The Wages of Sin – The Story of Cora Smith By: Sue Eckhoff, Grundy County Heritage Museum
February 17, 2012
The October 13, 1898 Anamosa Journal’s lead story headline read “Cora Smith, Doing a Life Sentence for Murder Ends Her Mortal Career by Suicide”. Cora Smith was one of the most celebrated characters incarcerated in the Anamosa Penitentiary. She was convicted of poisoning her stepfather. Her sister Ellen Scoville made a peach pie for supper and put rat poison in it, and also his coffee. Cora put rat poison in a glass of water and he drank that too! In prison Cora McCamly, aka Cora Smith, died by her own hand, despondent of the hopelessness of her condition, tired of a life steeped in crime, weary of an existence which made her an outcast from society. She ended her life with a dose of poison. It was said that Cora had acted strangely for several days prior to her death. As a rule she was incorrigible and held the rules of the penitentiary in utter contempt, but now it was worse. The evening before her body was discovered, she and her mother retired to their cell (yes, mom was also a prisoner there too) Cora seemed more prone to despondency this night than was usual. After her death, in her cell was discovered a small vial of oxalic acid (a poisonous fluid used in the institution for the purpose of polishing metal work). Also found was an envelope containing the bodies of two dozen black spiders. The envelope had been secreted among the bed clothes. It was plainly her purpose that failing to secure the needed poison she would do herself in with a diet of the spiders. It was learned that there was sufficient poison contained in the carcasses of the spiders to bring about Cora’s end. Failing to secure the poison from another source, it was her plan to make way with herself by a diet of these insects. The novel emergency poison was not required, and when her mother awoke for the morning, the body of her daughter lay cold and stiff. A letter was left by Cora, addressed to Attorney General Remley. In part it read “I want to tell you the truth about my mother’s case, wherein Cora admitted to killing her stepfather Michael Smith. She goes on to state that her mother was innocent, and that “I hope you will do all you can for my dear mother, she is suffering for something she never done”. The courts didn’t see it that way. In 1892, Betsy Smith (Cora’s mother) lived with her husband Michael in Des Moines. Michael was an engineer on the Rock Island Railroad. Domestic bliss was not in abundance in the Smith house, and it was decided to get the husband out of the way. He carried a $2,000 life insurance policy, and his presence in the home interfered with the females of the house. Thus Smith was poisoned. Betsy Smith was arrested, tried and sentenced to life. The following year, after a note was discovered from Cora to her mother, Cora was arrested in Omaha, brought back to Iowa, and sentenced to life for the same crime.
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