Jefferson County's newspaper, "The Sprit of Jefferson's Farmers' Advocate" was put in an unique situation as a weekly publication to chronicle this sad a disturbing story in a serial fashion. From reading the account you can visualize how this story unfolded. And you can give thanks to the Jefferson County Health Department, not mentioned in the news accounts, for demanding the testing of the source of "the mysterious" illness. I know this, as I worked with the Sanitarian who helped investigate the case. He taught me to look at all possibilites even though, from the conditions, poor sanitation was the most obvious choice for a culprit.
Week One: November 22, 1956
Three County Children Dead, Father, Seven Other Children Stricken By Mysterious Illness
Three Jefferson county children have died and their father and seven other children are patients In Washington County Hospital in Hagerstown, Md., as the result of an illness, the exact nature of which has not yet been determined.
Dr. Ross Cameron of Hagerstown, Md., health officer for Washington County Md., said Tuesday two of the seven children in the Hagerstown Hospital are in a serious condition and that their father is also on the critical list.
The mother of the children, who was also stricken with the illness, has not to date been forced to be hospitalized.
The stricken family is the William S. Kidwell family of ten children and Mrs. Kidwell, who resides on the Sam Skinner farm located between Kearneysville and Shepherdstown.
The dead children are Gale Virginia, a two month old infant who died unexpectedly on Nov. 5. and two year old boy by the name of Charles R. Kidwell who died Nov. 14 and his brother Thomas J. one year old, who died Nov, 15. It was thought the infant had died as the result of a respiratory infection since Mrs. Kidwell had taken the child to Dr. Ralph Young, their family physician in Williamsport, Md. a short time prior to Nov. 5 and treatment for a virus infection had been given the infant.
The other two children who died and also the seven children and father in the Hagerstown hospital had apparently been in good health prior to being stricken Sunday, Nov.11 at the Kidwell home, a tenant house on the Skinner farm.
The seven children now hospitalized are: Martha 13, Dorothy Mae, 11, Betty Jane, 10, William Stanley, 9, Sandra June, 7, George Gilbert, 6, and Rebecca Jean, 5.
Although Dr. Cameron said there are indications that the Kidwell family had suffered from botulism, a form of food poisoning, the exact cause of the illness will not be set until tests that are now being made can be completed.
Mrs. Kay Rudolph, Jefferson County Health nurse, Dr. Cameron and a Mr. Lawrence Creter of the United States Pure Food and Drug Administration of Washington, D. C. who entered the case this week, were at the Kidwell home all day Tuesday carrying on a thorough investigation of the stricken family, taking samplings of foodstuffs, the water supply, etc to be used in making a series of tests to determine the nature and cause of the illness which struck the family suddenly Sunday, Nov. 11.
The Kidwells said they had eaten a meal Sunday, Nov. 11 of home canned beans at their home before they became ill and it was thought at first that the entire family had been stricken with botulism caused by improperly preserved foods. However, since tests have not been completed this has not yet been definitely established as the cause.
An autopsy was performed on the bodies of Charles and Thomas after they died in the Hagerstown Hospital but results of tests being made have not yet been made public.
Checks were also being made on some commercially prepared food which was in the home by the Pure Food and Drug Administration which has control over commercially canned foods.
Mrs. Kidwell said when the Kidwell baby died on Nov. 5 she felt the child had died from a respiratory infection. However on Sunday, Nov. 11, when the entire family was stricken she said she took the children on Tuesday. Nov. 13 to Dr. Young in Williamsport and on not being able to locate him at his office took them on to the Washington County Hospital where one of them died shortly after being admitted to the hospital and the other died Nov. 15.
The Kidwell family are natives of Brownsville, Md. and had resided there until about two years ago when they moved to Lovettsville, Va. They resided on a farm near Lovettsville until June of this year when Mr. Kidwell became a tenant farmer for Mr. Skinner.
After their visit to the Kidwell home Tuesday health authorities advised Mrs. Kidwell not to open, any more canned bean, corn, peaches etc., which she put up for the Winter months until tests being made on them can be completed.
Meanwhile offers of aid for the family have been coming in from various sources.
Week Two: November 29, 1956
What Will Happen To The Seven Who Survived The Arsenic and Tattered Rags?
What will happen to the seven Kidwell youngsters who survived the arsenic and tattered and raggy living from which they were snatched by the hand of fate on the night of Tuesday, Nov. 13. That is a question uppermost on the tongues of many people in both Jefferson County and in Washington County, Md. And although the question can still not be answered conclusively, information from reliable sources in Hagerstown Wednesday sheds some light on this matter.
With several of the children having improved to the extent they will be well enough to be released from the Washington County Hospital In Hagerstown the latter part of this week, or early next week, somebody should be giving some thought as to what will happen to the children.
Officials at the Washington County Child Welfare department or Department of Public Assistance in Hagerstown, Md. apparently haven't given any thought to the matter because a call to that office by this newspaper Tuesday revealed at first that the Kidwell family was not known by that office. Later, however, one official of the office did say he had known of the Kidwell family in the past.
A check with the Department of Public assistance office in Charles Town brought the information that since the children were now in Washington county (Md.) their cases would be handled probably from Washington county.
It seems as though West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland all have state rulings that a person or family must have been residents of the state for at least a year before application can be made for assistance. Also if the father of the family is living and able to work, no assistance can be given.
Thus apparently In the past the Kidwells have not been drawing public assistance help because Mr. Kidwell was working. So that rumor that was circulated that the family had been getting assistance from the Department of Public Assistance was not accurate.
Dr. Ross Cameron, Washington County Health doctor, said Wednesday night that his office has known of the Kidwell family for some time. As a matter of fact he said members of the family had been treated at his office at various times during the period of 1947 to 1953. He said he thought the family regarded Washington County as their home and just moved from one state to another during the fruits season so the father could work in the orchards. Dr. Cameron said Mrs. Kidwell had told him she planned to take the children when they are released from the hospital to the home of her mother in Brownsville, Md, and there try to make a home for them. Dr. Cameron said he didn't know how this would work out, however, unless Mrs. Kidwell managed to gain some assistance since Mrs. Kidwell’s mother has only limited income and limited facilities for handling such a heavy load.
Before the children are released from the hospital, in all probability the proper welfare authorities will be contacted about the future well being of the children.
Little Gale Kidwell Died From Suffocation Death Certificate Shows
Little Gale Virginia Kidwell, two months old daughter of Mrs. William Stanley Kidwell and the late Mr. Kidwell died from suffocation and apparently not from any arsenic poisoning as was the cause of the death of Mr. Kidwell and two of his ten children.
Shortly after the death of three Kidwells from arsenic poisoning there was some thought that possibly the death of little Virginia Gale Kidwell, which occurred November 5th in the Kidwell home may have come about indirectly as a result of the poisoned cistern water.
The child was found lying face down in a small wooden clothes basket at the Kidwell home about 6 a. m., Nov. 5. The Melvin T. Strider Colonial Funeral Home was called and the baby was brought to the funeral home where after an examination by Dr. Mildred Williams, county coroner, death was attributed to suffocation. Dr. Williams said the baby apparently managed to get turned over on its face in the small basket and smothered to death. The child was buried In a Shepherdstown Cemetery.
ON THE ROAD TO RECOVERY:—The above six members of the William S. Kidwell family who resided on the Sam Skinner farm near Kearneysville in Jefferson county, are on the road to recovery from their bout with arsenic poisoning which came as the result of arsenic having gotten into a cistern at the Kidwell home from which the Kidwell family obtained their water for drinking and cooking. When admitted to the Washington County (Md.) Hospital on Tuesday. November 13, the youngsters were in such critical condition they could hardly move. On November 24, when the above picture was taken the youngsters were running and climbing about in their room at the Washington County Hospital. They have not yet been told that their two brothers and their father have died frown the arsenic poisoning. They are shown (left to right:—Dorothy, 12; Betty, 11; William. Jr., 9; Sandra, 7; George, 8. and Rebecca, 5. (Hagerstown Herald Photo)
Mother Also Hospitalized:---Mrs. William S. Kidwell is pictured as she trys to relax in her bed at the Washington County Hospital, Hagerstown, Md. She was the last member of her large family to become ill enough to require hospitalization. She was admitted to the hospital soon after police questioned her about details of family activities prior to the mass illness that took the lives of her husband and two of her nine children. She has symptoms similar to those of the rest of the family, all of whom got arsenic contained in water taken from the cistern outside their home.
RECOVER IS SLOW:—Molly Kidwell, aged 14, is apparently the sickest of the family survivors. She is pictured in her hospital bed with a comic book while she awaited a return of the full use of her arms and legs. Because of paralysis caused by, arsenic poisoning, she was still unable to walk. While trying to comb her hair before this picture was made, Molly dropped the comb behind her. Because of hand numbness, she had to be told she had dropped the comb. She had continued going through the motions of combing for several moments.
DEATH DEALT HEAVY BLOW HERE:—Shown above is the two-story frame house located on the Sam Skinner farm just off the Shepherdstown-Kearneysville highway near Kearneysville, where the William Kidwell family lived before death dealt the family such a heavy blow recently. The picture showing the back part of the house also shows to the left of it the tin spouting which carries the rainwater from the house roof into the ill-fated cistern from which the family gathered its water for drinking and cooking. It was from the cistern shown under the thatched-covered harbor, that the water containing the arsenic which poisoned the 12 members of the Kidwell family came from.
(Photo By Tim Sinn)
WHERE KIDWELL BABY DIED:—It was in this room - a combination bedroom and living room, at the home of the William Kidwells that the youngest of the three dead Kidwell children died. Little Gale Virginia Kidwell, two-month old infant died November 5th unexpectedly in the wooden clothes basket shown against the wall in between the bed and dresser. The mother said the infant had been sick for about a week before it was found dead lying on its face in the clothes basket. Jefferson County Coroner Dr. Mildred Williams examined the body of the infant and set suffocation as the cause of death(Photo By Tim Sinn)
THE ILL-FATED KITCHEN:—It was in this kitchen at the Kidwell home that the food and water containing arsenic poisoning were consumed on Sunday, November 11 by the 12 members of the Kidwell family. That same afternoon they all became ill and several days later three of the family died in the Washington County Hospital in Hagerstown, Md. The stove in this kitchen was the only means of heating the entire house and an indication of how the cold November nights were effecting the Kidwell children is given by the improvised bed which one of the children had made of some crates and a blanket beside the cook stove.(Photo by Tim Sinn)
Week Three: December 6, 1956: The Final Chapter
Arsenic Killer's Farewell Letter to Molly Kidwell Big Clue in Triple Murder; Poisoner Provides Bizarre Climax by Hanging Himself
It was about 7 a. m. the morning of Nov. 5 that Guy Davis of the Melvin T. Strider Colonial Funeral Home in Charles Town went to the hillside home of the William S. Kidwell family, located near Kearneysville, W. Va., to get the body of two-months old daughter of the Kidwells who had been horn into misery and poverty, and who had died from suffocation among filth and rags in an old clothes basket which set in one corner of a dingy, drafty and cold bedroom at the Kidwell home. And although the manner in which little Gale Virginia Kidwell had died was somewhat unusual, no one thought too much about it after Dr. Mildred Williams, Jefferson County coroner had determined death had been accidental, except 72-year-old William Frank Bell, alias William Franklin Knighten, a white-haired unkempt little man from Bolivar.
Two days later the time was drawing near for the funeral of the infant Kidwell child. And this same raggedy little man who had befriended the Kidwell family many months before, went to the Kidwell home to see the family before the last rites were held. It was on this fatal day of Wednesday, Nov. 7, that a chain of the most astounding and almost unbelievable events ever to be written into Jefferson county's crime annals were set into motion. And the fantastic episode of crime which developed as the result of the death and burial of this infant child, showed as it unfolded, the murder of William S. Kidwell, 42 year-old father of the infant child also the murder of two brothers of the infant, Charles 2 and Thomas 1, and the attempted murder of Mrs. Kidwell and the six remaining children of the Kidwell family.
The true story of the county's only triple murder features an old gray-haired man whom most people regarded as perfectly harmless, but who proved to be the contrary. A man who did prove to have a penchant for little girls, ages mostly 8-14. A man who had an obsession of professed love for 14-year-old Mollie Kidwell. And when this love, was spurned by Mollie, It turned to hate and revenge followed in the form of murder and suicide which provided a bizarre climax to the arsenic poisoning of the ten members, of the Kidwell family.
Thus when a jail trusty delivered breakfast to William Frank Bell, or William Franklin Knighten, in a cell in the Jefferson County jail Monday morning about 9 a. m. and found him hanging from the cell bars the end had come to this startling murder mystery about as sudden and dramatic-like as the story had started just 22 days previously.
It was love, hate and revenge in the mind and heart of this old man with the brown paper bag whom children sometimes called the "Old Candy Man" which created the mystifying triple murder and other attempted murders. And it was a letter he wrote, plus a number of incriminating acts on his part and yeoman-like detective work on the part of J, E. Durst of the Charles Town State Police with assistance from State Trooper Ronald Truex of Charles Town and A. D. Hasenbuhler of the Maryland State Police which broke the case wide open and sent Bell, into the jail cell.
Bell, as he was known in some sections of the county, or Knighten, as he was known to many others, had been placed in the Jefferson county jail about 2:30 Monday morning after about five hours of questioning by State Trooper J. E. Durst and Maryland State Trooper Hasenbuhler. Bell had been picked up in Bolivar about 8:15 Sunday evening by Trooper Durst after he had obtained most conclusive evidence pointing the finger of guilt at Bell.
All through the questioning Sunday night Bell refused to admit hardly anything. He even denied he had purchased two cans of weed killer containing 38 percent arsenic from the Valley Hardware store in Charles Town until hewas confronted by Mark Kittle and Edward Fitzpatrick, employees of the store. They identified Bell as the man who had made purchases of quart cans of weed killer, one on Wednesday, Nov. 7, and another on Nov. 10.
It was about mid-August that Bell apparently got serious notions about young Mollie Kidwell, as it was at that time that he went to the trouble to purchase a wedding ring and wrist watch at the Cain Jewelry store in Charles Town. He told Mr. Cain when he made the purchase that he planned to marry Mollie Kidwell. Then about mid-September Bell named Mollie Kidwell as his beneficiary to a handwritten will which he had Jefferson County Sheriff Shirley M. Hunt notarize. In the will he specified that Mollie Kidwell was to have $2.000 of his money to be paid in $50 monthly install ments until all of it had been paid. But then on. Friday, Nov. 9, State Trooper Durst said Bell wrote a letter to Mollie telling her he was changing his will because she had another boy friend and because of "'you know I don't like to be insulted like I was Wednesday (Nov. 7, the day of the funeral) . I told others why I am quitting". In the letter Bell said he had already transferred the money to "another sweet little girl just as pretty and sweet as you are". The letter also said "she don't have them crazy ways like you do--so you can have your other boyfriend now as you like because I won't be back anymore". In the letter Bell said "That radio you've got of mine you can play and think of me, and I wish you lots of good luck. I was good to aIl of you, but I'm through. I will close saying goodbye forever. You can look to your other boy friend for the things I have been buying you." Trooper Durst said the letter had been signed by Bell under the signature of Frank Knighten.
On Saturday morning, Nov. 10 Bell purchased the second of two cans of weed killer and police theorized that he went to the Kidwell home and dumped the weed killer into the cistern while the Kidwell family was in Hagerstown. The family did not return from Hagerstown until late Saturday night and did not eat or drink anything until around noon time Sunday when they had dinner. It was that evening that the family became sick and on Tuesday they all entered the Hagerstown hospital. The one child died that night in the hospital, another died the next day and then Mr. Kidwell died on Thanksgiving Day.
Post-mortem examinations of the Kidwell bodies showed they had died as the result of poisoning. Examination of the food which they had eaten on that fatal Sunday revealed no poisoning. But tests of the water taken from the cistern revealed a high percentage of arsenic in the water.
State Trooper Durst then began a round-up of all persons who had been at the Kidwell home on or about the time the poison was supposedly placed into the cistern. In addition to Bell, alias Knighten, several other suspects were picked up and questioned, but all were later released including Bell. Then as the result of the letter which Bell had written to Mollie, the fact that he had purchased the weed killer, plus a number of incriminating factors, State Trooper Durst went to Bell's ramshackle house in Bolivar Sunday evening and took him into custody. During the five hours of questioning police felt they had gained enough evidence to place three murder charges against Bell and so they placed him in the Jefferson county jail for further questioning on Monday morning. Bell himself wrote the finish to the story by hanging himself.
After Bell's body had been discovered Dr. Mildred Williams, County Coroner, was summoned and after examining the body set an inquest for Friday evening at 5 o'clock. In the meantime the body was taken to the Smith and Strider Funeral Home and a search started to determine if the man had any living relatives.
Investigation by the police since Bell's climatic death has uncovered the fact that in 1943 Bell, alias Knighten was arrested in Washington, D. C., on a simple assault charge in connection with carnal knowledge in the case of a teen-age Washington girl. He was fined $500 and given a year in jail. He later was sent to St. Elizabeth's mental hospital in Washington for a time.
On being released from there he came back to Jefferson county and took up residence first in the Duffields section and later at Bolivar.
Bell was born in Rockingham County, Va., a son of Martha and Samuel Bell.His mother, who had married twice had originally been married to a man by the name of Knighten. And it seems as though Bell changed his name frequently from Bell to Knighten and then back to Bell.
When he first came to this section of West Virginia he did work for a time on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, but that was years ago and as far as can be learned he did not have any income from the railroad. Instead he relied on a Social Security and a relief check for his livelihood and also for the money he spent on little girls.
In the early 1900's Bell married and his wife died in 1918 with the flu. There were, however, two children who survive Bell. Noble, a son who lives in Norfolk, Va., and a daughter Pearl who lives in Martinsburg. There are also a number of nieces and nephews.
Funeral services will be held Friday morning from the Smith and Strider Funeral Home