Nonfiction

Coming Apart
Family photo of Laura
Expressive alterations by photographer Graham Tobin

Shaking the Family Tree: Laura’s Story

There’s nothing especially remarkable about the photo. Just a young woman, crimped 1920s hairstyle, eyes slightly down-cast. No trace of a smile, though the portrait looks posed. News reports would later dub her “a tall striking-looking woman.” My Great Aunt Laura–murderer.

Turns out there’s a name for what Laura did: filicide, the deliberate act of killing one’s own child. Our language is admirably precise.

For more than 60 years I never heard her name or saw that photo — until the magic of ancestry research brought her out of the shadows. Finally, my brother the researcher noted with satisfaction, we’ve found someone interesting to spice up the long parade of worthy citizens and fecund women.

***

It happened on February 3, 1926, in a modest home in Eltham, London, the bare facts coming together in news clippings gleaned by a previously unknown relative and posted online. Returning from her afternoon off, the family’s 17-year-old maid, Louise, found the house in darkness. Hearing moans from upstairs, she ran to the bathroom to find Laura, half-clothed in the bathtub. Laura “tried to speak to her, but though her lips moved there was no sound.” Louise summoned neighbors and a doctor, then hurried to the children’s bedroom, to find 12-year-old Brian and his little brother Malcolm groaning in their beds.

Shortly afterwards, the doctor pronounced Laura dead. The boys were taken to hospital, where Malcolm died. It was his seventh birthday.

“It is understood that two letters have been found, and that on the back of one appeared the words, ‘We have taken arsenic.’”

***

The American Anthropological Association reports that every year, around 200 mothers become child-killers. Some, perhaps in despair, believe they are doing what’s best for their children. Many are living in poverty, are abused, or otherwise under extreme stress. Surely they must be; we need to believe that no sane mother could kill her own child.

Then there are those for whom our fragile empathy shatters. In 1983, Diane Downs drove her gravely wounded children to an emergency room in Springfield, Oregon, claiming they had been shot by a “bushy-haired stranger.” In truth, she was the perpetrator; she believed her children stood in the way of her relationship with a married man. Her seven-year-old daughter died from her wounds. In 1994, Susan Smith of South Carolina confessed to drowning her two sons after first reporting their abduction “by a black man.” Ten years ago, my current hometown of Tampa was shaken by the arrest of Julie Schenecker, a 53-year-old suburban woman who shot her two teenagers for being “mouthy.”  All pled insanity; all were convicted. Unfathomable, unforgivable tragedies.

***

And what about Laura? Is she among the unforgivable?

Unsurprisingly, the case made national news. Inquest reports, published a week later, established that Laura had used rat poison, bought by her husband to protect their apple trees. To celebrate Malcolm’s birthday, Laura had invited two neighbor boys to tea that afternoon. In the morning she abruptly canceled, saying Malcom was not well. Brian, the only survivor, reported that before lunch “Mother gave us some grey powders,” and they felt ill all day.

At the inquest, the coroner asked Ralph, Laura’s husband, how things were when he left that morning. Perfectly normal, said Ralph—to which the coroner rather mysteriously remarked: “People sometimes say that breakfast time is the worst time.”  Under further questioning, Ralph mentioned that he’d taken a suitcase with him when he left: “I was going to a dance in town that night.”

“Did it upset your wife to know that you would not be home until the last train?”

A bleak answer: “Apparently it did.”

***

The letters, both dated that day, were addressed to two important men in Laura’s life: one to Ralph, an engineer; the other to Laura’s father, a prominent business owner in a northern city, and my great-grandfather.

The coroner read them to the court. This to Ralph:

“I am giving you your freedom in the only way I can think possible. I feel it is what you have been working up to for a long while now, otherwise you would not have done the things you have when you know how they worried and hurt me. You are now free to marry Elizabeth, and may you have all the happiness I never enjoyed.”

To her father:

“My own darling daddy, I am putting an end to my unhappiness. Ralph has been seeing one of those girls from the Dance Club on every possible occasion. They are up in town tonight having dinner and going on to a dance. He says there is nothing in it, but why does he persist when he knows how terribly it hurts.”

And then the part that chills me:

“The only thing about what I am doing which grieves me is leaving you. Goodbye, darling – Ever your own loving Girlie.”

The only thing? Not a word about her children—her father’s grand-children—condemned to die with her.  As a mother of two sons, I can barely grasp such indifference.

***

Acute arsenic poisoning is not quick or gentle. It begins with muscular pain and weakness, progressing to nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, accompanied by drowsiness and confusion. Finally, the victim suffers seizures, coma, and death.

A week after the poisoning, it was reported at the inquest that Brian was still in the hospital, “by no means out of danger.” The jury took “moments” to reach a verdict: “Murder and suicide during a state of temporary insanity.”

***

Someone posted a blurry photo of Laura and her sons, posed in the garden behind their home. They look close to the age they were that February day. Malcolm stands proudly, holding the handles of a scooter. Brian sits on a bicycle, next to his mother, her hand on his arm. Laura wears an overcoat and a large cloche hat, which leaves her face in shadow. There are apple trees behind them. I gaze at the photo, wondering at the enormity of what she had done.  Laura, what transformed you from mother to monster?

***

With the verdict, Laura’s story faded from the public eye, and was exorcized from my family history, a tragedy never to be spoken of again. My mother had many childhood memories of her cousins—the children of her father’s three older brothers. Just three years old that February, she likely never knew the fate of her father’s only sister and her children, or even that they ever existed. Ralph and Brian moved away, with Ralph remarrying a year later—although not to Elizabeth. He had no more children. I am left to wonder how Laura’s parents dealt with the unpardonable sin of their only daughter, their “loving Girlie.” Did they ever wonder about the torment that drove her to the unthinkable? Nothing suggests they ever again contacted Ralph or their grandson.

There remains so much to know. What snapped that morning to make Laura cancel the tea party, find the rat poison, and sit down to write the carefully composed letters in which she erased her children and the fate she intended for them?  I replay the scene in my mind, thinking of my boys when they were children: The excitement of a birthday morning, the presents, the special cake. Was that how it was supposed to be that day? Or was something already irretrievably broken? According to Ralph, Laura “underwent a serious operation in June last, and never seemed to regain her health.”  In the letter to her father, she refers to “the episode of a year ago, that nearly killed me.” Did this mystery, never explained further, help send her down a dark path? Or is that just grasping for a hint of common humanity in the desolate landscape of her story? Maybe there can never be a real explanation for such monstrous acts, in spite of our human urge to make sense of them. If there were, maybe we would no longer feel their monstrosity.   

***

How long can tragedy remain real? After so many years of absence from our family history, the horror is somehow drained from Laura’s story, leaving only that frisson of excitement created by a filicide in the family tree. And yet her face lingers, beckoning us beyond flippancy to deeper contemplation of her crime. Every tragedy, however long forgotten, once brought human beings to the valley of tears, anger, and despair before passing into oblivion.

They say you finally die when the last person who remembers you is gone. Only then do you melt into stardust. Brian, Malcolm’s big brother, remained invisible to the maternal side of his family, living on into the 21st century. In an adult photo, as he gazes into the camera with a gentle smile and kindly eyes, he resembles Laura more than Ralph. Nothing to hint at the pain that surely followed him until the memory of Laura and Malcolm died with him. As a mother, I still struggle to forgive. But it seems Brian might have managed: when he named his own son after his murdered brother, he added Laura’s maiden name too.

Author's Comment

Since retiring, I’m finding my voice in genres quite different from academic writing. One way is through exploring the often-obscure branches of my family tree, from which Laura’s story emerged, and trying to reflect on that legacy.

Understanding Moonseed
by Mary Pacifico Curtis
  In Understanding Moonseed, we meet the big city girl with a precocious interest in politics, have brushes with pivotal historic moments in the 60’s and 70’s, and continue her journey with her as she falls in love with a man who becomes famous in the music industry, moves with him to Silicon Valley, where she founds what would become one of the region’s largest independent PR/branding firms. She settles into roles as wife, mother and executive, working 60-hours a week, until cancer takes the man who had become husband, father, and soulmate. The family’s grief and devastation give way to trying to understand how life will continue without this column of the family. The arc of the story bends back to love. Curtis’ sixth sense for what makes words ring– hollow, hallowed, or haunted–inside the walls of her personal architecture informs the themes of Understanding Moonseed. In this essay collection, “a love supreme” guides Curtis from Chicago’s Gold Coast to Silicon Valley branding executive, through reinvention as a memoirist and poet, to her second marriage with Michael, a union that interweaves the felt presences of their deceased spouses who haunt and steward them from grief’s unknowing to new births and epiphanies. In Understanding Moonseed, Curtis invites us with signature courage to grow rather than to retreat after loss in response to love’s call. — Lise Goett, author of Leprosarium (Tupelo Press)
Available from Amazon and Bookshop.org.

Bio

A retired anthropology professor, Elizabeth Bird has published over 100 academic articles and seven books, and now writes creative nonfiction. Her work appears in Under the Sun (winner, Readers' Choice Award 2022), Tangled Locks, Biostories, Streetlight, Dorothy Parkers Ashes, HerStry, The Guardian, Mutha Magazine, 3Elements Review, Heimat Review, Witcraft, and elsewhere. Her essay "Interlude: 1941,” was named a Notable in Best American Essays 2023. www.lizbirdwrites.com.

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