Murders Mysteries & Misadventures

The Highball Murderess & The Doctor Who Wouldn’t Die

doctors-office-lewes-sarah-ruth-dean-bottles-medicine

Artifacts from the Beebe Hospital display by the Lewes Historical Society.

Doctor's appointment book

One of the first female doctors hired by Beebe Hospital in Lewes, Delaware was Dr. Sarah Ruth Dean. She was a highly qualified professional and, impressively, the first female graduate of the University of Virginia School of Medicine. What she probably didn’t reveal was that she was fleeing her home state of Mississippi and a tumultuous love affair.

Back home, Sarah Ruth had fallen in love with Dr. John Preston Kennedy who was a fellow doctor on staff…and also very much married.

Xray machine from 1920

An x-ray machine generator from 1920.

Visiting hours sign

Hoping to move on from the affair, Sarah Ruth took a job in Lewes on Dr. Beebe’s staff. But the distance between Sarah Ruth and her ex-lover would not heal her heart. Dr. Kennedy’s wife discovered her husband and Sarah Ruth’s love letters and finally did what Dr. Kennedy had never been able to do: she filed for divorce.

After the divorce, it seemed like the perfect timing for Sarah Ruth to move back home again. Settled back in Mississippi, Sarah Ruth and Kennedy met on a steamy southern summer night in July of 1933 to share their favorite drink: a highball. Dr. Kennedy insisted this would be their last drink together, he was ending their on-off affair for good. It was rumored that he was reconciling with his ex-wife who he’d remained on good terms with after the divorce.

Sarah Ruth Dean, portrait.

Sarah Ruth Dean

Immediately after their quick drink, Dr. Kennedy began to fall ill. He hung onto life for ten long, reportedly excruciating, days before finally succumbing. He was buried the very next day.

Sarah Ruth Dean came under immediate suspicion for poisoning his drink. She had been the last one with Kennedy and as he clung on for a few days, he told those around his deathbed he believed she’d secretly slipped him mercury.

Sarah Ruth was arrested and tried for her Dr. Kennedy’s murder. If she couldn’t be with him, then no one would the lawyers argued.

Doctors office, a small white Georgian style building with two rooms and a porch.

The original doctor’s office is the white building in the middle. We’ll talk about the other’s in upcoming posts.

During the trial Sarah Ruth protested that she had moved on from Dr. Kennedy. She claimed an engagement to a local bay pilot in Lewes, Capt. Franklin C. Maull. Maull denied that they were engaged or ever serious and declined to testify on her behalf something the jurors focused on.

Dr. Kennedy’s brother testified that he had heard his brother’s deathbed statement accusing Sarah Ruth of poisoning him. She had poured the whisky when he was out of the room and he noticed it had a metallic taste after drinking some of it. Tests after Dr. Kennedy’s death did not show any mercury or nor did they ever reveal the poison that had killed him.

Nursers uniform

Nurse’s uniform. The “Grey Ladies” wore these during WWII.

Master Detective magazine featuring the case.

The case was sensational enough to be published in “The Master Detective” magazine.

If anyone was suspicious of Mrs. Kennedy, for she did stand to gain financially from his large insurance plan, this motive was briefly brought up in court but never amounted to anything. She’d been in Panama when it happened after all. All eyes remained tightly focused on Sarah Ruth who was ultimately found guilty.

Nurse's cape from WWI. Wool with embroidered lettering on the collar.

Nurse’s cape from WWI.

After two years, Sarah Ruth was pardoned by the governor of Mississippi in 1935. The governor granted this pardon based on that he “had the benefit of information not available to the court either in the original trial or on appeal.” The judge never disclosed what this new information was but he reportedly told friends that he couldn’t send a woman to prison no matter what she did.

Mrs. Kennedy vigorously fought the pardon. If Sarah Ruth was convicted of poisoning the late doctor, his divorced wife could secure a double indemnity payment from the insurance company because he had been murdered.

Small medicine vials

Sarah Ruth lived in Mississippi for the rest of her life and successfully practiced medicine again. What had really killed the doctor, and who, remains a mystery.

Medical books on a bookcase.

The front of the doctor's office, with a small porch and rocking chair.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5