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The Fly Paper Murderess – Podcast #45

Let’s set our clocks back to May 22, 1931, when it was revealed in the press that a Chicago woman was being investigated for the death of her 17-year-old nephew Thomas Meyers in her home.  I was unable to locate the exact date of his death, but it was definitely within the previous two or three weeks of when this investigation commenced.

The police were initially contacted by relatives of the suspect, 47-year-old Margaret Summers.  The relatives became suspicious when they learned Thomas had designated Mrs. Summers as the sole beneficiary of his life insurance policy.

That probably does not sound like much reason for an investigation, so let me provide some more details in the case.

First, her husband Thomas “Shags” Summers had died on August 9, 1931 at age 37.  Again, Mrs. Summers was the sole beneficiary of his life insurance policy.

Then there were the deaths of two peddlers named William Reiman and Thomas Lanagan, both of whom were boarders at Mrs. Summers home.  Can you guess who was the sole beneficiary of their life insurance policies?  Yes, once again it was Margaret Summers.

Margaret Summers. Image originally appeared on page 1 of the May 28, 1931 publication of The Daily Journal-Gazette.
Margaret Summers. Image originally appeared on page 1 of the May 28, 1931 publication of The Daily Journal-Gazette.

As investigators started to piece this story together, they also learned that her brother Louis Meyers had also died at her residence.  He was the father of the 17-year-old that started this whole investigation and also had a life insurance policy that left it all to Margaret Summers.

And then there was her brother John who had come to Chicago to attend their brother Louis’s funeral and died within a week at her home. 

If you lost track of all these names that I have given you in rapid-fire, her husband, two brothers, her nephew, and two boarders all died within three years at her North Avenue home.   And all six made Margaret Summers the sole beneficiary of their life insurance policies.  Further investigation revealed that she was the sole beneficiary of nineteen different policies taken out on ten different men.  Sounds like we may have a serial killer on our hands…

The police arrested her the very next day and tried to get her to spill the beans, but they could not.  She insisted that she was innocent.  Mrs. Summers explained that she was simply good to all of these men, which is why they designated her as the beneficiary.  That could be true, but it turns out that she paid nearly all the premiums on these policies.

Doctors had examined her nephew Thomas Meyers shortly after he died and saw no evidence of foul play.  His body was exhumed, and toxicology tests showed that he had died of chronic arsenic poisoning.  They determined that the arsenic was administered in small doses over a long period of time. 

They then dug up her late husband’s body and it was confirmed that he also died from arsenic poisoning.  Her boarder Riemer died of the same exact cause.  On the other hand, the coroner determined that her other border Lanagan died of acute arsenic poisoning.  In other words, he was bumped off quickly.

The case was presented to a grand jury on May 26th.  Mathilde Kuhn testified that Mrs. Summers told her that she had poisoned her husband because she caught him with Mrs. Kuhn’s 22-year-old daughter Anna.  Agnes Summers, her husband’s sister, claimed that she overheard Mrs. Summers tell her nephew Thomas to take her husband’s clothing “Because he won’t need them.” 

Mrs. Summers continued to maintain her innocence.  She explained to the police “The way that the insurance business started, Tom was a friend of A. Taylor, an insurance agent, and always recommended his policies to help Taylor out.  That is how Thomas Lanagan and William Reimer, the two roomers who named me in the policies happened to buy insurance.”

Okay, so maybe it was all just a lot of incriminating evidence that did not add up to a conviction.  Maybe she really was a nice person, and it was just a coincidence that all these men died within her home within such a short period of time.

But things only got worse for Margaret Summers.

It was learned that she had been married to a man named James Lynch, who had died seventeen years earlier.

Then they discovered she had also been married to four other men.  That’s six husbands in total.  Not only that, but five of the six had died.  They were unsure of the status of one of the husbands, but he was also presumed dead based on testimony by others.

Another possible victim was a cab driver named Samuel Strauss who was still alive, but very ill.  Doctors had prescribed medicine for him and Mrs. Summers prepared it for him.

I should mention that Mrs. Summers paid premiums on life insurance policies taken out on others.  But none of these people showed any sign of illness.  This included two policies on a 50-year-old-man named Robert Barker, a policy for her stepdaughter Margaret Ritty, and individual policies for each of Mrs. Ritty’s children.

Lastly, police found a page torn out of Mrs. Summers bible that listed the names of twelve deceased men and the amount of money she received as the sole beneficiary of their life insurance policies.

Just about everything that I mentioned was purely circumstantial evidence.  Incriminating enough for everyone to believe that Mrs. Summers was guilty.

But maybe she was telling the truth.  Just possibly, she was very nice to all of these men and they agreed to take out insurance policies designating her as the beneficiary.  After all, no one held a gun to their heads and forced them to sign the documents.

The police needed a smoking gun, but they did not have it.  There was no proof that she had made large purchases of arsenic over all the years that these deaths occurred.  That was until two witnesses came forward and said that they had purchased large amounts of flypaper for Mrs. Summers in the two months before her nephew’s death.

And that was the case that they decided to prosecute.  Margaret Summers was tried in late February of 1932 for the poisoning of 17-year-old Thomas Meyer. 

The prosecution claimed that each sheet of arsenic-laced flypaper was soaked in water to create a weak solution.  The defense pointed out that the packaging of the flypaper indicated that no ill effects would result from soaking the sheets in arsenic.  This was countered with the argument that one wouldn’t have died from a solution made from one or two soaked sheets but could if this was done repeatedly over a long period of time.

It was also learned during the trial that Mrs. Summers was the beneficiary of nine policies taken out in her nephew’s name.  She had forged his signature on one of the policies.   In total, she received $3,630 from these policies.  That is about $50,000 in today’s money. 

The jury took just 3 hours to deliberate the case.  Mrs. Summers was found guilty of the murder of her nephew Thomas Meyer and sentenced to 14 years in prison. 

She was never tried for murder on any of the other men that she supposedly killed.

Useless?  Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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