"Drowning…at the Hands of an Insane Mother"

This week I started reading the Coroner’s Inquests from Summit County, Ohio for the late 19th to the early 20th centuries. This has proven to be an extremely interesting collection despite the fact that I will probably never visit the graves of any of the people within its pages. There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of murders, suicides, and weird accidents to read about but one set of entries for an inquest in October 1901 in particular caught my eye.

pg 30

p 31

There are four entries on pages 30-31 for people who drowned “at the hands of an insane mother” and one entry for Rose Curtis who also drowned  “at her own hands with suicidal intent while insane.”

I was hoping there would be more information in the historic newspapers collection about this case and luckily there was.

The Curtis family lived on a leased portion of the Wolcott farm near Town Line Station. The family consisted of patriarch Perry Curtis (38), Rose Angel Struder Curtis (35), Harold Struder (9), Harvey (or Harry) Curtis (5) , Annie Curtis (4), and Helen Curtis (2). Rose, a native Hungarian, had passed along her fair hair and blue eyes to most of her children. (The oldest child’s eyes were brown but his hair was also light.) Also living with the family was Florence Kilner,  20, a housekeeper. Harold was Rose’s child from a previous marriage which ended when Mr. Struder died while the child was in infancy. Perry and Rose became acquainted after she was recommended to him as a housekeeper. The widow and Harold had fallen on hard times after Mr. Struder’s death and had been living in the Bethel Mission, so the opportunity to work for Mr. Curtis gave her a way out of shelter life.2 Around 1895 Perry and Rose were married and since the marriage, the three youngest children had been born.

Akron Daily Democrat, 28 Sept. 1901

On the morning of Friday, September 27,1901 Perry woke up early to transport a load of apples to Cleveland to sell. Before he and Florence left around 3 a.m., the youngest daughter Helen rose in time to give her father a farewell kiss. Rose was also awake and gave both her husband and Florence a kiss, wishing them safe travels.2 Nothing seemed out of the ordinary at that time, although later details would suggest that perhaps Perry shouldn’t have left his wife alone with the children.

G.G. Roberts, a man employed by Mr. Curtis to help at the farm, milked the cows and went to the well around 5 a.m. to wash up. The well was a total of ten feet deep with a diameter of four feet. When he removed the tub that was covering the well’s opening he saw the three youngest children floating near the surface of the water, which was about 5.5 feet deep. Rose’s body was sitting up against the wall at the bottom and Harold was beside her. Horrified, Roberts dashed back to town for help even though he knew everyone in the well was dead. It wasn’t long before a number of neighbors had gathered at the scene of the tragedy to remove the bodies from their watery tomb. The coroner was summoned and around 10:00 that morning he started his investigation. When the coroner arrived all of the bodies were covered by a quilt, the children still in their nightclothes and Rose dressed in a blue wrapper. Later, neighbors helped clean the bodies and prepare them for burial while awaiting an undertaker. Perry’s mother, Mrs. George Sweet, was also at the scene. She had been Helena’s caretaker for the past year up until two weeks prior. To Rose’s corpse she was reported to have said something suggesting that Rose wasn’t really to blame for the deaths of the children.1

Meanwhile, Perry and Florence had finished up at the market and were in a restaurant in Cleveland when they overheard a waiter say, “An insane woman out the A.B.C. line threw her four children into a well and then jumped in and drowned herself.” Immediately the two thought about the situation at the Walcott farm. After all, Rose had only been out of the hospital for the insane at Massillon for two weeks. Following a panicked trip back home, Perry’s suspicion that it was his wife who’d drowned the children and then herself was confirmed. In the parlor of the home, the prostrated father gazed upon the five corpses and fell to the floor between the stretchers holding his wife and one of the boys where he laid for several minutes before asking to be left alone. Others in the room backed towards the door but feared that if left completely alone in the room he might injure himself. Perry uncovered the face of and kissed each child as he murmured a few final words to them. Then he removed the shroud from Rose’s face. He had nothing to say to her, but brushed her hair back from her brow with his hand. Then he sat in a chair with his hands over his head for nearly fifteen minutes, making no noise. His silence was finally broken by his declaration that he had nothing to live for and that he wished to die with his wife and children. He regained his composure enough to talk to authorities and also to insist that photos be taken of the children because he had none.2

The five coffins would be buried together in the Boston township in the Miller’s graveyard on Sunday, two days after the incident. Unfortunately I was unable to locate burial records for any member of the Curtis family in Summit County, Ohio.2

The coroner’s verdict was that Rose was solely responsible for throwing the children into the well in a fit of insanity. Not long after her husband left with Florence she took each child to the well and threw him or her inside to death. The order in which she murdered them wasn’t discovered (or published). Harold’s face was bruised, which the coroner thought was the result of bumping against the sides of the well or that he’d been injured while trying to wrestle away from his mother in a last-ditch effort to save himself. Rose wasn’t much larger in stature than Harold and evidence suggested that they’d struggled at the well before he went over the side. Any discolorations on the other children were explained as being caused by Rose’s shoes hitting them as she fell down the shaft on the way to her own death or from their descent. Leberman, the coroner, stated that Rose’s “…early removal from the asylum is to be greatly deplored.2

In hindsight, it may not have been the wisest choice for Mr. Curtis to leave his wife at home unsupervised with the children. It was probably an even worse idea for the hospital to released her as they did. Rose knew that she’d have to return to the insane asylum before November 20 because she was still considered to be of “unsound mind.” When Helen was six months old Rose fell ill with pneumonia and “lost her mind.”1 The specific details of her mental breakdown weren’t outlined in the papers, but she was hospitalized in the asylum after recovering from pneumonia and had been institutionalized ever since, meaning she’d been locked away for well over a year. During that time Helen was sent to stay with her grandmother and Florence was hired in September 1900 to assist with the other children and run the household in Rose’s absence. Even though the mother was in an asylum, she was said to be upset about the separation from her family. Her children had grown fond of Florence and accepted her as a type of mother figure, which probably greatly disturbed Mrs. Curtis. Her behavior during the two weeks that she had been home wasn’t unusual. She seemed to get along well with everyone and was enjoying her freedom from the hospital. During that time her mind could have been plagued by the fear of being replaced by a younger woman in the hearts of her children and husband. Did the notion of being separated from her family again madden her to the point of murdering them and then taking her own life? Mr. Curtis said Rose had been writing to her sister in New York, but all of the letters were in Hungarian so he was unable to read them. The last mention of the letters was that Mr. Curtis was going to have them translated. I found no mention after that of a written explanation as to why Rose chose to kill her children and herself, so that part remains a mystery.

After the tragedy various theories about what happened circulated through the town. A detective named James Burlison speculated that Rose had killed the youngest child by hitting them in the face with an axe before dumping him into the well. An axe was recovered from the bottom of the well and Burlison said that because there was very little water in the child’s lungs he must have been unconscious or dead before he reached the water. Another rumor was that Rose and the children were all murdered, but the prevailing belief was that she had acted alone that morning.

1 “An Awful Tragedy! Insane Mother Drowned Herself and Children.” Akron Daily Democrat 27 Sept. 1901.
2 “Five In One Grave.” Akron Daily Democrat 28 Sept. 1901.
3 “Ohio, Summit County, Coroner Inquests, Hospital and Cemetery Records, 1882-1947.” FamilySearch 19 Mar. 2013.

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