The 47th in a series on my family tree
Prompt: Wrong Side of the Law
The trial proved to be a national sensation. The murders of four Sparling men ~ a father and three of his sons ~ in Tyre, Sanilac, Michigan, between 1908 and 1911, and the subsequent trial of the family doctor, his nurse, as well as the wife/mother of these men proved both titillating and terrible all at the same time.
This is a long and complex story upon which only a small amount of light can be shed in this post. With help of several resources the gist of it is conveyed here with a list of resources attached to the end. Suffice to say that this was a story that rocked the family at the time. It was the topic of excited conversation for my maternal grandfather, Stanley Lewis McDonall (1909-1987), when he discovered coverage of the story in a police gazette some years after the event. His paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Sparling (1881-1915), was a first cousin to the deceased, John Wesley Sparling (1856-1908), the father in question, which makes him my first cousin four times removed. As well, Elizabeth, like so many of the extended Sparling family at the time, lived in the Sanilac area and no doubt would have been aware of the drama. By that time her son (my great grandfather), William George Steven (Steve) McDonall (1877-1949), had already begun the trek west with his new wife and members of her family while working on the Great Northern Railroad. Any information they would have received would have been by correspondence (I wish we had those!!) or in the newspapers.
John Wesley Sparling was a farmer in Sanilac Co., Michigan, and the eldest of three sons born to Peter Sparling (1826-1910) and Mary Hickey (1836-1917). The family were of Wesleyan Methodist faith and descendants of the Palatine Irish who migrated to Canada via New York in 1851. John was born September 17, 1856 in Peel Co., Ontario, and four years later his family, and many of the extended Sparling family, migrated to Michigan. They settled in Sanilac. As an aside, like many their lives would have been impacted by the great fires of 1871 and 1881 that devastated the state. On October 19, 1882, he married Carrie Boddy (1865-1933), the fourth of seven children and the third daughter of Irish immigrant Edward Elijah Boddy (1830-1903) and his British wife, Isabel Wright (1835-1905). Carrie had just turned 17 when she married and before her 18th birthday gave birth to the first of six children, a daughter Mary Anna Sparling born August 2, 1883, in Minden Township, Sanilac. In the ensuing 10 years she had five boys: Peter (July 29, 1885); Albert (October 27, 1887); Ray (March 25, 1890); Scyrel (May 2, 1891); and, Edward (October 9, 1893).
On January 11, 1894, Edward passed away at three months old.
My first thoughts concern Carrie’s state of mind given rebuilding a life after the fires, the young marriage, the steady stream of babies, and the death of her youngest in such a condensed period of time. Was there some post-partum depression or other kind of emotional vulnerability at play as the next chapter of her life unfolded?
In 1903 and 1905 Carrie lost her father and mother, respectively. On June 10, 1908, the daughter, Mary Anna, married Robert Elmer Hurford and presumably left home. More upheaval which, one might imagine could leave Carrie feeling lonely and vulnerable.
It was about this time that a new country doctor, Dr. Robert MacGregor, moved into the area from Ontario. Rather than attempt to reconstruct events in my own words, let’s refer to the following excerpts:
” … Carrie Sparling sought the doctor’s care for an eye condition, making the hour-long trek by horse to his office. After an eye-drop treatment, MacGregor promised he’d soon drop by the Sparling farm.
Days later, John Wesley, Carrie’s husband, greeted MacGregor. After a thorough examination behind a closed bedroom door, MacGregor treated Mrs. Sparling with eyedrops. Before he left, MacGregor told Mr. Sparling he’d gladly stop by whenever he traveled the neighborhood, which happened frequently in the upcoming months.
John Wesley and Carrie Sparling’s sons were men in their prime: Peter, the eldest at 25; Albert, 23; Ray, 21; and Scyrel, 19. Strong and healthy like their father, they toiled in the fields. One June day, John Wesley quit work midday, clutching his stomach. Peter rode his horse at breakneck speed to fetch MacGregor, who diagnosed a kidney ailment. John Wesley died on July 8, 1908*, and was laid to rest in the Tyre Cemetery. The whole community attended the service.
The farm fell into the capable hands of Carrie’s sons. The widow consulted MacGregor regarding finance decisions. The doctor suggested Carrie purchase life insurance for her sons. Carrie agreed, but the boys stated it wasn’t necessary; they were healthy. The doctor reminded that John Wesley had been, too. Carrie purchased policies from Alexander MacGregor, the doctor’s father. The boys each named Carrie the sole beneficiary.”
*At St. Joseph’s hospital, London, OntarioSource: First Do No Harm: A family doctor’s motive for murder is fuelled by passion and greed … by Janis Stein, Great Lakes Bay Magazine (1)
Two years later Peter staggered from a hayfield with similar symptoms and died after three days on July 22, 1910, just as his father had at St. Joseph’s hospital in London, Ontario. Less than a year later Albert, the next oldest Sparling, became ill in church with similar symptoms as Peter and his father. He died a few days later on May 3, 1911. And then, on August 4, 1911, Scyrel, the fourth son, experienced similar symptoms again and succumbed on August 14, 1911. By this time authorities were starting to get suspicious. The only son not stricken was the middle boy, Ray.
More background from First Do No Harm:
“As Carrie grieved [John and Peter], MacGregor advised she sell the farm and buy another parcel closer to Ubly. Albert, Ray, and Scyrel fell into a comfortable routine at the new homestead. A shrewd advisor, the doctor suggested Carrie insure her three surviving sons with an additional $1,000.Source: First Do No Harm: A family doctor’s motive for murder is fuelled by passion and greed … by Janis Stein, Great Lakes Bay Magazine (1)
In April 1911, MacGregor ordered a horseless carriage in Bad Axe. The physician didn’t dispute the $684 price, informing the salesman he’d pay cash within a month.
By mid-May, Albert complained of stomach pain. The doctor diagnosed, again, acute pancreatitis. By June, fresh dirt in the Sparling plot showed John Wesley and Peter had company.
Carrie purchased a home in Ubly for $5,000, placing $1,000 down. Gossip escalated when Dr. and Mrs. MacGregor returned from vacation and moved into the home in Ubly, using a portion of the space for his office. Carrie stayed with Ray and Scyrel on the homestead. It was only natural she checked on her property in Ubly. Her eye ailment continued to cause her grief. Meanwhile, MacGregor paid for his new auto. Gossip at the bank ensued. Carrie had endorsed her check from Albert’s death over to the good doctor. He walked away with $1,000 in cash, $684 of which he left at the auto garage.
Disaster followed the Sparlings. On August 4, after the oats harvest, Scyrel complained of nausea. MacGregor raced to the Sparling farm, fearing Scyrel suffered from liver cancer. The next day he called Dr. Willet J. Herrington, requesting a second opinion. Unbeknownst to Dr. Herrington, he also called Dr. Daniel Conboy for his opinion.
Earlier that day, MacGregor had summoned Dr. Eugene Holdship, who performed the autopsy, not knowing that [local Prosecutor] Boomhower had requested Conboy and Herrington to do the honors. Carrie held the lantern with a shaky hand as Holdship sliced. MacGregor diagnosed Scyrel’s death as liver cancer, promptly asking for and receiving Holdship’s agreement. Holdship inquired if the stomach should be dissected, but MacGregor said it looked fine.
At first light, MacGregor drove to Bad Axe, the jars containing Scyrel’s organs clanking together. Boomhower was surprised to see MacGregor, who handed over the organ-filled jars. The coroner, the sheriff, and Doctors Herrington and Conboy stood in front of the courthouse, their mouths agape. When Boomhower asked why he had proceeded with the autopsy, MacGregor assured him he had been happy to help. The coroner immediately questioned the stomach’s absence. MacGregor stated he had opened the stomach himself, and the organ showed no indication of arsenic.
Scyrel’s burial proceeded, while his organs were sent to Ann Arbor. Four dead Sparlings in three years warranted answers. University of Michigan pathologists Dr. Vaughn and Professor Alfred Warthin shed some light: Scyrel had been poisoned.”
From here let’s refer to the timeline provided by the Port Huron Times-Herald, June 6, 1912:
Aug 15 ~ Post-mortem held over Scyrel Sparling. Inquest ordered. Jury summoned and adjourned to await report of analysis of deceased organs.
Aug 29 ~ Viscera of Scyrel Sparling taken to Ann Arbor for analysis
Oct 12 & 13 ~ Inquest into death of Scyrel Sparling held at Ubly. Verdict of jury stated death was due to arsenic poison.
Oct 27 ~ Remains of Albert Sparling exhumed, inquest ordered, post-mortem held, and jury summoned and adjourned.
Nov 21 ~ Inquest into death of Albert Sparling held at Ubly. Arsenic poison declared to have caused death.
Nov 22 ~ Dr. Robert A. MacGregor of Ubly, attending physician of Sparling family at times of all four deaths, arrested on a charge of the murder of Scyrel Sparling. Miss [Marguerite Gibbs], Port Huron, nurse, who attended Scyrel in his last illness and who remained with Mrs. Sparling after his death, arrested on a charge of being an accessory after the fact.
Nov 23 ~ Dr. MacGregor and Miss Gibbs arraigned. A plea of not guilty entered for each.
Dec 13 ~ Examination of Dr. MacGregor before Justice Skinner.
Dec 14 ~ Bodies of John and Peter Sparling exhumed at Tyre Cemetery by Sanilac County authorities. Post-mortem held and inquest begun.
Dec 15 ~ Dr. MacGregor held for trial to the circuit court on a charge of murder in the first degree. Miss Gibbs held [on] a charge of being an accessory, after she had waived examination.
Dec 16 ~ Mrs. Carrie Boddy Sparling, widow of John and mother of Peter, Albert and Scyrel Sparling arrested on a charge of the murder of the latter boy.
Jan 19 ~ Mrs. Sparling held for trial on a charge of murder in the first degree.
Jan 22 ~ Dr. MacGregor appeared in circuit court, refused to plead, and a plea of not guilt was entered for him.
Jan 23 ~ Dr. MacGregor released on $15,000 bail. Mrs. Sparling arraigned, pleaded not guilty, and was released on $10,000 bail to appear for trial March 30.
Jan 30 ~ Dr MacGregor’s trial set for March 25.
Jan 31 ~ Inquests into deaths of John and Peter Sparling held at Ubly. Verdict of coroner’s jury gave poison as cause of death.
Mar 25 ~ Dr. MacGregor’s trial set for April 2.
Apr 2 ~ Trial of Dr. MacGregor for the murder of Scyrel Sparling began before Judge Watson Beach in circuit court at Bad Axe.
May 2 ~ Jury selected for the trial.
Jun 6 ~ Dr. MacGregor found guilty of murder
The trial, with its 100 witnesses, garnered nationwide attention. MacGregor was sentenced to life at the Jackson prison in Michigan. While serving time he acted as an inmate physician.
The End … (think again)
From the National Registry of Exonerations Pre-1989, we read:
“Carrie Sparling’s trial was repeatedly delayed, and she continued to state publicly that MacGregor was innocent and that her husband and sons had died of natural causes. In interviews with reporters she shared her deceased family members’ histories of illnesses and operations. … In late January 1914, the charges against Carrie Sparling and [Nurse] Gibbs were dismissed. That same month, the Michigan Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision to deny MacGregor’s request for a new trial.”
And you’d think that would be the end of it, but in 1914, Governor Woodbridge Ferris launched a two-year investigation into MacGregor’s case and did not share the information uncovered in that investigation with the public. On November 27, 1916, Ferris pardoned MacGregor on the basis of innocence. “I am firmly convinced that Dr. MacGregor is absolutely innocent of the crime for which he was convicted,” he said. MacGregor was freed after serving four years of his life sentence.
It is said that Robert MacGregor returned to London, Ontario, in the hope of starting a new life, however he was ostracized by the community and returned instead to the prison in which he’d done time to work again as an inmate physician, He died of typhoid fever in 1928. Carrie Sparling died in Flint, Michigan, January 17, 1933, at age 68.
The Final Word
Admittedly this is a lot to digest. There are still many more questions than answers. For instance, how was Carrie’s mental/emotional health after having six children in less than 10 years, including the loss of the baby, Edward? Did the death of both parents just a few years later exacerbate any mental/emotional issues and make her vulnerable to someone “god-like” such as Dr. MacGregor who could so easily have manipulated her through all those visits for her eye ailment? Were those visits completely innocent? Why was Ray, the middle son, the only one left standing? How did all of this effect him? Was he involved? One of the articles below remarks that arsenic was found in a box in one of the Sparling kitchen cupboards. If so, Carrie had ready access and could easily have administered the poison. Was the insurance money that Carrie gave MacGregor simply in payment for medical services provided or had they made some kind of deal? Why did the Governor set MacGregor free? What was in his investigation notes and why wouldn’t he share them? If they’re on file somewhere can any publication ban be lifted so they can now be entered into the public record?
To this day the case has not been resolved. The links below are worth exploring for further insight on this baffling story. Justice was not served for what was done to these four men, and from that perspective it seems they did indeed end up on the wrong side of the law. ❦
Sources and Further Reading (links attached):
(1) First Do No Harm: A family doctor’s motive for murder is fuelled by passion and greed … by Janis Stein, Great Lakes Bay Magazine
(2) Robert MacGregor … National Registry of Exonerations Pre-1989
(3) Carrie Bodie Sparling, Suspected Michigan Serial Killer … January 10, 2014
(4) Woman in accused in poisoning plot … San Francisco Call, Volume III, No. 16, 16 December 1911
(5) The Sparling Murders … Thumbwind via Facebook
(6) The Thumb Pointed Fingers … A novel based on the story of the Dying Sparlings by Jacki Howard
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