In the roaring 1920’s, when divorce was scandalous and detrimental to social status, many people stayed in loveless marriages, some had affairs to satisfy their desires, but others turned to murder. When the appearance of propriety is more important than actual integrity, the results can be deadly. These are the stories of women who created the future they desired by fatal means. These are the stories of the Flora Femme Fatale and The Ina Love Pact.
The Flora Femme Fatale
Nellie Esther Trotter, known as “Essie”, was born in Wayne County, Illinois in 1882. At eighteen-years-old, Essie married Wilber Cope and the couple had three children in the early 1900s. (Genealogy Trails). However, the couple would divorce in 1908. My research suggested two conflicting stories for the reason for divorce. The first, was that Essie abandoned her family and Wilber got the divorce granted on those grounds (Deadly Women, 2014). The second story was that Wilber divorced Essie after a failed attempt to poison him (Unknown Gender History, 2011). Essie, now single and without her children, was living in Flora, Illinois and working as a house maid.
Essie began working as a maid for Havill and Mollie Bible in 1908, and her role quickly extended to caregiver to Mollie when she became ill. According to the CDC, the most common causes of death in 1908 included measles, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, whopping cough, diphtheria, tuberculosis, pneumonia, heart disease, cancer, diarrhea, and accidental deaths (CDC, 1909). It was not unusual to be cared for at home during an illness and to deteriorate quickly. The modern medical facilities and advancements we are accustomed to were simply not available one hundred years ago. Antibiotics were not even utilized in medicine at this time. Mollie Bible died at her home with Essie and her husband Havill at her side. (Deadly Women, 2014).
It didn’t take long for Essie to sink her claws in to Havill and the two married. They seemed to have a decent life in Flora and together welcomed a son. On April 25th, 1913, Floyd Hayville Bible was born in Clay County, IL. (Find a Grave). Essie and Havill were a typical family in the early 1920’s, raising Floyd and Havill’s daughter from his marriage to Mollie and their son. A chance encounter with an acquaintance would change everything. According to the Deadly Women episode featuring Essie’s story, she became re-acquainted with Ernest Malinsky in 1923. (Deadly Women, 2014).
It wasn’t long before Havill became ill and Essie, his wife of nearly fifteen years, dedicated herself to providing care for him in their home. Unfortunately, it was to no avail and Havill died on December 11th, 1923. (Find A Grave). The attending physician listed Havill’s death as pleuro-pneumonia and contributory tubercular meningitis. (Unknown Gender History, 2011).
Now a single mother with a son to provider for, Essie went to work once again as a housekeeper or maid. This time, she went to work for Ernest Malinsky and his wife Laura. (Deadly Women, 2014). Ernest and Laura had two sons, Floy and Arlo. (Find a Grave). Ernest was born in Germany and worked as a railroad engineer for B&O railroad after moving to the United States (Wayne County Press, 1953/Find A Grave). Shortly after Essie started her new position in the Malinsky home, Laura Malinsky fell ill.
Laura Malinsky passed-away in her home on September 26th, 1925 at age fifty-three. (Find a Grave). Ernest and Laura had been married since 1894. Survivors included Ernest and their son Arlo, but tragically their son Floy proceeded his mother in death in 1922. (Find a Grave). The attending physician listed her cause of death as ptomaine poisoning and cerebral hemorrhage that was thought to be cause by eating bad watermelon. (Unknown Gender History, 2011).
Laura’s family asked the state’s attorney to exhume Laura’s body, however, and perform laboratory testing as they felt the death was suspicious. This may have been in part because just six weeks after the loss of his wife of nearly thirty years, Ernest Malinsky married Essie. (Unknown Gender History, 2011). Also drawing suspicion was the fact that neither Mr. Malinsky nor their granddaughter, who was living with them, contracted any illness. (Genealogy Trails). The body was exhumed in December and sent to St. Louis for a pathologic examination (Deadly Women, 2014).
Merriam Webster defines ptomaine poisoning as “food poisoning caused by bacteria or bacterial products” (Merriam Webster). This term was commonly applied to bacterial or viral illnesses in the early 1900s. Before the time of widespread antibiotics use and advanced medical treatments, a simple infection or food-borne illness could certainly be deadly.
However, the pathologists examining Laura’s internal organs found something much more peculiar. St. Louis Chemist Dr. H.G. Bristow found that Laura’s organs contained arsenic and determined that to be her cause of death (Genealogy Trails). These findings prompted the arrest of both Ernest and Essie Malinsky in 1926. On March 10th, 1926, Essie plead guilty to the murder of Laura Malinsky and absolved Ernest of all guilt, taking full credit for the murder. (Genealogy Trails).
Essie confessed to the crime, admitting she put arsenic in Laura’s water with the intent to cause her death in order to marry Ernest. Ernest claimed to have no knowledge of the crime and to be devastated that his wife committed this heinous crime against his first wife. (Unknown Gender History, 2011). Judge Thomas M. Jett handed Essie a life sentence and a firm speech, stating “If you were a man, I would hang you. The fact that you are a woman is all that saves you” (Unknown Gender History, 2011).
The judicial system has changed so much since this time, when women were rarely sentenced to death and received much less harsh sentences than men. Mr. Malinsky took guardianship of Essie’s fourteen-year-old son from her marriage to Havill Bible (Unknown Gender History, 2011) after his charges were dropped in light of Essie’s confession. However, the Illinois judicial system would not contain Essie for life.
Although Essie, while serving her life sentence, admitted to murdering her husband Havill Bible and Bible’s first wife, Mollie Bible, she was not charged for those crimes. According to resources I found, the prosecutors did not find it prudent to pursue those charges as Essie was already serving a life sentence. But Essie would be released from Joliet prison on June 18th, 1950 at sixty-eight years old. She moved with her now adult son to California where she lived a very long life as a free woman. Nellie “Essie” Trotter-Cope-Bible-Malinsky died on September 23rd, 1980 at age ninety-eight. Her headstone reads “Beloved Mother and Grandmother” (Find a Grave).
The Ina Love Pact
Marie “Elsie” Son was born in 1892 and according to her was abandoned by her father as an infant. Elsie described to a reporter that her mother remarried when she was two years old, and she was raised in a busy household with six children, often feeling neglected. She dropped out of school at age twelve and began cleaning houses for money. This is how she met Wilford Sweetin. (Ford, 1990). She was married to Wilford at age sixteen.
The couple would have three children and settled in Ina, Illinois. Wilford worked at Nason Mine and was a good provider for his family. “Sweetin made good money, $40-$50 a week, working at the mine” (Ford, 1990) Elsie told reporters. However, she would say that she never quite felt satisfied with her life as a wife and mother. She did not feel she received enough love and attention from her husband. This unfulfilled need would lead Elsie down a path she could not return from.
Annie Windhorst was born in 1880 and married Reverend Lawrence Hight on June 24th, 1897 in Massac County, IL. (Find a Grave). They were also the parents of three children and, like the Sweetin family, settled in the small town of Ina, IL. Lawrence Hight was the pastor of the Methodist Church of Ina and well respected in the community.
Well, he was well respected until rumors started to swirl about his romantic involvement with a church member who was also married, Elsie Sweetin. Like most small towns, rumors fly around town with fury. When stolen glances and suggestive affections were noticed, the rumor mill was in full speed in Ina. These rumors would only intensify after the summer of 1924.
On July 16th, 1924, Wilford, who went by Jack, sustained a minor injury to his arm while at work (Ford, 1990). While recovering from this injury, Jack and Essie made a trip on July 17th to Benton to run errands. While in Benton, the couple enjoyed some ice cream and did some shopping (People V. Sweetin, 1927). Upon returning home, Mr. Sweetin became very ill with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Several physicians were called to evaluate Mr. Sweetin and the physicians all agreed that he was suffering from ptomaine poisoning from the ice cream. Elsie Sweetin also vomited at one point, further confirming the physicians’ theory. (People V. Sweetin, 1927).
Despite Elsie calling in several doctors to treat her husband, Jack Sweetin died on Monday July 28th, 1924. (People V. Sweetin, 1927). Just prior to his death, Lawrence Hight was called to pray with Jack and comforted Elsie after the death. Four physicians performed the autopsy on Mr. Sweetin and determined his cause of death to be liver cirrhosis (Ford, 1990).
Hight performed the funeral service and said, “I converted him on his death bed and he gave his soul to God” (Ford, 1990) Mr. Sweetin was buried in the Kirk Cemetery. The rumors grew about the suspected romance between Hight and Sweetin when the Mr. Hight was seen comforting Elsie on her front porch and rubbing her breasts (Ford, 1990). Elsie, now a single mother, took a job as a store clerk and continued to be actively involved in her church.
On September 6th, 1924 Mr. Hight prepared ham sandwiches for his wife and children but claimed not to be hungry himself. His children began to feel indigestion, but it quickly passed. Anna, however, grew sicker with nausea and vomiting. Only a few days later she was paralyzed from the neck down and soon after began to vomit blood. (Fox, 1990). Many of the same physicians were called in to evaluate Mrs. Hight and determined that she was suffering form ptomaine poisoning. On September 12th, 1924, Annie Hight passed away in her home. She was taken to Metropolis, Illinois for burial. (Ford, 1990).
Jefferson County Coroner Jesse Reese ordered an investigation into the death and sent stomach contents collected from Mrs. Hight to a Chicago laboratory for analysis. The local pharmacist heard the rumors and confirmed that Mr. Hight had purchased a large amount of arsenic (Gribben). The bodies of both Jack Sweetin and Annie Hight were exhumed before the ground even had a chance to settle upon their resting places. Specimens from organs were collected and sent to Chicago. The results showed arsenic poisoning as the cause of both deaths, not food-borne illness (People V. Sweetin, 1927).
Lawrence Hight was the first arrested and initially claimed the arsenic was purchased to kill rats in the parsonage. The arsenic was found in the parsonage in Ina, Illinois. Eventually, however, Lawrence Hight decided to confess his sins. He then said he did kill both Mr. Sweetin and his wife because he felt they were suffering from ptomaine poisoning and wanted to “put them out their misery” (Ford, 1990).
That story changed again, however, when fellow church leaders urged Lawrence to tell the truth. At that point, Lawrence admitted his guilt and implicated Elsie in the murders. Elsie was arrested, but she professed her innocence repeatedly. Eventually, she was put inside a cell with Hight and authorities listened in on their conversations. They heard the couple discuss the murders, Elsie offering to care for his children while he is in prison, Lawrence suggesting she come clean, and noises indicative of kissing were noted. (Ford, 1990).
Elsie would eventually confess to the investigators as well as to Jack’s father, her father-in-law. Part of her confession read “A week or so before my husband was hurt in the mine at Nason, Lawrence Height gave me a paper bag with some poison in it and told me to give some to Wilford” (Ford, 1990). She also said, “I gave him some chocolate candy in which I had mixed some of the poison Hight have given me” (Ford, 1990). “Wilford became very ill, but later seemed better so on Tuesday I gave him some more” (Ford 1990). “On Friday July 25th, I gave Wilford the final dose of poison in some tomato soup” (Ford, 1990).
Hight wrote a letter to his daughter admitting the crimes and Sweetin also gave a very detailed confession to a reporter. (Ford, 1990). Both Elsie and Lawrence expressed remorse for their crimes and claimed to be driven by lustful desire, loneliness, and blamed unhappy marriages for their crimes. Despite these confessions, Hight and Sweetin both plead not guilty.
The trial would be one of the most sensational in the history of Southern Illinois, drawing large crowds and angry mobs. Elsie and Lawrence were tried together for the crimes, with the state’s theory making Lawrence the mastermind. Hight plead not guilty by reason of insanity (People V. Sweetin, 1927) but was found sane to stand trial. He claimed a history of abuse and mental illness in his family (Ford, 1990). The confessions of Hight and Sweetin were also presented as evidence, but no evidence proved unlawful physical intimacy. (People V. Sweetin, 1927).
On December 24th, 1924, the jury returned a unanimous verdict of guilty for both Lawrence Hight and Elsie Sweetin. On January 3rd, 1925, the judge sentenced Lawrence Hight to life in prison. Elsie Sweetin was sentenced to a term of thirty-five years in prison. Lawrence Hight was taken to Menard Correctional Center and Elsie was taken to Joliet prison, where she likely met Essie Bible at some point.
Elsie would not serve long, however, and was granted a new trial on appeal in 1927. It was determined that Elsie should not have been tried with Hight and that it created a biased and unfair trial (People V. Sweetin, 1927). At her second trial, Elsie claimed her confessions were coerced in order to seek protection from the angry mob of Ina who wanted to lynch her (Gribben). This time, Elsie Sweetin was found not guilty and released from prison to care for her three sons. (Ford, 1990).
Elsie Sweetin moved to Chicago after her acquittal and later California. She remarried and became Mrs. Jack Turley. She lived out her life with her children in San Diego where she passed away on October 31st, 1960. (Find a Grave)
Lawrence Hight was imprisoned until March 28th, 1952 when he was paroled after serving twenty-seven years in prison at Menard. (Ford, 1990). Lawrence Height passed away on May 6th, 1959 at age eight-four and is buried in Mt. Vernon, Illinois. (Find a Grave)
Murders happen everywhere and at every point in time in history. The methods may evolve with the times, but love triangles and jealousy will always be common motives from murder. With modern science and medicine, poisoning as a method of murder is not nearly as common as it was one hundred years ago. A significant change in our judicial system since the 1920’s is the degree to which women are punished. No longer are judges and juries hesitant to sentence a female as harshly as males. Perhaps Essie Bible Malinsky and Elsie Sweetin would have spent their lives, or at least more of their lives, behind bars if their crimes were committed in the 2020’s as opposed to the 1920’s.
Genealogy Trails (2011) Clay County Illinois Genealogy and History; Laura Malinsky Murder Retrieved at: Clay County, Illinois Laura Malinksy Murder (genealogytrails.com)
Unknown Gender History (2011) “’If you were a man I would hang you.’ The judge told her”: Elsie Bible Malinsky, Serial Killer- 1926; Retrieved at: Unknown Gender History: “’If you were a man I would hang you,’ the judge told her.”: Elsie Bible Malinsky, Serial Killer - 1926 (unknownmisandry.blogspot.com)
Find a Grave (Retrieved 2021) Essie Malinsky; Retrieved at: Nellie Esther “Essie” Trotter Malinsky (1882-1980) - Find A Grave Memorial; Havill Bible; Retrieved at: Havill Bible (1872-1923) - Find A Grave Memorial; Ernest Malinsky; Retrieved at: Ernest Frederick Malinsky (1874-1953) - Find A Grave Memorial; Laura Malinsky; Retrieved at: Laura May Williams Malinsky (1872-1925) - Find A Grave Memorial; Marie Elsie Son Turley; Retrieved at: Marie Elsie Son Turley (1892-1960) - Find A Grave Memorial; Anna Sophia Windhorst Hight; Retrieved at: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/44911495/anna-sophia-hight
CDC (1909) Department of Commerce and Labor Bureau of the Census: Mortality Statistics: 1908; Retrieved at: Mortality Statistics: 1908 (cdc.gov)
Miriam Webster (Retrieved 2021) ptomaine poisoning; Retrieved at: Ptomaine Poisoning | Definition of Ptomaine Poisoning by Merriam-Webster (merriam-webster.com)
Deadly Women (2014) Hidden Rage; Season 8; Episode 18
Ford, Cindy (1990) Hight-Sweetin Murder Case; The Praire Historian; June 1990; Volume 20; Issue 1; Retrieved at: HIGHT-SWEETIN MURDER CASE Jefferson County, Illinois (genealogytrails.com)
Gribben, Mark (Unknown Date) Took His Life But Saved His Soul; The Malefactor’s Register; Retrieved at: Took His Life But Saved His Soul | (malefactorsregister.com)
People V. Sweetin (1927) Illinois Supreme Court; Retrieved at: The People v. Sweetin, 156 N.E. 354, 325 Ill. 245 – CourtListener.com