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Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Mysterious Death of the Dinsmore Parlor Maid

The untimely death of a young servant at The Locusts, the estate adjacent to Staatsburgh to the north, gives us a small glimpse of the lives and activities of Gilded Age servants in the hamlet of Staatsburg just over 100 years ago.  Recent research by Staatsburgh’s curator, Maria Reynolds, uncovered this slightly mysterious and unfortunate occurrence that resulted in the dismissal of The Locusts’ butler.  Reynolds’ research on Staatsburgh’s servants is now featured in a new exhibit (opened in April 2019) that can be enjoyed during the site’s open hours, normally Thursday through Sunday through late October.

"Girl Dies of Poison," The World headline read on July 20, 1897.  Selma Larson, a maid at the Clarence Dinsmore estate in Staatsburg died after falling suddenly ill on a train that had just departed Poughkeepsie.  There was no prior sign of illness and Miss Larson appeared in fine health to those who worked with her.  The illness was sudden and the death was unexpected.  Naturally, these circumstances raised questions about the cause of death.  It didn't take long for the newspapers to sensationalize the situation.  Was it poison?  Did the butler do it?  Read on to find out...

The World, July 20, 1897

Selma Larson, a 20 year old Swedish immigrant, had been employed at the Dinsmore Estate, The Locusts, in Staatsburg, NY since May 1, 1897.  Her duties included cleaning the rooms on the ground floor before breakfast, and then cleaning dishes, glass, and silver with the butler and second butler after breakfast.  After a few months of work, the housekeeper, Mrs. Campbell, granted Selma permission to take a day off in order to attend a party at her sister's home in New York City.

The Locusts, Dinsmore Estate, Staatsburg, NY 

It was on the train to the city that Selma fell ill and was taken to the hospital.  Mrs. Campbell was summoned to her hospital bed and she stayed with her until Selma died the next afternoon.  Campbell later testified that Selma had been conscious the entire time until she passed away.  It appeared that even after Selma was admitted, no one expected her illness to be fatal.

Selma had another visitor while she was in the hospital, the Dinsmore's butler, William Charvill.  He visited Selma and then offered to take a letter to the Dinsmores with an update on her health.  He also removed a package from Selma's room and indicated to the hospital staff that he did not want Mrs. Campbell to know he was taking the package.  When Selma suddenly died, the doctors did not know why and so they decided to conduct an autopsy.  The coroner then held an inquest and questioned the Dinsmore staff and everyone who was in contact with her.  Charvill's removal of the package seemed suspicious and so he was also set to be questioned.

Rendition of the Selma Larson case, The World, July 21, 1897
When co-workers and medical personnel were questioned, they reported having found Miss Larson to be in a good frame of mind and therefore ruled out suicide.  After taking ill and being admitted to the hospital, she did not act in a way that gave any indication that she attempted to take her own life.  She was cheerful and still looking forward to visiting her sister.  In addition, she had consumed the same food as other staff and no other staff had fallen ill.  The coroner did find a hole in her stomach and the cause of death was officially reported as peritonitis, but initially they were not certain what caused the hole.  Some suspected poison...

During the inquest, several Dinsmore servants were questioned.  Special interest was taken during the questioning of the butler, William Charvill, because of the package he retrieved from the hospital and his apparent unease on the stand.  At first, Charvill insisted that the package contained some mineral water and a pair of shoes, but after an individual conference with the judge, he admitted the package contained two bottles of wine that he had taken from the Dinsmore wine cellar.  He wanted to give Miss Larson the wine to take to the party since she had helped him out with numerous things and did not receive extra perks from their employer, as he did.  Some news articles promoted the idea that the two were lovers, but none of the other witnesses gave testimony that corroborated that idea.  Likely, it was just promoted by newspapers looking for a juicy story.

Charvill went to retrieve the package of wine as soon as he heard she had been ill in hopes of avoiding discovery.  He very well knew that taking wine from his employers was grounds for dismissal, and indeed, he was immediately fired by the Dinsmores.  So while Charvill's behavior was cagey, it was due to the wine, and not due to that fact that he poisoned Miss Larson.

At the coroner's inquest, four doctors who performed the autopsy came to different conclusions about her demise.  Two thought that she died of natural causes as the result of an ulcer on her stomach.  The other two believed that her death was caused by bichloride of mercury poisoning.  The proceedings were then adjourned in order for the stomach to be sent to an expert chemist to test for poison. The newspapers had a field day with the ongoing mystery, but ultimately the chemist did not find any poison.  The coroner's jury decided that her death was due to natural causes and the case was closed.

Democrat and Chronicle, August 3, 1897

William Charvill sent flowers to Miss Larson's family, attended the funeral, and passed on all of his condolences.  Despite losing his job, Charvill moved on with his life and in the 1910 census, thirteen years later, his occupation was still listed as butler.  It looks like his termination from the Dinsmore's employ did not end his career in service and he was able to rehabilitate his reputation enough to find work as a butler again.  As far as Miss Larson, she was put to rest, and the newspapers also ceased their sensational stories about her death.

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