The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 11, 1909: “The little town of Marydel, [which lies west of Dover on the Maryland/Delaware line], was thrown into an intense state of excitement this morning when it became known that Charles L. Pippin, a local businessman, was dead. The cause of his death was poison in a glass of wine which he drank during the amateur performance of a play in which he was one of the actors on the evening of January 1.”
Pippin was a star in the production of a musical farce titled “The Only Girl” that was a fundraiser for the music ministry of the local Methodist church. During the fatal scene, one character was supposed to take a dainty sip from a glass of wine while another then snatches the glass away and downs its contents in a big guzzle. The glass was supposed to be filled with an innocent concoction made largely of raspberry vinegar.
Pippin understood right away that something was wrong. “Oh, that burns bad,” he improvised. “Give me some water, quick.” Another performer did just that, but Pippin’s struggles continued. The Philadelphia Inquirer, again: “It was only by manifest pluck and determination that he struggled through the play to the end.” By the time Pippin got home, he was quite ill. Someone sent for a specialist from Elkton, 45 miles away. That doctor came to the conclusion that Pippin had deadly poison in his system. The patient continued to struggle for 10 days. Then, at a point when his doctor thought he might pull through, the patient died.
Back to the Philadelphia Inquirer: Coroner W.G. Smith is working to “get all the facts together … He declares that the case shall be worked to the finish and that, whoever the guilty parties may be, they shall receive the punishment deserved.” That the poison “was administered by some person who had a grudge against one of the members of the amateur company is considered certain. … In a little town like Marydel the likes and dislikes and the petty squabbles and jealousies of nearly every member of the community are public property and there ought not to be any very great difficulty in finding the guilty party and tracing a motive.”
The Mystery Deepens: The Raising of a Black Flag
During an inquest called by the coroner, a Marydel jury was charged with deciding whether to order an autopsy. The Baltimore Sun, Jan. 13, 1909: “After 12 citizens … had for a time been at loggerheads over the question … they returned a compromise verdict today which throws absolutely no light on the mysterious poisoning of Charles Pippin.”
After conflicting testimony from experts as to whether such an exam, if conducted nearly two weeks after the stage performance, was likely to yield worthwhile information, the vote was seven to five against an autopsy. The inquest jury’s only official conclusion was nothingburger news: Pippin “died from poison of some kind unknown.”
An undertaker by trade, Pippin was engaged to be married to a local schoolteacher, Maud Hummer. By all accounts, he ranked as “a great favorite” among the young men of Marydel. The Denton Journal, Jan. 23, 1909: “Mr. Pippin … was a genial soul, a kind-hearted, helpful, cheerful citizen.” He had a “sweet, clear” singing voice that often rang out at church services and camp meetings. His funeral, held at the home of his parents on Jan. 12, drew “the largest number of people, perhaps, ever seen at a Marydel funeral.”
One theory that made the rounds during this Marydel mystery was that someone else must have been the intended victim. Pippen was too beloved a character to be targeted by a killer. The real target, then, must have been one of the other actors up on stage. But if that were the case, how would investigators explain the incident of the black flag?
Washington (DC) Evening Star, Jan. 28, 1909: “The most mysterious phase of the whole case, however, was the hanging of a black flag over the schoolhouse at which Miss Maud Hummer, Pippin’s sweetheart, taught. The flag appeared on the flagpole of the school a few days after Pippin’s illness became known throughout the county and Miss Hummer refused to teach her class until the flag was removed. No one has been able to discover who put up the flag.”
Another theory: Love gone wrong. The Wilmington Journal, Jan. 15: “Citizens of [Marydel] are awaiting with anxiety the result of the state chemist’s examination of the stage wine … and since it has been learned that Pippin’s sweetheart took a white powder to the theatrical entertainment … special interest is taken in the examination of the white sediment in the glass from which Pippin sipped his doom.” Could the black flag have been a trick by a devious fiancée trying to divert attention from herself?
At Last, the Poisoners Come Clean
Washington (DC) Star, Jan. 28: “It is stated upon good authority that bichloride of mercury, one of the most deadly poisons, was found in some of the fluid [examined by] State Chemist Penniman at Baltimore.”
This was the fact that put State’s Attorney Elmer Deen and Detective Pohler from Baltimore (the newspapers only use his last name) on the path to solving the Marydel mystery. While looking through store records and by word of mouth for local residents who had purchased bichloride of mercury—it was sometimes used as a household disinfectant and also as a treatment for syphilis, but has long since disappeared from store shelves because of its poisonous qualities—the investigators received an anonymous letter postmarked from Philadelphia suggesting they should stop at the house of Samuel and Maude Pippin.
Despite having the same last name, these Pippins were no relation to the dead man. But they were close friends of his. Plus, they were involved in the theatrical production, having delivered the raspberry vinegar concoction that went into the fatal glass of wine. Soon, it became clear that they had also been in recent possession of bichloride of mercury, though the bottle containing that poison now seemed to be missing.
By the time the Pippins sat down with State’s Attorney Deen, they were in dread fear of becoming his chief suspects. That fear is apparently what drove both Pippins to tell a couple of fibs and smudge a couple of facts during their interviews. The Baltimore Sun, Feb. 1: “The Pippins had not talked as freely as they should and admitted things only after considerable questioning. In short, [State’s Attorney Deen] is not satisfied with their statements.”
When the Pippins finally broke down and confessed, it turned out that the Marydel mystery wasn’t a murder, but a horrible accident. The short version of a long story is that Maude Pippin thought she had tossed an empty bottle of bichloride of mercury down a well on their property, but she’d thrown away the wrong bottle by accident.
The Baltimore Sun, Feb. 1: Once Mrs. Pippin heard that the state chemist had identified the poison, however, “she began to fear that the bottle she threw down the well was not her poison bottle and that one of the bottles labeled for the play by her husband must have been the bottle which had formerly contained her corrosive sublimate solution.”
Here is what Maud Pippen had to say for public consumption after her confession: “This is a sad hour, when I think of that boy as I last saw him in his casket. I would as soon have given my husband poison as to give it to Charles Pippin. … Our sorrow is just beginning, and my only consolation is that none of us is infallible.”
In the End: Forgiveness and Community
The state’s attorney made a noise or two about continuing his investigation—“I have not accepted the accident theory as final,” he warned on Feb. 2. But in the end he and Detective Pohler came to believe that the confession of the Pippins was legitimate, despite the little lies and half-truths they had told while in fear of becoming suspects. Nothing in the work of the investigators had turned up a hint that the couple might have some motive to murder their friend Charles Pippin.
It’s possible, too, that conclusion of investigators was influenced by watching how the people of Marydel responded to this shocking turn of events. The Wilmington Evening Journal, Feb. 3, quoted Rev. E.H. Derrickson, the Methodist pastor: “If you knew the Pippins as I and the better class do here, you would not dare utter a syllable indicating suspicion. … There is not a man or woman in Caroline county more innocent of murdering Charles Pippin in our belief than Brother S.H. Pippin and his wife.”
After confessing their fatal mistake, both Maude and Samuel Pippin paid public visits to the family of the victim. The Denton Journal, Feb. 6: “There was no hesitation on the part of the victim’s family to assure Mrs. Maude Pippin that they realized the young man’s death was an accident. So, with tears streaming down their cheeks and embracing each other, two women [Maude and the victim’s mother] tried to console each other. For a time it seemed that one or both of the women might collapse, but finally, they became comparatively composed.”
Similarly, when Samuel Pippin stepped forward, “the old father [of the victim] fell on [Samuel Pippin’s] neck and both cried.”
And so the tension that had consumed a small town during those winter weeks and drawn so much attention from big-city papers finally disappeared. The Baltimore Sun, Feb. 1: “All those who were connected with the amateur play … feel greatly relieved by the statement of the Pippins … for nearly every member of the company felt a finger of suspicion was being directed [at them] from some quarter” during the investigation. Ironically, the one party that never seems to have harbored any genuine suspicions of foul play was the victim’s family. Even one short day after Charles Pippin died, his brother, H.W. Pippin of Elkton, had been quoted predicting that in the end, it would turn out to be a case of “unintentional poisoning.”
In the years after the incident, Samuel and Maude Pippin moved away from Marydel, relocating to Wilmington, Del. The society pages of local newspapers in Caroline County include numerous short reports that have them returning to visit friends and relations in Marydel during the decades that followed. In 1939, the Wilmington News Journal did a brief story on their celebration of a 50th wedding anniversary.
As for the victim’s fiancée, Maud Hummer never married. Here, too, the society pages report time and again through the years that followed on various trips she took and guests she welcomed into her Marydel home. She retired from the classroom in 1953, after a 52-year career with the Caroline County schools. She died in 1955 at the age of 72. Her obituary made no mention of Charles Pippin, the man to whom she was once betrothed.
And so the story ends, except to note that at this point, some of you must be thinking … “Wait: What about that mysterious black flag that flew over Miss Hummer’s school in the wake of her betrothed’s poisoning?” Alas, that part of the Marydel mystery was never solved. State’s Attorney Deen and Detective Pohler did identify the “flag” as a cloak that belonged to former Marydel resident William F. Allen, who had moved down the road to Seaford shortly before all of the hullabaloo. Allen, too, counted himself as a close friend of Charles Pippin. In fact, Allen had traveled up to Marydel to see Pippin perform in that play on Jan. 1.
The cloak was a spare wrap that he kept tucked out of the way in his carriage. Allen couldn’t say for sure when it went missing or how it ended up atop the flagpole at Miss Hummer’s school. He was quoted in the Wilmington Evening Journal on Feb. 3: “I emphatically deny that I was implicated in the joke. Why, if I desired to assist perpetrating a joke, is anyone foolish enough to think that I would use my own robe?” The investigators never came up with an answer for that one. As far as I have been able to tell, the mystery of who raised that black flag was never solved.
–written and posted by Jim Duffy on Feb. 18, 2020 for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved. Thank you for reading!