As rough and tumble as Albany could be in the early to mid 19th century, some of the most notable crimes occurred out in the suburbs. One was the shocking poisoning of a young wife, Maria Van Dusen Hendrickson, by her philandering young husband, John Hendrickson, Jr. It was one of the earlier cases of forensic pathology used to prove a murder case in the United States.
In January, 1851, John Hendrickson Jr. married Maria Van Dusen, daughter of former county clerk Lawrence Van Dusen, “a most respectable citizen, and a man of unquestioned integrity;” he was said to have considerable wealth. Maria was 17, “well educated, accomplished, amiable, kind-hearted, affectionate.” Hendrickson pursued Maria although her parents opposed marriage “on the ground that Hendrickson’s character was bad, his conduct rowdyish, and that he had led a life of idleness, and was not, therefore, a fit companion for their daughter.” They married anyway, and lived with the Van Dusens in Clarksville while occasionally visiting Hendrickson’s father, who lived four miles away in Bethlehem.
That very summer, Hendrickson committed a “gross assault upon a respectable young lady in Clarksville.” After a side trip to Schoharie County, where he made a promise of marriage that Maria found out about, he took off for Corning, NY (for reasons not revealed) and stayed there for about three months, until the end of 1851. While he was away, Maria gave birth. Shortly after his return, the six-week-old child was found dead in the bed “in a very singular manner, Hendrickson occupying the middle, the wife the back, and the child the front part of the bed.” More than that is not explained.
“After the return of the prisoner from Corning, he communicated to his wife a loathsome disease, which he had contracted during his absence, and which was the original and only cause of the illness under which his wife ever labored, a disease of the womb, which, as a matter of course, was a source of not only great bodily affliction, but also of intense mortification and shame to her sensitive mind.”
On discovery of this, Hendrickson was cast out of the house in January 1852 and moved to his father’s, but the couple continued to visit each other from time to time. Maria’s health improved (the precise disease she contracted is not explained). In January 1853, Hendrickson convinced Maria to visit his father’s house two or three times, and then she went back there in February to stay for a period of time. She was expected to return to her mother’s house on March 6, a Sunday, but for some reason she did not. That evening she went to church with the Hendrickson family and, after reading from the bible and a religious paper, retired to bed with her husband about 10 o’clock, in an attic bedroom they had only slept in for two or three nights – prior to that, they had slept in the same downstairs room as the two sisters of Hendrickson.
How the alarm was raised was not quite explained, but somewhere around 2 in the morning, Hendrickson was “halloing” and his sisters went up the stairs to find Maria non-responsive, but they were not of the belief that she was dead. None of the family thought to ask him what had happened. In his address to the jury, the district attorney, Andrew J. Colvin, said,
“Return we now to the deceased. We shall find the family engaged in using means for her revival, but to no effect. Neighbors were sent for, but not physician, although she was not supposed by them to be dead for a considerable time after they found her. And, gentlemen, it will be told you that there was no physician residing within three miles, and that for that reason they did not send for any . . . The prisoner follows the body, as of course he must, or instant accusation would have been the consequence, and a coroner and able physician and surgeon from the city follow in his wake on the same day; for, gentlemen, suspicious circumstances attend the event of her death, and the whole community is moved by the apprehension that a dark and shocking murder has been perpetrated.”
Hendrickson apparently immediately embarked on a campaign of appearing as suspicious as possible. Actually, the campaign had started at least a week before. Hendrickson had been wandering around Albany, visiting pharmacies asking for prussic acid. “On Tuesday or Wednesday of the week preceding the death of his wife, the prisoner is found asking for prussic acid at Dr. Springsteed’s. On Saturday he is seen going into another drug store, and some time during the same week, a person answering exactly to the general appearance, and dressed in a costume corresponding exactly with the ordinary apparel of the prisoner, buys of Mr. Burroughs, the druggist, an ounce of the tincture of aconite, the very kind of poison with which, it is charged in the indictment, the prisoner poisoned his wife.”
Tincture of aconite was known for its potency and it difficulty of detection. So, while being held, and while a post mortem is being conducted, Hendrickson asked someone what the physicians and coroner were doing and what they had found. He was told they were taking out her stomach, and that it was not known that they had found anything. To that he responded, “One thing I know, they won’t find arsenic.” Well, yes, that’s an innocent statement. Then he asked, “Suppose they put poison into her stomach yesterday, can it be known or ascertained?”
There is more, so much more, to show that Hendrickson was an all-around horrible human being, and that he may have tried to poison her once before. He claimed he got the venereal disease from a “fall on the railroad” while in Corning. He was caught passing a note to a prostitute. After his child’s death, he was courting a woman he had previously been engaged to. He gambled and stole and fought with his wife. A week after the death of his wife, he was “seen in the county jail dancing negro breakdowns and other hilarious dances with all the vehemence in his power, and subsequently doing the same on the Sabbath as well as on week days.”
The DA introduced evidence that she died by tincture of aconite, which created some particular effects revealed by autopsy, and which was found in her body. (You may know aconite as monkshood or wolf’s bane.) The post mortem was conducted by the esteemed Dr. Swinburne. With a preponderance of evidence of the terrible character of the suspect and his own semi-incriminating behavior, the jury did not delay in finding Hendrickson guilty, guilty, guilty.
In pronouncing sentence upon Hendrickson, Judge Richard P. Marvin showed tremendous prescience:
“…I desire to impress, not only upon you, but upon all, the fact, that as science advances – as it unfolds to the student the great storehouse of knowledge, and lets man penetrate into the very arcana of nature – that as it advances, step by step, it enables its votaries to detect the most subtle poisons, and to trace the very footsteps of crime. Chemists are enabled now, through the wonderful developments of science – and science detects your crime – to detect almost all poisons, whether vegetable or metallic, to trace out cases of poisoning, (no matter what may be the character of the poison administered), with almost unerring certainty. And it is as dangerous to attempt murder with the most subtle vegetable poison, and as certain to be detected, as if the murder were committed with the dirk or the stiletto. Your case may have its moral effect upon community in this view of it. Community should understand that the crime of murder cannot be committed in this day of light, in any manner or by any means, without leaving the evidence of guilt; and this evidence always points out, unerringly, to the guilty individual.”
The judge pronounced that on August 26th, 1853, Hendrickson was to be hung by the neck until he was dead. He was the first prisoner hanged in the new Maiden Lane jail.