Reverend Clarence Virgil
Thompson Richeson (15 February 1876 – 21 May 1912) was
executed for the sensationalized murder of Avis Willard Linnell.
Avis Linnell “committed suicide” October 14,
1911 at the YWCA in Boston. The story got the attention of Edwin
Grozier, owner of the Boston Post, who assigned every available
reporter to the story. It was the Post that called for police to
investigate Avis Linell's suicide. It was the Post that found the
druggist in Newton who had sold Clarence Richeson the cyanide. It
was the Post that called for the Rev. Richeson's arrest, which
occurred 10 days after Avis's death.
The Post with its blaring, front-page headlines,
worked all of New England into a fever pitch. The New York Times
also provided extensive coverage extending beyond the date of
execution. The New York Daily Post reviewed the episode Mar 24,
2007 under the headline "Murdered by the Minister."
Early History and Medical Evaluations through 1910
A great deal is known about Clarence Richeson's
life. Dr. Lloyd Vernon Briggs, Director of the MA Mental Health
Society, was asked by Governor Eugene N. Foss on 29 April 1912 to
examine Richeson and determine his mental condition. Dr. Briggs
clearly put a lot of thought and effort into the Governor's
request. Most of what is known about Richeson is from a large
variety of affidavits from people that had close contact with
Richeson. Importantly he also recorded discussions with Richeson
which are abstracted below. This section is almost entirely taken
from Sometimes specific page citations are given but generally not.
The New York Times and Boston Globe ran extensive coverage on this
murder and citations are used to complement and supplement
Richeson was born at Amherst, VA, son of a
tobacco farmer and his first wife (of three). Affidavits taken in
1912 (Briggs 1921, pp. 373–377) revealed a strong family history
of mental health problems. An uncle on his mother's side was
committed, in 1883, to Western State Hospital, Staunton, VA, and
died there in the violent-patient ward a year later. A first
cousin was confined to an asylum in Missouri. Seven other first or
second cousins were described as deranged or insane. Throughout
his life physicians and alienists thought heredity played some
role in his mental disorders.
At age three Richeson fell down the front steps,
leaving a lifetime "knubble" on the back of his head. This was the
first of at least five significant traumas to the head he received
during his lifetime also affecting his physical and mental health.
When he was six, his brother struck him in the head and he "slept"
until the doctor arrived. That left a 2 1/2 inch scar. At age
seven, he fell off a horse and his head struck a rock. That left a
3 inch bald spot. He had a headache and ringing in his head for
the next five years. Also in childhood he was hit in the head by a
child holding a rock and was unconscious for 24 hours.
He left home at age 13, moved to Lynchburg, VA,
and worked at a number of jobs. Throughout much of his life he
worked at a variety of different jobs.
Early on he was ambitious and wanted to be a
clergyman. He began to prepare for college at Amherst Academy,
He has been variously described as a tall,
handsome giant touched with mysticism. From 1892 to 1895 he worked
for his cousin W. J. Richeson and continued his studies at the
academy in Carrollton, MO. He joined the Trotter Baptist Church of
Carroll County, MO. At age 17 he went into an unconscious state
and was in bed 1–2 days after a nocturnal emission. He saw a Dr.
Cooper who gave him something that caused him to break out all
over. Throughout his life he has a history of similar attacks many
of which he attributed to nocturnal emissions. He was inordinately
obsessive about his own sexuality. Before he was 18 he was engaged
to two girls at the same time. They broke off the engagements when
they learned of a third fiancee in Kansas City.
In 1895 (age 19) he is found in Saint Louis,
MO, at the Third Baptist Church. In 1896 he took a brief "vacation"
in southern MO where met a girl and again became engaged. This
engagement was soon broken off. He grew quite ill one time in 1896
and went to stay with a cousin in Potosi, MO. One night he became
quite delirious and was walking around outside. A doctor was sent
for and stayed through the night. He gave Richeson some quieting
medicine and declared him as crazy as can be. On the advice of the
doctor, she took Richeson to Missouri Baptist Sanitarium (now
Missouri Baptist Medical Center). He remained there for weeks.
Unfortunately, there are no medical records of his stay there
except "he apparently had some kind of mental derangement." He
then returned home in VA and stayed for three years.
In 1899 he entered the William Jewell College
at Liberty, MO. At some point, while a student, he made an
appointment with Dr. Phillip C. Palmer, M.D. Richeson said "I know
you will think I am crazy but . . . I want you to castrate me."
Dr. Palmer replied "I am sure you must be crazy" and refused.
Richeson went on to explain he was to become a minister. He did
not think he could associate with women without losing control of
himself.(Briggs 1921, pp. 380–381)
December, 1901 until March, 1902 he saw Dr. G.
M. Phillips of Saint Louis. In 1912 Dr. Phillips gave an affidavit
which is one of the most detailed insight into Richeson's health
along with Dr. Briggs records from 1912. "He complained of pains
in his head, back, testes, and limbs; that he was dizzy, his
memory was poor and he was unable to concentrate mentally. . . He
was a perfect picture and complete picture of 'Neurasthenia
sexualis." Richeson had discovered a mild varicocele (Briggs 1921,
pp. 384–387)which he obsessed over and "ascribed his wretched
physical and mental state to it." He despaired of ever being made
well again and rather courted death. Dr. Phillips recommended not
removing the varicocele. However, he consented to Richeson's
request and surgically removed it in January 1902. Afterwards
Richeson showed pronounced improvement and became hopeful and
cheerful. Still Dr. Phillips concluded that Richeson "at this time
he was not responsible for his any act that was associated with
his sexual organs; that such conditions as these, in my judgment
are competent to set in motion sexual manifestations to the end
that all reason is overbalanced, and one's acts are beyond
While living in MO, he matriculated at The
Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, KY. He was ordained as a
Baptist minister at the Third Baptist church. As a student
residing in Liberty, MO he became preacher at the Budd Park
Baptist Church in Kansas City from 1901-1904. One Sunday after his
sermon three girls approached him weeping, each claiming he had
asked her to marry him. The trustees quickly wrote for his
resignation ending what may have been his longest preaching tenure.
He also preached at a mission church at Kansas City.
Richeson later in 1912 claimed to Dr. Briggs
that his first sexual encounter was not until 1904 and he had no
others until 1910 with Avis Linnell. He was expelled from college
for cheating in 1905. However, an officer of the college wrote
Richeson's father that "Clarence had become deranged" and they
could no longer keep him as a student.
Reverend Richeson entered Newton Theological
Seminary, Newton, MA in the fall of 1906, finally graduated in
1909 and took a postgraduate class in 1910. In 1907 he was again
engaged, possibly to two women at the same time. April to
September, 1907 he accepted a call to a church in El Paso, TX.
While there he was an "inmate" in the home of Milton Estes. "He
was afflicted with a mental disorder which for a considerable
period rendered him insane." Dr. Thompson W. Grace was called to
the house in July and found him in a cataleptic state. He raved
against some men and imagined that someone was seeking to do him
injury. Paranoid thinking began to be more a part of his life.
After four months, in August, 1907 he returned
to a friend's house in Georgetown, MA. He first met Violet and
Rose Edmands in 1907. Violet and Rose were the only two children
of Moses Grant Edmands and his wife Lydia “Lilly” Caroline Benton
Edmands. He referred to his wife and daughters as his three
flowers. Violet and Richeson began seeing each other weekly from
December, 1910 until the engagement was announced in March.
He took a pastorate at the Baptist Church in
Hyannis, MA on Cape Cod in June, 1908 where he first met Avis
Linnell. Avis' mother stated that she loved him as a son. On her
17th birthday, 19 December 1908, he gave her a gold engagement
ring. The engagement was announced at a small party. Once Dr.
Ferdinand A. Binford, a member of the Church removed a callous
from the Pastor's hand. That night Dr. Binford was called to
Richeson's boarding room. When he arrived he found two or three
members of the Church restraining Richeson. He appeared at times
to be partly conscious and other times to be practically
unconscious with no knowledge of what he was doing or saying.
Richeson talked irrationally, raved incoherently and physically
manifested an abnormal degree of strength. The doctor gave him a
shot of morphine which quieted him. In the morning he was rational
but physically weak and apparently as "normal as he ever was."
Dr. Charles Harwood met Richeson in the summer
of 1909. Early in December 1909 Richeson reported a robbery from
his room. The State Police asked Dr. Harwood to investigate the
robbery because of curious circumstances. Dr. Harwood
inadvertently met Richeson on a train and discussed the robbery.
Dr. Harwood concluded "his whole state of mind appeared insane."
On a subsequent meeting with Richeson "he confirmed the impression
of a man suffering from insanity."
April, 1910 he resigned his pastorate after two
years in Hyannis having awakened considerable adverse feeling in
the Church. On 20 May 1910 the prominent Immanuel Baptist Church
in Newton, MA voted to call him as minister and he first preached
there 1 June 1910. He soon met 16 year old Avis Linnell and on 19
December, her birthday, he gave her an engagement ring.
Miss Linnell left Hyannisport in September 1910
to study at the New England Conservatory of Music. She took a room
at the Boston YWCA The date for her marriage was set for October,
1910. She wore the engagement ring until Christmas, 1910 when she
gave it back to Richeson "to be repaired."
1911 and 1912
A Hyannis newspaper, the Patriot,
published the announcement of Richeson's engagement to Violet
Edmands on 13 March 1911. Early in March, Avis' mother received a
letter from her that Avis' engagement was broken off.
One day in April 1911 Richeson suffered another
very severe trauma to his head. As he was stepping from an
elevator the operator mistakenly started it. It was necessary to
call a physician and he was in bed for three days. When he got up
he dragged one of his legs when he walked. This difficulty
worsened until he seemed to have lost the use of both legs and
could not bear his own weight. The trouble with his legs then
passed. However, on 1 May Richeson appeared at the Edmands house
and had one of his attacks. Mrs. Edmands went every day to
Richeson's lodging house and stayed until evening from 1 May to 28
June. The evening of 18 June a Dr. David C. Dow (affidavit) was
called to Richeson's. The next morning he told Mrs. Edmands that
Richeson "should be committed to an institution, not necessarily
and insane hospital, and I strongly advised her to put him under
the care of men well versed in mental diseases."
Richeson was granted a two month leave from his
Church for a "mental breakdown." On 1 July he returned to Hyannis
for the two months where he resumed intimacy with Avis who was
home for the summer. July was about the time she became pregnant.
The people of Hyannisport knew the engagement had been broken and
assumed that the couple spending so much time together had renewed
the engagement. At the end of summer Richeson returned to his
Church. Avis returned to her studies in Boston and the room at the
The cyanide was purchased 10 October but Avis'
death was not until Saturday 14 October, four days later. The
pharmacist told the police of the purchase of cyanide and Richeson
was taken into custody on 20 October.
The marriage date for Miss. Edmands was set for
Oct 31, 1911 (Reformation Day). Avis Linnell’s death was 17 days
before the scheduled wedding.
Richeson wrote a letter of resignation to the
church, 2 November. The Church voted 30 to 15 not to accept
A Grand Jury brought an indictment 2 November
containing five counts: "that he gave," "that he sent and conveyed,"
"that he caused the poison to be taken and swallowed," "that he
gave it pretending it was a medical preparation, and "that he did
assault and poison with intent to murder by this giving and
causing to be taken." (Briggs 1921, p. 362). He was arraigned and
pleaded "Not Guilty" on 13 November. Trial was set for 15 January
At 4 in the morning, 20 December, Richeson
partially emasculated himself in his cell with a sharp piece of
metal. At the jail hospital, Dr. Lothrop found it necessary to
complete the emasculation and closed the wound. A few days later
Richeson pulled the stitches from the wound and Dr. Lothrop was
called in again.
No jury was ever selected for on 5 January he
retracted his plea of "Not Guilty" and plead guilty to murder in
the first degree. The guilty plea was made before Judge Sanderson
on 9 January and the judge had no sentencing options other than
death. The date for electrocution was set for 19 May. Only after
sentencing did his lawyers raise the question of insanity. They
employed two alienists who individually made reports on 24 April
and 8 May.
Governor Foss denied Richeson's petition for
clemency, 16 May. In the statement that followed ". . . family is
heavily afflicted with insanity, that he himself is neurotic, a
somnabulist, and a neurasthenic; that he is subject to extreme
emotional disturbances, marked by loss of memory, . . . diagnosed
as hysterical insanity . . . (or) hysterical delirium hysterical
insanity . . . (or) hysterical delirium . . . these attacks are of
brief duration . . .his crime was not committed by him during such
Reverend Richeson was executed in an electric
chair May 21, 1912 at 12:17 A.M. It was the fourteenth such
execution since Massachusetts adopted the electric chair. It was
the most successful to that time since the current only had to be
applied once and the death affidavit was signed 15 minutes later.
The prior Sunday, May 19, the crowds outside the prison became so
large that the outer gates were closed to prevent the crowd
encroaching on the prison premises and a special police patrol was
assigned. The next day more than two thousand people stood outside
the prison walls for hours in pouring rain. After the execution
the crowd lingered through the night and did not fully disperse
until the following morning.
Later Analysis of Behavior and Motives
Nine years later (1921) L. Vernon Briggs, M.D.,
Director of the Massachusetts Society for Mental Hygiene reviewed
what was known of Clarence Richeson. Dr. Briggs had previously
prepared a report for Governor Eugene Foss on Richeson's condition
for the Governor's consideration of clemency. Governor Foss also
consulted with other alienists. In "The Manner of Man That Kills"
he concludes that Clarence Richeson "was, I think the only man
ever executed in Massachusetts without a trial. He was a victim of
hysteria with delusions, hallucinations, amnesic periods, and
delirium. He had exhibited signs and had had attacks of this
disease for years, had been recognized as mentally unsound by
several physicians who advised specialists in mental diseases to
attend him. Still, he was allowed to 'carry on' until his acts
resulted in the death of a young girl in this state." Based upon
the Spencer,Czolgosz, Richeson cases and others Dr. Briggs
proposed several broad ranging reforms for early recognition and
management of the mentally ill before situations of this sort
A contrary view was put forth by Theodore
Dreiser. In 1892, he “began to observe a certain type of crime in
the United States that proved very common. It seemed to spring
form the fact that almost every young person was possessed of an
ingrown ambition to be somebody financially and socially.”
“Fortune hunting became a disease” with the frequent result of a
peculiarly American kind of crime." An example is the murder of
Avis Linnell. By 1919 this murder was the basis of one of two
separate novels begun by Dreiser. The 1906 murder of Grace Brown
by Chester Gillette eventually became the basis for “An American
Following the murder Violet removed from
Massachusetts to a settlement house in New York City. She devoted
the rest of her life to the settlement movement.
Violet’s younger sister, Rose Edmands was
engaged, also in 1911, to Reverend George Herbert Holt. He was
also a graduate of Andover Newton Theological Seminary having
entered before 1912. They were married in April 1912 before the
execution but in Barre, VT where he had his first church
assignment and not in Brookline. Their first of four children was
born in Barre May 10, 1913. Rose and her husband devoted much of
their lives to Baptist missionary work.
Mr. and Mrs. Edmands later left Brookline, MA
and moved to Pasadena, CA. They both died in California.