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Jennie Cramer – New Haven’s “Beautiful Victim” of 1881

Jennie Cramer and her mother Christina had an awful fight on Thursday, August 4, 1881. Jennie and her friend Blanche Douglass had been dating two of the Malleys – members of one of New Haven’s wealthiest families – and they hadn’t come home the night before.

 Cover of the book about the murder of Jennie Cramer, The Beautiful Victim of Elm City


Cover of the book about the murder of Jennie Cramer, The Beautiful Victim of Elm City

If she didn’t stop her scandalous behavior, Christina threatened, Jennie, 21, would have to find her own place to live. Jennie insisted she did nothing wrong, that she only spent the night at the hotel where Blanche was staying because Blanche was ill and she could find no one to accompany her home.

In truth, the two girls had stayed at the Malley mansion. Jennie thought it would sound better to say they had stayed in Blanche’s rooms. But Jennie probably did believe the rest of it – that Blanche was sick.  The best evidence suggests that Jennie never knew exactly what was going on with the Malleys and Blanche.

Walter Malley’s father, Edward, owned Malley & Co., a very successful dry goods store. The department stores it spawned would remain in business through 1982. Walter was a shy boy, musical and artistic but unambitious. He attended college but never graduated, and lived at his family’s mansion.

His cousin Jimmy was more outgoing and a harder worker than Walter. The two had met Blanche (one of several names she used) at a brothel in New York, and she was “dating” Walter.

Jimmy, meanwhile, was attracted to Jennie Cramer. Jennie’s father, a cigar maker, was far less wealthy than the Malleys. Jennie herself is generally described as beautiful, but not extraordinarily smart.

 Illustration of the discovery of Jennie Cramer from The Beautiful Victim of Elm City


Illustration of the discovery of Jennie Cramer from The Beautiful Victim of Elm City

Nevertheless, Jennie was very protective of her reputation. She hoped her beauty would allow her to marry well. While she was open to Jimmy’s attention, she did not intend to sleep with him.

With this in mind, Blanche, Walter and Jimmy cooked up a scheme. The three would try to find a way to have Jimmy and Jennie spend the night together. Jennie never knew of this scheme, and in all likelihood never knew that Blanche was a prostitute.

On Wednesday night, they put their plan into action. Walter’s father Edward was away at Saratoga. The mansion was vacant. The four spent some time drinking and eating and singing, and then Blanche began to protest that she was feeling ill. Blanche would later say she heard Jimmy and Jennie fighting in the next room that Wednesday night, as Jennie fought off his advances – apparently successfully.

After telling Jennie’s mother the altered version of the story, Blanche said she went to her dressmaker. She saw Jennie on a horse-pulled trolley headed to Savin Rock in West Haven, home of an amusement park. It was the last she ever saw of Jennie – or so she said.

Witnesses would later come forward and say they saw Jennie with two men and a woman who looked like Blanche and the Malleys at Savin Rock on Friday. With Jennie missing, her father began making the rounds looking for her.

Arsenic Under the Elms, about the murder of Jennie Cramer

Arsenic Under the Elms, about the murder of Jennie Cramer, is available in here in our bookstore.

He questioned Jimmy Malley, who said Jennie had spoken of going to New York, perhaps with Blanche. Walter made a show of taking a train toward the city, but turning back when he received a telegram at Stamford informing him Blanche was in New Haven.

No one knew where Jennie was. Until Saturday morning, when a fisherman at Savin Rock found a body – Jennie Cramer – in the surf. He pulled her to shore and ran for the police.

The first assumption was that she had drowned. But a cursory exam showed that there was no water in her lungs. The next assumption was that she had killed herself because of the fight with her mother, but that, too, would soon seem far-fetched.

Over the next several weeks, some of the truth about Jennie began emerging. An autopsy revealed she had been raped. Further analysis found arsenic in her system. Some theorized that perhaps she had taken it herself, which some girls did to improve their complexion.

No, there was too much arsenic in her body to have been the residual effect of small doses of arsenic. Rather, she had taken a large dose and it killed her. Suicide made little sense, unless it was in despair over being attacked.

The more stones the police turned over, the worse things looked. When they discovered Blanche had told a slew of lies about herself in the initial inquiries, they arrested her and the Malleys. A grand jury declared Jimmy was the killer and that Walter and Blanche were his accomplices. They would have to stand trial.

While the case was proceeding, however, the Malleys were not standing idly by. Edward hired a team of lawyers and detectives. Rumors spread that he was paying off witnesses to change their stories – to become less sure they had witnessed the Malley boys with Jennie on the Thursday and Friday in question.

Blanche’s performance, even with legal coaching, was shaky. One of the Malley family, she would later say, asked how much money she would require to run away and get on the next steamer to Europe. Either confident of victory, or fearing she was being set up, Blanche refused.

In the spring 1882, the trial kicked off. The story was salacious and covered extensively by the press. New Haven at the time was a mini-melting pot of immigrants, with an entrepreneurial and clannish nature.

A small book was published about the case, and the Malleys tried to buy up every copy to shore up their image. There was little doubt among the public that the wealthy Jimmy Malley was guilty, but the jury found otherwise.

There was ample evidence that the Malleys and Blanche had lied repeatedly, but the judge instructing the jury told them there was only one question before them. Had the threesome poisoned Jennie with arsenic, and on that point the jury found there was inadequate evidence to convict.

The shocking death of Jennie Cramer wreaked havoc on her family. Her father killed himself before the trial. Her mother, who became mentally unstable after the trial, followed suit and committed suicide in 1891.

Blanche Douglass would make headlines in the years after the trial a couple of times. Once she was accused of trying to blackmail the Malleys with incriminating letters Walter had written to her. She would later create a scandal by announcing that she and Walter had married, a story he immediately denied.

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