Leet Poisoning Case, 1855

Elsa Amelia Leet, known as Elsie, was a good daughter. The eldest child of Homer M. and Emily Woodford Leet, Elsie grew up in Vienna, in a house about two miles north of Vienna Center, on what is now Youngstown-Kingsville Road. After her mother died on January 5, 1853, Elsie ran the household and cared for her father and younger siblings—her teenaged brother Rollin and her 10-year-old sister Austia.

Being a good daughter, a competent housekeeper, and a caregiver rarely earns one a place in the history books. Elsie's father had been feeling ill in July and August of 1854, so Elsie was adding to her long list of duties that of nurse. Homer Leet was a busy man, with much on his mind. He had been elected to the position of Trumbull County surveyor in 1852. His wife had died soon after. He had a teenage son who spent more time at Henry Shannon’s house at Vienna Center, and Shannon, a tailor, wasn’t a reputable character. He had been warned out of the Township on August 15, 1853, as likely to become a “town charge” rather than earn his own keep. Rollin often came in at two or three o’clock in the morning. Sometimes he didn’t come home at all. Shannon's daughter was likely the reason.

Perhaps Homer Leet’s stomach troubles were due to all these problems. Dr. H. Beach, one of the several doctors who tended to the Leet family, characterized Leet as a “dyspeptic, with tendency to despondency of mind.” Mrs. Sherman Leet, Homer’s sister-in-law, sometimes made squirrel broth for her brother. Homer found that a patent medicine called Hoofland’s German Bitters gave him relief from his indigestion. This medicine was advertised in the Western Reserve Chronicle.[1]

Hoofland's German Bitters Advertisement
Western Reserve Chronicle, February 7, 1855

So, on December 7, 1854, when Elsie came home on a “very cold, blustering day” and “complained much of cold,” her father suggested that “she should take some of Hoofland’s Bitters.” Though she rarely took medicine, Elsie “took a portion from the bottle in a … tablespoon.”

In a matter of minutes Elsie cried “Father, what have you given me!” and slipped out of her chair, her body wracked with spasms. Homer applied cold water from a tub of snow and water to Elsie’s head. He sent his youngest daughter Austia to neighbor Isaac Woodford, Homer’s brother-in-law, for help. Woodford went for Doctor Milton Moore, and then brought another brother-in-law, William Squires, to the Leet house. Mr. and Mrs. Job J. Holliday—Mrs. Holliday was a Leet cousin--had also come to help. Jerusha Woodford was also there.

When they entered the house Elsie had been moved to a bed “which lay on the floor before the stove.” Elsie died “about half past 8 o’clock.”

Her brother Rollin was not there. William Squires found him at Henry Shannon’s house. When told of Elsie’s death, he said “It is not thought that the medicine poisoned her, is it?”

Poison in the medicine? Rollin had just indicted himself. He had been known to have secured strychnine in August, and his father's stomach troubles started then. A grand jury, gathered in Vienna, charged that Rollin “mixed four grains of strychnine in a certain medicine called Hoofland’s German Bitters, knowing it, the strychnine, to be a deadly poison, and intending by it to injure Homer M. Leet, and that Elsie A. Leet not knowing it to be so prepared, drank it, whereby she was injured” and died.

Rollin A. Leet's trial took place in Warren, Ohio, in March, 1855. His father, Homer Leet, was still working as the Trumbull County Surveyor during this time. [2]

Western Reserve Chronicle, March 21, 1855

Vienna-born lawyer John Hutchins was a member of the prosecution. He was paid $75.00 for his time spent on the case.[3] Leet was sentenced to fifteen years at hard labor in the Ohio Penitentiary, then located in Columbus. Rollin showed no emotion when he heard the sentence. Yet the judge was adamant in his condemnation of Rollin’s deed:

…. I know of no crime more horrifying to the sense of the Community, than this of which you stand convicted. For I suppose that no foe to Society is more to be dreaded than he who takes poison for his weapon. We are all exposed,--we are all exposed on every side and at every moment—that foe may meet us when least expected.—The food we eat—the water we drink may contain the messengers of death, and even our own hands may become its ministers; if there be any offence known to the law which should looked upon with a greater degree of adherence, I hardly know what it is. For he who has a disposition to use deadly poison places the life of every man in jeopardy, and society so feel it.

Western Reserve Chronicle, April 18, 1855

The trial's coverage took up nearly the entire issues of the four-page Western Reserve Chronicle of April 4, 1855, and April 18, 1855. The editors of the Western Reserve Chronicle drew a moral about this sad affair:

[This] occasion … should not pass without enforcing a deep lesson of morality, and should serve as a warning to every youth who rejects the wholesome restraints imposed by parents and tutors. Had the depraved passions of this young man [Rollin Leet] been controlled, this tragic scene would never been enacted. But from his earliest youth, he has despised all authority, and given full license to his depraved desires, till at last idleness and evil associates have led him into his present dreadful situation.

On January 12, 1856 the Leet family home and property was sold in a sheriff's sale. It was appraised at $300 and contained 20 acres of land.[4]

With the support of unnamed friends and members of the jury that had found him guilty, Rollin A. Leet applied for a pardon in 1856 and again in 1862. He was finally pardoned by Governor David Tod (who formerly practiced law in Warren) in 1863. Fellow Vienna resident Uriel Holmes Hutchins was his attorney.

Western Reserve Chronicle, December 30, 1863

Rollin returned to Vienna, but then disappeared from the historical record until 1868, when he was accused of theft. The Western Reserve Chronicle reported on June 24, 1868:

--The belting, advertised a few weeks since, as stolen from the Packard & Barnum Rolling Mill of this place, was found in the possession of Rollin A. Leet, formerly of Vienna, who was arrested at Greenville, Pa., on another charged preferred against him. Leet has served several years in the Penitentiary, being convicted in Trumbull Common Pleas, about thirteen years ago, of poisoning a near relative. His good conduct while in prison, gave strong hope, that on being pardoned out, he would lead an upright life (page 3).

Elsie Leet's Find a Grave memorial may be found here.

Updated 8/22/2022
"Application for the Pardon of Rollin A. Leet." Western Reserve Chronicle, May 5, 1858, page 3 (digital version).
"Home Affairs: Court of Common Pleas." Western Reserve Chronicle and Weekly Transcript of the Times, March 28, 1855, page 3 (digital version).
"Notice: STATE OF OHIO, Trumbull County." Western Reserve Chronicle, November 4, 1857, page 2 (digital version).
"Notice." Western Reserve Chronicle, February 26, 1862, page 2 (digital version); also in March 19, 1862, page 3 (digital version).
"Pardoned." Western Reserve Chronicle, December 30, 1863, page 2 (digital version).
"Town and County. LOCAL AND PERSONAL." Western Reserve Chronicle, June 24, 1868, page 3 (digital version).
"Trial of Rollin A. Leet, FOR ADMINISTERING POISON!!" Western Reserve Chronicle and Weekly Transcript of the Times, April 4, 1855, pp. 1-3 (digital versions: page 1, page 2, page 3).
"Trial of Rollin A. Leet, FOR ADMINISTERING POISON!!" Western Reserve Chronicle and Weekly Transcript of the Times, April 18, 1855, pp. 1-3 (digital versions: page 1, page 2).
Carley Cooper O'Neill was the first to research the Leet case in "Government," in Vienna, Ohio, "Where We Live and Let Live": Town 4, Range 2 of the Connecticut Western Reserve (Apollo, PA: Closson Press, 1999), pp. 106-107. Shirley T. Wajda added to this research in 2012.
[1] Hooflands German Bitters advertisement. Western Reserve Chronicle, February 7, 1855, page 2.
[2] "To Whom it May Concern." Western Reserve Chronicle, August 1, 1855, page 3. (digital version)
[3] "A Statement Of the Receipts and Expenditures of Trumbull County, from June 1st, 1854 to June 1st 1855." Western Reserve Chronicle, June 27, 1855, page 2 (digital version).
[4] "Sheriff's Sale." Western Reserve Chronicle, December 12, 1855, page 2. (digital version)