On the Chautauquan House Tour, Visit the Home of A Possible Murderer


On Wednesdays, Alan Nelson guarded the sugar. He was 8 years old and in the service of his aunt, the hostess at the Presbyterian House, who’d warned him about an eccentric, middle-aged woman named Martha Sterrett.

His duty during those summers in the early 1950s was limited to afternoon social hours. Visitors from across the grounds were invited to fill their souls with conversation and cookies; the particulars varied from house to house, but the Presbyterians offered sugar cubes to guests, who typically selected a cube or two to sweeten their tea.

Sterrett, on the other hand, was known to abscond with a purse packed with cubes, otherwise filled with treats taken from different houses.

When the time came and, despite his fiercest glares, Nelson — the “shortest boy in his class since first grade” — failed to intimidate Sterrett. The cubes continued to disappear.

Nelson’s aunt eventually solved the problem by switching from cubes to granulated sugar. The thinking was, apparently, that Sterrett would be less apt to stuff fists of sticky crystals into her purse as she made her rounds.

But sugar theft was perhaps the most trivial charge against Sterrett, who lived in the cottage at 36 Scott — one of the dozen homes featured in the Bird, Tree & Garden Club House and Garden Tour starting at noon today. Rather, Sterrett’s fame peaked in 1922, when she was widowed by the contents of a package from an anonymous sender.

“It came by special delivery in a large paper box, wrapped with brown paper,” read the original Oct. 29, 1922, story from The New York Times. “Inside the large box were two smaller ones, each containing a piece of golden cake with white icing.”

Later reports clarified the golden cake was, in fact, devil’s food, but its impact was unambiguous: Walter W. Sterrett ate one piece of cake and died; Martha Sterrett ate the other piece of cake and survived.

A protracted investigation followed, and experts discovered traces of arsenic and bichloride of mercury in Walter’s stomach. Those poisons were likely mixed into the cake’s icing, undetectable to taste.

Sterrett was immediately a suspect in her husband’s death, and papers as prominent as the Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer chronicled developments. Readers learned Walter was an accountant at Price Waterhouse in Philadelphia, although the couple lived in Devon, Pennsylvania, one of the city’s main line suburbs. Both Sterretts were about 40 years old, and the couple never had children.

News reports pegged “jealousy” of multiple varieties, including Walter’s possible extramarital affairs, as a potential motive for the poisoning. A prominent theory was that Sterrett mailed the cake herself in order to disguise her supposed plan.

Detectives and journalists interviewed neighbors, who said the Sterretts were largely unassuming. Postmasters tracked the package to its origin — “Penn Square Station, in this city,” the Times reported. Much effort was devoted to finding the typewriter which produced the box’s address label. Even so, the leads died, Sterrett’s alibi checked out and she was never indicted.

Nelson coincidentally attended college with someone named Jim Sterrett in the early 60s who told the tale of his great uncle from Philadelphia who died of arsenic poisoning. It didn’t take Nelson long to connect the dots.

“He said his great aunt lived at Chautauqua, and she was Martha Sterrett,” Nelson said. “There was a very strong suspicion in the Sterrett family that she did it.”

Sterrett moved from Devon to Chautauqua after the incident and lived alone year-round in her cottage. Beyond sugar, she was known to steal food and odd items from different porches. Certain people began to joke that if you lost something in Chautauqua, you should check for it at 36 Scott.

Nelson said someone described her as akin to the dour woman in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” — tall and thin “with no style whatsoever.”

Sterrett died in 1965 and left the cottage to her sister, who lived in Mayville. Her roughhewn headstone sits in Chautauqua Cemetery — the name flanked only by a set of engraved daffodils.

“Honestly, I see it as a very sad, tragic thing,” Nelson said of Sterrett’s solitary life. “If she did do it, she should have gone to jail. If she didn’t do it, she lived a very sad life.”

Tuesday’s BTG house tour means about 1,500 visitors will shuffle through Sterrett’s former home, which has passed from hand to hand to reach its current residents, Roger and Suzy Conner.

Some of the masses will be Chautauquans, but most are home and garden enthusiasts bused in from places such as New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and even Toronto.

Nelson, a former BTG president, usually participates in the biennial tour as part of the bike patrol which crisscrosses the grounds, directing people from house to house. But, at 72, he gave up the patrol this year to be one of the house guides. He and his wife were randomly assigned to 36 Scott.

He will read the provided script and offer his own limited experience with the cottage. However, he admitted there’s not much he can add now that half a century and a handful of owners erased the “little white cottage” Nelson associated with Sterrett.

The Conners added a 9-foot extension to the back of the house, which is currently painted in a vibrant palette of yellow and blue, inside and out. The original pine floors remain below white beadboard ceilings, now juxtaposed with elements the Conners added, such as the birdhouse fashioned from one of Suzy Conner’s ice skates hanging on the front porch.

But up the stairs and to the right is “the Devon room,” where commemorative horse show posters line the walls of a bedroom. The Conners visit Devon, Pennsylvania, every year to attend its famous horse show — the same Devon, Pennsylvania, where two Sterretts lived and one Sterrett died.

Roger Conner said the Sterrett connection startled them: “When we heard that Walter Sterrett, her husband, died of arsenic poisoning in Devon, we thought, oh my God.”

“Cue the ‘Twilight Zone’ music,” Suzy Conner said.

Morgan Kinney

The author Morgan Kinney

Morgan Kinney is a Northwestern University journalism student who likes to explain things, particularly science. Read his Twitter thoughts @morgan_kinney.