Poisoned Cake
Poisoned Cake

In the early 1920s an almost pandemic of anonymous cake murders happened across the country.  Way before people tampered with Tylenol or sprayed ricin they put arsenic in cakes and either mailed them anonymously to people or distracted busy bakers and poisoned restaurant and bakery cakes and pastries.

Imagine going to the Post Office to pick up a package, finding a neatly wrapped round package with no return address.  What a surprise!  Imagine taking it home opening it up and finding a beautiful lacquered Japanese box.  When you open the box are two pieces of cake, Devil’s Food with white icing, that looks like a wedding cake.

This happened to Martha Sterrritt on a Thursday.  Her husband had a notorious sweet tooth and everyone they knew, knew his biggest weakness was cake.  So, Martha put it on the sideboard in the dining room thinking they would have it for dessert.

Will, W.W. Sterrett her husband came home from work at 5:00 pm.  He was an under-manager at Price Waterhouse and the head accountant in the Philadelphia office.  Dinner was going to be at 6:30, but Martha tells him about the cake they received in the mail.  Will talked her into eating it before dinner.

Fifteen minutes later Will began to feel poorly and half an hour later he is throwing up violently.  Martha who was a nurse before they married thinks that Will has been poisoned and calls their family doctor, Dr. John Stangley.  Dr. Stangley isn’t home so she calls another doctor, Dr. Della Williams.  She tells Dr. Williams of her concerns and suggests she brings a stomach pump with her.

By the time Dr. Williams got to the Sterrett’s home Martha was sick as well.  Although, not as violently as Will.  Dr. Williams called the Red Cross and got a nurse to come help.  Sarah Zorris came right away and spent the night as well as Dr. Williams did.

Throughout the night they both got worse so Dr. Stangle and Dr. Williams moved them to the hospital in Bryn Mawr.  Both went into a coma as the hospital doctors tried to find out what poison they had ingested.  They assumed since the symptoms were similar but different, that two different poisons had been used.  The main differences were the time it took for Will to get sick and the violence of it.  Martha took longer to get sick and was not violently ill like Will. 

On Saturday Will died.  Martha was conscious enough that she was told of his death.  She cried and was hysterical, so they had to sedate her. 

The police were brought in on Sunday, the hospital thought that the private practice physicians had notified them and vice versa.  The police brought in the postal inspector as well.  The investigators on the case were Postal Inspector A.M. Simpson, District Attorney Major Butler Windle, Assistant District Attorney H.R. McCowan, and county detective William Mullen.

The first thing they did was to search the Sterrett’s home.  They were surprised to find it in disarray, and even more surprised to find no personal photographs or letters.

They interviewed the neighbors and found that they thought Martha to be aloof. She appeared o be all engrossed in her husband and maintaining their home.   Most of them didn’t even know her first name and called her Mrs. Sterrett.  They said she stayed in the house or took the car on errands.  She didn’t participate in any of the “over the fence” gossip that the other housewives in the neighborhood did. 

Will on the other hand was well liked and popular.  He played golf and was a member of the local golf club.  No one could remember Martha ever going to the club.

One of the neighbors did mention a run-in the Sterretts had with some “foreigners”.  Their dog had bitten these people and they vowed revenge.  The police never found them, with so little information to go on.

Dr. Herbert Bostwick of Norristown complete the autopsy on Will and found that the poison was arsenic.  Also, the poison was in the icing and there was enough from what they found in Will’s stomach to kill a dozen people.  Apparently, they must have tested the contents of the stomach pump since will had been throwing up violently.

The postal inspector took possession of the wrappings to try to track down where it was mailed.  One clue is that there was no sender’s name or address just Philadelphia, PA.  As it was against postal laws to omit this information from a package, it was assumed that it was dropped off in a mailbox, and not taken to a counter in a post office.  The postal worker would not have accepted the package without it.  The label was neatly typed, and it was said the typing was distinctive.

Mrs. Sterrett
Mrs. Sterrett

At this point believed that the poisoner was a jealous woman.  None of Will’s family or friends believed this theory as Will was devoted to Martha, came home every night and was not a “lady’s man.”  The police received a type written post card accusing a blonde woman of the poisoning.  The typing on the card was different than the label so the police believed it to be a hoax.  Another typed card was sent to the city pharmacist, Charles Lehman, a good friend of Will, and was turned over to the police. 

The card said, “A blonde woman sent the cake.  She was in love with Mr. Sterrett and desperately jealous of his wife.  She wanted Mrs. Sterrett out of the way so she could have Will Sterrett for herself.  The woman lives in Philadelphia.  Get on the job.”

When D.A. Windle went to Price Waterhouse he came up with a new theory.  Will had audited some company and found that someone was cooking the books and embezzling funds.  Will’s assistant took it as a personal mission to go through all the audits that Will had done in the last few years and report back to the police with any discrepancies.  There were none.

sterrett pomona bulletin
sterrett pomona bulletin

Then, two weeks later, which was the day after Martha was released from the hospital, a friend of Will’s, P. Stewart Clarke received a package in the mail.  The label was typed with a P.O. Box in Lansdowne.  Inside the wrapping was a box from a sporting goods store, and inside the box was a piece of Devil’s Food cake with green icing.  At first Stewart thought that someone was playing a joke, but no one would admit to it.  Stewart turned it all over to the police.  He told them he knew no one in Lansdowne and had no idea who would send it to him.

The cake was sent to the county chemist and tested for poison.  The icing again had more than enough arsenic in it to kill several people.

The police investigated they tested hundreds of typewriters, they went to Youngstown, OH on a tip that a young woman there knew the Sterretts and had a grudge. They tried to find where the wrapping paper, string and label came from.  When asked by the press whether they had found the same paper and string in the Sterrett home, D.A. Windle hesitated before answering, “I can’t answer that.”

Martha recovers and decides to move in with her mother.  They were renting the house, but she sold all the furniture.  The press tried to question her about it, but she wouldn’t answer. 

On December 26, 1922, the crime was officially marked “Unsolved” and put into the cold case file.  The poisoner was never found.

Did Martha kill her husband?  Or was it someone else?

Skull and Crossbones Pie
Skull and Crossbones Pie

This isn’t the only case of Cake Poisoning.  In 1927, in Indianapolis, the wife of undertaker, J.H. Barr, left him taking his insurance policies with her.  She left behind a cake with arsenic in the icing.  Luckily Mr. Barr didn’t eat it.


In 1930, The Parker family were all poisoned by a cake purchased at the grocery store.


In August of 1922, at the Shelbourne restaurant in New York, six people were killed and 100 made ill from eating pastries made from dough tainted with arsenic.  The pie crust especially was full of arsenic.  The Chief Medical Examiner was convinced that the dough was poisoned with malice intent.  The attorneys for the owners of the restaurant agreed. 

All the ingredients for the pie crust were examined and they were free from arsenic, so the arsenic had to have been added separately. 

The Board of Health revoked the permit for the restaurant to operate and the baker, Charles Abramson was arrested.  Abramson had given a week’s notice and quit working at the restaurant the previous Saturday and told investigators that the baker’s helper Louis normally prepared the dough.  Abramson was earning $85 per week in his new job as opposed to $80 working for Drexel.  He had no motive.  The D.A. released Abramson.

Louis was supposed to report to the restaurant at midnight the previous night but didn’t show up.

The doctors did not expect any more deaths because of the great amount of arsenic used.  It made the eaters so violently ill they rid their bodies of the poison.

It turns out that Mr. Drexel the owner of the restaurant had started his own investigation earlier in the day.  Several diners complained to him that the blackberry and huckleberry pies were burning their throats.  He asked his brother-in-law Frank Rosenthal to taste the pies.  He said they were fine and proceeded to eat more.  Less than a half an hour later Frank was struck with sever pains in the throat and stomach.  A physician was called, and he was saved by pumping his stomach. 

At that point Mr. Drexel took the blackberry and huckleberry pies off the menu and sent them to a local chemist for testing.  It turns out that all of the dough used in all of the pastries had arsenic, with the highest concentration being in the Danish.

This is another unsolved case which did result in something positive.  Because of this incident and the people that sued the restaurant for huge amounts of money, Insurance companies began offering insurance to restaurants, hotels, bakeries and caterers.


January 1920, Eight people died from eating a crumb cake from a Chicago bakery.  The police never arrested anyone.


In New York in November, 1922 four people were hospitalized from eating a poisoned cake they bought at a bakery.  No arrests were ever made.


April 1923, 22 families are poisoned from a cream cake bought in a New York bakery.  No one died, thankfully but many were very sick.


So, I guess the moral of these stories is do not eat a cake sent through the mail, unless you are expecting it. And bake your cakes at home!

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