While creepy fiction is fun this time of year, personally I enjoy creepy nonfiction even more. In the spirit of Halloween, I’ve picked one of my favorite local true crime stories to share. These murders happened in a city near where I live, and part of why I find this particular crime so fascinating its connection to public libraries and one of their core foundational principles in the United States: intellectual freedom.
The city of Auburn, Washington was originally named the city of Slaughter back when it was settled by non-indigenous residents in 1893 (1). The city hotel was even named the Slaughter House (1) – side note, with a name like that I would definitely want to stay there!! Little would anyone have guessed that the city’s original name would become prophetic over a hundred years later, as two local murders sparked worry of a nationwide poisoning…
But first, I need to set the stage for the crime I want to discuss with a different, earlier crime. We jump ahead to 1982, towards the end of September. Leaving Auburn Washington we head east, around and in the city of Chicago. A group of seeming random people: 12 year-old Mary Kellerman, 27 year-old Adam Janus, his 25 year-old brother Stanley Janus and his 19 year-old wife Theresa, 31 year-old Mary McFarland, 35 year-old Paula Prince, and 27 year-old Mary Reiner (2). What do they have in common? They’ve all ingested Tylenol capsules. Unfortunately, there’s no way they could have known that their pills had been tampered with and secretly contained a lethal amount of cyanide. All seven died as a result of this poisoning. These still unsolved murders, known informally as the Chicago Tylenol murders, became the impetus for the current use of tamper-proof packaging in the United States (2).
Four years later (1986) and we move our focus back west, back to the briefly-introduced city of Auburn. Early one June morning, bank manager named Sue Snow was experiencing a headache and took two Excedrin. Around 6:30 a.m., Sue’s 15 year-old daughter Hayley found her mother collapsed on the bathroom floor – unresponsive, pulse faint. Sue Snow would never regain consciousness (3).
During Sue’s autopsy, the distinctive smell of bitter almonds was detected. There’s actually an interesting side-story here: the pathologist’s assistant, Janet Miller, was the only one in the room with two doctors to detect the scent. If Janet had not picked up on the cyanide smell, none of the other typical symptoms Snow exhibited would have pointed to cyanide poisoning and this diagnosis very possibly would have been missed. Janet made a joke by asking if Sue Snow had taken Tylenol before her death, referencing the well-known Chicago murders (4).
While searching the Snow household, investigators located the source of the cyanide: Janet hadn’t been that far off with her joke, as it was determined to be the bottle of Excedrin pills in the bathroom. Thinking perhaps a Chicago copycat-killer was at work, another bottle from the same manufacturing lot at a local grocery store was tested and found to also contain pills laced with cyanide. A heavily-publicized recall of all Excedrin products in the Seattle area ensued (3).
In response to the recall, an Auburn city woman named Stella Nickell came forward. Her husband Bruce had recently died and although it had been ruled due to natural causes, she remembered he had taken Excedrin pills and found that the bottle had the same lot number as was being recalled. She surrendered two bottles of Excedrin, which both were found to contain cyanide. Her husband’s remains were exhumed and retested, confirming cyanide poisoning as his actual cause of death (3).
Of course, the discovery of another Excedrin-related death caused additional panic. Suspicions were directed at first toward the makers of Excedrin, Bristol-Myers (who had by now recalled all Excedrin products and non-prescription capsule products across the country), however, after a thorough investigation the FDA found no traces of cyanide at the plant where the lot of Washington bottles were processed (3). Suspicion then shifted back to the poisoning victims and their families. Specifically, it focused back on Stella Nickells; she had somehow managed to have two of the five bottles discovered to contain cyanide-laced pills (3). Stella looked increasingly guilty as the investigation continued, having a substantial life insurance policy on her husband with an additional payout if the cause of death was determined to be accidental. Even before Sue Snow’s death, Stella had argued with the doctor’s determination that her husband had died of natural causes. But investigators were initially unable to build a strong case demonstrating Stella’s guilt.
That is, until Stella’s daughter Cynthia came forward. She revealed her mother had unsuccessfully previously tried to poison her father with foxglove (a poisonous native plant). That failure inspired Stella to visit the library to learn more about poisons. That was where she received her introduction to the poison cyanide.
As a librarian, here is where I get extra thoughtful about this already fascinating (and horrific!) case. At the time of this investigation, library records were subpoenaed from the Auburn Public Library including Stella’s check-out history. She had borrowed several books on poisons, never returning one of them. The pages in these books related to cyanide were dusted and Stella’s fingerprints were discovered, cementing Stella’s connection to knowledge of cyanide. These books were used as key evidence during Stella’s trial (3).
Now, let’s step back from this case and talk a little bit about public libraries. The American Library Association, the professional body representing the librarian profession in the United States, feels strongly about the privacy of patrons “Protecting user privacy and confidentiality has long been an integral part of the mission of libraries. The American Library Association has affirmed a right to privacy since 1939. Existing ALA policies affirm that confidentiality is crucial to freedom of inquiry (5, emphasis added).”
In this digital age, obscuring a patron’s record to protect their privacy is much easier than it was back in the 1980s. In the 1980s there were physical cards with due dates and names, creating a paper trail. But the circulation program I now use to manage checkouts intentionally has a very limited memory. Why? Well, to protect patron privacy.
The King County Library System, where I work, now manages the Auburn Public Library. What this means is if this case took place today (I know, I know – if it would have taken place today she wouldn’t have used the library at all, she would probably have Googled the information and had the pages logged in her browser history – but bear with me here), the Auburn Library would literally be unable to provide a checkout history for Stella Nickells. That key evidence used at trial? Nonexistent.
I can’t help but keep coming back to this idea – if someone used the library today to check out a book with information to help them commit a crime, there would be no record to use in court. And I agree that it is key to intellectual freedom that the public be able to inquire with anonymity. But this case uniquely illustrates the flip side of the issue – that while knowledge itself (and its pursuit) is not inherently good or evil, what we do with knowledge has real consequences. Consequences which, for better or for worse, some libraries have chosen to remove themselves from.