Florence Mildred Campbell was desperate to be the wife of John Rathom, a star reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1896, with whom she was having an affair. He had married her close friend, Mary, in 1890, but the couple was estranged.
Florence plotted to remove her friend: “Miss Campbell bought some candied cherries and loaded them with arsenic,” wrote The Hemet News on October 13, 1899.
Florence didn’t want Mary dead, just out of the way. So she came up with the idea of sending her to jail. She felt if Mary was in jail, John could divorce her.
Her plan backfired. She bought a box of candied cherries and injected arsenic into the second layer. She mailed the box under Mary’s name to the home she and John rented, and she offered the first, untainted, layer to landlady Elsie Scheib, to corroborate her story. She, too, ate some.
When both she and Scheib became ill, Florence believed she had poisoned them both accidentally. She went to a drugstore for an anecdote, and the druggist contacted the police. After being questioned, she confessed. She didn’t mean to harm anyone, but she wanted her man.
No charges were filed. By 1903, Florence was calling herself Mrs. Rathom. The first Mrs. Rathom sued for divorce in 1908, naming Florence as corespondent.
Another Florence was involved in a poisoned cherry plot in St. Louis, Missouri, that same year, 1899. A widow named Florence McVean received a box of candied cherries that “contained arsenic enough to kill ten men.” She did not eat the candy, and a puzzling case of whodunit revolved around the story. The case was never solved.
Cherries were a popular fruit on the frontier. The season began as early as April in some locations and ended by August. Grown in just about every Western state, cherries were enjoyed at their height of freshness. Pioneers also preserved the cherries, making them into jellies, jams and candied fruits.
West Coast canneries went full swing in June. Just one packing company in San Jose, California, produced 7,000 cases of cherries in 1885. In 1897, the state’s seasonal freight shipments of cherries totaled more than three million pounds.
In 1848, Henderson Lewelling planted an orchard near Milwaukie, Oregon. In 1875, his brother, Seth, named his Bing cherry, the most produced variety of sweet cherries in the U.S. today, in honor of a Chinese worker.
“The manner in which the cherry was named for him happened thus: He and my stepfather were working the trees, every other row each. When they discovered this tree with its wonderful new cherry, someone said, ‘Seth, you ought to name this for yourself.’ ‘I’ve already got one in my name,’ Seth responded. ‘No, I’ll name this for Bing. It’s a big cherry, and Bing’s big, and anyway, it’s in his row, so that shall be its name,’” Florence Ledding recalled in 1939.
Candied cherries may take some time to make, but they are worth the effort—so long as you skip adding arsenic to yours, of course.
*** R E C I P E ***
~ Candied Cherries ~
1 lb. fresh cherries
1 lb. sugar
1 c. water
Wash, stem and pit the cherries. In a large pot, add the sugar and water. Bring to a boil.
Stir to dissolve the sugar. Add the cherries and boil until the juice looks like syrup (about 30 minutes).
Place strained cherries on cake cooling racks, with cookie sheets beneath each rack.
Heavily coat the cherries with powdered sugar and bake at 200 degrees for about an hour or until the juice no longer drips.
Cool overnight. When you pack the cherries into a container, separate each one with wax paper.
Keep the strained juice for pancakes, or mix it with brandy for cherry brandy!
Recipe adapted from The San Diego Union,
June 13, 1895
Sherry Monahan has penned Mrs. Earp: Wives & Lovers of the Earp Brothers; California Vines, Wines & Pioneers; Taste of Tombstone; The Wicked West and Tombstone’s Treasure. She’s appeared on the History Channel in Lost Worlds and other shows.