Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Doctor, the Soldier, and the Soldier's Wife: The Attempted Murder of Wyndham R. Gilmer

[Note: a version of this post appears several months ago. It has been updated with additional information and images.]

The Doctor, the Soldier, and the Soldier's Wife: The Attempted Murder of Wyndham R. Gilmer

In early May 1891 the news quickly spread throughout southwestern Virginia: 

“Sensational Crime! WYNDHAM GILMER POISONED BY HIS WIFE, WHO IS IN LOVE WITH ANOTHER MAN!” Respected local farmer Wyndham R. Gilmer was allegedly poisoned by his wife in a conspiracy with her lover, Dr. John A. P. Baker. The trial would captivate the locals and coverage appeared as far away as California. The subsequent trials occurred over ten months in 1891 and 1892.

The Soldier

The son of Charles H. and Frances Gilmer, Wyndham R. Gilmer was born on May 5, 1843, in Russell County, Virginia. The Gilmers were among the wealthiest families in Southwest Virginia, and Gilmer's father represented Russell County in the Virginia General Assembly in 1852, 1859-60, and 1861.

On March 27, 1862 Wyndham enlisted as a private in the 29th Virginia Infantry, CSA. Until he was wounded in action on April 2, 1865, just a week before Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Wyndham was a model soldier, present at all musters. He was admitted to the hospital at Farmville, Virginia with a gunshot wound to his left thigh, which would continue to trouble him for the rest of his life.

After the war, Wyndham moved to Washington County where, on February 25, 1869, he married Ellen Clapp, the daughter of a wealthy machinist. They had two children, Lou and Earl, before Ellen Gilmer died of consumption on March 18, 1873.

Four years later, on December 19, 1877, Wyndham married Margaret J. Cecil in Pulaski County. This marriage produced at least seven children.

The Soldier's Wife

Margaret J. Cecil, known as Maggie, was born in Pulaski County, Virginia in October of 1857. Her older sister Rachel had married Wyndham R. Gilmer's brother Arnold in 1871, and in 1877 Maggie married Wyndham Gilmer. She was just 20 years old.

At the time of the trial, Maggie was described thusly:

"She is a little over thirty years of age. She is a blonde, of fine address, enchanting appearance, auburn hair, blue eyes, ruddy complexion, tall and faultless figure."

The Doctor
John Alexander Preston Baker, the oldest son of John and Susannah Baker, was born in Washington County on March 4, 1841. Dr. Baker was educated at Emory and Henry College from 1856 to 1858 and then at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia from 1859 through 1861.

A slaveholder before the war (he owned 6 slaves in 1860), he enlisted in the 1st Virginia Cavalry, CSA as a regular soldier on May 14, 1861 in Abingdon, Virginia. Detailed for a time to General Longstreet's Headquarters, and then to General Lee's Headquarters, he was also detailed as a hospital attendant in 1863. After the war he applied for a medical license which was granted.

On October 25, 1866 Baker married Sue Davis, the daughter of the Honorable Joseph W. Davis, a former member of the Virginia Legislature. By 1870 they had two children and a household value of $12,000.

Baker was described in newspaper accounts as:

"[F]ifty years of age; prepossessing in appearance; five feet ten inches high; weight two hundred pounds; iron gray hair; short cropped white whiskers; gray eyes; large nose; red face; and the general military air of a revolutionary father."


“He is about 5 feet 9 inches high... His hair and whiskers are almost white, and his face denotes a strong virile passion. His record in this particular is unsavory and extends over many years. If reports are to be believed Mrs. Gilmer is not his first conquest among married women...”

The Baker house, ca. 1891, with unknown woman.

The Baker house today.

The Doctor's Wife

Sue Davis, the daughter of Joseph W. Davis, a former member of the Virginia Legislature, was born on November 16, 1845 in Smyth County, Virginia.

She was described as “a most lovable and popular woman” in testimony during the trial. She reportedly had 13 children with Dr. Baker and was pregnant at the time of her death, in 1899.

The Affair Begins

In the mid-1880's, while the Gilmer family was living in Abingdon, Virginia, Maggie Gilmer began experiencing health troubles. Several years earlier, in August 1878, she had met Dr. John A. P. Baker at a festival in Maple Grove, Washington County, Virginia. He was called for and soon became the family doctor, treating both Maggie and Wyndham.

At that time Dr. Baker was living with his wife Susan and their family three miles from the Gilmers. The two families soon became very familiar with one another.

Sometime around August of 1886, during one of her illnesses, and with her husband away, Maggie Gilmer became intimate with Dr. Baker:

"On his first declaration he got down on his knees and avowed his love, both of us being much embarrassed, I said nothing. I let him kiss me...I suppose he took it for granted that I loved him because I let him kiss me. I did not kiss him, he kissed me in the mouth... Afterwards he embraced and kissed me and I did the same. After criminal intimacy began he called often."

Wyndham Gilmer must have had some notion of his wife's infidelity with Dr. Baker, because he soon began to refuse Baker admission to the Gilmer home. Maggie would put a white towel in the window when it was safe for the Doctor to visit.

On September 25, 1889, Baker’s wife Susan, died suddenly. The doctor had her body embalmed and laid to rest. Maggie testified: "I met Dr. B the day after his wife died; was not criminally intimate with him then but was the first favorable opportunity afterwards four or five days after her death; met him in the woods three or four times..."

The intimacy continued. The two would meet in Bristol, Virginia at the Fairmount Hotel, registering under false names. Eventually they were betrayed, and the two were called before church elders and confronted with their misdeeds.

Maggie testified:

"Some one at the Fairmount betrayed me, and Bro Carr and Joe Butt called on me before the investigation in the church. I confessed everything except criminality...I did go on my knees to Carr and Butt and promise to do better...I called on heaven to witness my innocence from all criminality. I also kneeled at Mr. Gilmer's feet before them and pleaded not to be separated from my children."

Gilmer confronted Baker after the Fairmount episode. He asked Baker "...if he had given the pickle stand to my wife...," Baker replied that he had.

Maggie and Wyndham Gilmer reconciled for the sake of the children, but Maggie’s affair with Baker continued.

In early 1891, Baker sold his house and moved to Abingdon, to be closer to Maggie. Unfortunately for Baker, he left letters from Maggie concealed in several places in his previous home. These were soon found and given to Wyndham’s relatives, including his brother, Winfield Scott Gilmer.

Maggie's letter to Dr. Baker of August 28, 1890 begins: "My Own Sweet Little Precious Darling Angel" and closes: "Yours sweet and dying for you." The letters plainly allude to the killing of Wyndham Gilmer. She signed her letters L. W. for "little wife"; he signed his letters with S. H. for "sweet heart." The Big Stone Gap Post raved that the letters: "breathe a spirit of love and lust which is in the highest degree sensational."

Although the Big Stone Gap Post decided not to print the entire contents of the letters due to a sense of propriety, the Bristol Courier reveled in the contents, printing two letters in the August 12, 1891 issue. An excerpt of the second letter shows the depths of Mrs. Gilmer's affection for Dr. Baker:

"DARLING ONE. Ah! let me come to you once more, and falling at your feet scream mercy! Will you turn me away again empty, or will you hear and answer my pleadings?
I have been asleep, and dreamed of you, and woke up all in a tremor, and for the first time in one month I have given way to my feelings, flew into my trunk, untied your precious photograph, and pressing it to my heart screamed aloud, "Oh, God, take my soul and destroy it, but give my angel back to me!" I can't endure this life; and dear, something has to be done at once, or I will do something to cause deeper trouble than there has ever been. I don't care who knows I am distracted about you."

In the first letter she states:

"I'll never let your soul rest until I am safe in your great big loving arms, as your own wife."

The contents of these letters laid bare the plot to murder Wyndham Gilmer. Maggie wrote to Baker:
"...My encouraging you to commit the crime you did was not without foundation... Then I look back and ask myself the question, Oh, God, did he do that for me? (You know what I refer to.)... I never saw anybody in more agony (part of the time) than he has been today. He fairly screams with his back; says he knows he has Bright's disease; that his kidneys are all wrong. Is it the effects of or not?…"

A few days earlier she had written:

"I gave him two doses yesterday and one today, gave enough to accomplish one thing if not more, and you know what that is."

Suspicion immediately arose over the death of Baker's wife a year earlier. A grand jury was convened and Baker was indicted for the murder of his wife Susan as well as the attempted murder of Wyndham. Maggie was indicted for the attempted murder of her husband.

Deputy Sheriff Countis was sent to arrest Maggie. He reports: "It was one of the most unpleasant duties I have ever had to perform. I don't know that I have ever witnessed a more painful scene and as much distress before. She made her confession to the magistrate..." On Sunday, May 3, 1891, while at divine services, Baker was arrested. Upon his arrest by Countis, he proclaimed "My goodness! Who ever heard of the like!"

Over the course of two trials, extensive testimony was given relating to the death of Dr. Baker's late wife. Joseph Butt testified about a conversation he had with Dr. Baker about Baker's wife. "He said she was not very well; that she was in a delicate condition; that he had her under treatment and hoped to bring her through. He said she had trouble on similar occasions before; that he didn't like to be away from home. I think he said that she was in the seventh month…"

After his wife's death, Baker immediately had her embalmed, against her previously stated wishes. Dr. William H. Taylor, state chemist from Richmond and a professor of chemistry, performed an autopsy on Mrs. Baker.

"I have made many chemical analyses of bodies for poison. I examined the body of Mrs. Baker. I came here on the 16th of last June [1891]... The coffin was taken out and opened, and Mr. Baldwin opened the clothing. I then made an incision and took out the stomach, a part of the liver, and one of the kidneys... I also took out a little female child... I first examined the stomach for strychnine... I found none…"

Subsequent testing revealed arsenic, mercury and zinc. However, all three chemicals also appear in embalming fluid. Dr. Taylor admitted his opinion that the arsenic was administered before death was " hampered that I can scarcely put any confidence in it."

Court testimony detailed the plot against Wyndham Gilmer. Because Wyndham was often in poor health, Baker provided Maggie with pills to administer to her husband. However, the pills contained poison. "You must find an opportunity to give to your husband a prescription that I will have put up for you whenever he complains of being unwell," he told her.

When Wyndham took the stand, he appeared "very pale and rather scared, but soon recovered; the witness answered questions readily. He does not strike an observer as a man possessed of great intellectual acumen..." He described being sick in May of 1890, Baker was one of his doctors and, after taking the pills prescribed by Baker, Gilmer's health quickly grew worse.

Luckily for Wyndham, his brother Winfield Scott Gilmer was a physician who lived in nearby Russell County. On a visit to see his sick brother, Scott Gilmer found him:

"..extremely prostrated; he was complaining of his stomach, dryness of the mouth, and could not bear the light. I examined him and diagnosed it as nervous prostration; I couldn't detect any organic disease: Dr. B[aker] said he didn't agree with me, but readily agreed to a change of treatment, and the change was made...I left for my home in Russell county, and returned the next Thursday; was much astonished to see the improvement...Dr. B. was there on Thursday, and agreed with me that my brother had improved rapidly...The change in my brothers condition impressed in my mind that he had been taking poison; I did not expect a rapid recovery it being impossible for my treatment to bring about such a rapid result."
Dr. W. H. Washington, an Abingdon druggist, testified to having sold Baker prussic acid, a deadly poison, in the spring of 1890.

Baker's wife's body was exhumed, and doctors testified to the presence of arsenic in the liver and kidneys. A young lady who was present at the Gilmer house the morning after Baker's wife died testified to hearing Maggie say to Baker, "Don't tell me no more."

The prosecution's closing argument lasted two and a half hours. Grown men were seen crying in the court room as he detailed the affair. At one point, the prosecutor turned to Baker and said:

"Had you invaded my home and destroyed my happiness, as you did Wyndham Gilmer's, I would have sought you with a spring steel, and buried it in your treacherous heart. Then, lifting it aloft, reeking with your gore, I would have called upon heaven to witness that I had claimed only an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth...In the name of the commonwealth of Virginia, I charge you with murder most foul, and demand your life as the penalty."

When the jury returned from the deliberation room after only a short while, Baker was composed. When the “guilty” verdict was read “The doomed prisoner dropped into his seat like a lump of lead.” The Foreman of the jury was seen to be crying as the verdict was signed by the Commonwealth Attorney. Attornies for the prosecution cried as well. The Roanoke Times reported “The coolest and apparently the least concerned man in the vast throng was Dr. Baker.”

The defense immediately appealed and was granted a new trial "on a technicality." Serious concerns remained over the irregular autopsy performed on Dr. Baker's wife.

Apparently the charges against Maggie were dropped. Her husband again forgave her and they resumed living as man and wife. Wyndham instituted divorce proceedings in 1891, but withdrew the case in June, 1892.
The second trial commenced in February of 1892. Wyndham discovered his wife was still writing to Baker, and again separated from her. Little new evidence was presented, but on this occasion Baker was acquitted of the charge of murder.

All does not end well for Baker. He attempted to resume his practice with little success. After his death on December 21, 1899, the Morning Times of Washington D. C. noted, “Shunned by all, with every door shut against him, he lived alone, his mind almost gone, until death came to his relief.”

Wyndham and Maggie again reconciled and lived together until his death on November 27, 1915. Maggie died on November 1, 1928. At her funeral Rev. R. O. Eller praised her devotion to her church and described her as “scattering sunshine wherever she went”. As the widow of a Confederate soldier the local United Daughter's of the Confederacy supplied an arrangement sheaf of wheat surrounded by red carnations tied with red and white ribbons. Perhaps to Maggie the arrangement was for her lost love, rather than her dead husband.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

World War I Letters of Russell County, July 12, 1918

The following partial letter appears in the July 12, 1918 issue of the Lebanon News. It was written by Carter C. Self.

"Since writing you last I have been getting along fine.

I was wounded in the neck, in the right arm and hand. I think my hand is the worst. Anyway, it will be several weeks before I can write with my own hand. Please don't worry about me for I am having the best of care taken of me, and intend to get well and come back to you.



Saturday, February 6, 2016

Teachers in Russell County, Copper Creek District, 1877-1883

Here is a listing of teachers for the Copper Creek District of Russell County from 1877-1883. There were approximately 670 students each year.

Copper Creek District 1877 1878 1879 1880 1881 1882 1883
Browning, George W.x
Bucker D. W.x
Dean, Mollie (Miss)x
Dickenson, Henry J.xx
Dorton, Z. F.x
Duff, Henryxx
Fugate, Edith (Miss)x
Gibson, Annie E. (Mrs.)xxx
Gibson, George M.xx
Gibson, George W.x
Gibson, Kate (Miss)xx
Gray William N.x
Honaker, W. A. C.x
Hoofnagle, Jenniexx
Jessee, Edward S.xxxxx
Johnson, George L.x
Meade, Cynthia B. (Miss)x
Meade, William H.xx
Milton, George W.x
Milton, W. G.x
Pruner, John C.xx
Richardson, William H.xx
Stover, Jennie (Miss)x
Vicars, A. L.xx
Vicars, Ira F.x
Vicars, James F.xxxx
Vicars, Joseph