The Murder of Doctor Bull

bull lorraine
Lorraine Bull (Mix)

When Dr. George W. Bull, a wealthy New York widower, wanted to remarry in 1885, his adult children feared that he would “deed or try to give away his property,” so they attempted to have him committed to an insane asylum. He and his new wife decided that they’d rather live in Philadelphia.

They apparently were content enough for the next thirteen years, spending most of that time at 825 South 48th Street, within the boundaries of St. Francis de Sales Parish. Bull, retired, was a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (an Irish Catholic fraternal organization), and may have been an amateur painter with a penchant for religious themes. Sadly, he was also said to be an alcoholic, which is supposed to have killed him at age 64, though the death certificate read “aortic stenosis” (heart disease).

bulletin 1908During his final moments, around 1:00 AM on June 14, 1898,  his wife, Lorraine sent messengers to fetch the family doctor and “Father O’Neill, the pastor of St. Francis Catholic Church…of which Dr. Bull and his wife were members...” SFDS first Pastor, Reverend Joseph O’Neill, arrived just “in time to minister the last rites of extreme unction,” but the doctor, returning  from a Knights of Columbus meeting, was minutes late. Bull was buried from our parish (the building that today contains the school auditorium, which was then the chapel; the church was not yet built).

Soon afterwards, Bull’s son-in-law started a rumor that Lorraine poisoned her husband. He provided juicy speculative details to Thomas Wanamaker’s North American newspaper, which relentlessly pursued Lorraine in a series of sensational stories.

When the case came to trial, Lorraine was defended by Anthony A. Hirst, Esq. (the same lawyer who arranged the archdiocesan purchase of land to build St.Francis de Sales church).

The prosecution produced a pharmacist’s assistant from Osterland’s Drug Store, 46th and Baltimore (a used-furniture store today), who identified Lorraine as the customer who purchased mercury insecticide and “nervously” signed the name “Lillie Stokes” in the poison register. Lorraine swore that she had never been to Osterland’s. The neighbor next door at 823 South 48th — the other half of the twin — counter-testified that “Lillie Stokes” was the name of the black servant girl she had sent to that drug store to purchase insecticide on the 14th, and the register showed that the purchase was made at 5:00 PM – long after Bull had died. Under cross examination, the pharmacist’s assistant admitted that Bull’s son-in-law had come to the store and pointed out the entry in the register as “suspicious.” The servant girl could not be located.

The judge ordered Dr. Bull’s body to be exhumed from Holy Cross Cemetery, and when no poison was found, Lorraine Mix (she had, by this time, remarried) was declared innocent.

Lorraine sued Thomas Wanamaker and the North American Newspaper for libel and slander in 1904, and was awarded a fortune in damages, but this was not reported by local press. The powerful Wanamaker (son of the retail giant) then had the judgment against him quietly overturned as a mistrial – in a bold filing, modestly tucked into an obscure court record.

Meanwhile, Lorraine’s stepson-in-law worked on trying to have Bull’s will declared invalid.

Careful hints left by reporters that everyone acting in Lorraine’s defense was Catholic, intriguingly suggest a possible undercurrent of anticatholicism in the saga – which would have been consistent to the period.

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