The Minister’s Wife
A fatal dose of strychnine kills a pastor. Was Dolly Gish to blame?
Wednesday evening, Dec. 4, 1907, began unremarkably enough for Pastor Gilbert Gish. He spent the early hours at his evangelical church in Chambersburg, Illinois, preaching the gospel to a small, but enthusiastic crowd.
After the sermon, Pastor Gish walked toward his home in the company of one of his parishioners, a Mr. Dennis. The pair stopped at the Dennis’ store for a short chat. The minister was, reported Dennis, in excellent spirits. After their discussion, Gish strolled home alone.
About an hour later, Mr. Dennis was woken by someone pounding on the door. Dolly Gish, the minister’s wife stood outside. She implored Dennis to help her; Pastor Gish was ill.
The pair hurried to the minister’s house. Reverend Gish lay convulsing on his study floor. His agony was so great that he was unable to speak. Dennis watched helplessly, Mrs. Gish at his side, as the life ebbed out of the minister’s body. The man’s tortured breaths grew farther apart; his spine relaxed; death folded cold arms around him and bore his spirit away.
Gish’s body was returned to Eureka, Illinois, where he had attended college. On Monday afternoon, a large group of mourners assembled to lay his body to rest. Gish had been, according to the Woodford County Journal, “one of the popular young ministers who have gone out from this college.”
His obituarist noted that the young minister had “made every preparation for his Master’s service and wielded the Sword of the Spirit with such force as to be a terror to Satan and his followers.”
The bereaved were mystified: how could such a young, vital man die so abruptly? He had only been twenty-six at the time of his death. “The cause of his death is not well understood,” wrote the newspaper, “but it is supposed to have been a heart affliction, probably accentuated by the responsibilities of his work.”
It was an unfortunate end, mysterious and inexplicable reaping of a man who should have had years before him. A tragic blow from the hand of God.
Or was it?
Strychnine in the Pastor’s System
A month later, as America revived from the parties celebrating the debut of a new year, the Chicago Tribune broke shocking news about the death of Rev. Gish. His two brothers, George and Ellis Gish, had not believed that their brother was the victim of natural causes. Before internment, they had asked two Eureka doctors to perform an autopsy on the corpse. Although the investigation revealed nothing at the time, the doctors removed Gish’s stomach and sent it to a Chicago forensic expert, Dr. Walter Haines. After studying, Haines reported that the tissue bore traces of strychnine.
Gish had been poisoned.
His two brothers, eager to avenge the death, took this evidence to the state’s attorney and accused Dorothy “Dolly” Gish, wife of the deceased, with poisoning her husband. Although they had said nothing at the time, the brothers were convinced that an unhappy marriage had precipitated their brother’s demise.
Gilbert Gish and Dorothy Anderson had been married five years at the time of his death. They had one daughter, Neva, who was four. Although the couple appeared a model ecclesiastical couple, their relationship was strained. Ellis told State’s Attorney Bradburn (and the newspapers) that he had received a letter from his brother months earlier in which Gilbert wrote that Dolly had tried to kill him. When her plot did not succeed, she had allegedly left a note on his desk which read, “My dope failed this time.” Clearly, although the first attempt had been discovered, she intended to try again. Gilbert had destroyed the note, and later instructed Ellis to burn the letter in which he had reported this troubling event.
Another disturbing incident: Gilbert allegedly told his brother that Dolly had been going through a “moody and morose” spell. One night he had awoken to find her missing from her bedroom. He searched the house and found her in the kitchen. She was sitting in a chair, holding a large butcher knife. She did not respond when he asked what she planned to do with the knife.
Ellis begged his brother to separate from his wife, but Gilbert refused. He was determined to continue living with Dolly because the scandal of a divorce would destroy his ministerial career. He did, however, trim his life insurance policy, reducing the payout from $2,000 to $1,000 so that she wouldn’t be tempted to murder him.
Evidently, that hadn’t been a sufficient deterrent. Unfortunately, State’s Attorney Bradburn was not entirely convinced. He told Ellis that the evidence against Dolly was circumstantial, and unless he could force her to confess, it was unlikely that she would ever face criminal charges.
George Gish, Gilbert’s other brother, decided to extract a confession from the minister’s wife. According to the Chicago Tribune, George confronted Dolly, hoping that she would break down and admit her evil deed. “Dolly,” he said, “you murdered your husband. You gave him a dose of strychnine that was found in his stomach. Now I want you to confess.”
Dolly offered her brother-in-law an enigmatic smile. “You are asking a good deal, aren’t you? You haven’t any proof upon which to base such a charge.”
“But I have proof,” countered George. “What is more, I can prove it in court, and it will certainly go hard against you if you hold out against his proof.” George then detailed his evidence, including the results of Dr. Haine’s analysis of Gilbert’s stomach. He brandished the letter he and Ellis received from the medical examiner. “I found strychnine in the Rev. Gish’s stomach,” the physician had written. “I have not determined the quantity, but it is considerable and points to a violent death.”
“Dolly, you gave him that poison,” said George. “You had better confess that you did.”
Dolly Gish considered these words for a moment and then smiled. “I don’t know what I could confess if I am not guilty,” she said.
Although George badgered her for more than an hour, Gilbert Gish’s widow remained completely calm. She steadfastly asserted her innocence, smiling calmly as her brother-in-law grew increasingly frustrated. George was forced to end his fruitless interrogation. Dolly Gish refused to confess.
The people of Eureka, who had long known Gilbert and his brothers, appeared to believe that she was guilty. Some recalled her strange behavior during the funeral. She refused to view her husband’s body before the burial. A cold fish — she was the only person with dry eyes at the funeral service.
Another woman claimed that Dolly had asked odd questions during the service. She wanted to know, for instance, if embalming fluid would destroy evidence of poison in a corpse.
Gilbert’s family turned against her. Once, they alleged, when Gilbert had come alone to visit his family, Dolly wrote him a hateful letter that instructed him to choose between his wife and his family. “If you want to stay with those people,” she allegedly wrote, “you may do so. I don’t ever want to see you again.”
“The explanation for the whole case,” George Gish told the newspapers, “is that Dolly hated her husband insanely. That she murdered him, I have no doubt.”
Poison or Medicine?
The January 3 edition of the Chicago Tribune offered a small addendum to the story that cast doubt on the Gish brothers’ interpretation. According to the newspaper, Gilbert Gish had undergone an unspecified surgery the year before that had not gone well. The operation had left him in poor health, and he was taking strychnine tablets to bolster his system.
Was there a reasonable explanation for the strychnine Dr. Haines found in the minister’s stomach? Was it possible that Gilbert Gish had inadvertently taken too much medicine and poisoned himself? Dr. Haines was dubious, claiming that it would require at least twenty of the strychnine tablets to cause death. Perhaps there was another explanation: Gilbert Gish could have taken an overdose to kill himself.
This was the explanation that Dolly adopted. When pressed by the newspapers, she appeared unmoved by her husband’s demise. “Why,” she said, “I never saw so much talk about so little. If my husband was tired of this life and took poison why should there be so much talk? I have dropped the matter myself, and I don’t see why others can’t do likewise.”
The controversy threatened to split the small church in Chambersburg: half of the congregation considered Dolly a killer, while the other half offered support for the beleaguered widow. In fact, her closest friends had managed to raise $150 for her defense, should the Gish family succeed in pushing the state’s attorney to prosecute Dolly.
Some parishioners recalled Gilbert and Dolly’s frequent disagreements about Christianity and wondered if that might have provoked a murder. Reverend Gish believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible, and he brought this fundamentalist approach to his preaching and teaching in Chambersburg. Dolly maintained that a freer interpretation was required to bring out the good in the Bible. “You are so narrow-minded, I detest you, Gilbert,” she is reported to have said. All of the parishioners agreed that she rarely attended church if her husband was preaching.
Was divergent theology a motive for murder?
Naturally, the State’s Attorney Bradburn was continuing his investigation. After questioning regional druggists, his team of investigators found a pharmacist who claimed that a woman wearing a blue veil had purchased strychnine at his store in early November. The pharmacist believed that he would recognize her if he saw her again.
Bradburn refused to rush to an arrest. “This is doubtless a murder case,” he stated, “and I expect to prove it so before I drop it. However, I will not make an arrest until I feel sure that an innocent person is not going to be injured.”
The local police did not share Bradburn’s certainty. According to the Rock Island Argus, the investigating officers had ruled out foul play. Gish’s illness occasionally left him depressed. It was far more likely that his death had been the result of suicide, an accidental overdose, or simply the consequence of his deteriorating health.
Grand Jury Inquest
Gish’s family refused to accept this conclusion. They knew that Dolly had killed Gilbert, and his brothers continued to hound State’s, Attorney Bradburn. He refused to issue a warrant for Dolly’s arrest, but ultimately bowed to fraternal pressure and convened a grand jury to sift the evidence to see if there was enough to support a murder charge. Ellis and George Gish promised that they would offer sensational testimony against the killer, written in Gilbert Gish’s own hand, but, mysteriously, they failed to produce these letters at the inquest. The druggist who had sold strychnine to the woman in a thick blue veil failed to identify Dolly. Ultimately, the grand jury arrived at the same place as the police: if she was guilty, there was not a shred of evidence to connect her to the crime. Moreover, it wasn’t clear there even had been a crime: suicide or an accidental overdose were more likely.
The Gish family was frustrated by this miscarriage of justice. George Gish was even more annoyed, when, in April, Dolly filed charges against him for taking a typewriter and some books from her husband’s library. George was forced to pay $170 into his late brother's estate, which went to Dolly.
Dolly Lives Happily Ever After
In May 1908, Dolly sold her house and her husband’s estate. She packed up her daughter and moved to Cincinnati to live with her parents. There, she enrolled in a conservatory to study music. “This,” wrote a reporter for the Marengo Beacon, “is the last chapter in the tragedy in which Rev. Mr. Gish lost his life by poison several months ago, which will perhaps never be explained.”
Dolly Gish lived the rest of her life out of the gaze of the newspapers. She did not remarry. She raised her daughter, Neva, alone, and on July 16, 1948, she passed away in Maywood, Illinois. History records no further brushes with the law.
Did Dolly kill her husband? His family remained convinced that she had. Her behavior before his death, and her eerie reticence afterward, signaled her guilt. A grand jury, on the other hand, properly concluded that there was insufficient evidence to bring the case to trial. Rev. Gish might have died of an accidental overdose. He might have committed suicide. Unfortunately, the available evidence offered no clear path to the truth.
In retrospect, Dolly’s lack of distress over the death of her husband seems odd. On the other hand, emotional reserve is not a crime. Their marriage appears to have been strained, but that doesn’t implicate her in his death. Ultimately, we, like the investigators who hunted leads in 1908, will never know.
If she did kill her husband, she was smart enough to avoid the mistake that implicates many criminals: she kept quiet and gave her adversaries nothing to work with. The minister’s wife may have executed the perfect crime.
Chicago Tribune, Jan. 2–6, 1908; Rock Island Argus (IL), Jan. 4, 1908; Marengo Beacon (IL), May 15, 1908; Woodford County Journal (Eureka, IL), Dec. 5, 12, 1907.
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