Unsolved Picnic Murder Mystery - Nov Dec 2014

This time of year everyone always gets that spooky feeling, which is usually brought on by Halloween. So why not spend some time talking about one of Greenfield's most famed murder mysteries!!

Greenfield and Hancock County does not have a long history of murders in this area fortunately. But on June 21, 1931, the first day of summer, pushed us right into one of the state's most unique murder mysteries.

This is a story that I've been interested in since I was a young kid working on a farm and during that time I had the privilege of mowing Simmons Cemetery, which is located on 500 N. and in-between 600 and 700 East. A bunch of my relatives going all the way back to my Great-Great-Great Grandfather are buried there and so are two girls named Virginia and Alice Simmons who on that June day in 1931 had their young lives ended. Since then I've always had questions in the back of my mind as to what really happened in this case. Like many others life gets in the way and the time required to follow through on such a story, where most likely all involved are not long gone, has been slim.

I recently stumbled upon some more info which has rejuvenated my energy towards this. I've been working on putting this together in a more in-depth way, but I thought I would take this time to share some of the facts. Maybe a teaser or trailer of what is to come!

June 21, 1931, the first day of summer, seemed like any other fun exciting day. I'm sure that's how Virginia and Alice Simmons felt. On this day they traveled with their family, father John W. Simmons, mother Carrie A. Simmons, sister Elizabeth and brothers George and Dale. Despite the country being in a depression the Simmons family were prosperous farmers. They lived in an area known as Simmons Corner northeast of Greenfield. They attended Charlottesville United Methodist Church every Sunday. They epitomized the average farming family of that time in Indiana. But how could evil creep into the day for such a wholesome, harmless family and event? Or where they so harmless after all? In the end several people would become ill and two would be dead.

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John and Carrie Simmons

The family drove to Lebanon for the annual family reunion and picnic which was held in Memorial Park in Lebanon. On the way they stopped for an hour to visit some other relatives Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Pollard. They then made their way to the reunion.

Shortly after the lunch began guest began to complain that something didn't taste right. It wasn't long before several people became ill. Five people were rushed to nearby Witham Hospital. Three of those ill survived, Lester Carr, Horace Jackson and John W. Simmons. Alice Jean Simmons, age 10, died fifteen minutes after she arrived at the hospital, and the other daughter Virginia, age 14 died later that evening. The only other casualties of the picnic were blackbirds that expired after eating crumbs from the sandwiches.

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Virginia and Alice Simmons

 

On the day the girls died, Lebanon's coroner, G.A. Owsley, after examining the sandwiches and finding a capsule and trace powder determined that there were only two opportunities for the poison – later found to be strychnine – to be placed in the sandwiches. Investigators found the strychnine had been sprinkled on the sweet pickled beets as well. All were prepared by Carrie Simmons.

On June 23rd the bodies of the girls were laid in rest at the Simmons living room. On June 24th the funeral took place with the girls finally buried on the east end of Simmons cemetery, underneath a simple headstone.

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Grave site Simmons Cemetery

 

Carrie was at home on June 29, grieving with friends and family, when the police entered the home and placed her under arrest. She went without protest.

On July 3, Mrs. Simmons was indicted on the charge of murder. Carrie would plead not guilty on July 7th.

Did Carrie really murder her two daughters? And if so what would her motive been? If she didn't then who did?

There were obvious challenges for the prosecution from the start. Of the eighteen sandwiches she made for the picnic, twelve were poisoned. If she had plotted to kill her daughters in such a bizarre fashion, how could she be sure that they would take one of the contaminated sandwiches? How could she prevent someone she didn't intend to murder from eating one? In fact, three persons other than her daughters did consume the food and nearly died. The lack of subtlety in the Killer's chosen method was naïve.

Despite the unanswered questions the prosecutor felt that Mrs. Simmons was the most likely suspect and would forge their evidence to meet those criteria.

On September 27, after spending three months in jail, Carrie Simmons stood trial for first-degree murder with 12 local male farmers the" hanging jury" as depicted by local newspapers, deciding her fate. The anticipation form the public slowly built over this time. The public followed the investigation daily in newspapers

During this time the community expressed steadfast confidence in her innocence. But the stakes were high as the death by electric chair hung in the balance.

Carrie entered the court room the first day dressed to the best of fashion for 1931. She wore black oxford shoes and Empress Eugenie hat.

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Carrie and John Simmons entering the Boone Co. Courthouse

 

From the beginning the prosecution did not show much confidence in their case. They had the capsules and trace of strychnine and everyone knew Carrie made the sandwiches but they had trouble making that stick. They also could not show any motive. They attempted by trying to show that the family was in debt. They also showed that the life insurance beneficiary had recently been changed.

On October 2nd the prosecution called John Simmons to testify as a reluctant witness against his own wife. After two hours of questioning not much evidence was produced. The prosecution tried to claim John was giving contradictory statements. An exhausted Mr. Simmons fell out of the chair sobbing. Gasp came over the court room from spectators and court adjourned for the day.

If Carrie wasn't the killer than who was remained the question? On Oct. 6-7th the defense hammered home that Horace Jackson may have in fact been the killer. Horace was the brother-in-law to John Simmons. Horace had spent time in the federal prison for violating the Mann Act, which was a law passed which made it illegal to take a woman across state lines for consensual sex or forced prostitution. He had blamed the Simmons for his arrest and upon being released the Simmons had tried to convince Horace's wife to leave him. He had plenty of motives for revenge. He was also the last person seen standing outside by the Simmons vehicle while the family visited the Pollards.

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Horace Jackson

 

On October 10th the prosecution tried to show that Carrie had made a previous attempt but even that theory was a stretch.

Perhaps the biggest day in court was on Oct. 12th when Druggist Charles Friedman identified Carrie as a purchaser 60 grams of strychnine at his store on June 18, just three days before the murder. This evidence seemed to stand out until the defense brought Louise Robinson of Bargersville to the stand on October 14. She testified that it was her that had made the purchase of 60 grams of strychnine and when confronted Mr. Friedman recognized her. Robinson testimony was so decisive that after she left the stands a weeping Mrs. Simmons could be heard telling her attorney, "you just saved my life."

During these long hot days of testimony Judge Horniday had to threaten the spectators with contempt of court for being over-enthusiastic during testimony. The whispers, eye-rolling, and gasp were influencing his jury.

The defense brought to the stand Harry Short a reliable druggist from New Palestine, who testified that Horace Jackson had bought 60 grams of strychnine at his pharmacy a few days before the picnic. Did Horace make the purchase? And if so is that why he was the last person to be seen close to the Simmons car while at the Pollards residence? Was he really out for revenge? And if so why would he have poisoned himself? as he was one of the victims that fell ill. Or was it all to throw everyone off his scent?

On October 15th Mrs. Claude White of Charlottesville, a housewife who was so interested in the case that she conducted an experiment that was neither scientific nor rigorous but interesting nevertheless. Using the Simmons family kitchen she made twelve chicken sandwiches and put strychnine capsules in six of them. She then drove to the Pollard house in Lebanon. Once there she put capsules in the other six. After waiting slightly over an hour, just like the Simmons did on their visit, she drove to Memorial Park and examined the food. In the six sandwiches that were poisoned in the kitchen, the strychnine capsules had nearly dissolved; but in the six poisoned at the Pollard house, the capsules were almost intact just like they were on the day of the murderous picnic. This showed that whoever put the capsules in the sandwiches would have done so while at the Pollards house.

Also to help win sympathy for Carrie the defense showed evidence that the police had questioned Mrs. Simmons with loud, abusive language late on the night when they arrested her and for several days following. They contended that this was the verbal equivalent of 3rd degree interrogation.

Near the end of the trial came its biggest highlight. Carrie Simmons took the stand. After saying nothing that would incriminate herself the prosecution had exhausted every avenue. The defense brought person after person to the stand as character witness for Carrie. Testimony was given as to what she said when the incident occurred and what her demeanor was while at the hospital.

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The Simmons family at the trial

 

The case was given to the jury on November 3rd. Forty-eight hours and nine ballots later, the hopelessly deadlock members voted eight to four for acquittal. The hung jury was dismissed.

Carrie was taken back to jail awaiting a second trial, which usually was the case in this situation. But the prosecution realized that they did not have a winnable case. In May 1933, all charges against Carrie were dropped.

The poisoning of the Simmons girls, dubbed by the press as "the state's most baffling murder case," has remained a mystery even still today. It was also one of the longest murder trials in the state at that time as it lasted well over a month. Over 100 people were called to the stand to testify.

This story has everything that a good murder mystery needs. A mother accused of killing her two daughters, conflicting testimonies, evidence tampering, destruction of evidence. Prosecutors had the tablets, they had trace evidence, in happened in front of many people in broad daylight, and they had eye witness confirmation. There was constant drama in the court room with several spectators braking down and fainting during the trial. John W. Simmons broke down while on the stand causing the trial to rest for the day. A mob of over 100 people stormed the courtroom in desperation of getting a seat causing damage to the courtroom doors. The jury selected made for the perfect "hanging jury". There was even a Ku Klux Klan angle. Everything you can think of and more.

What makes this case so interesting and puzzling is the very narrow window of opportunity to commit the crime. If Carrie did not plant the poison there were only a few other ways the poison could get there. Did someone have a grudge against the Simmons family? Was it Horace Jackson? Was there someone who just randomly wanted to inflict terror on any random family or person that they happened to come across? It seems strange to me that someone would just be walking around with strychnine in their pocket. Someone close to this family had to be involved.......but who, when.......this mystery continues!!!

Why did the county never go after Horace Jackson? Possibly for the same reason they decided not to retry Carrie. There simply wasn't enough evidence to convict anyone.

Most, if not all, immediately involved in this case are now gone. John Simmons died in 1949. He was 67 years old. Carrie Simmons died in 1969 at the age of 83. George Simmons died on November 11, 1982 at 76 years of age and he is buried in Park Cemetery, Greenfield. Dale Simmons died on December 4, 2001 at 93 years of age and he too is buried in Park Cemetery, Greenfield. Elizabeth Simmons died on July 26, 2012 at 97 years of age. She is buried in Simmons Cemetery next to her sisters and parents. Horace Jackson died in 1964 at 86 years of age and is buried in Simmons Cemetery. Horace's wife Lora Mae died in 1951 at the age of 74 and she too is buried in Simmons Cemetery.

There were several who testified in court that could possibly still be living. Marion Hickerson was 17 years old when he drove Lester Carr, one of the poison victims to Witham Hospital. Veneta Belle Patterson was a 15 year old Lebanon High School student and attendee of the picnic. Franklin Durham was an 18 year old hospital employee who testified as to the demeanor of Carrie while at the hospital. There could also be many of people that attended the trial or had parents that attended the trial and remember what their parents may have discussed.

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Carrie and John Simmons at Simmons Cemetery

 

This case will never be solved and will always remain a mystery. Most likely this mystery is buried in Simmons Cemetery. Murder mysteries have always been popular to follow and this case is filled with every possible twist and turns. Simmons Cemetery is located on 500 N. between 600 and 700 East. It sites way back off the north side of the road entering in on a long gravel drive. It's well maintained and worth the visit. I visit.

I plan to continue digging into this mystery and at some point in the future compile a more complete version of the entire mystery and detailed trial testimony. If anyone has ever discussed this case with family or is a relative of the Simmons family please feel free to contact me I would love to learn more especially what was life like for the families after the trial. I've talked with several people over the years and even after all this time the facts and questions still remain the same......who murder Virginia and Alice?

I'd like to give a special thanks to Dan Miller for helping me in researching grave sites and genealogy work and for tagging along to visit Simmons Cemetery.

 

Greg Roland

References:
Greenfield Daily Reporter
Lebanon Reporter
Hancock Public Library
Murder & Mayhem in Indiana by Kevin McQueen published by The History Press in 2014.

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