The Killer Capsules of ’25
During the last week of January 1925, a terrible mystery began to unfurl at The Ohio State University. Not only was it a riddle that would leave two students dead, nearly kill four others and baffle detectives and scholars for decades, but it would also alter the way in which one field of study is taught across the country and render the school’s association with a poisonous nut all the more fitting.
That week had not been a good one for Charles Huls. It should’ve been, though. He was in the home stretch of a very successful stint at OSU’s School of Journalism and looked forward to breathing some fresh life into his father’s newspaper, The Logan Republican, following graduation.
Not only was Huls handsome, intelligent and popular, but he had also held the prestigious title of editor-in-chief for the student yearbook, Makio, along with membership in several honor societies and fraternities. When it came to social affairs on campus, he was high man on the totem pole. Huls wasn’t the type to let a bad cold get the better of him, but that’s just what happened the last week of January 1925.
On Monday he had a slight tickle in his throat accompanied by a case of the shivers, but by Friday he had a throbbing toothache on top of the cold and decided that a trip to the Student Health Center was in order. There Huls was given a prescription for the standard cold treatment of that time, red aspirin and white quinine capsules, or “R & W’s” and was told that the tooth was infected and would have to go.
Following his visit to the Health Center, Huls went to the College of Dentistry to have his offending pearly white pulled. After that, he picked up pills at the University dispensary and headed back to his room at the Phi Gamma Delta house where he planned to spend the weekend nursing his sore jaw and fever.
On Saturday he started to feel a lot better, but decided to follow the doctor’s orders and spend the night resting. After dinner, he rinsed out his mouth, took his pills as instructed and went back to his room. Moments later panic swept through the Phi Gamma Delta house as Huls began thrashing and convulsing uncontrollably on his bed.
Charles’ younger brother, who also lived in the house, rushed to get a doctor. The diagnosis was a deadly tetanus infection resulting from the recent dental work. Decades away from the invention of antibiotics, there was nothing they could do but look on in horror as the otherwise robust young man’s body twisted and contorted in unfathomable agony.
After an hour of excruciating and nightmarish pain, Huls went still and lifeless, dying in his brother’s arms at 10:30 p.m. that last day of January, 1925.
The following morning, word of the tragedy was just beginning to make the rounds as David Puskin, a well-liked, 20-year-old accounting major and student athlete, awoke at his house on West 11th Avenue. Despite the remnants of a nasty cold, he was in fine spirits as he took some medication and shuffled off to the bathroom for a shower and a shave. Before he could complete his morning routine Puskin dropped to the bathroom floor with razor still in hand, spasming violently. Within 20 minutes, he was dead, both his day and life over before they had even begun.
Suspecting an outbreak of spinal meningitis, Dr. Shindle Wingert, director of Student Health Services, quarantined anyone who was in contact with Huls or Puskin at the time of their deaths. He sent out a warning for students to “observe regular hours, keep the face and hands scrupulously clean” and not to be scared as “fear lowers the vitality.”
No sooner had this edict been issued than other cases began to emerge.
There was Timothy “Big Tim” McCarthy, a sophomore on the varsity football team who was rushed to St. Francis Hospital on Thursday of that week after the cold symptoms he’d been fighting turned from a stuffy nose and chills to cramping muscles and uncontrollable convulsions.
On that same evening, freshman Robert Ross was also taken to the hospital after he collapsed into a seizure while playing basketball at the university gymnasium. Before that he’d been a little under the weather but didn’t think it was anything a couple of pills couldn’t fix.
The next night, Harold Gillig, a fraternity brother of “Big Tim” McCarthy, was getting ready to attend a dance. He had been fighting off the illness that was going around and just to be sure it didn’t interfere with the evening’s festivities, decided to take some medication. When he arrived at the party, Gillig complained that a terrible dizziness had suddenly come over him and within minutes was writhing in anguish and fighting to stay alive.
Fortunately for Gillig, Ross and Thompson, their health slowly returned with treatment. But by Monday, suspicions began to arise that something other than tetanus or meningitis was at work on the campus of The Ohio State University..
This was confirmed on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 3 when Dilbert Thompson, a senior journalism student and PGA golfer, stepped off a street car at the corner of Gay and High Streets, walked into a clothing store and promptly collapsed. Upon arrival at the University hospital, Thompson stopped breathing for over 10 minutes and was feared dead. Just when all hope seemed lost, the young man jolted to life and began gasping for air and violently ejecting the contents of his stomach.
Convinced that poison was to blame, Dr. Eugene McCampbell, Dean of the College of Medicine, ordered that a frog be fed some of Thompson’s vomitage. Within moments the frog croaked, both figuratively and literally, and its corpse was analyzed to reveal the true cause of the mysterious deaths and illnesses: strychnine!
Following this discovery, an investigation was immediately launched with Columbus City Prosecutor John J. Chester leading the charge at the request of OSU President, William Oxley Thompson.
The first thing Chester sought to establish was the source of the poison. Noting that each student was stricken down shortly after taking medication, the victims’ remaining drugs were inspected and it was determined that some of the capsules handed out as quinine at the dispensary were actually pure strychnine, each one strong enough to kill four adults.
Death by strychnine is extremely brutal. The drug first affects the central nervous system and brings about a heightened sense of awareness, nervousness or anxiety before causing the muscles to begin to contract with enough force to snap bones. The hands take on a claw-like appearance and the back arches so severely that it seems one’s head will touch their heels. All the while, tightening facial muscles cause a chilling, sardonic grin to spread across the victim’s face. Eventually the diaphragm ceases to function and the person dies from asphyxiation.
It was unthinkable that someone would purposely mix such a terrible poison into the University’s quinine supply, and detectives began looking into the way prescriptions were filled at the dispensary, assuming that a mistake had been made.
Lending credence to this theory, a bottle of strychnine was found on a shelf amongst the dispensary’s medicines and it was speculated that in a rush to satisfy prescriptions, someone hastily misread the label as “quinine.” Detectives noted, however, that the bottle was covered in dust and appeared to have not been disturbed in a long while.
Claire Dye, Dean of the College of Pharmacy, delivered another blow to the “accident” theory when he explained that the method for filling capsules with quinine, which is a light, powdery substance, would be quite different than filling them with the heavy, crystalline drug strychnine. Dye proclaimed it would be impossible for someone to mistakenly switch one for the other.
The poison, it seemed, had been intentionally mixed with the quinine supply, but why? Was it a prank gone wrong perpetrated by a student who didn’t grasp the toxicity of strychnine? Was this the work of a murderous and sickened mind? If it was the later, were the six students targeted or had the killer laid the trap and left it to chance to determine the victims?
Hoping to answer at least one of these questions, Dye conducted an experiment by placing 10 strychnine capsules in a full bottle of quinine. He then proceeded to tilt the bottle and spill out six capsules at a time, just as students had been trained to do when filling prescriptions. In each experiment, the heavier strychnine sank to the bottom and would not be dispensed until the bottle was nearly empty.
According to these findings, only one or two students should’ve received the tainted capsules. Instead, the strychnine was distributed to six people over the course of that Thursday and Friday, half of them receiving two lethal capsules each and the remaining victims getting a single deadly dose.
Determined to find the killer, Prosecutor Chester questioned every student and faculty member who had staffed the dispensary over the two weeks surrounding the poisonings. During these interviews two major suspects emerged.
The first was Louis Fish, a freshman pharmacy student and roommate of the second victim to die, David Puskin. Initially Fish told detectives that he had only been in the dispensary for his scheduled shift on the Monday before the poisonings. His story fell apart when two other pharmacy students stated that they had seen him sneak into the dispensary and take some pills that Friday. When questioned about this, Fish admitted that he had taken the capsules, but explained that he had done so as a favor to his ill roommate. When he realized that the pills were what killed Puskin, he was too frightened and upset to reveal his part in the death.
The police didn’t buy this excuse and Fish was arrested in connection with the murders on Monday, February 10. After the arrest, University psychologist, Dr. Goddard, was brought in to see if he couldn’t ferret out any abnormality of thought and perhaps extract a confession or determine a motive for the crimes.
After examining the suspect, Dr. Goddard reasoned that Fish would: A) never knowingly harm his best friend and B) could not be responsible for the crimes since he was nowhere near the dispensary when most of the poison capsules were distributed. After spending the night in jail, Fish was released.
Next the investigation focused on Nelson Rosenberg. Rosenberg was a 23-year-old pharmacy student who was with Puskin on the night before his death – and had purchased a bottle of strychnine from the Hi-King Drug Co. the day before the poison capsules turned up at the dispensary. When questioned, Rosenberg explained that he had broken his glasses and used the drug to help focus on his studies. As far fetched as this may seem today, small doses of strychnine do act as a stimulant and it was occasionally used as a study aid during that time.
Further suspicion fell on Rosenberg when he said that he had recently seen a bottle of strychnine sitting on a shelf in the chemistry laboratory and that he had even commented on it with another student. When the student in question denied this claim, Rosenberg changed his story and said that, after speaking with his classmate about the bottle, realized that he had been mistaken.
Once again, Dr. Goddard was brought in to conduct an examination of the suspect’s psyche and, once again, no malice of thought could be detected. After intense questioning, Rosenberg was proclaimed innocent and free to go his merry way.
That Valentine’s Day, the entire College of Pharmacy was called to assemble in the auditorium of the Chemical Building, now known as Derby Hall. With the investigation stretching into its third week and no solid leads, officials pleaded for students to divulge any details they could concerning the matter.
OSU President William Oxley Thompson played to the crowd’s sympathies and bemoaned how the incident would follow him to the grave and leave an irreparable stain upon the University’s reputation. After this, Prosecutor Chester paced across the stage, perhaps with his hands clasped behind his back, maybe even twisting the corner of his moustache between his thumb and his forefinger as he proclaimed, “If this was no accident then someone in this very room is guilty! Guilty of muuuurrrderrr!”
Despite their pleas, no one came forward with any further information and the case went cold. A month after the deaths of Huls and Puskin, Prosecutor Chester declared the investigation unresolved but closed and life on campus slowly returned to normal.
In the wake of the tragedy, OSU tightened regulations and training methods, and expanded pharmaceutical studies from a two-year to a four-year program. These changes were soon adopted at universities nationwide.
Rosenberg received his degree in July of 1925 and followed in his father’s footsteps, practicing medicine in the Cleveland area until his death in 1991. Fish returned to Canton, got married, had two children and faded into obscurity.
Over the years, all attempts to answer the question of who poisoned the University’s quinine supply have been to no avail and what happened at the University dispensary that last week of January 1925 remains a mystery to this very day.
To learn more about this and other tales of mystery concerning the University District and the city at large, venture out for an evening of dark tales from Columbus’ past offered throughout the year from Columbus Ghost Tours. Tickets and information available at www.columbusghosttours.com.