Parade of Death
A mysterious set of coincidences surrounded the deaths of Marybeth's nine healthy children over a period of 14 years. It wasn't that no one had noticed that all of her children had died. Everyone noticed. But few people, very few, knew all the details of all the deaths. The Department of Social Services, the Medical Examiner's Office, several police departments, friends, neighbors, family and even the local funeral home had, at one time or another, registered their shock and disbelief at the odd calamity that had befallen the Tinning family. It is true not everyone thought it was a tragedy. Some saw the deaths as questionable and even made official reports of their suspicions. But in each and every case, no decisive action was taken against either Joe or Marybeth. There was simply no conclusive evidence that anything was amiss.
In the first five years of her marriage to Joe, the couple had two children, Barbara and Joseph Jr. In October 1971, Marybeth's father died of a sudden heart attack. In December that same year, Marybeth gave birth to a third child, Jennifer. On January 3, 1972, Jennifer died in a Schenectady hospital of severe infection, which was diagnosed as meningitis. At that time, most investigators did not believe that this death was suspicious because Jennifer was sick at birth and never brought home. The successive deaths of her father and her baby may have irritated Marybeth's fragile mental condition. Never a happy, well-adjusted adult and frequently described as "strange" by many of her friends and family members, Marybeth seemed to become even more distant after Jennifer's death (Egginton).
Seventeen days later, on January 20, 1972, Marybeth took Joseph Jr., age 2, to the Ellis Hospital emergency room in Schenectady. She reported that he had some type of seizure. The child was kept under observation for a time. When doctors could not find anything wrong with him, Joseph Jr. was sent home. Several hours later, Marybeth returned to the ER with little Joey. This time, he was dead. She told doctors that she had placed him in bed and returned later to find him tangled in the sheets and his body was blue.
"He was taking a nap," Marybeth told detectives in a later statement, "it was close to his birthday and he had slept, taken a nap, slept unusually long. Unfortunately, I did not go in to check on him and when I did, he appeared to be having respiratory problems of which I did not cause" (Tinning). His death was listed as "unknown" and no autopsy was performed.
Barely six weeks later, Marybeth was back at the same emergency room with her daughter, Barbara, age 4. She told the staff that the little girl had gone into convulsions. Though the doctors wanted the child to remain overnight, Marybeth insisted on taking her home. Several hours later, like the incident with Joseph Jr., she returned with Barbara who was unconscious. The child later died in a hospital bed from unknown causes. When police asked Marybeth about this incident years later, she barely remembered it.
"Had a daughter," she told investigators, "while we were sleeping, she called out to me and I went in and she was having a convulsion. I guess I don't even remember whether ... I think maybe we just ... I don't remember whether we took her by ambulance or whether we took her, but anyway we got there and they did whatever they did."
A rare, little understood condition, known as Reyes Syndrome, was suspected in Barbara's death, but never proven.
All three of Marybeth's children were dead. They had died within 90 days of each other, a highly unusual occurrence, even if it were Reyes Syndrome or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). The deaths came as a surprise to everyone because up to the time of their demise; Joseph Jr. and Barbara were healthy and active. Some people thought it must be some type of genetic disorder that was passed from mother to child. That's why people were even more surprised when in the following year, Marybeth became pregnant with her fourth child.
On Thanksgiving Day 1973, she gave birth to Timothy, a small baby weighing just more than 5 pounds. Marybeth took Timothy home two days later. On December 10, just three weeks after birth, Timothy was brought back to the same hospital. He was dead. Marybeth told doctors she found him lifeless in his crib. Again, doctors found nothing medically wrong. Timothy seemed to be a normal baby. His death was listed officially as SIDS.
Two years later, on March 30, 1975, Easter Sunday, Marybeth gave birth to her fifth child, Nathan. One of Marybeth's friends told author Joyce Egginton years later, "I can still see his darling little face. His hair was so blonde, and with those big blue eyes and the smile he was the most perfect specimen of a little baby boy. He was just beautiful!"
On September 2, Marybeth showed up at St. Clare's Hospital with little Nathan, only five months old, in her arms. He was dead. She said she was driving in her car with the baby in the front seat when she noticed that he had stopped breathing. Again, there seemed to be no rational explanation for his death. Friends and neighbors were aghast. Five of Marybeth's children had died. Four of them were in her exclusive care when they simply stopped being healthy. It was horrible, scary, incredible.
And there was more to come.