Chester Barrett – The Strychnine Solution

September 23, 2020


For this story we are going way back to May 3rd 1934.  It’s right around 8:30PM.  We are in a little town called Sapulpa, Oklahoma. 

A man is doubled over in pain.  He is quickly approaching the front door to a house.  When he reaches it, he pounds on the door.  The owner of the home quickly opens up the door. The man was Chester Barrett and he had just arrived at his neighbors house.  Chester who was in obvious pain screams “My children are dying!” “Please Hurry, call a doctor – any doctor.  I think it’s Ptomaine Poisoning.”  (This is the old term for food poisoning).  Quickly, the neighbor called Doctor P.K. Lewis who was a local physician and surgeon.  

Now, After getting some of the details, Dr. Lewis decided to call in some help with other Doctors in town.  He contacted Doctor McCallum and Dr. Schwabb and told them to hurry to the Barrett home. 

It was at the home that the three Doctors found themselves in a literal horror show.  Every member of the family was either dead or dyeing.  The doctors did what they could, they recognized the symptoms of poisoning but initially could not find any in the home.  They then asked Chester about the night’s activities, Chester told them that he believed that it was food poisoning, perhaps something they ate.  He then told the doctors that a few of the children were not feeling well and he gave them all a dose of Quinine in their milk to ward off Malaria. When pressed Chester admitted that he had two bottles of the medicine, one old and one new and mixed them together that night.  

Now, this puzzled doctors. Quinine was developed to fight Malaria, but if taken properly, was pretty safe.  Actually, you can find Quinine in Tonic Water.  If you are a fan of mixed drinks, then you have probably had the watered down version of Quinine.  But according to what I found online.  You would have to drink gallons of the stuff to reach the dosage of one quinine in pill form… and if you are drinking that many mixed drinks… you have bigger problems on your hands. 

It was after he thought about it some, Chester then remembered that he had a bottle of poison in the home that he had previously purchased.  They looked for the bottle and found it, it was empty.  The label on the bottle read “Strychnine”.  

Now the doctors knew what they were up against.  Strychnine is one of the most dramatic and painful toxic reactions a person can experience and its been given to almost everyone in the family.  

The doctors decided the best course of action would be to pump the stomachs of the family to remove the poison from doing further damage.  Before they could get started, Betty Barrett, 6, drew her head back in agony and collapsed on the floor, dead.  

Mary Barrett age 3 died while the doctors attempted to pump her stomach.  

Dr. McCallum decided to rush Wanda Barrett, age 2,  to the hospital two blocks away.   She died while in transit to the hospital.  

By the end of the night, the family of 10 were now down to 7.  

Now, the next day the Police questioned Charles Barrett about what happened and why he had the poison in the home.  It may be hard to believe, but back then, Strychnine was used as a medicine for heart conditions and this is what Charles told police that he had.  He stated that two years ago he had been prescribed the medical Strychnine to treat his condition but never used the entire bottle.  

The Police let the media know that they were bringing Charles into the station for questioning but wanted to make it clear that he was not under arrest, they just wanted to clear up the situation to see what needed to happen next.  

But those of you who are true crime fans will know that the police were going to go hard at Chester in order to figure out what really happened and see if this was an accident or not.  At first, Chester stood by his story of mistaking the poison for medicine.  But as the police began to question harder and harder, Charles began to break down, cry and began to hint that not everything was how he first presented the story.  After 2 hours of intense interrogation, Chester broke and confessed to what actually happened.  As he told the story, the police had a transcriptionist take down his statement. 

“My name is Chester L. Barrett; I am 35 years old; knew I did not have to make a statement, that anything I said might be used against me”; I make this statement voluntarily; My Wife’s name is Cora Lucile; I had been married since November 1, 1920; had lived in Sapulpa for a year, working at odd jobs.” 

“Last Monday night I thought if we could all go to sleep and not wake up God would forgive me; I began to wonder what to do and to find some easy way for us all to go out easy; I did not talk this matter over with my wife; she did not know my plans. On Monday I went to the creamery and got two gallon of sweet milk, about four or five o’clock in the evening I put a hand full of arsenate of lead in it; I bought the arsenate of lead at Wills-May last year for potato bugs; when I put the arsenate of lead in the milk my wife was in the front room attending to the baby; when supper time came my wife cooked some cornbread; my wife poured us all a glass of milk I drank two or three glasses I wanted to die at that time; my idea was I wanted to kill all of my children, my wife and myself; no one died from the effects of that poison.”

“At the time I put the arsenate of lead in the milk I did not know I still had the strychnine capsules at the house; I had not thought of them; I was looking through to see what would take us right quick and found this strychnine in a cupboard, Wednesday; it had been bought about a year and seven or eight months ago to kill rats with; I had no idea of poisoning my family when I bought it; when I found the strychnine I went down and bought some quinine at the Plymouth Drug Store. The reason I did not carry out my plans on May 2nd was I loved my children so much I could not bear it, they were all playing around me after supper and I could not get up the heart to do it.

“On the 3d day of May I decided to carry out my plans; we did not have any money to buy groceries and I did not know what we were going to do; after supper, when I decided to fix the capsules, it was about 7 or 7:30, a little bit before dark; there were eight capsules, I fixed them so there would be enough for all of us; I mixed the poison with a case knife, and fixed eight little capsules and two big ones; they all had bad colds and my wife was going to give them castor oil, and I said to give them some quinine to clear their heads, I did not think they would be there in the morning to take the castor oil; I told them it was quinine I was giving them; no one saw me when I mixed the capsules; no one knew what it was except me, my idea was to kill myself, my wife and our children, the entire family. It was five or six minutes after the capsules were taken before Betty Joy got sick; she was the first one that died; she died in ten or twelve minutes; Mary Katherine was the next one to die; I was holding Dorothy’s head and it struck me in the stomach, spine and head; I went to a neighbor’s house and called the doctor, they were suffering so.”

After the confession the police charged Chester with first degree murder charges for the deaths of his three children.  Chester then begged Sheriff Willis Strange to take his handcuffs off so that he might make a run for it and they could kill him in his escape attempt.  He wanted to die.  

The Cushing Daily Citizen reported on May 6th 1934

“He told a sad story of how the shadow of poverty starvation and hard luck had trailed him for five years Barrett said his misfortunes began with deaths in succession of his mother and brother Then his house burned and he lost his Job He pulled out his left pants pocket it was empty and had a hole He pulled out his right and held five coppers In the palm of his hand the only money he had possessed in weeks “I thought it was the best way out for all of us and it has turned out to something that will haunt me as long as I live I couldn’t atone for it in a million years” he said.”

Chester had been out of work for two years.  When police searched the home they reported that there was little furniture and food.  There were only two blankets in the home for all ten family members to share.  

His original story of using the poison to treat a heart condition was a lie.  He actually bought it months ago to allegedly kill rats with it.  

Even with a confession, the police still suspected that Chester was holding back some key detail.  So they started digging into his life, more and more.  It was then they found out about 19 year old Hannah Johnson.  

Three years before the brutal poisoning.  Chester Barrett began dating then16 year old Hannah Johnson.  After the poisoning, Hannah believed that they would still be together.  You see, for years Chester had been telling her that after he was to get a divorce, he would take up with young Hannah.  Soon after dating, Hannah became pregnant and had a child with Chester.  

Before the trial started, Hannah told reporters that she intended to marry Chester when this was all over.  She still loved him and that they would be together soon enough.  

The Detectives also found out that just months before the murders, Chester took out a blanket life insurance policy on his family.  He stood to gain a thousand dollars for every family member that died in his home.  Remember, back then for someone as poor as he was, that was a lot of money.  A 1934 Ford Deluxe cost about 575.00 at its base back then.  

During the trial, Hannah seemed to smarten up some because she then testified for the state, against her once lover.  She presented evidence in the form of love letters that were written by Chester that suggested that he would be free from his family and responsibilities soon.  

The state sought the death penalty.  

Chester took the stand and argued that the confession was not true, that he did not mean to kill his family and that it was all a tragic accident.  He denied that he did it for his love for Hannah Johnson and argued that he would not also take the poison if he were trying to be with her.  He loved his wife and family.

It was all left up to the Jury.  They quickly deliberated for an hour and 25 minutes and announced that they had a verdict.  They pronounced Chester guilty and gave him the sentence of death.  

Reportedly, Chester received the news with no emotion.  When stood up to be taken out of the courtroom he slumped over and began to cry.  When taken out of the courtroom he collapsed and a doctor was able to revive him so that he could speak to a reporter.  Chester stated “It was as I expected. My side of the story has not been told. I only started running around on my wife after she had driven me to it.” 

Chester’s attorney tried to request a new trial, but was denied.  Chester’s appeals were also struck down.  In a last ditch effort, Chester tried to sway the Governor in a stay of execution.  Chester’s sister was able to get radio ads to play over local radio stations that hinted at new evidence in his case.  Letters were written to the governor but they all went unanswered.  

Chester’s Wife, who he had poisoned, also wrote a letter to the Governor.   She asked that there be no interference in her Husband’s Death.  She stated that he was guilty without a shadow of a doubt.  

The night of his execution, Chester had pork chops and Coffee as a last meal.  When entering the death chamber, he shook the warden’s hand and handed him a letter.  He then stated to those who were watching that he hoped that God would forgive those who prosecuted him and that he would provide for his small children.  

Chester was strapped to the electric chair at 12:07AM and was pronounced dead 45 seconds later.  

The letter Chester handed to the warden had his last requests in it.  He wanted to be buried with a photo of his wife in his front pocket over his heart. 

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