Avis Linnell, Murdered by Her Minister, Inspires ‘An American Tragedy’

[jpshare]The 1911 murder of Avis Linnell, a 19-year-old music student, in the Boston YWCA was one of the most sensational crimes in New England history.

She was several weeks pregnant by a charismatic minister who had dumped her for a wealthier woman. For a while, the minister thought he had committed the perfect crime. He was wrong.

Avis Linnell

Avis Linnell

Avis Linnell

Avis Linnell was born in Hyannis Port Dec. 19, 1891. She graduated from the high school in 1908, from the Normal School in 1910.

She had 'an exceedingly bright intellect which carried her through school with ease, of a lively and happy disposition, which endeared her to her friends,’ according to the Sandwich Observer.

She had a soprano voice described as ‘angelic.’ She sang in the choir at the small Baptist church in Hyannis that she attended with her parents and three sisters.

In 1908, a new preacher came to her church in Hyannis. He was a tall, handsome giant from Virginia said to be touched with mysticism. Avis fell in love with him, and he returned her feelings. On her 19th birthday, he gave her a ring.

Richeson employed a Southern style of preaching. His energy and exuberance were too much for the conservative Cape Codders. He resigned in 1910.


Clarence Richeson

Clarence Richeson

Richeson got a job at the prestigious Immanual Baptist Church in Cambridge. He convinced Avis to apply to the New England Conservatory of Music. She did, and in the fall of 1910, she moved to the YWCA in Boston.

In early 1911 Avis told her mother they had broken up. In March, Richeson announced his engagement to Violet Edmands, a well-connected, rich young woman from Brookline.

On Oct. 14, 1911, Avis Linnell was starting her second year at the New England Conservatory when she was found nearly dead on the floor of the YWCA bathroom. She died before an ambulance could be called. An autopsy revealed she was several weeks pregnant and that she had taken cyanide. Her death was ruled a suicide.

Several hours after Avis died, a YWCA matron called Richeson to tell him what happened. He said he barely knew her and demanded to know why he was called. The matron replied that he’d had lunch with her that day and ought to be notified.

Richeson may still have thought he was safe from suspicion. The matron told him Avis had not regained consciousness after she was discovered. It was the crusading newspaper editor of the Boston Post, Edwin Grozier, who brought him to grief. Grozier, who came up with the Boston Post cane, put his reporters on the story. They found Richeson had bought the cyanide from a druggist in Newton, Mass..

Suicide Ruled Out

The Post demanded a police investigation into the death of Avis Linnell. The medical examiner, Dr. Timothy Leary, ruled her death was not a suicide.

Excerpt from confession

Excerpt from confession

Richeson was soon in the Charles Street Jail. On Jan. 12, 1912, he signed a written confession that he killed Avis Linnell. He had given her capsules laced with cyanide, telling her it would induce an abortion. He was indicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair.

While in jail, Richeson tried to castrate himself. His lawyers sought clemency on the basis of insanity.

Massachusetts Gov. Eugene Foss asked doctors to look into Richeson’s mental health. He was found to have a family history of insanity, and as a boy he had received several blows to the head.

As a theological student he had asked three women to marry him. He had been caught cheating at college, and one of the trustees wrote to his father saying Clarence had become deranged.

Dr. l. Vernon Briggs, director of the Massachusetts Society for Mental Hygiene concluded Richeson was given to ‘delusions, hallucinations, amnesic periods, and delirium. He had exhibited signs and had had attacks of this disease for years, had been recognized as mentally unsound by several physicians who advised specialists in mental diseases to attend him.’

Author Theodore Dreiser took a different view. He believed Richeson murdered Avis Linnell because he aspired to wealth and fame through a marriage to Violet Edmands. Dreiser wrote six chapters of a novel based on the murder of Avis Linnell, but then abandoned it to write about another murder. The work became the novel An American Tragedy.

Clarence Richeson was executed on May 21, 1912, and buried near his family home in Virginia.

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