Thursday, May 29, 2008

The attempted poisoning of Henry Wirz by his wife: fact or fiction?

One of the more peculiar stories to come out of the trial and execution of Henry Wirz is the one in which Wirz's wife tries to assist him in committing suicide by providing him with strychnine. Following Wirz's execution, the story appeared in the New York Times on November 11, 1865. It was subsequently deemed a total fabrication by Wirz's attorney and wife.

[Excerpted from "History of the United States Secret Service" by General L.C. Baker]

...I shall never forget the first meeting between Wirz and his wife. She exhibited the most stoical indifference, and simply said, "How are you, Wirz?" Instead of embracing him, as would naturally have been expected under the circumstances, she sat down in a chair in front of him, and looked at the doomed man a moment, and then gave utterance to the most vindictive words against the Government, in which he joined. More...Instead of talking of their family affairs, the unfortunate position in which Wirz was placed, and the probability of his execution, she took occasion to denounce Colonel Chipman, Judge-Advocate of the commission before whom Wirz was being tried, and the witnesses as perjurers, and in the most threatening manner defied the Government to carry the findings of the commission into execution. This interview finally closed in their making an appointment for another.

The conduct of Wirz and his wife was to my mind very suspicious. I did not conceive that such indifference was natural under the circumstances, and determined to watch their next interview very closely. It came in due time, and was very similar to the first one. Mrs. Wirz sat in front of her husband, and I took a position where I could casually observe the movements of each. Mrs. Wirz took from her hand a glove, inside of which I noticed she had a small package ; what it was I could not tell. The interview was short, as both were conscious that I was observing every movement. At the third interview the same thing was repeated. As we all rose to go to the door leading to the hall, Wirz walking first, Mrs. Wirz next, and myself at the rear, she for the first time approached him, when they embraced and put their lips up to kiss each other. I watched the motion, and perceived that she was conveying something from her mouth to his. I sprang forward in an instant, caught him by the throat, and threw him on the floor. He raised a pill from his throat, brought it within his teeth, crushed it and spit out. I picked it up and found it to be a small round piece of strychnine inclosed in a piece of oiled silk. Upon this discovery I informed Mrs. Wirz that she could have no more interviews with her husband. She was compelled, therefore, to leave him to his fate. My next step was to inform the Assistant Secretary of War and Judge Holt of the singular occurrence. I also showed to the former the strychnine pill. On the day of the prisoner's execution, I related the poison scene to a reporter of a New York paper. It was given to the public by him. The copperhead press imme diately opened their artillery of abuse, making me the target of bitterest attack. The whole statement was pronounced a fabrication, while it was verified entirely by Louis Skade, the counsel of Wirz, and by Mrs. Wirz.

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