Arsenic in the Leaven

Mary Anne Morefleld


Life for the Scottish Carothers clan in East Pennsborough, now Silver Spring Township, was neither calm nor peaceful in that tiny fragment ot time between 1798 and 1801. Four murders occurred within two of the families, the John Carothers and the Andrew Carothers. A fifth Carother's death within the county was the beating death of James Carothers Sr. at the hands of his own sons, John and James in 1803. Whether this family was also located in. East Pennsborough is not known.


A recent article in Cumberland County History, "Chloe's Story," written by Nancy Loughridge tells the sad tale of the murder of the two small daughters of Andrew and Mary Carothers in 1801 by their slave Chloe. This branch of the fam­ily traces from Robert Carothers, who died in 1771 through his only son, John Carothers who died in 1783, to his son Andrew.


Another shocking tale is the story of the poisoning deaths within the John Carothers branch of the family in 1798, Again, two deaths occurred; again, a serv­ing girl was involved.


John Carothers, born in 1739, and his wife, Mary born in 1740, appeared in East Pennsborough in 1767 when they acquired 266 acres of land by warrant dated March 31, 1767. Upon this land seven miles from Carlisle on the banks of the Conodoguinet Creek, they built a farm which eventually consisted of "2 dwelling houses, two barns, one of them a large stone bank barn, a stone spring house with never-failing limestone spring, a good bearing orchard, 30 acres of good meadow and about 130 acres of plow land clear."l This farm can be identified on the 1858 map as the property of Michael Kreider, located today on the present Rich Valley Road.


John and Mary Carothers were the parents of seven children: James, William, John, Thomas, Andrew, Jean and Ann, John Sr. was a justice of the peace of the county.


By 1798 the children were young adults, and five of them were married. John Carothers married Sarah Hogue, daughter of Jonathan, 1725-1800. Records vari­ously call his wife Sallie or Sally. They were living in Carlisle in a stone home ovvned by Jacob Hindle. John was the Sheriff of Cumberland County.


James Carothers married Elizabeth. Thomas also had a wife Elizabeth, while William was married to Margaret. Jean Carothers, also called Jane, was married to James Bell.


In 1798, James and William shared a property bordering John Orr. Thomas, lived In a large stone house belonging to John Walker, Esq.  Assuming that Jean lived away from her family, only Ann and the nineteen-year old Andrew were living at the John Carother’s farm when a terrib1e plot was conceived in the head of young Sarah Clark.


Sarah Clark was a local woman, "born about 1766 within two miles of Carlisle."2 The tragedy which was to come was the result of a love triangle, Sarah or Sallie lived in the house of the John Douglas family. Sallie was fond of the Doug­las son. The son, however, appeared to be interested in Ann Carothers. Apparently this relationship went on for some years giving Sarah time to devise her plot. She left the employ of Mr. Douglas and became a serving girl in the house of John Carothers. Her idea was to kill Ann by poisoning her. To this end, she pur­chased "one ounce of white arsenic" from Dr. Gustine in the fall of 1797.3  She apparently could not find the right time to give Ann the arsenic, so she put it into ­a crock of leaven from which bread was made. From this, those family members living at home became sick. This included John, Mary, Ann and Andrew.


John Carothers died on February 26. He was buried the next day at the Silver Spring Meeting House. The paper notes that "the funeral was uncommonly large; his friends and acquaintances from a considerable distance attending in great numbers to testify their regret at the loss of a man respectable for his social and domestic qualities."4


His wife lingered until the third of June when she died, and a second burial took place at the Silver Spring Meeting House. Kline's Gazette says of Mary Carothers that "she possessed all the virtues calculated to promote domestic happiness being a dutiful, an affectionate mother, a good neighbor."


By June 12, Sarah Clark was in the county jail on suspicion of murdering the family. By the following week, she had confessed to James McCormick Esq., a jus­tice of the peace as to what she had done. It was then that the tale of the purchase of the arsenic was told. She also revealed that when Ann did not die, she made a second purchase of an ounce of yellow arsenic from Dr. Stinneckle in ' order to give Ann a "dose to herself." This portion she put in a crock in Thomas Carother's spring house. It was discovered as well as arsenic which she still had in her possession.


The newspaper reported that neighbors who came to help the family became ill from eating butter which had been poisoned, but they were not in danger. Ann it was felt would recover, but Andrew was not expect to recover.


Sarah Clark was tried at the October term of Oyer and Terminer with James Riddle sitting as President Judge, Samuel Laird and John Montgomery, Associates.


Bennet Bellman in his History of the Bar of Cumberland County reports that she was convicted of murder in the first degree.  She was tried only for the death of John Carothers.


Her sentencing took place on August 5, 1799. She received "the awful sentence of DEATH."6  James Riddle Esq., president of the court of Oyer and Terminer, spoke the following to Sarah:


It is considered and ordered by the court that you, Sarah Clark be taken to the goal of Cumberland County, the place from whence you came and from there to the place of execution and there be hanged by neck until you are dead!

May God have mercy on your soul.


The execution took place on October 30, 1799 on the commons east of Car­lisle sometime between 12 and 2. The last mention of the case in the Kline's Gazette reports that Sarah Clark "was attended to the place of execution by the Rev. Mr. Hauts and the Rev. Mr. Herbt, the two German clergymen of this place. She appeared very penitent and received her fate with resignation and seeming resolution - and the moment previous to her entering into eternity declared her­self dying an innocent murderer."7


Neither Ann nor Andrew died as a result of the poisoning, for they are both listed as heirs of John Carothers when the Carother's plantation was sold to John Noble of Carlisle for 2,169 pounds six shillings on October 28, 1800. The property contained 295 acres and 145 perches and a fourth. It was bounded by the land of Andrew Irvine, William Walker, Matthew Loudon, and Joseph McClure.


The poisoning radically changed the life of Andrew Carothers. As a young man, he was trained in cabinet making. The poisoning left him crippled, however, and he could not pursue this career. Leaving cabinetry behind he became a lawyer, "by a course of reading and study with such aids as he could obtain at home."8 He married Catherine Loudon of East Pennsborough on June 11, 1812. After her death in 1820, he married Isabella Alexander in 1824. A trustee of Dickinson College, he died on July 27, 1836. Bennet Bellman states that "Mr. Carothers was remarkable for his amiability of temper, his purity of character, his unlimited disposition to charity and his love of justice."9 His obituary notes that "he early made his way to competence and distinction. "10


Perhaps as a trustee of Dickinson he reminisced on the events of his youth with another Dickinson trustee, Dr. Samuel Allan McCoskry. R. L. Sibbet writes, "It is saicl cf Dr. McCoskry that he analyzed the butter into which a large quantity of arsenic had been introduced by Sally Clark; and that his testimony before the court of Carlisle secured the conviction and execution of the girl. . ."11


The incident lingers in the history of the township and in the poetry of Miss Isabella Oliver, daughter of James Oliver and a friend of the families involved, who published a book of poetry in 1805. Included among her poems is "Melan­choly Instance of Human Depravity." The poem begins


Upon the bank of a slow winding flood

The good Alphonso's modest mansion stood;

A man he was throughout the county known

Of sterling sense, to social converse prone.

He walked the plains with such majestic grace

When time had drawn its furrows on his face,

Twas easy to infer his youthful charm,

When first the fair Maria blessed his arms;

Maria-Oh! what mixed emotions rise,

Grief, pity, indignation and surprise,

At thought of thee!

Thy sweetness might have moved the harshest mind;

Thy kindness taught th'ungentlest to be kind;

And yet a fiend enshrined in female mould

Could thy heartrending agony behold;

When by her cruel wiles thy wedded heart

Was basely severed from its dearest part…


The events which were to occur to the Andrew Carothers family in 1801 bear no direct relationship to the deaths of John and Mary Carothers in 1798. John Carothers, son of John, Sheriff of Cumberland County and the one to whom the death warrant for Chloe was issued, however, was the cousin of Andrew, father of the dead children, four year old Lucetta and six year old Polly.


The gravestones of John, Mary, and Andrew Carothers are still readable in the graveyard of Silver Spring Presbyterian Church. The turmoil at the turn of the  nineteenth century forgotten by all but a few.







1 Kline's Carlisle Weekly Gazette, January 7, 1799


2 Wing, Rev. Conway, History of Cumberland County, 1879, p. 116,


3 Kline's Carlisle Weekly Gazette, June 20, 1798.


4 Ibid., March 7, 1798.


5 Ibid., June 6, 1798.


6 Ibid., August 6, 1799.


7 Ibid., Nov. 6, 1799.


8 Wing, Rev. Conway, History of Cumberland County, 1879, p. 162.


9 Ibid.


10 Carlisle Herald, August 4, 1836.


11 Wing, p. 66.