Suicide and Steam: A Family Tragedy

Have you ever sat and watched people? I mean, not like in a weird, peek through their windows at night way, but like, while waiting for something. It could be in a crowded doctor’s office, or while waiting to get a table at a restaurant.

I know there are several people out there that would say that they put the world on ignore and spend that time on their phone (hopefully listening to a particular podcast about Midwest historical crimes and folklore). I have to admit, I’ve done that quite a bit myself. However, more often than not, I spend a lot of my time watching the people that pass through.

I always wonder a little about what kind of personality they have – do they seem nice, or are they not? Then comes wondering about what they do for a living, what kind of house they live in, and on, and on. And of course, I wonder if the most normal amongst them just came in from killing a family out in the suburbs.

Being a historian, I spend a lot of time rifling through old books and newspapers. In a lot of ways, it’s very similar to people watching at the doctor’s office.

As you sit in your comfortable chair, you catch snapshots of people’s lives. You see where they got married, or divorced, or had a baby. They walk in, do something, and then walk right out again, disappearing into the mists of the past.

Let’s take a moment to look at a particular family in Ohio.

Marie Botkin was twenty years old in 1907. She had grown up in the small town of St. Mary’s, about 30 minutes southwest of the much larger city of Lima, Ohio. The daughter of Issac and Agnes Botkin, she had grown up as one of several children. She had been educated locally and there is every indication that she had grown up happy and healthy in a fairly ordinary life.

By the time she was twenty, however, she had decided that it was time to strike out on her own and get a job. She moved to Lima and was hired by a woman named Una Kerr.

Una Kerr was a professional stenographer, an individual professionally trained to take shorthand notes. She was unmarried, in her mid-thirties. She had lived with her parents for several years, and, like many people in the early 1900’s, they took in boarders to supplement their income.

While her father, Patterson, had passed away shortly before Christmas in 1904, Una and her mother kept up the practice. Una hired young Marie to be a housekeeper, giving her not only wages but a room of her own in the house.

At 8 o’clock on the evening of June 12, 1907, Marie went upstairs to her room. The entire day she had seemed to be in a fantastic mood, just as bright and full of life as she always was. As she went up the stairs to her room, she was still laughing and talking with people.

At the top of the stairs, she went inside and closed the door. Sitting down for a moment, she wrote a short note, then pinned it to her blouse.

Downstairs, the phone rang. Una answered it. It was a young woman from St. Mary’s, a friend of Marie’s. Una told the friend that she’d go and get her, then placed the receiver down and went up the stairs to the housekeeper’s room.

When she got there, she called out to Marie. No answer. She called again, listening. Not a sound.

Cautiously, Una slowly opened the door, calling Marie’s name again. As the door opened wide enough for her to see the bed, Una let out an involuntary gasp. There, on the bed, lay Marie.

She was unconscious and unmoving. Her lips were swollen and burned, and there was an almost sickly-sweet smell in the air. Una’s lip curled. She recognized the odor: carbolic acid. In a split-second, she realized what must have happened. As fast as she could manage, Una rushed downstairs to the phone to call a doctor, praying that it wouldn’t be too late.

Una called Dr. Oliver Steiner to the house. An ambulance was also called in case Marie needed to be taken to the hospital for more extensive treatment.

Carbolic acid is an extremely toxic and potent poison. Prolonged contact with it can, and often did in these cases, cause severe chemical burns to a person’s skin. In the case of ingestion, it leaves burns on the outside and inside of the mouth, as well as all the way down the esophagus.

The acid enters the blood stream, attacking the central nervous, circulatory, and respiratory systems.

As he worked, Dr. Steiner knew that Marie was dying. He did everything he could to save her, but she was far beyond anyone’s help. Marie Botkin died barely an hour after ingesting the poison.

The coroner carefully examined Marie’s body, looking for any ailments or maladies that might have driven her to such an extreme decision. There were none. Marie Botkin was perfectly healthy. His final ruling was that she had died from suicide from ingesting carbolic acid.

While it seems strange to us in the modern day, suicide by drinking carbolic acid was far from unusual in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was commonly used in household disinfectants, as well as employed in very diluted amounts to disinfect medical equipment. It was readily available to nearly everyone, and while people would undoubtedly question someone carrying a gun to their bathroom, not many would do the same with someone carrying disinfectant to the same place.

No one understood what had made Marie commit suicide. No one knew of any reason why this had happened. Everyone had known her to be perfectly happy and liked by nearly everyone who knew her. Marie had no known enemies. She hadn’t been seeing anyone romantically, so the possibility of a broken love affair was ruled out.

Her suicide note was equally unhelpful. It read:

“Good bye; I hope my insurance will pay all expenses. Don’t leave anyone in to see me.”

Marie’s family and friends were left wondering with that final, burning question: why? But it was a question that they couldn’t answer, and they were forced to move on with the ebb and flow of their lives.

And so, Marie Botkin passed away into memory.

Una Kerr kept taking in boarders for a while, but eventually stopped. She worked as a stenographer the rest of her life. Marie’s brothers and sisters grew up and started lives of their own. Issac and Agnes stayed in St. Mary’s, seemingly content with the lives that they had built there.

Issac eventually started working at the local power plant in the town. It was probably steady work and a steady paycheck, which no doubt helped to stabilize their lives. Things continued day in, day out.

Then, on July 24, 1916, Issac went to work like any other day.  At some point, John Howell, the foreman of the plant’s engine room, set out to clean one of the plants boilers. Issac Botkin and another man named Fred Heil, were his assistants and went to help with the task.

As they worked, the boiler suddenly and unexpectedly exploded. Steam rushed out, covering the room in a matter of seconds. The men had no time to get away and were engulfed in a blinding white fog of burning steam.

A moment later, a wall of fire belched out from the boiler, severely burning both Issac and Howell even worse. The heat from the explosion was so incredibly intense that their clothes were burnt almost completely from their bodies.

Heil was working just far enough away at the time to only be mildly scalded on the top of his head. He missed the flames altogether.

Medical personnel were called and came rushing to the engine room. Heil, having relatively minor wounds, was sent home. Issac and Howell were immediately taken to a hospital in Lima, Ohio, for treatment.

The men languished in agony through the night, then died from their wounds the next morning.

Plant officials immediately investigated the cause of the explosion. No reason was readily apparent, and a flaw in the boiler plate was blamed.

Issac Botkin was buried, and the family returned to their lives. Agnes picked up the pieces left by her husband’s sudden demise and carried on. There was little choice but to move forward.

Perhaps they took some consolation in the fact that they understood what had happened to Issac. It was a tragic accident. It was an invisible flaw inside the metal of the boiler that had failed when he had been nearby. It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Accidents are something that we can find our way to understanding, something that, eventually, we can even make peace with. Even if there was something that had caused the accident that could have been prevented, once the problem is fixed, we can take satisfaction that it won’t happen to anyone else.

Suicides are much harder to understand, especially in someone as young as Marie Botkin. What makes her death even harder to comprehend is that there was seemingly no motivation behind it. It was as if she had just decided that it was time to die.

Just like you were sitting at a restaurant waiting for a table, a steady stream of people flows in to points in history and then flow out of them again. You see them for a little while, and then they pass through, like a branch carried by a river.

While we may choose the direction and tone of our lives, there are always so many things that come up that we never expect. We may meet the love of our lives, or maybe we separate from someone we thought fit that bill. We have car accidents, we break bones, we get sick. But mostly we have little bumps in the road that we pass over and forget.

We can only hope that our lives don’t take us down a road that leads to suicide and steam.




Mysterious Suicide of a Servant Girl. The Lima Times-Democrat, 6/13/1907

Young Woman Died by Her Own Hand. The Allen County Republican-Gazette, 6/14/1907

Mrs. Agnes Botkin. Dayton Daily News, 3/12/1940

Two Fatally Scalded. Marysville Journal-Tribune, 7/26/1916

Two Killed as Boiler Blows Out at St. Mary’s. The Lima-Times-Democrat, 7/25/1916

Mystery is Unsolved. The Chronicle-Telegram, 6/15/1907.

Find a Grave. Find a Grave.

Find a Grave. Find a Grave.

Find a Grave. Find a Grave.

Year: 1910; Census Place: Lima Ward 2, Allen, Ohio; Roll: T624_1151; Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 0023; FHL microfilm: 1375164

Year: 1930; Census Place: Dayton, Montgomery, Ohio; Page: 9A; Enumeration District: 0004; FHL microfilm: 2341585

Year: 1940; Census Place: Dayton, Montgomery, Ohio; Roll: m-t0627-03251; Page: 12A; Enumeration District: 94-10

Miss Una Kerr, 71, Dies at Residence. The Dayton Herald, 6/5/1942

Cebula, Larry. Of Carbolic Acid, Suicide, and Key Words. Northwest History, 7/5/2016.

Carbolic acid poisoning. Carbolic acid poisoning: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia

Medical Management Guidelines for Phenol Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry,

1 thought on “Suicide and Steam: A Family Tragedy”

  1. Yeah, I like to sit & watch people, too–mainly to see what they’re wearing! But it’s sad to hear about suicides & wonder what can possibly drive them to take such drastic action. Thanks, John, for another episode of “watching people.”

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