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A.K.A.: "The Wholesale Poisoner"
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide - Poisoner
Number of victims: 3
Date of murders: March 20/April 25/May 26, 1888
Date of birth: 1848
Victims profile: John Whiteling, 38 (her husband) / Bertha Whiteling, 9 (her daughter) / Willie Whiteling, 2 (her son)
Method of murder: Poisoning (arsenic)
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Status: Executed by hanging in Philadelphia on June 25, 1889

June 25, 1889 - Sarah Jane Whiteling, a 41 year old white woman, was executed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the murders by arsenic poisoning of her husband, son and daughter. She had mounted a defense of insanity brought on by menopause but this was rejected by the jury. The execution was attended by some 30 witnesses who saw the trap fall at 10:07 a.m., less than a minute after Sarah had mounted it.


Sarah Jane Whiteling

In 1888, Sarah Jane Whiteling of Philadelphia purchased a box of "Rough on Rats" arsenic poison. She did not administer to the rats that may have infested her home, but to her husband and two children, Willie and Bertha.

Mr. Whiteling, who was already a "sickly man," died first. The two children then died.

The triple death alarmed Philadlphia Detective Frank Geyer. Geyer began to investigate the suspicious deaths, and when he asked Sarh Jane, she told the detective that perhaps some contamined water had killed them.

When Geyer had the three bodies exhmed and autopsies performed, high levels of arsenic were immediately found in all three. Geyer again confronted Sarah Jane Whiteling. It was only that she confessed.

In her confession, Sarah Jane sais that she had intended to take her own life too, but that she had lost courage after her family's miserable demise.

On Monday, November 26, 1888, Sarah Jane Whiteling went on trial. Henry Paxson and George Arundel defended Sarah Jane, but the prosecution simply had too much evidence against her.

John W. Bailey, Sarah Jane's own brother, testified that his sister had "always something wrong" about her. Dr. Alice Bennett of the Northwestern Hospital, who had examined Sarah Jane, reported to the Court that Sarah Jane had "low mental organization" and was "undoubtedly insane". Drs. Charles Mills and John Chapin further testified to her insanity.

Sarah Jane's behavior in the courtroom did not contradict the official testimony. She "gnawed her fingernails and wiped her inflamed eyes" and, in doing so, offered a portrait of a guilty woman to the impressionable jury.

After a three days of testimony, the jury rejected the insanity defense and convicted Sarah Jane Whiteling of murder and sentenced her to die. On the back of a letter written to her attorney, George Arundel, Sarah Jane wrote "It is not Death to close your eyes long dimmed by tears".

Many Philadelphians were appalled that a woman would be executed. Mrs. Carrie B. Kilgore, in a letter to the editors of the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote, "No human sane mother could have done these deeds to the children wich she had carefully nurtured".

Kilgore's comments are particularly revealing. Not only do they reveal a certain naiveté about women who kill, but she unwittingly helps reinforce the image that any woman who kill must be a monster. After all, "no human... mother" could have committed such an atrocious act. Kilgore further adds that Sarah Jane's execution will lessen "the respect for women and womanhood".

Despite these types of pleas to spare her life, Sarah Jane Whiteling invited death. When tol of her execution's postponement, she was bitterly dejected.

In late June 1889, Sarah Jane got her wish. She was taken from the women's side of Moyamensing Prison to the gallows. Shortly after 10 a.m. on June 25, 1889, the trap doors opened and Sarah Jane was hanged.

The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that Sarah Jane was "callous-hearted to the last."

Engendered Death: Pennsylvania Women Who Kill by Joseph W. Laythe


Sarah Whiteling, Philadelphia Serial Killer - 1888

Horrible Poisoning Case

A Wholesale Poisoning: and a Diabolical Plot Revealed at Philadelphia

Hamilton Daily Democrat

Jun. 13, 1888

Philadelphia, June 13.—One of the most horrible poisoning cases that this city has ever known, has been discovered and the murderers, through the vigilance of Coroner Ashbridge, was yesterday afternoon lodged in jail.

John Whiteling, aged thirty-eight years, his alleged wife, aged forty, his alleged daughter, Bertha, aged nine years and his son, Willie, aged two years, lived in the rear of No. 1227 Cadwallader street. John Whiteling died on March 20; Bertha on April 25, and Willie on May 26.

The doctors in attendance gave certificates of death respectively for “inflammation of the bowels,” “gastric fever,” and “congestion of the bowels.” There was an insurance on the lives of each, ranging from $200 down to $50. The coroner accidentally hearing on the case, and having his suspicions aroused bad the bodies exhumed and a chemical analysis made of the intestines, and found arsenic in all.

The woman was sent for by the coroner and after denying all knowledge of the crime, made a full confession. She said she was born in Germany and married a man in Iowa named Tom Brown and that Brown died in prison, and in 1880 she married John Whiteling in this city. Her daughter Bertha was the child of a man, named Story. Whiteling, she said, was sick much of the time. She procured “rough on rats” and said that her husband committed suicide.

She gave the children the poison, and then summoned a physician, but did not administer the medicine prescribed. She said she could not go out washing with a baby resolved to get rid of Willie; that she was afraid Bertha would grow up a bad woman and she had better die, and that she was if raid if she poisoned them all at once she would be found out.

Mrs. Whiteling came to this city just after the Chicago fire in 1872 and has lived in houses of assignation both here and in Chicago. She is frivolous in manner and was only brought to the consciousness of her position when confronted with the evidence if her crime.

When she had finished her confession she said her conscience was clear and that she would meet her dear children in heaven. An inquest will be held on the bodies on Friday next.


Philadelphia’s Borgia. - Mrs. Whiteling, the Wholesale Poisoner, Convicted

St. Paul Daily Globe

Nov. 29, 1888

The jury in the case of Mrs. Sarah Whiteling, who has been on trial for the past three days on a charge of causing the death of her nine-year old daughter by administering poison in April last, brought in a verdict of murder in the first degree this evening, after being out two hours.

The crime for which Mrs. Whiteling was tried was one of a series of three with which she is charged, the allegation being that she not only murdered her daughter. Bertha, but also her husband, John Whiteling, aged thirty-eight, and their baby boy, William Whiteling, aged two years, and collected insurances on the lives of her victims amounting in the aggregate to over $350.

The wife and mother subsequently confessed her crimes, and said that she had intended to take her own life after completing her deadly work with all the other members of the family, but her courage failed her.



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