The Genetic Factor
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) was once responsible for thousands of infant deaths each year in America. Sometimes called "crib death," SIDS was a condition that was not well understood in the 1970s. Since that time, a great deal of research has been completed on this baffling affliction that takes the lives of babies in their cribs without any warning. SIDS is a diagnosis of exclusion. That means a determination of a SIDS death is usually made after everything else is ruled out. Doctors felt sure that SIDS was respiratory-related and that babies probably died from apnea, a sudden and unexplained cessation of breathing. It usually occurs in infants less than one year old and 80% of the victims are between two and four months old. Most experts do not believe that a baby will suffocate from being snarled in blankets and bed sheets.
Three of the Tinning babies were eventually diagnosed as SIDS deaths. This should have been a cause for concern since statistically, having two or three SIDS deaths in one family, is nearly impossible because SIDS is not and never has been, genetic in nature. Therefore, to have two occurrences in the same family is an extreme abnormality. Dr. Michael Baden, former Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York, once said, "About three babies in a thousand die from crib death. The odds against two crib deaths in one family are enormous. The odds against three are astronomical" (Baden).
Over the years, several physicians investigated the mystery in the Tinning home that led to the deaths of nine children. Hereditary factors were strongly suspected, though the unexplained death of Michael, the adopted son, lessened the possibility that there was some type of "death gene" being passed on to the Tinning children. Marybeth and Joseph also submitted to numerous medical examinations over the years to search for a cause. This proved to be of little value. Dr. Baden comments on the genetic theory in his book, Confessions of a Medical Examiner, "There is no known genetic disease that can cause sudden death in healthy children," he wrote.
Reyes Syndrome, an ill-defined condition that causes the brain to swell, was also suspected, though this explanation proved controversial and had little basis in fact. Reyes Syndrome produces noticeable symptoms. Family and friends observed Marybeth's children shortly before they died. With the exception of Jennifer, the babies seemed healthy.
"Just about everyone who came into contact with the family, the hospital, doctors, social service workers, was suspicious," said Schenectady Police Chief Richard E. Nelson to the press, "and communicated that suspicion to each other, many from the very beginning" (Feb. 8, 1986, New York Times). However, the problem wasn't that people weren't skeptical. The problem was that an exact cause of death for the babies could not be determined. Without a definitive ruling from the medical examiner's office a unified investigative effort from the police department could not take place. Dr. Robert Sullivan, the medical examiner of Schenectady was interviewed by author Joyce Egginton for her book on the case, From Cradle to Grave, "As I look back," he said, "the main problem is that different persons or agencies knew about every one of these deaths, but there was no centralized collection of information. It was all of us together...and all of us failed" (Egginton).
Neighbors of the Tinnings knew all too well the story of their dead children. "I knew she had lost five children and I had my suspicions," one neighbor told the New York Times, "But who was I to point a finger?" In between deaths, Marybeth was frequently pregnant. When her baby was born, she was often seen walking down the streets, pushing a baby carriage, chatting with neighbors and fussing over the new addition to her strange and tragic family. Another neighbor once told a reporter from the Albany Times Union, "When the last child was born I asked myself, 'How long is this one going to last.'"