach learned that the neighbor, Mrs. Herman Rehm, had twice become ill after eating foods cooked by Mary Creighton. She did some investigating of her own and discovered news accounts of Mary’s New Jersey trial for the deaths of her brother and mother-in-law.
Schlembach took the clips to the Nassau County Prosecutor, who took a renewed interest in Ada Applegate’s death.
As is so common with inexperienced killers, Applegate did not help his own cause. At an American Legion function attended by an assistant district attorney, Applegate was adamant and threatening when the subject of a post-mortem exam was broached.
He was an important member of the American Legion, Applegate said, and added if Prosecutor Martin Littleton persisted in his efforts to get an autopsy, he would complain to the New York Attorney General and have Littleton removed from office.
Littleton refused to be bullied and summoned Applegate to a meeting in his office. There, he asked if there was any valid reason that Applegate should decline to authorize the autopsy. This time, Applegate was cowed and, with his back against the wall, agreed to the exam.
The state medical examiner eventually discovered enough poison in Ada’s body to kill three people. It turned out that the pathologist who discovered the arsenic in Ada’s body was the same doctor who conducted the autopsies of Mary’s victims 12 years earlier.
After a grueling 12-hour interrogation, an unrepentant Mary Creighton admitted to poisoning Ada Applegate. She gave several different confessions to police, at times taking sole responsibility for the crime, and at others blaming Applegate.
For his part, Applegate admitted having sex with Ruth, claimed he did want to marry her, and denied having anything to do with Ada’s death.
Eventually the pair was indicted for first degree murder and in January 1936, they went on trial. Each blamed the other for the crime in a trial that was unprecedented for its sordid details of sex and lust. Standing-room only crowds heard Ruth tell of having sex with Applegate while his wife and daughter were in the same room, and that Applegate had taken nude pictures of her.
After 10 hours of deliberation, the jury returned with guilty verdicts all around. The mandatory sentence was death by electrocution.
Mary’s hysterical paralysis prompted an examination by several doctors at the request of the state. They all determined that she was of sound mind and that fear was to blame for her immobility. That alone was insufficient to prompt the governor to issue a reprieve, let alone clemency.
In the end, it is a fair assumption to say that Mary Creighton never knew what hit her.