Elizabeth Wharton Case

Maryland State Archives
350 Rowe Boulevard
Annapolis, MD 21401

Phone: (410) 260-6400
Internet: mdsa.net
e-mail: archives@mdsa.net

Introduction

In 1871, Governor Oden Bowie called upon Andrew K. Syester, Attorney General of Maryland, to assist in the prosecution of Mrs. Elizabeth (or Ellen) G. Wharton.  A resident of Baltimore, Mrs. Wharton was on trial in Annapolis in December 1871 and January 1872 for the murder by tartar emetic poisoning of retired U.S. Army General W. S. (William Scott) Ketchum and of the attempted murder by poisoning of Mr. Eugene Van Ness, a bookkeeper for Alexander Brown and Sons.  In a case that drew nation-wide attention, the prosecution presented an array of conflicting medical evidence and attempted to show a financial relationship between Mrs. Wharton and General Ketchum in which he owed her money.  The defense argued that General Ketchum died of natural causes and that the case against Mrs. Wharton was purely circumstantial.  A jury found Mrs. Wharton not guilty.

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877) 

STANDARD 3: How various reconstruction plans succeeded or failed. 

Standard 3C:  The student understands the successes and failures of Reconstruction in the South, North, and West. 

7-12: Analyze how the Civil War and Reconstruction changed menís and womenís roles and status in the North, South, and West. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships] 

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, Andrew K. Syester (1828-1891), Attorney General of Maryland
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1882
    SOURCE: Image in J. Thomas Scharf, History of Western Maryland, vol. II (Philadelphia:  Louis H. Everts, 1882), opposite p. 1124.
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  2. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "Washington News: The Wharton Poisoning Case"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: July 13, 1871 in The Philadelphia Inquirer
    NOTES: A brief story that states General Ketchum went to Baltimore to visit Mrs. Wharton to collect money that she owed him. Ketchum was collecting the money because he needed it to help purchase a house in Washington, DC.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-1
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives 

  3. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "More Poisoning: A Prominent Lady Accused of the Crime, Sensation in Fashionable Circles, Her Victims and Their History, Details of Facts Thus Far Elicited," part one; part two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: 13 July 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirer
    NOTES: Biographical sketch of General Ketchum and a brief description of Major Wharton, the late husband of the accused. Also describes the high society status of Mrs. Wharton and the events that occurred in her home that have led to her present legal situation. The story mentions that Mrs. Wharton's son had a large life insurance policy all of which went to her after his death.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-3
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  4. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Baltimore Borgia," p. 3.
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: July 14, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirer
    NOTES: Describes the warrant issued for Mrs. Wharton's arrest for killing Gen. Ketchum and attempting to poison Mr. Van Ness. The remaining contests of the glass from which Van Ness drank was examined and was found to contain 15 grains of tartar emetic. This amount of the substance can cause death.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-5
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  5. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "Maryland: The Poisoning Case - Latest Facts" 
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: July 15, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Mrs. Wharton remains on house arrest with her daughter. She has received some visitors and a crowd has gathered around her home of those interested in the case. The authorities are continuing their search for more evidence against Mrs. Wharton, including scientific evidence.
    SOURCE:
     MSA SC 5339-68-6
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  6. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Poisoning Case"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: July 15, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Report from the "Baltimore Sun" stating that Mrs. Wharton's counsel and friends believe that she will be exonerated from the charges brought against her. Also a report from the "Washington Star" about the sudden death of Mr. Edward Wharton, the cousin of Mrs. Wharton's husband, and his daughter shortly after a visit to Mrs. Wharton's home in Balitmore. There have been many rumors spreading in Washington. Many there know the Whartons and have a great interest in the case.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-7
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  7. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "Maryland: [Unreadable] Facts in the Wharton-Ketchum Case" 
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: July 17, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: After hearing from many witnesses, Mrs. Wharton was indicted on the two charges against her, one for the murder of Gen. Ketchum and one for the attempted murder of Mr. Van Ness. She will be held without bail and will have to remain in prison for several months until the Criminal Court reconvenes.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-8
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  8. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "Mrs. Wharton" part one; part two; part three
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: July 17, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Outline of the early life of Mrs. Wharton, born Ellen G. Nugent, to a successful Philadelphia importer and his second wife. She once announced that she was getting married to a Mr. Williamson and invited many people. On the day of the wedding he was sent for, but he said he knew nothing of the event. Her father then decided to put her into a "mad house," but she ran away before this could occur. She later married Lieutenant Wharton, who later became Captain Wharton.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-9
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  9. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "Maryland" 
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: July 22, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Mrs. Wharton may have attempted suicide by poison the other day. Her daughter remains with her in jail.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-12
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  10. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "Washington News: The Wharton Poisoning Case"  
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: July 25, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: A reader received a letter from Mrs. E.J. Wharton, sister-in-law of Mrs. E. G. Wharton. Mrs. E.J. Wharton claims that Mrs. Wharton poisoned her husband and daughter several years ago, resulting in their death, and that she tried to poison her as well. She also writes that Mrs. Wharton owed Mrs. E.J. Wharton's husband money.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-13
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  11. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "Our Baltimore Letter"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:  October 6, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Mrs. Wharton's trial will be removed to ensure a fair trial. Also includes a part of Baltimore's "American" journal that describes that Baltimore Court's decision to remove the case to Anne Arundel County, Maryland.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-15
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  12. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 6, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Describes the arraignment, selection of jurors, and opening arguments of the State in the Wharton case.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-16
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  13. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two; Part Three
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 7, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Many women have turned out to see the Wharton trial. Two women have testified thus far for the State - Mrs. Chubb and Mrs. Hutton.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-17
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  14. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:  December 8, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Ladies continue to turn out in high numbers to see the Wharton Trial. Mrs. Hutton continued her testimony about the events at Mrs. Wharton's house leading up to Gen. Ketchum's death.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-18
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  15. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 9, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: One of the jurymen was very ill during the night, but appeared in court the next day. Dr. Williams continued his testimony from yesterday. He had tended to Gen. Ketchum during his illness at the Wharton home. Dr. Chew, who was present during the autopsy of Gen. Ketchum, then began his testimony
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-19
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  16. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 11, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Medical testimony continued, including testimony by Dr. Chew, Dr. Miles and Dr. Aiken. They focused on the tartar emetic in Gen. Ketchum's body and the effects tartar emetic can have on one's body. Spectators of the trial continue to rise in number, as interest in the case is high.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-20
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  17. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 12, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Dr. Aiken continued his medical and chemical testimony about the poisoning of Gen. Ketchum. The jury requested to go to church services, but were denied for fear that the minister would make a reference to the case.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-21
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  18. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 13, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Testimony by several other witnesses, including Dr. Aiken, a janitor at Dr. Aiken's lab, the undertaker of Gen. Ketchum, and Mr. N.H. Hutton, who was present at the Wharton home during the illness of Gen. Ketchum. He mentions a vial of laudanum that Mrs. Wharton claimed the general to have drank from. She had said to him that that may have made him sick.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-22
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  19. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial" Part One; Part Two; Part Three
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:  December 14, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Continuing coverage of testimony, including that of those present at the Wharton house during Gen. Ketchum's sickness and a Baltimore druggist. It was believed that the vial of laudanum might have come from his store, but he testified that it lacked the proper stamp from his establishment.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-23
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  20. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial" Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:
     December 15, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Mrs. Wharton, who had been wearing a heavy veil throughout the trial, removed it so that she could be identified by one of the witnesses. Testimony by those who saw Gen. Ketchum prior to his illness and were present at the Wharton house before and during his illness continued throughout the day. Mr. Van Ness, the other alleged victim of poisoning by Mrs. Wharton, also testified.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-24
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  21. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial" Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 16, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Charles Ketchum, the son of Gen. Ketchum, testified. He discussed the debt of Mrs. Wharton to his late father. He stated that when he went to retrieve his father's things from the Wharton house, his vest was missing. It was in his vest pocket that he kept important documents, such as the note concerning Mrs. Wharton's debt.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-25
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  22. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two;Part Three
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 18, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: More testimony for the State, including that of Gen. Ketchum's regular doctor who testified that his general health was good.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-26
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  23. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 19, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: The testimony yesterday was moslty about the alleged debt Mrs. Wharton claimed Gen. Ketchum owed her. Gen. Ketchum's other son, James, spoke on this matter as did General Benajamin W. Brice, friend and brother-in-law of Gen. Ketchum. Mrs. Van Ness also testified.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-27
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  24. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 20, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Testimony on varying subjects such as Gen. Ketchum's general health and Mrs. Wharton's financial concerns.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-28
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  25. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 21, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Medical testimony about the effects of tartar emetic and other poisons.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-29
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  26. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial,"Part One; Part Two; Part Three
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 22, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: More chemical and medical testimony continues, including the testminoy of Mrs. Wharton's general physician who said that he had not prescribed tartar emetic for the defendant.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-30
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  27. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 23, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Yesterday was uneventful. The State is coming to an end of calling witnesses. The jury members will have to spend Christmas away from their families.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-31
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  28. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 27, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Two of Mrs. Wharton's servants will testify. Dr. Tonry continued his medical testimony.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-32
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  29. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "Maryland: [Unreadable] of the Wharton Trial" 
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 27, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: The strategy of the defense is to attack the professional reputation of some of the State's medical experts, such as Dr. Williams and Dr. Aiken.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-33
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  30. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 28, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Dr. Tonry completed his medical testimony. One of Mrs. Wharton's colored servants, Susan Jacobs, testified.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-34
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  31. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 29, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Several witnesses testified such as Susan Jacobs and Nellie Wharton, the daughter of the accused. The testimony was largely about Gen. Ketchum's medical habits.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-35
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  32. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 30, 1871 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: The defense called witnesses to testify about Mrs. Wharton's character. Dr. McColloch of Washington and Lee University was called to discuss the chemical aspects of tartar emetic poisoning.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-36
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  33. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: January 1, 1872 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Lengthy description of the medical testimony and cross-examination of defense medical experts.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-154
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  34. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: January 2, 1872 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: More lengthy description on the medical testimony of defense witnesses.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-155
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  35. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: January 2, 1872 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: More scientific experts testify on the chemical aspects of the case.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-156
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  36. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: January 4, 1872 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: More medical testimony was presented. Witnesses for the defense say that Gen. Ketchum died from natural causes, not poison.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-157
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  37. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: January 5, 1872 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Dr. Warren continued his testimony on the causes of Gen. Ketchum's death, which he believes were natural.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-158
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  38. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: January 6, 1872 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: More medical testimony about the cause of Gen. Ketchum's death.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-159
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  39. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial" 
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: January 8, 1872 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Court was adjourned because of the absence of Mr. Steele, the counsel for the defense. The death of Stephen Beard's (one of the jurors) wife, was announced and the entire jury, accompanied by the sheriff, deputies, and bailiff, took carriages to the funeral. The jury is not to be separated.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-160
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  40. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial" 
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: January 9, 1872 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: More medical testimony by experts.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-161
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  41. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial" 
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: January 12, 1872 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: The defense called several character witnesses who spoke highly of Mrs. Wharton.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-164
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  42. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: January 13, 1872 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: More character witneses appeared, including Dr. Abram Claude, who briefly served as Clerk of the Court for Anne Arundel County. Mr. Moale stated that Mrs. Wharton had not offered bribes to Deputy Marshal Fry.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-165
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  43. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial" 
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: January 15, 1872 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: More character witnesses testified for the defense. The prosecution then began its rebuttal testimony. These witnesses said that they believed Gen. Ketchum's death was caused by non-natural causes.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-166
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  44. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: January 16, 1872 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: Rebuttal testimony for the prosecution continued concering the medical aspects of the case.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-167
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  45. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial" 
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:
     January 17, 1872 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: There was more testimony about the chemical aspects of the case. The State's Attorney began arguments for the prosecution.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-168
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  46. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: January 18, 1872 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: The courtroom was crowded with many ladies of high society. The crowd and interest in the case is compared to that of Aaron Burr in Richmond, Va. Mr. Revell concluded his arguments for the prosecution. Mr. Hagner then began arguments for the defense.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-169
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  47. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: January 19, 1872 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: The courtroom was again packed. The defense continued its arguments.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-170
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  48. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two 
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: January 20, 1872 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: More defense arguments in front of a large crowd in the courtroom.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-171
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  49. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: January 22, 1872 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES: The courtroom was again crowded, with the majority of those in attendance being women. Mr. Steele continued his arguments for the defense.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-172
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  50. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account, "The Wharton Trial," Part One; Part Two
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: January 23, 1872 in the Philadelphia Inquirier
    NOTES Mr. Steele finished his arguments. Attorney General Syester then made his arguments for the prosecution. The courtroom was quite crowded and outside of each window, crowds gathered to listen to the arguments of the case.
    SOURCE: MSA SC 5339-68-173
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

Additional Instructional Resources 

Resources on Incorporating Primary Sources and Historic Sites in Classroom Instruction

Secondary Resources

Williams, Philip C. An Examination of Prof. Reese's "Review of the Trial of Mrs. Wharton for the murder of General Ketchum" Baltimore: Turnbull Brothers, 1872.

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