New York’s Grand Dame of Dog Poisoning

In a ritzy Park Avenue apartment, Juliet Tuttle posed in front of a birdcage, staring into the eyes of a parrot. She wore an elegant silk robe and a cloche hat. A photographer snapped a picture, and soon Tuttle appeared in newspapers around the country under the headline “Not Afraid of Parrot Disease.”

The year was 1930 and a panic had erupted over an illness spread by birds. Though only a few hundred Americans had caught the flu-like “parrot fever,” people were so afraid of being infected that they wrung the necks of their own pets. Tiny carcasses piled up in trash cans, the brilliant blue-and-green wings lying limp among the coal ash.

Tuttle insisted that the fears of contagion were overblown, saying that she often kissed her birds on their little beak. She seemed like the kind of daffy, kind-hearted widow who would one day leave her fortune to her menagerie. And yet seven years later, a tabloid dubbed her the “Eastchester Dog Poisoner” after she was caught in a New York suburb doling out suspicious tablets in doggie treats.

When I stumbled across an old newspaper item about Tuttle’s trial, I was drawn in by the paradox: Tuttle had been a well-known advocate for animals. Why would she have killed dogs in such a gruesome fashion? Eventually, I pieced together clues that had remained hidden for almost 100 years. And that’s how I learned that Juliet Tuttle may have been the most prolific pet killer in this country’s history, an angel of death who not only poisoned dogs but also hunted cats through the streets of New York City, bagging them up and snuffing them out.

As I write this, the Bowen Road Dog Poisoner is stalking the parks of Hong Kong, scattering meat laced with pesticides—the mysterious attacks have gone on for more than two decades, with no break in the case. It’s not happening just in Hong Kong: Dog poisoners are everywhere. In Berlin, people have been taping up signs on trees, telling stories of dogs that have died in agony. And in Melbourne, dog owners were recently advised to keep their animals inside because of a rash of poisonings.

When I was a kid in Maryland, a neighbor’s German shepherd ate a piece of steak that someone had thrown in the yard. The sweet old dog drooled for hours before he died in convulsions. Soon other neighbors found lumps of meat in their yards too. Looking back now, I realize that my parents weren’t worried so much about the dogs as they were about us kids. “If you see anything in the grass, don’t touch it,” my mother lectured me, over and over again. All that summer, a low buzz of fear electrified the boggy heat.

Dog poisoning isn’t just about the dogs. Somebody is sending a message: “It’s so easy to kill. You or your kids could be next.” The attacks can infect an entire city with paranoia. Even so, pet poisoning is a little-studied crime. So who are these criminals? And why do they do it?

The case of Juliet Tuttle offers some clues.

One spring day in 1937, Tuttle stepped out of her limousine in Eastchester, New York, and crept up to two dogs playing in a field. She extracted a small paper bag from her pocket and fed the dogs through a fence. All the while, her own dog, a Boston terrier wearing a green sweater, waited in the limousine.

A witness named Mrs. John Stewart observed this strange scene from a bus stop across the street. Hours later, one of those dogs was dead and the other, violently ill. And Mrs. Stewart’s own Irish setter had died in her yard. Mrs. Stewart told the police that she feared that anyone who would poison dogs might also feed arsenic to the neighborhood children.

Police detectives traced the limousine to a country home in Larchmont and brought the owner, Tuttle, and her chauffeur in for questioning. The chauffeur said that he squired Tuttle out for drives around Westchester County every day to feed dogs. On the Saturday of the poisonings, he had driven his employer around Eastchester and Edgewater Point in Mamaroneck. The police had received reports of sick and dead dogs along that route; an English sheepdog that belonged to a woman in Edgewater was in critical condition, and two other dogs had been found floating in Crestwood Lake, near Tuckahoe.

As the bodies piled up, even more pet owners came forward with stories of mysterious deaths and disappearances. In the previous few months, the Eastchester Police Department had received reports of more than 75 dogs that had been poisoned or gone missing. Suddenly all of those disconnected disasters formed a pattern, and the clues led back to the lady in the limousine. Police found a gelatin capsule near the fence where she fed dogs; it contained cyanide.

And yet Tuttle, “with flushed face and a harassed look in her eyes,” one account read, protested to the police chief that she had “never poisoned an animal in her whole life.”

In fact, a few years before, Tuttle—then a high-ranking member of the Women’s League for Animals—had sounded the alarm about a supposed plague of cats swarming the streets of Lower Manhattan. She had bragged to the press that she had developed a system for capturing strays, bagging them up and executing them. At that time, she’d been going under her late husband’s name—Mrs. Charles A. Tuttle of Park Avenue. But in 1937, she was known as Juliet Tuttle of Larchmont. Perhaps no one realized that the two Mrs. Tuttles were the same person. As I pored over articles about the case, it seemed to me that none of her accusers had connected the dots between the Eastchester Dog Poisoner and the Mrs. Charles A. Tuttle who had dedicated herself to the “mercifical” extermination of street cats.

I had questions, and I wanted to bring them to the experts. I wasn’t able to find any intellectuals who specialize in pet poisonings, so instead I consulted with Deborah Blum, a journalist who has written extensively about human poisonings. Blum told me that people who kill with poison are demographically different from most other killers—they are more likely to be female. “Think Arsenic and Old Lace,” she said. When women murder, “they choose poison about seven times as often as men,” she said. And this is one reason poisoners can evade detection—they tend to be the nice little old ladies whom no one suspects.

Blum said she thought the same pattern was likely to apply to animal poisonings. Certainly no one expected Juliet Tuttle, the self-professed animal lover, to have committed these crimes. When she was put on trial in 1937, a reporter summed up the shock over the Eastchester Dog Poisoner turning out to be a decorous old lady: “The accusation seemed so preposterous it was almost funny. Of all the men, women and children in the United States,” it seemed that “this nice old woman was the last person in the world who would hurt any animal,” and that “the authorities at Eastchester, NY, must be crazy.”

In her early 30s, Juliet had married Charles Tuttle—a Yale man who had founded a New Haven newspaper and worked as a reporter before falling ill. Less than two years after the wedding, Charles died of tuberculosis. With her husband out of the picture, Juliet reinvented herself as a social climber in Manhattan. She moved into a Park Avenue apartment, summered in Westchester, and hired a dressmaker, maid, and chauffeur. She rose to prominence in New York animal-rights societies, appearing in newspapers under the name Mrs. Charles A. Tuttle as a friend to birds, using the parrot-fever panic to vault herself into the public eye.

One of her closest associates was another widow, Helen—Mrs. George Bethune Adams—who ran the city’s largest animal hospital. The New Yorker described Adams as a “spry, reticent lady who favors old-fashioned black serge dresses and Queen Mary hats.” Tuttle was decades younger than her friend, but she began dressing in the same sober, vaguely British fashion. In the black costume of a grand dame, she became a leader in the New York Women’s League for Animals.

Cats had always been a crucial part of the city’s ecosystem, keeping down the rat and mouse populations. And yet in 1931, a newspaper reported that Tuttle had declared that the city was “suffering from a plague of homeless, half-starved, abandoned cats, carriers of disease and a disgrace to humanity.” She painted a picture of a furry tide that threatened to engulf the city and cast herself as the compassionate euthanizer. She told reporters that she spent “six days a week and about nine hours of each day” riding around in the back of her limousine in order to scoop up “all the stray alley cats and homeless dogs she can find and [take] them where they receive care or merciful destruction.” With what sounds like relish, she shared her method for knocking out the cats: “She carries onion bags in her automobile,” the report stated. “These bags she soaks thoroughly in catnip water before she starts on her tours. Once inside a bag, the cats were “bound for oblivion.”

Of course, catnip wouldn’t actually knock out a cat. Tuttle would eventually admit that she used chloroform. “The cats come out in great numbers at night,” Tuttle told reporters attending a Women’s League for Animals meeting, “but even in the daytime I can find enough sick, injured and starving cats to fill the baskets in my car.”

Even as she introduced herself as an officer of an organization devoted to protecting animals, she was breaking most of the city’s anti-cruelty laws. You certainly weren’t allowed to cut the lock on a door to someone’s house or shop, sneak into their property, and abduct all their cats, before tossing them into the death chamber at the Ellin Prince Speyer Hospital for Animals, New York’s first free animal hospital.

If you had been walking down Lafayette Street in Lower Manhattan in the 1930s, you would have marveled at that hospital, a five-story palace dedicated to lavishing every kindness on pets. Walk through the front door—under the gilded sign that read Women’s League for Animals—and up the stairs, and you would glimpse an operating room custom-designed with a lift for horses. On the roof, a glass-domed room allowed dogs to bask in the sun as they recovered from distemper. Also on the roof: the chambers where the terminally ill or dangerous animals could be given a quick death.

Tuttle operated right out in plain sight, at a time when New York City had the most advanced animal-protection laws in the country. The dog catchers of the past had been abolished decades earlier. The New York Times explained a new animal-control law, known as Chapter 115, back in 1894: Strays would be put up for adoption and placed in homes, while a few “worthless” dogs and cats—those too sick or aggressive to be pets—would be “put to death in as humane a manner as possible.”

The law put the city into a paradoxical bind: Now that it was illegal to beat a dog to death in the street or dump cages full of live animals into the East River, someone had to take responsibility for the strays that couldn’t be adopted. And so animal-protection groups began pioneering the idea of a merciful or painless death as one of the antidotes to suffering. When the dog or cat couldn’t be rehabilitated, it would be zapped by electricity, drugged to death, or snuffed out in a gas chamber. To average New Yorkers, this would have seemed like a cleaner, more humane resolution. But still, one imagines, they didn’t much like to think about the killings themselves. Groups such as the Humane Society and the Women’s League built execution chambers and hid them away, where the public would never see them.

A new idea was being invented in the 20th century: that death could be a medical procedure. It was the beginning of a conversation about physician-assisted suicide for people and a merciful death for animals. In the 1930s, American euthanasia societies began pushing for laws that would give terminally ill people the right to die. It was both a very modern idea and yet also, from the start, tangled up with the racist and ableist ideas of the eugenics movement.

Into that new moral twilight came Mrs. Charles A. Tuttle, a.k.a. Juliet, a.k.a. the Eastchester Dog Poisoner.

When I described the Juliet Tuttle case to Deborah Blum, she said Tuttle sounded like an “angel of death”—similar to the kind of serial killer who preys on (human) hospital patients. These killers often use poison—or overdoses of medications—as their weapon, and they hide in the space between mercy and murder. An example: Donald Harvey claimed that he began nudging terminally ill patients toward death in the 1970s at a hospital in Kentucky where he worked as a nurse’s aid because, he said, he hated to see them suffer. Then, it seems, he became so addicted to the power rush that he got from killing that he began targeting dozens of patients—and also poisoned his lover and several neighbors. His craving for the kill escalated. In 1987, he pleaded guilty to murdering 37 people, many of them by arsenic and cyanide poisoning.

Similarly, Juliet Tuttle represented herself as an angel of mercy who killed in order to prevent animals from suffering. And she, too, became more reckless as time went on.

She began by abducting cats from speakeasies, hotels, and tenements—animals that might loosely be called strays. Then she began to target pets. In 1934, a Brooklyn woman took Tuttle to court, accusing her of abducting a tabby named Topsy. Tuttle admitted to the judge that she had responded to an ad offering Topsy’s kittens for adoption; she said she had borrowed Topsy while the kittens were still nursing and then, tragically, Topsy had just happened to run out into traffic. The prosecuting attorney declared prophetically that more was behind this case than appeared. Nonetheless, the judge ruled Topsy’s death an accident and “Mrs Tuttle walked majestically from the court, stepped into her luxurious limousine,” and swept off, according to one reporter.

In addition to her apartment on Park Avenue, Tuttle owned a country home in Larchmont. At some point, she moved her hunting grounds to Westchester County and began targeting the purebred collies and shepherds that romped in the gardens of the rich. She became more and more brazen. And then she got caught.

Itchi

In June 1937, a mob of animal lovers swarmed the Eastchester courthouse, hoping to catch a glimpse of the infamous dog poisoner. Tuttle, then 65, swanned into court wearing her signature black dress, pearls, and white gloves. Her pinstriped lawyer escorted her to her seat. When it came time to testify, Tuttle climbed up onto the stand and listed her bona fides—she had been a member of the Connecticut Humane Society, the Blue Cross Society in Larchmont, the New York Women’s League, and the New Rochelle Humane Society. She said she’d been working to rescue dogs and cats for more than 35 years. Tuttle admitted that she had ordered her chauffeur to stop so she could approach two dogs in Larchmont, but she had only wanted to help the collie because it was caught in a fence. She certainly hadn’t fed the dogs any poison.

The prosecuting attorney pointed out that Tuttle had recently bought gelatin capsules at a drugstore that were just like those found at the scene of the crime. Tuttle admitted that she’d bought the capsules, but only because she needed to subdue animals so that she could give them medical care. She had outfitted her limousine with dog biscuits and salmon, as well as wire cat traps, onion bags, and a bottle of chloroform.

The audience in the courtroom broke out into astonished laughter at this point. Her testimony could not have been more incriminating. The mood in the room turned darker when a series of eyewitnesses described her as a sadist. A woman named Mrs. Reisig, the head of the Larchmont Humane Society complaints department, said that people had reported “cats, many of them valuable animals, disappearing all over Larchmont,” and that she’d learned that Mrs. Tuttle used to take cats to the police station to have them killed in a gas tank there.

Two of Tuttle’s former chauffeurs told the court that they had quit because they refused to collaborate in her cruelty. One driver said he’d seen her poison a cat and abduct dozens of others to take them to the animal hospital and throw them directly into the killing chamber. Another chauffeur described how Tuttle had wheedled a dog owner into handing over a collie and then snuffed it out.

The evidence was damning enough that the judge levied the highest fine then allowable for animal cruelty—$500, the equivalent of about $10,000 today. He might have locked her up, but she was considered too old to be worth imprisoning.

So why on earth did she do it? Of course we’ll never know exactly what drove her, but I think she may have craved relief from the unbearable condition of being a nobody. She was an aging widow who’d once been the chair of the Women’s League for Animals. But by the late 1930s, she was fading out of Manhattan society.

I imagine her ordering her chauffeur to take her through the most exclusive neighborhoods in Westchester, where she could peer at the mansions with their high gates and guard houses. When she rolled down the car window, she could hear the pock of tennis balls and the squeals of children in swimming pools. Maybe it appealed to her, the idea that all she had to do was drop a capsule in a yard and soon the the people in those beautiful houses would be shaking with terror and racked with tears.

Deborah Blum told me that she’s sometimes amazed that so few people become poisoners. She pointed out that we all have easy access to these murder weapons—they’re in our garages and under our sinks. And yet, intentional poisonings are rare. “It’s as if we have this universal pact not to poison each other,” she said. “That is one of the few good check marks in our favor right now as a species.” The Juliet Tuttles of the world are an aberration.

I couldn’t find a record of her death, and so her final years remain a mystery. But in the early 1940s—after she was convicted and released—newspapers were issuing new warnings to pet owners in Westchester to keep their dogs and cats indoors because a poisoner was on the loose. “The poisoner is a sneaky and clever person,” the president of a local animal-rights organization told the press. “The only clue we have is that on one occasion in Bronxville an elderly woman in an automobile tried to coax animals up to her car and drove away hurriedly when detected.” The mysterious woman in the car reminded one reporter of Juliet Tuttle, the infamous Eastchester dog killer. She was, presumably, still at large.

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