Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Last Stop

They Called her Borgia

Mary Creighton (AP)
Mary Creighton (AP)
This is a sordid story of child sex abuse, money, parental neglect and a disturbed woman who may have killed three people, including her own brother. Mary Frances Avery was born in New Jersey in 1898. She married John Creighton and had a daughter, Ruth. In 1923, Mary and John were arrested for the death of her brother, Raymond Avery, who was poisoned by a lethal dose of arsenic. Mary Frances was named as the beneficiary in his insurance policy and also inherited her brother's trust fund. She was acquitted after a trial in Newark, New Jersey that same year. Within days after the verdict, Frances was arrested for the murder of her father-in-law. Again, after a trial, she was found not guilty. Perhaps seeing a limited future in New Jersey, Mary Frances quickly moved to Long Island, New York.

Everett Appelgate <br />(CORBIS)
Everett Appelgate
(CORBIS)
In the small town of Baldwin, the Creightons became friends with a couple named Everett, 37 and Ada Appelgate, 34 who lived in the house next door. Everett was an investigator with the Unemployment Bureau but made little money. This was the 1930s, the height of the Great Depression in America, when money was scarce and jobs were hard to come by. In order to save money, the Appelgates moved in with the Creightons. Mary's daughter, Ruth, now 14, and the Appelgate's daughter, Agnes, 12, had to sleep wherever they could in the cramped house. For a time, they chose the attic, which was cold and filthy. Within a few weeks however, Ruth found her way into Everett and Ada's bed. And soon, Everett began having sex with Ruth. But that wasn't enough. Mary Frances joined in the arrangement; although she later claimed that she was unaware her daughter had a sexual relationship with Everett. Mary Frances also later testified she knew that Agnes, Everett's own daughter, and Ruth were in Everett's bed during the same night. For her own role, Mary claimed that Everett forced her into sex by threatening to reveal her murderous background to everyone.

In September, 1936, Ada Appelgate complained of being sick. She was taken to the local hospital where she was examined and sent home. Several days later, Ada died at home of unknown causes. It was suspected that it could have been pneumonia. However, tendencies of Mary's relatives to die suddenly and without explanation reached the offices of Nassau County's District Attorney's office and an investigation was begun. An autopsy of Ada Appelgate showed a massive dose of arsenic, a substance that was often used in poisoning deaths in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The ubiquitous use of arsenic in murder cases has always mystified criminologists for several reasons. Arsenic has many problems associated with its use as a means of death. The foremost problem is that arsenic is easily detected at post mortem examinations, even in minute quantities. Although the human body maintains a natural level of arsenic, and this fact has been utilized as a trial defense, it is a simple procedure to measure these levels to refute that claim. It is also difficult to measure exactly how much of the drug to use since people have a different tolerance to arsenic, thereby forcing the killer to use a large amount and virtually assuring its detection later on (Smyth, p. 212). Since a large amount can be instantly discerned by the victim, the killer often resorts to chronic poisoning: using many doses of small amounts over a period of time. In almost all arsenic poisoning cases, the events follow a similar predictable pattern: sudden, unexplained death, suspicion, examination of the body, discovery of arsenic and arrest of friend or family member. This is exactly what happened in the Creighton case.

On January 12, 1936, Mary Frances Creighton and Everett Appelgate went on trial for their lives in Nassau County Criminal Court. Dr. Alexander O. Gettler, a toxicologist for the Medical Examiner's Office for the City of New York testified that he found traces of arsenic in Ada Appelgate's body which led him to believe that her corpse contained 11 grains of the substance. It was generally agreed that 3 grains could be considered a lethal dose (New York Times, January 18, 1936). John Creighton also took the stand and claimed no knowledge of almost anything. He said he didn't know that his daughter and wife were having sex with Everett, he didn't know that Ada died from arsenic and he didn't believe his wife had anything to do with the murder. Dr. Richard H. Hoffman, a prominent New York psychiatrist testified that Mary Frances was legally sane at the time of the event. But the highlight of the trial came when Mary Frances took the stand in her own defense and instead, gave the court a performance that doomed her to the electric chair.

On January 22, she marched to the witness stand confidant of her own innocence. At first she said that she had nothing to do with Ada's death. She told the jury that Everett put some sort of white powder in Ada's eggnog just before her death and this happened several times. Careful not to mention Mary Frances' prior murder trials, District Attorney Elvin Edwards pressed on. He brought up Mary's previous statements, which were inconsistent with her testimony and said the motive for the murder was insurance money and Everett's sexual desire for Mary's teenage daughter. When asked if she took a glass of milk that contained arsenic to Ada, Mary Frances admitted what she had done.

"Yes, I did. Appelgate told me," she answered.

"Knowing this, you took it to her to drink?"

"Yes" she replied.

"You stood by and watched this woman, who was your best friend, die?" the D.A. asked.

"Yes," Mary Frances said (Times, January 24, 1936, p. 1). That was enough for the jury. Although Everett Appelgate also took the stand, his testimony was no better, admitting to the sexual relationship with Mary's 14-year-old daughter but denying almost everything else, including a trip to a drug store where he and Mary Frances bought rat poison.

At 12:47 a.m., on January 25, 1936, a jury found Mary Frances and Everett guilty of 1st Degree Murder. A sentence of death was mandatory. Mary Frances began crying immediately, while Everett remained stoic. At sentencing, Everett Appelgate asked to make a statement. He told the court "I knew nothing and had nothing to do with the administration of arsenic poisoning, and in addition to that I have never at any time had misconduct of any character with Mrs. Creighton" (Times, January 31, 1936). Within an hour, they were on their way to Sing Sing prison and a date with death.

Everett Appelgate in jail (CORBIS)
Everett Appelgate in jail
(CORBIS)
Over the next few months, appeals were filed on her behalf, but all failed. A date of July 16 was set for the executions. As the date approached, Mary Frances became seriously ill. She collapsed several times and her legs appeared paralyzed. She could not eat and lost a great deal of weight. A commission of five doctors was appointed to investigate her medical condition. The day before the sentence was to be carried out, the commission reported that Mary Frances was suffering from hysteria as a result of her impending death. "We find no evidence of organic disease of the central nervous system or the body as a whole" the head of the medical team reported (Times, January 15, 1936). In other words, Mary Frances was healthy enough to be executed.

On July 16, 1936 in the evening hours, Warden Lawes permitted their respective families to say goodbye to Mary and Everett. Appelgate's father and step-mother came to visit and he was able to have a brief meeting with his son. "I said 'Goodbye, Ev' and he said 'Goodbye, Pop'. That was all," the older Appelgate related to reporters (Duncan, p. 5). John Creighton visited Mary and was allowed to embrace her and kiss her for the last time. He was never sure that Mary had killed his own mother. John broke down and wept openly. As he left, he threatened to shoot any reporter who asked him a question. In the waiting room, as reporters assembled to enter the witness room, Agnes Appelgate, 13, and Ruth Creighton, 15, the object of Everett's sexual desires, munched on hamburgers.

At 11:00 p.m., Mary Frances Creighton, 38, was wheeled into the execution chamber at Sing Sing prison. She was wearing a pink nightgown and a black satin kimono. The back of her head was partially shaved where the electrodes were to be attached. For weeks, Mary Frances had told doctors that she was paralyzed from the waist down and could not walk. It was reported that she was actually in a coma, induced by hypodermic injection of morphine (Duncan, p. 2). She made no sounds, nor did she utter any last words. No one will ever know for sure if she was aware of the execution. Her hands were wrapped by a set of rosary beads that were given to her by the prison staff. Outside the room, professional executioner Robert G. Elliott, prepared to kill his third female. At 11:04 p.m., the deadly current was sent through her body and within moments, she was dead. With the odor of burning flesh still hanging in the air, Appelgate entered the chamber. Before he met his own death, he had this to say: "Before God, gentlemen, I'm absolutely innocent of this crime and I hope the good God will have mercy on the soul of Martin W. Littleton" (New York Daily News, July 17, 1936).

The day before she died, Mary Frances converted to the Catholic religion and was baptized by the Prison Chaplain, Father McCaffrey. She was asked if she wanted to say anything to the public. She wiped the tears from her eyes and spoke these words: "I have done many wrong things but I know God will forgive me. I was a good wife and mother and whatever I did I did for him and the children. I hope they will have a better life than I did!" (Daily News, July 17, 1936).

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