The Fact in the Ratcliff Case by Edward Page Mitchell
I first met Miss Borgier at a tea party in the town of R--, where I
was attending medical lectures. She was a tall girl, not pretty; her
face would have been insipid but for the peculiar restlessness of her
eyes. They were neither bright nor expressive, yet she kept them so
constantly in motion that they seemed to catch and reflect light from a
thousand sources. Whenever, as rarely happened, she fixed them even for
a few seconds upon one object, the factitious brilliancy disappeared,
and they became dull and somnolent. I am unable to say what was the
color of Miss Borgier's eyes.
After tea, I was one of a group of people whom our host, the
Reverend Mr. Tinker, sought to entertain with a portfolio of
photographs of places in the Holy Land. While endeavoring to appear
interested in his descriptions and explanations, all of which I had
heard before, I became aware that Miss Borgier was honoring me with
steady regard. My gaze encountered hers and I found that I could not,
for the life of me, withdraw my own eyes from the encounter. Then I had
a singular experience, the phenomena of which I noted with professional
accuracy. I felt the slight constriction of the muscles of my face, the
numbness of the nerves that precedes physical stupor induced by
narcotic agency. Although I was obliged to struggle against the
physical sense of drowsiness, my mental faculties were more than
ordinarily active. Her eyes seemed to torpify my body while they
stimulated my mind, as opium does. Entirely conscious of my present
surroundings, and particularly alert to the Reverend Mr. Tinker's
narrative of the ride from Joppa, I accompanied him on that journey,
not as one who listens to a traveler's tale, but as one who himself
travels the road. When, finally, we reached the point where the
Reverend Mr. Tinker's donkey makes the last sharp turn around the rock
that has been cutting off the view ahead, and the Reverend Mr. Tinker
beholds with amazement and joy the glorious panorama of Jerusalem
spread out before him, I saw it all with remarkable vividness. I saw
Jerusalem in Miss Borgier's eyes.
I tacitly thanked fortune when her eyes resumed their habitual dance
around the room, releasing me from what had become a rather humiliating
captivity. Once free from their strange influence, I laughed at my
weakness. "Pshawl" I said to myself. "You are a fine subject for a
young woman of mesmeric talents to practice upon."
"Who is Miss Borgier?" I demanded of the Reverend Mr. Tinker's wife,
at the first opportunity.
"Why, she is Deacon Borgier's daughter," replied that good person,
with some surprise.
"And who is Deacon Borgier?"
"A most excellent man; one of the pillars of my husband's
congregation. The young people laugh at what they call his torpidity,
and say that he has been walking about town in his sleep for twenty
years; but I assure you that there is not a sincerer, more fervent
I turned abruptly around, leaving Mrs. Tinker more astonished than
ever, for I knew that the subject of my inquiries was looking at me
again. She sat in one corner of the room, apart from the rest of the
company. I straightway went and seated myself at her side.
"That is right," she said. "I wished you to come. Did you enjoy your
journey to Jerusalem?"
"Yes, thanks to you."
"Perhaps. But you can repay the obligation. I am told that you are
Dr. Mack's assistant in surgery at the college. There is a clinic
tomorrow. I want to attend it."
"As a patient?" I inquired.
She laughed. "No, as a spectator. You must find a way to gratify my
I expressed, as politely as possible, my astonishment at so
extraordinary a fancy on the part of a young lady, and hinted at the
scandal which her appearance in the amphitheater would create. She
immediately offered to disguise herself in male attire. I explained
that the nature of the relations between the medical college and the
patients who consented to submit to surgical treatment before the class
were such that it would be a dishonorable thing for me to connive at
the admission of any outsider, male or female. That argument made no
impression upon her mind. I was forced to decline peremptorily to serve
her in the affair. "Very well," she said. "I must find some other
At the clinic the next day I took pains to satisfy myself that Miss
Borgier had not surreptitiously intruded. The students of the class
came in at the hour, noisy and careless as usual, and seated themselves
in the lower tiers of chairs around the operating table. They produced
their notebooks and began to sharpen lead pencils. Miss Borgier was
certainly not among them. Every face in the lecture room was familiar
to me. I locked the door that opened into the hallway, and then
searched the anteroom on the other side of the amphitheater. There were
a dozen or more patients, nervous and dejected, waiting for treatment
and attended by friends hardly less frightened than themselves. But
neither Miss Borgier nor anybody resembling Miss Borgier was of the
Dr. Mack now briskly entered by his private door. He glanced sharply
at the table on which his instruments were arranged, ready for use,
and, having assured himself that everything was in its place, began the
clinical lecture. There were the usual minor operations--two or three
for strabismus, one for cataract, the excision of several cysts and
tumors, large and small, the amputation of a railway brakeman's crushed
thumb. As the cases were disposed of, I attended the patients back to
the anteroom and placed them in the care of their friends.
Last came a poor old lady named Wilson, whose leg had been drawn up
for years by a rheumatic affection, so that the joint of the knee had
ossified. It was one of those cases where the necessary treatment is
almost brutal in its simplicity. The limb had to be straightened by the
application of main force. Mrs. Wilson obstinately refused to take
advantage of anesthesia. She was placed on her back upon the operating
table, with a pillow beneath her head. The geniculated limb showed a
deflection of twenty or twenty-five degrees from a right line. As
already remarked, this deflection had to be corrected by direct,
forcible pressure downward upon the knee.
With the assistance of a young surgeon of great physical strength,
Dr. Mack proceeded to apply this pressure. The operation is one of the
most excruciating that can be imagined. I was stationed at the head of
the patient, in order to hold her shoulders should she struggle. But I
observed that a marked change had come over her since we established
her upon the table. Very much agitated at first, she had become
perfectly calm. As she passively lay there, her eyes directed upward
with a fixed gaze, the eyelids heavy as if with approaching slumber,
the face tranquil, it was hard to realize that this woman had already
crossed the threshold of an experience of cruel pain.
I had no time, however, to give more than a thought to her wonderful
courage. The harsh operation had begun. The surgeon and his assistant
were steadily and with increasing force bearing down upon the rigid
knee. Perhaps the Spanish Inquisition never devised a method of
inflicting physical torture more intense than that which this woman was
now undergoing, yet not a muscle of her face quivered. She breathed
easily and regularly, her features retained their placid expression,
and, at the moment when her sufferings must have been the most
agonizing, I saw her eyes close, as if in peaceful sleep.
At the same instant the tremendous force exerted upon the knee
produced its natural effect. The ossified joint yielded, and, with a
sickening noise--the indescribable sound of the crunching and gritting
of the bones of a living person, a sound so frightful that I have seen
old surgeons, with sensibilities hardened by long experience, turn pale
at hearing it--the crooked limb became as straight as its mate.
Closely following this horrible sound, I heard a ringing peal of
The operating table, in the middle of the pit of the amphitheater,
was lighted from overhead. Directly above the table, a shaft, five or
six feet square, and closely boarded on its four sides, led up through
the attic story of the building to a skylight in the roof. The shaft
was so deep and so narrow that its upper orifice was visible from no
part of the room except a limited space immediately around the table.
The laughter which startled me seemed to come from overhead. If heard
by any other person present, it was probably ascribed to a hysterical
utterance on the part of the patient. I was in a position to know
better. Instinctively I glanced upward, in the direction in which the
eyes of Mrs. Wilson had been so fixedly bent.
There, framed in a quadrangle of blue sky, I saw the head and neck
of Miss Borgier. The sash of the skylight had been removed, to afford
ventilation. The young woman was evidently lying at full length upon
the fiat roof. She commanded a perfect view of all that was done upon
the operating table. Her face was flushed with eager interest and wore
an expression of innocent wonder, not =mingled with delight. She nodded
merrily to me when I looked up and laid a finger against her lips, as
if to warn me to silence. Disgusted, I withdrew my eyes hastily from
hers. Indeed, after my experience of the previous evening, I did not
care to trust my self-control under the influence of her gaze.
As Dr. Mack with his sharp scissors cut the end of a linen bandage,
he whispered to me: "This is without a parallel. Not a sign of syncope,
no trace of functional disorder. She has dropped quietly into healthy
sleep during an infliction of pain that would drive a strong man
As soon as released from my duties in the lecture room, I made my
way to the roof of the building. As I emerged through the scuttle-way,
Miss Borgier scrambled to her feet and advanced to meet me without
manifesting the slightest discomposure. Her face fairly beamed with
"Wasn't it beautiful?" she asked with a smile, extending her hand.
"I heard the bones slowly grinding and crushing!"
I did not take her hand. "How came you here?" I demanded, avoiding
"Oh!" said she, with a silvery laugh. "I came early, about sunrise.
The janitor left the door ajar and I slipped in while he was in the
cellar. All the morning I spent in the place where they dissect; and
when the students began to come in downstairs I escaped here to the
"Are you aware, Miss Borgier," I asked, very gravely, "that you have
committed a serious indiscretion, and must be gotten out of the
building as quickly and privately as possible?"
She did not appear to understand. "Very well," she said. "I suppose
there is nothing more to see. I may as well go."
I led her down through the garret, cumbered with boxes and barrels
of unarticulated human bones; through the medical library, unoccupied
at that hour; by a back stairway into and across the great vacant
chemical lecture room; through the anatomical cabinet, full of objects
appalling to the imagination of her sex. I was silent and she said
nothing; but her eyes were everywhere, drinking in the strange
surroundings with an avidity which I could feel without once looking at
her. Finally we came to a basement corridor, at the end of which a
door, not often used, gave egress by an alleyway to the street. It was
through this door that subjects for dissection were brought into the
building. I took a bunch of keys from my pocket and turned the lock.
"Your way is clear now," I said.
To my immense astonishment, Miss Borgier, as we stood together at
the end of the dark corridor, threw both arms around my neck and kissed
"Good-by," she said, as she disappeared through the half-opened
When I awoke the next morning, after sleeping for more than fifteen
hours, I found that I could not raise my head from the pillow without
nausea. The symptoms were exactly like those which mark the effects of
an overdose of laudanum.
I have thought it due to myself and to my professional reputation to
recount these facts before briefly speaking of my recent testimony as
an expert, in the Ratcliff murder trial, the character of my relations
with the accused having been persistently misrepresented.
The circumstances of that celebrated case are no doubt still fresh
in the recollection of the public. Mr. John L. Ratcliff, a wealthy,
middle-aged merchant of Boston, came to St. Louis with his young bride,
on their wedding journey. His sudden death at the Planters' Hotel,
followed by the arrest of his wife, who was entirely without friends or
acquaintances in the city, her indictment for murder by poisoning, the
conflict of medical testimony at the trial, and the purely
circumstantial nature of the evidence against the prisoner, attracted
general attention and excited public interest to a degree that was
It will be remembered that the state proved that the relations of
Mr. and Mrs. Ratcliff, as observed by the guests and servants of the
hotel, were not felicitous; that he rarely spoke to her at table,
habitually averting his face in her presence; that he wandered
aimlessly about the hotel for several days previous to his illness,
apparently half stupefied, as if by the oppression of some heavy mental
burden, and that when accosted by anyone connected with the house he
started as if from a dream, and answered incoherently if at all.
It was also shown that, by her husband's death, Mrs. Ratcliff became
the sole mistress of a large fortune.
The evidence bearing directly upon the circumstances of Mr.
Ratcliff's death was very clear. For twenty-four hours before a
physician was summoned, no one had access to him save his wife. At
dinner that day, in response to the polite inquiry of a lady neighbor
at table, Mrs. Ratcliff announced, with great self-possession, that her
husband was seriously indisposed. Soon after eleven o'clock at night,
Mrs. Ratcliff rang her bell, and, without the least agitation of
manner, remarked that her husband appeared to be dying, and that it
might be well to send for a physician. Dr. Culbert, who arrived within
a very few minutes, found Mr. Ratcliff in a profound stupor, breathing
stertorously. He swore at the trial that when he first entered the room
the prisoner, pointing to the bed, coolly said, "I suppose that I have
Dr. Culbert's testimony seemed to point unmistakably to poisoning by
laudanum or morphine. The unconscious man's pulse was full but slow;
his skin cold and pallid; the expression of his countenance placid, yet
ghastly pale; lips livid. Coma had already supervened, and it was
impossible to rouse him. The ordinary expedients were tried in vain.
Flagellation of the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet,
electricity applied to the head and spine, failed to make any
impression on his lethargy. The eyelids being forcibly opened, the
pupils were seen to be contracted to the size of pinheads, and
violently turned inward. Later, the stertorous breathing developed into
the ominously loud rattle of mucous in the trachea; there were
convulsions, attended by copious frothings at the mouth; the under jaw
fell upon the breast; and paralysis and death followed, four hours
after Dr. Culbert's arrival.
Several of the most eminent practitioners of the city, put upon the
stand by the prosecution, swore that, in their opinion, the symptoms
noted by Dr. Culbert not only indicated opium poisoning, but could have
resulted from no other cause.
On the other hand, the state absolutely failed to show either that
opium in any form had been purchased by Mrs. Ratcliff in St. Louis, or
that traces of opium in any form were found in the room after the
event. It is true that the prosecuting attorney, in his closing
argument, sought to make the latter circumstance tell against the
prisoner. He argued that the disappearance of any vessel containing or
having contained laudanum, in view of the positive evidence that
laudanum had been employed, served to establish a deliberate intention
of murder and to demolish any theory of accidental poisoning that the
defense might attempt to build; and he propounded half a dozen
hypothetical methods by which Mrs. Ratcliff might have disposed, in
advance, of this evidence of her crime. The court, of course, in
summing up, cautioned the jury against attaching weight to these
hypotheses of the prosecuting attorney.
The court, however, put much emphasis on the medical testimony for
the prosecution, and on the calm declaration of Mrs. Ratcliff to Dr.
Culbert, "I suppose that I have killed him."
Having conducted the autopsy, and afterward made a qualitative
analysis of the contents of the dead man's stomach, I was put upon the
stand as a witness for the defense.
Then I saw the prisoner for the first time in more than five years.
When I had taken the oath and answered the preliminary questions, Mrs.
Ratcliff raised the veil which she had worn since the trial began, and
looked me in the face with the well-remembered eyes of Miss
I confess that my behavior during the first few moments of surprise
afforded some ground for the reports that were afterward current
concerning my relations with the prisoner. Her eyes chained not only
mine, but my tongue also. I saw Jerusalem again, and the face framed in
blue sky peering down into the amphitheater of the old medical college.
It was only after a struggle which attracted the attention of judge,
jury, bar, and spectators that I was able to proceed with my
That testimony was strong for the accused. My knowledge of the case
was wholly post-mortem. It began with the autopsy. Nothing had been
found that indicated poisoning by laudanum or by any other agent. There
was no morbid appearance of the intestinal canal; no fullness of the
cerebral vessels, no serous effusion. Every appearance that would have
resulted from death by poison was wanting in the subject. That, of
course, was merely negative evidence. But, furthermore, my chemical
analysis had proved the absence of the poison in the system. The opium
odor could not be detected. I bad tested for morphine with nitric acid,
permuriate of iron, chromate of potash, and, most important of all,
iodic acid. I had tested again for meconic acid with the permuriate of
iron. I had tested by Lassaigne's process, by Dublane's, and by
Flandin's. As far as the resources of organic chemistry could avail, I
had proved that, notwithstanding the symptoms of Mr. Ratcliff's case
before death, death had not resulted from laudanum or any other poison
known to science.
The questions by the prosecuting counsel as to my previous
acquaintance with the prisoner, I was able to answer truthfully in a
manner that did not shake the force of my medical testimony. And it was
chiefly on the strength of this testimony that the jury, after a short
deliberation, returned a verdict of not guilty.
Did I swear falsely? No; for science bore me out in every assertion.
I knew that not a drop of laudanum or a grain of morphine had passed
Ratcliff's lips. Ought I to have declared my belief regarding the true
cause of the man's death, and told the story of my previous
observations of Miss Borgier's case? No; for no court of justice would
have listened to that story for a single moment. I knew that the woman
did not murder her husband. Yet I believed and knew--as surely as we
can know anything where the basis of ascertained fact is slender and
the laws obscure--that she poisoned him, poisoned him to death with her
I think that it will be generally conceded by the profession that I
am neither a sensationalist nor prone to lose my self-command in the
mazes of physico-psychologic speculation. I make the foregoing
assertion deliberately, fully conscious of all that it implies.
What was the mystery of the noxious influence which this woman
exerted through her eyes? What was the record of her ancestry, the
secret of predisposition in her case? By what occult process of
evolution did her glance derive the toxical effect of the papaver
somniferum? How did she come to be a Woman-Poppy? I cannot yet answer
these questions. Perhaps I shall never be able to answer them.
But if there is need of further proof of the sincerity of my denial
of any sentiment on my part which might have led me to shield Mrs.
Ratcliff by perjury, I may say that I have now in my possession a
letter from her, written after her acquittal, proposing to endow me
with her fortune and herself; as well as a copy of my reply,
respectfully declining the offer.