Arsenic in the Milk: The Poisoning of George B. Reed

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When George B. Reed died on Friday, April 26, 1935, it was sudden, but not completely unexpected. He was sixty years old and had been ill for two years, spending more than a year of that time at the Gull Lake Hospital, returning home six weeks before his death.

He suffered from paralysis in his legs, believed by the doctor to have been brought on by alcohol poisoning, and was mostly bedridden, although he could sometimes walk a little. He was buried on Sunday, April 28, 1935 and the family continued to work the farm, despite their grief.

But the neighbours were suspicious.

They believed that George’s death was not the result of his illness, but of poison. They contacted the RCMP and asked them to come investigate. Detective Sergeant Stretton and Constables Harvey and Krag heeded the call and made the journey out to Gull Lake to find out if there was anything to these claims of poison.

The Reeds

George B. Reed was born at George Lake, Minnesota. In 1907, he met the much younger Katherine Leighman and the two moved to Gull Lake, Saskatchewan, getting married in 1910. They built a comfortable farm home, had three children and were prosperous farmers until about 1933, when crop failures struck the district. George became ill shortly after.

George B. Reed, May 13, 1935 – Saskatoon Star-Phoenix

Katherine Reed was born in Germany, moving to the States as a child. According to her, she and George always got along all right, although there was some trouble over their farm hand, Clarence Wright. George wanted Katherine to get rid of him, mostly because Katherine sometimes went to ‘entertainments’ with him, since George was bedridden. He’d even gone so far as to contact the RCMP to come and remove him from the farm, but changed his mind by the time they arrived.

Clarence Wright was much closer to Katherine in age. He was forty while she was forty-six. He was also tall and burly and had been working on the farm for more than five years. He’d been helping run things since George’s leg paralysis had forced him to go to the hospital.

Overall, the family was well respected in the district, but after George’s death the rumor mill went crazy.

Death by Poison

On Friday, May 3, 1935, Katherine Reed was formally charged with murder and taken to North Battleford to await the preliminary hearing. Hours later Clarence Wright was also charged with murder. George Reed’s body was exhumed on May 6, 1935 and examined by Provincial Pathologist, Dr. Frances McGill. According to her, the cause of death was clear. George Reed died of arsenic poisoning.

Dr. McGill testified in court that not only was arsenic the cause of death, but that it had been administered in multiple doses over the course of two to three months, “judging from destruction of the organs”. She found traces of arsenic poisoning in the liver and kidneys, while the face and eyes bore a jaundice-like discoloration associated with the poison. There was damage to his vital organs, where normal tissue had been turned to fat.

Mrs. Reed, May 13 1935 – Saskatoon Star-Phoenix

But were Clarence Wright and Katherine Reed to blame? During the preliminary trial, the magistrate dismissed Wright, as there wasn’t enough evidence to suggest his involvement. He was subpoenaed as a material witness instead.

Clarence Wright, May 7, 1935 – Regina Leader-Post

The trial for Katherine Reed began on October 22, 1935.

According to Detective Sergeant Stretton, when he was investigating at the farm he spent some time chatting with Katherine. As they were talking, Mrs. Reed blurted out, “I must tell you. I gave it to him.” She told him she put half a teaspoon of arsenate of lead in a cup of milk and left it on her husband’s bedside table. She saw him lift the cup to his lips and she left the room. She told the officer she went into the kitchen where she cried a little, had a cup of coffee and went to bed.

Mrs. Reed told police that George had started asking her to put him out of his misery ten days before his death. Her sons also testified that they’d been asked by George as well, and Clarence told the court that about a week before George died he’d heard him ask his wife to leave poison within reach and she’d asked him to write a note. If he did, it was never found.

But if this was a case of suicide, how to explain the signs of continual poisoning Dr. McGill found in his organs? Arsenic was found in hair over an inch long, meaning he’d had it in his system for months.

Katherine Reed’s brother, Jacob Leighman, who’d spent the winter with them, claimed that George had been regularly accusing his wife and Clarence of poisoning him since February. “Sometimes he said he got it in his tea. His tea tasted funny.” Additionally, he said that while he was staying with the Reeds, George was sick and wanted to call a doctor, but Wright stopped him.

Other neighbours testified in court to the same. Neil McTaggart said that one day George told him, “Neil, they poisoned me.” John Zentgraf said that Reed had told him, “they slipped me a pill. If I could get a hold of a gun, I would blow Wright’s head off.” While he was in the hospital, George told another neighbour, Roy McLean, that he didn’t want to go home while Wright was there because he was afraid he’d be poisoned.

Were George’s suspicions correct? Or was it possible the arsenic came from somewhere else? George Reed’s illness first began two years ago. Mrs. Reed testified that there was a social event happening at a neighbour’s and George didn’t want to attend, as he wasn’t feeling well. So she, Wright and the children went and left George at home. When they got back, George was gagging and there were nail marks all over his throat and chest. They called his doctor, Dr. Mathesan, who came out to the farm to find George ill with paralysis in his feet. Mathesan suspected alcohol poisoning.

He wasn’t wrong to suspect alcohol. In fact, George’s brother-in-law admitted that he’d seen George get so drunk on home brew that he was out of his head for three days, although he refused to admit that he was the one who’d supplied it. One of the neighbour’s also testified that George “drank anything that was exhilarating.”

Could George’s illness and subsequent bouts of poisoning have come from a bad batch of home brew? Possibly prepared in unclean conditions or containers that led to arsenic poisoning?

The RCMP believed that the poisonings had been purposeful and methodical, pointing to Mrs. Reed’s relationship with Clarence. She admitted that they’d kissed a few times, but nothing more. There were also a number of detective magazines in the house containing a series that dealt with arsenic murders, ordered by Katherine, as well as a family doctor book, in which the pages dealing with arsenic and delayed menstruation were soiled. Except, Mrs. Reed couldn’t read. She’d ordered the magazines for her bedridden husband, who enjoyed the stories.

On November 1, 1935, after an eight day trial, the jury found Katherine Reed not guilty of murder. It was possible she could still be charged with abetting a suicide, but the RCMP told journalists that it was unlikely further charges would be laid.

Was George Reed poisoned on purpose by Katherine and Clarence or had he accidentally poisoned himself? We’ll never know for sure, but just to be safe, stay the hell away from home brew.

Nov 1, 1935 – Regina Leader-Post

Thank you for reading! Information for this post came from the following editions of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post: May 3, 1935, May 4, 1935, May 7, 1935 May 8, 1935, May 9, 1935, May 10, 1935, May 11, 1935, May 13, 1935, May 14, 1935, Oct 18, 1935, Oct 22, 1935, Oct 23, 1935, Oct 25, 1935, Oct 26, 1935, Oct 29, 1935, Oct 30, 1935, Oct 31, 1935, Nov 1, 1935

If you liked this story of historical true crime, please subscribe and share! If you’re eager for more tales of murder in historical Saskatchewan, check out the following:

Manhunt in Dunkirk

The Yorkton Hammer Murder

The Haunted Skull of the Kerrobert Courthouse

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