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BOOK REVIEW: Michigan’s Strychnine Saint: The Curious Case of Mrs. Mary McKnight

Author: Tobin T. Buhk
Publisher: The History Press
Publication Date: March 4, 2014
Genre: Michigan history, mystery, biography

Imagine being a witness to almost a dozen people within your family circle die of mysterious causes. Then imagine having to defend yourself to others, including other family members and, of course, the justice system.

Now imagine if you were guilty. What on earth would be your motive? How exactly did you do it and how did you get away with it so many times?

With his newly released book, “Michigan’s Strychnine Saint: The Curious Case of Mrs. Mary McKnight,” Tobin T. Buhk has brought back to life a figure in Michigan history who is still clouded in mystery.

What makes this book so interesting is that it combines true crime with history about areas in Michigan that many of us may be familiar with. At the center of this incredible story is Mary McKnight, a widowed woman living in the early 1900s who finds herself in one fatal story after another.

Much of the series of mysterious fatalities happens on her family’s farm in Springfield Township, near Fife Lake. The mysteries and deaths pile up and eventually lead to McKnight’s arrest for suspicion of poisoning multiple family members with a chemical called strychnine. She becomes so popular that copycats begin to sprout up throughout her trial.

But did she really kill several family members with poison? And if so, was it intentional? And if it was unintentional, how does one cope with so many close to her dying in front of her?

Buhk has published similar books on Michigan crime (“Cause of Death,” 2007; Skeletons in the Closet,” 2008; “True Crime Michigan,” 2011; “True Crime in the Civil War,” 2012; and “The Shocking story of Helmuth Schmidt: Michigan’s Original Lonely Hearts Killer,” 2013). But his latest book about McKnight, a woman who became known as Michigan’s version of Lucrezia Borgia, the Renaissance debutante, is so mind-stumping that even after you read the book, you have the urge to know more.

The characters in this true crime story are almost as interesting as our own Borgia, like Dr. Perly W. Pearsall, who started the trail of suspicion; Sheriff John W. Creighton, who created quite the legal stir once he had McKnight in custody; and attorneys Joshua Boyd and Ernest Smith, who have a long battling history together that, as the book points out, goes beyond the court floor.

Aside from learning of one of Michigan’s most mysterious murderers that once held the entire country in suspense, Buhk shows us the shaping of state law, the changing of an individual’s rights and the maturation of medical investigations in crimes.

“Strychnine Saint” is a good read for both adolescents and adults. The reader, just as the author, will be always thinking of what McKnight was up to, what she was thinking and how no one in her life could really figure her out.

Was Mary McKnight a true Borgia of Michigan or had she just been careless with attending to the sick? What is the depth of Mary McKnight’s dark side?

Buhk’s book doesn’t provide all the answers to this great Michigan mystery but he most certainly will get you thinking and wondering just what were Mary McKnight’s true intentions.

Ryan Schlehuber is a features editor for The Daily News. He enjoys books on history,  sports and anything that makes learning something new adventurous and intriguing. His favorite author is Mary Roach, who, according to Schlehuber, actually makes learning science intriguing, fun to read and humorous.

BOOK REVIEW: Michigan's Strychnine Saint: The Curious Case of Mrs. Mary McKnight, 5.0 out of 5 based on 1 rating
Reviewed by Ryan Schlehuber "Scoop" on 29 April 2014

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