Sarah Jane Robinson (née Tennent, born 1837 - January 3, 1906), known as The Boston Borgia, was an Irish-born American serial killer who poisoned her family members and other people from 1881 to 1886, with the help of her accomplices Thomas R. Smith and Dr. Charles C. Beers. She was initially sentenced to death for the poisoning of her brother-in-law, but the verdict was later changed to life imprisonment, with Robinson dying behind bars.
Tennent was born in Ireland, where she married her future husband Moses Robinson. The couple had several children before immigrating to America, initially settling in Charlestown before moving out to Somerville. Robinson became a member of the Park Avenue Methodist Church, where she later on would meet her future partner-in-crime: Thomas R. Smith, a prominent church leader and one-time superintendent of the local Sunday school in Hyde Park. Both of them were well-known in the community, with Robinson standing out for her constantly changing addresses in order to avoid paying rent.
Discovery of crimes
In the time between 1881 and 1884, several members of the Robinson family passed away from mysterious illnesses, but always suffering from similar symptoms. Each time, the sickly were attended to by Sarah, supervising the administration of all medicine. When the victims eventually needed medical attention, Robinson would always call a different physician each time, and never allowed autopsies to be performed on the bodies. Although at least two of them suspected some kind of poisoning, they never reported it to the authorities. Curiously, all of the deceased had a life insurance policy in Sarah's name registered at the New England Relief Association.
Already the deaths of Robinson's eldest daughter Elizabeth (24) and her nephew Thomas Freeman (7) had caused suspicion, but the breaking point came when Sarah's son, William, was taken sick with all the previous symptoms. Although he died shortly, he still managed to point at his mother and Smith as the ones responsible for this. Using this knowledge, Dr. White preserved parts of William's stomach for later analysis at the Harvard College, which revealed large quantities of arsenic. White then informed the authorities, who swiftly arrested Robinson and Smith, who had just arrived at the house. After a quick prayer for the mother and the son, the duo were taken to the police station for questioning.
Further charges, trial and sentence
Although obviously nervous, Sarah refused to confess, and so did Thomas. But while the police were still investigating, they made one further arrest: that of Dr. Charles C. Beers, of Boston, who allegedly helped Robinson murder her daughter Lizzie. The trio were indicted for William and Lizzie's murders, with all of them pleading not guilty on every charge. Then, surprisingly, the Grand jury revealed four more indictments for the killings of Oliver Sleeper, Sarah's husband Moses, Prince Arthur Freeman and little Thomas Freeman. During this whole ordeal, Robinson tried to feign insanity, but this was later refuted by Dr. Kelly of the McLean Asylum.
On December 13, 1887, the trio of criminals were brought to trial, and although jurors were challenged on both sides, the court decided to sentence Robinson to death based on circumstantial evidence. The following year, when her house had already been sold at an auction and the new owner was making improvements, a box of rat poison was discovered behind the furnace, in a hole of the cellar wall, which was quickly tied back to Robinson.
After her sentence was announced, and despite the fact a majority of the public disdained her, a petition was started to commute Robinson's sentence. Although the Governor's Council allegedly was against such a decision, they later decided to indeed commute her sentence, much to the surprise of both the press and the citizens of Boston. Robinson later died behind bars in 1906.
All of Robinson's victims were poisoned with the aim of collecting insurance money, and aside from the three unknown victims, she poisoned:
- Oliver Sleeper - landlord, poisoned on August 10, 1881
- Moses Robinson - husband, poisoned on July 25, 1882; Moses, who lived in Cambridge, was alleged to have died due to drinking cold water after overheating himself. This was challenged by the insurance company, who refused to pay Sarah a cent. She then moved out of Cambridge.
- Prince/James Arthur Freeman - Freeman, who had been insured for $2,000, was poisoned by Sarah on June 27, 1884. After his death, Robinson adopted his son and received the money in order to care for the child.
- Emma Robinson (10) - daughter, poisoned on unknown date prior to Annie.
- Annie Freeman - sister, poisoned on February 6, 1885
- Elizabeth "Lizzie" A. Freeman (24) - daughter, poisoned on February 22, 1886, with the assistance of Dr. Beers
- Thomas Arthur Freeman, Jr. (7) - nephew, poisoned on July 23, 1886
- William "Willie" J. Robinson - a truck driver by trade, William was initially injured from a box which had fallen on his leg. After being taken to the hospital for suffering from terrible convulsions and frequent vomiting, William died in the hospital from poisoning on August 12, 1886.
It was also alleged that Robinson could have attempted to poison upwards of a thousand people by putting arsenic into the ice cream offered at a festival at the Sunday School in June 1885. This, however, was promptly dismissed.