Perkasie’s Ties to a Strange Victorian Murder Mystery

Was it the veal or the arsenic that killed Mrs. Roberts? In May 1878, the national newspapers were abuzz with that question during a trial that featured one of Perkasie’s first businessmen.

Frank Willett and his brother Allen Willett had moved to the Perkasie area in the 1870s to start a sawmill and a wheelmaking shop. But after several trips to Camden with his wife Harriett to check on her parent’s sudden illness, Frank Willett stood accused of complicity in a deadly poisoning.

Willett Brothers, an early Perkasie business

The Bishop Poisoning trial took place from April to late May 1878 along with a second case in Camden, the Armstrong murder. In the end, the Bishop case focused on the enigmatic Emma Bethel, the Bishop family’s housekeeper. Harriett Willett’s parents, Rickoleth and Hannah Bishop, had died mysteriously, and twists and turns in the “Bishop Poisoning” case, fed by rabid newspapers, were a national sensation.

Franklin E. Willett was born in Newtown, Pa., and joined the Union Army at the age of 16 when he went to Doylestown to enlist. After the war, Willett became a train conductor for the Camden and Atlantic Railroad and he met Harriett Bishop from Berlin, N.J. They married and started a family. However, Frank Willett changed careers after he was attacked by an unknown assailant on a train in August 1872, and the Willetts moved to Rockhill Township, Pa. Frank and Harriett Willett lived in Perkasie village, and Frank signed the petition for Perkasie to gain borough status. Allen Willett lived at the sawmill just north of Perkasie.

According to later court testimony, in late February 1878 the Willetts learned of Harriett’s mother’s illness after a veal pot pie meal and Harriett Willett traveled south to Berlin, near Camden, to take care of her mother; Frank Willett arrived later that night. Harriett Willett left after 10 days, and her mother’s care reverted to Emma Bethel, the family housekeeper. Hannah Bishop died two days later.  After Hannah Bishop’s funeral, Rickoleth Bishop, her father, fell ill 12 days later with similar symptoms. Harriett Willett again returned to the family’s farm. Two days after she left for Perkasie, her father passed away.

There was talk in the community of a conflict between Emma Bethel and the Bishops over their son, George Bishop, who also was a Camden and Atlantic Railroad train conductor. George was a widower, and the rumor was George and Emma planned to marry – a plan that was opposed by George’s parents.

Shortly after the deaths, Emma Bethel left the Bishop farm to work briefly in Philadelphia and returned to New Jersey to stay with friends and family just north of Berlin. Emma reportedly told her cousin she put arsenic in a meal that featured veal pie, coffee and tea. Bethel claimed the arsenic was supplied with instructions for its use by Frank Willett from Perkasie. Sheriff Daubman was summoned and in short time, Emma Bethel, George Bishop and Frank Willett were in custody.

The rest of the case was bizarre. Investigators quickly focused on just one suspect after the interviews: Emma Bethel. Willett never faced charges, but he was a key witness in separate trials where Bethel was accused of killing Hannah Bishop and Rickoleth Bishop using arsenic in their food.

The Case Unfolds

The high-profile trial in May 1878 featured two legal families representing the state and Emma Bethel. Richard S. Jenkins and his nephew Wilson H. Jenkins prosecuted Bethel on murder charges. The Slape brothers, Albert and his younger brother, Harry, defended Emma Bethel. Albert Slape was also the prosecutor for Salem County, but Harry Slape handled most of the defense of a woman who had seemingly confessed to the crime. The Slapes took the high-profile case after other attorneys refused to defend Bethel.

Emma Bethel was the second woman ever charged with murder in Camden County and she faced execution on the gallows if convicted. On May 8, the same day Bethel was indicted, Benjamin Hunter and Thomas Graham were indicted for killing James Armstrong in January 1878 in Camden. Hunter also faced execution by hanging if convicted. The Jenkins firm would prosecute the seemingly unrelated cases, with Emma Bethel case first before the judges and jury. In the end, one of three people indicted that day would hang.

The sensational Emma Bethel trials lived up to their advanced billing. In the first trial, for Hannah Bishop’s death, statements made by Emma Bethel to two people that Frank Willett gave her arsenic and threatened to kill her were read into the record. Next, Frank Willett testified the conversations about arsenic never happened and he barely knew Bethel.

Willett's testimonty from the Philadelphia TimesThe Philadelphia Times described his testimony. “Frank Willits, by no means a bad-looking man, testified: I live at Perkasie, Bucks County, Pa.; was formerly a conductor on the Camden and Atlantic railroad; married Harriet Bishop twelve years ago; became acquainted with Emma Bethel about a year ago; she was then with George Bishop at Rockhill; saw her nearly six years ago in a Camden and Atlantic car, but did not know her; saw her for the third time when I went to see my wife’s mother on the Friday mentioned. When I was there [Rickoleth] Bishop, George Bishop and his four children, my wife and defendant were in the house.”

Willett said Bethel’s statements were “false in every particular” about his role in the alleged murders. The prosecutor tried to tied debts owed by Willett to a possible motive – his inheritance of the Bishop’s estate of $4,500.  Willett concluded his testimony. “I was with Emma in the kitchen on Thursday evening; my children were with me; they were there all the time; my baby was on my knee; my wife was in the sick room all the time I was there; as was my father-in-law, I think.”

The next witness was George Bishop, who had a more shocking story. George confirmed that Emma Bethel prepared the veal pot pie dinner, but a month before she pressured George to buy arsenic for her in Philadelphia along with alum and borax for a home pain ready. Bishop also admitted he lied to get the arsenic, telling a doctor he needed the arsenic to kill rats. George Bishop testified that Emma asked daily about the arsenic, alum, and borax, and that after Hannah Bishop became sick, Emma Bethel asked for more arsenic for her home-remedy “steep.”

Professor Stephens of Girard College, a toxicology expert, then testified for two hours, showing the court microscopic slides that proved arsenic was present in Hannah Bishop’s body when her stomach and liver were procured after her grave was opened several weeks after her death. The Slapes called Emma Bethel to the stand. Emma accused George Bishop and Frank Willett of lying, and said she never asked George for the arsenic. Emma also denied telling George Bishop she was divorced and that her husband had deserted her and went to Pittsburgh. Emma has said she became acquainted with Frank Willett five years earlier when he was a train conductor.

In closing arguments, Wilson Jenkins said the scientific evidence proved Bethel poisoned Hannah Bishop, and the male jurors should not sympathize with Bethel because she was a woman.  However, Harry Slape had a plan the Jenkins team didn’t know about. He would use forensic evidence to cast doubt on the autopsy that concluded the Bishops died from arsenic poisoning.

Slape got Hannah Bishop’s doctor to admit Hannah had suffered from intestinal problems for several years that had the same symptoms of a poisoning attack. Slape had hired a young professor, Dr. Dowling Benjamin, to evaluate the scientific evidence. Without quoting Benjamin, but using his research, Slape demonstrated food poisoning from veal would produce similar symptoms.  They cast doubt on the arsenic test data. Hannah Bishop’s doctor also had given her powders that had trace elements of arsenic. Most importantly, Slape used Dowling’s research to show the prosecution had no evidence the arsenic samples were handled in a controlled environment where arsenic may have been introduced from other laboratory sources.

On May 24, 1878, a jam-packed courtroom in Camden awaited the verdict and a hush came over the room when it was announced. Isaac Horner, the jury foreman, rose and read the decision: not guilty. There was a great commotion in the courtroom, mostly supporting Emma Bethel, who shook hands with the Slapes.

The Strange Story Gets Much Stranger

Judge Woodhull had the bailiff silence the courtroom and immediately started the murder trial of Rickoleth Bishop. Harry Slape and Dowling Benjamin knew the state had hired top experts and would not make the same procedural mistakes presenting evidence in the second case. Also, the autopsy for Rickoleth Bishop was done five days after his funeral. The body was exhumed, and the state would present microscopic evidence of arsenic poisoning again.

The state, as expected, produced testimony from Professor Stephens showing the infallible Reinsch’s test was used to show arsenic in Rickoleth Bishop’s body. However, Stephens said he could not determine the amount of arsenic in Bishop’s stomach and liver. Harriett Willett testified Emma Bethel had made comments before Rickoleth Bishop’s death suggesting that someone may say later that George Bishop bought arsenic for Emma. A neighbor also testified Emma told him the Bishop family falsely believed she was poisoning Rickoleth Bishop’s oyster stew.

On May 27, 1878, the state’s case quickly fell apart against Emma Bethel. Dr. Dowling had worked on academic research that proved another element, antinomy, produced the same results as arsenic in Reinsch’s test. The prosecution recalled Professor Stephens to the stand and asked if in his opinion, Rickoleth Bishop died from arsenic poisoning. Stephens believed so.

Slape presented Dowling in person at court, devasting the Jenkins team’s argument and Stephens’ testimony. Slape brought a microscope into the courtroom and asked Stephens to identify the octahedral crystals on the slide. Stephens believed they were arsenic. Slape then brought Dowling into court and they showed jurors the slides were produced by Dowling in a lab using antimony, and not arsenic. The next day, the judges instructed the jury to return with a not guilty verdict, due to lack of evidence in the state’s case. In later years, Slape and Dowling were best known for the roles in the Emma Bethel case. Dowling wrote in a medical journal years later that “I do not profess to know if she was guilty or innocent.”

Perkasie’s Frank Willett was exonerated, and the Willett Brothers had one of Perkasie borough’s first successful factories. Frank Willett was Perkasie Borough secretary and on borough council until he later moved back to New Jersey in 1886 and then Delaware, becoming one of the East Coast’s most successful lumber dealers. George Bishop remained with the railroad as an engineer until he died when he put his head outside a train to check on a smoking engine and was struck by a post.

Emma Bethel was already convicted in the court of public opinion despite cheers of approval within the courtroom when the verdicts were announced in May 1878. Before her arrest in the Bishop case, Emma briefly took a housekeeping job on Wood Street in Philadelphia for a “Mrs. Stewart” after George Bishop asked her to leave the farmstead. When she was arrested by Sheriff Daubman in New Jersey in the Bishop case, Emma Bethel had objects taken from the Stewart house, which was also a house of prostitution. Emma said Mrs. Stewart gave her the objects, including items belonging to two women who died in a fire at the “house of ill repute.” Emma denied any wrongdoing in the house and said he left when its business became apparent to her.

Emma Bethel’s larceny trial was put on hold until after the second Bishop murder trial concluded, and then it was delayed again in another strange twist. While Emma Bethel was in Camden’s jail, she was held in the same area as Thomas Graham, one of accused killers in the James Armstrong case. Benjamin Hunter was accused of hiring Graham to kill Armstrong, who owed Hunter $12,000. Hunter also had a $26,000 life insurance policy on Armstrong. Graham had turned state’s evidence on Hunter.

Emma had befriended Thomas Graham in jail or had known him previously. On June 19, 1878, the Camden courtroom again hushed when Emma Bethel walked in the room. Emma told the court Graham had visited her in her cell, and he said Sheriff Daubman (who had arrested Emma Bethel) was Graham’s friend, and a deal was in place to prevent Graham from hanging. Emma’s testimony didn’t help Hunter, who was convicted, confessed to the crime, and hanged in a botched execution in the same courthouse.

Despite representation from Harry Slape in the larceny case, Emma served six months in Moyamensing prison in Philadelphia. On her release in early 1879,  a pregnant Emma Bethel sued Slape, claiming he was the father of her unborn child. The case was quickly dismissed.

Emma’s final resting place in Williamstown, NJ

Slape and Bethel both wound up in Atlantic City. Slape was its mayor during its Victorian heyday. Bethel married a railroad conductor, Frank Foster, by 1880 who had also taken in Clara, Emma’s young daughter. The Fosters had three children and later separated, and Emma Bethel made her last appearance in the news in April 1897. After Emma accused a man of threatening to kill her, he tipped of the police about the alleged nature of her business on North Carolina Avenue. In open court, the names of prominent men from Philadelphia and Atlantic City were read aloud who visited Bethel’s “disorderly house.” Emma later moved to Bridgeton, N.J., where she worked as a housekeeper, and then to Philadelphia with her children.

In 1926, Emma Bethel Foster died at the age of 73 while living on Beaumont Avenue on Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek section. Her death certificate showed her first name was Sarah, a fact that came out in the second Bishop trial. No note was made of her passing in the newspapers.