The Mysterious Poisoning of the Foulk Children

It was a mystery that shocked the state of Iowa in October 1905. Who would leave poisoned candy in the room of an elderly widowed Civil War veteran with a note saying it was for his young children? Children who he had entrusted into the care of the Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home in Davenport after the death of their mother.

The children’s father, Jonathan Foulk, was born in Mercer County, Pennsylvania in 1838. His family moved to Morris, Grundy County, Illinois between the 1850 and 1860 United States Census. In 1860, 20-year-old Jonathan was listed as a laborer who lived with his father John, mother Jane, and seven siblings.

In 1861, Jonathan and his older brother William joined the military at the beginning of the Civil War. Jonathan enlisted on June 15, 1861, but was discharged on September 16, 1861 after an injury to his left ankle. Jonathan enlisted again with his younger brother Warren in December 1863. All three brothers served together in the Illinois 36th Infantry Co. G. They were separated when Warren was taken prisoner and held at Andersonville until the war ended in 1865. All three brothers survived the war and returned home.

Jonathan married Abigail Jane Mean on November 21, 1863. No information could be found about this marriage beyond the marriage certificate. Abigail died in 1868 in either Grundy County, Illinois or Linn County, Iowa. No grave could be located. It is not known if children were born to this marriage.

In 1869, Jonathan married Melissa Ann Smith Wright who was widowed with two young daughters, Emma and Georgeanna. Jonathan was a laborer and farmer during these years near Marion, Linn County, Iowa. Melissa died on December 10, 1887 from consumption. Georgeanna passed in 1890 from a heart ailment. Emma married in 1879 and started a family of her own.

On February 15, 1888, Jonathan married for a third time to Ella Viola Hess. Jonathan was 27 years older than his new wife who was born in 1865. Their son Jonathan B. was born in late 1888, an unnamed infant in 1890 died soon after birth, Andrew in 1891, Mamie in 1893, and George in 1898.

Jonathan suffered the loss of his son Jonathan B. from pneumonia and wife Ella from consumption in 1900. Now, at the age of 62 he was faced with raising a 9-year-old, 7-year-old, and a 2-year-old by himself.

It is not known when Jonathan admitted his children to the Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home to be cared for. We did find a newspaper account that his health began to suffer about 1901 and he spent time at a Home for Volunteer Disabled Soldiers in Danville, Illinois starting in 1902. When he felt well, he would discharge himself and return to Marion, Iowa. He survived on a disability pension from the government for his war service of about $10 per month. The children most likely were sent to the Orphans’ Home between 1900 and 1902.

By all accounts, Jonathan Foulk loved his children. He would visit them every time he traveled to or from Danville to Marion. He did not relinquish custody, but instead asked for the children to be cared for due to his circumstances.

Jonathan also sent care packages and letters to Andrew, Mamie, and George in the Home. One such package was prepared and mailed in late September 1905. It arrived at the Home on Sunday, October 1st. As was the custom, the package was opened and everything was examined by staff before a football, picture book, and doll were given to the two younger children Mamie and George. About a dozen chocolate candies were found in the package as well.

The Davenport Democrat and Leader, October 1, 1905. Pg. 16

The candy was chocolate on the outside with a crème filling on the inside. Those were kept by staff until after dinner when they were given as treats to the younger two children. Smaller portions were given to their friends as well.

George became ill soon after eating the candy. Newspapers reported he went into convulsions. Dr. J. C. Murphy was summoned and he felt the symptoms were similar to strychnine poisoning. He quickly began to pump the boy’s stomach. Reports went out that little George was deathly ill. Staff found Mamie to be in a similar condition, although not as ill as George. Their little friends at the orphanage also experienced symptoms as well. The children all said the chocolate candy had a bitter taste. Mamie and George’s older brother, Andrew, had not yet been offered the candy and was not taken ill.

The Daily Times, October 2, Pg. 6

Mamie and the other children quickly recovered from the effects of the candy. George took longer, but eventually regained his health. The Davenport Police Department was brought in to try to figure out if the candy was poisoned and by whom.

After testing, strychnine was found in the crème and it was determined the poison most likely was added into the chocolates before they were mailed. The orphanage staff was in disbelief at the thought Jonathan Foulk might have poisoned his children.

The Marion Police Department quickly took over investigating in their town. They spoke with Jonathan who seemed shocked that the candy was poisoned. He said he had gone out to buy the football, doll, and picture book for the younger children. It appeared to be no secret that Mr. Foulk mailed packages to his children when he could afford to do so. For this package, he had asked a neighbor to make a doll dress to be sent along with the new doll he was going to purchase.

The Daily Times, October 6, 1905. Pg. 2

Jonathan stated he had gone to work and returned to the room he rented with the intention of preparing and mailing the package. When he entered his room there was a little paper sack filled with chocolate candies. On the outside of the paper bag was written “For the children, from a friend”. He looked inside and saw the chocolates. He thought it was a simple kindness from a neighbor. Mr. Foulk added the chocolates to the package and mailed it.

Perhaps the most shocking thing was that Jonathan stated this was the third attempt to poison his children. A few years before, the children had been sent popcorn. The popcorn was deemed suspicious by the Orphans’ Home staff and thrown away. Another package was received after that in which there were popcorn balls. The children were given the treat, but immediately said the popcorn balls tasted bitter and they were thrown out. Jonathan claimed not to be the sender of those packages. He stated he had an idea who it was, but would not say the name or names. The newspapers reported that Jonathan and the Hess family, the family of his third deceased wife, were not on good terms.

On October 20, 1905, Jonathan Foulk traveled from Marion to Davenport for a visit with his children and to meet with officials to discuss the case. On October 30, 1905, the Daily Times newspaper printed an article stating another box of candy had been left for Jonathan at his room in Marion indicating, once again, it was for the children. A chemist tested the candy and determined the pieces had strychnine in them.

The Daily Times, October 30, 1905. Pg. 4

After the occurrence at the end of October, the story faded from the newspapers until 1906. It was in early March that Mr. Foulk found a paper bag containing nine chocolate crème candies on his doorstep early one morning. All contained strychnine. In this case, Mrs. Burris from whom Jonathan rented basement rooms, saw an unknown man walking away from her yard shortly after 10:00 p.m. It was too dark to identify the person.

Once again, the Foulk family fell from newspaper headlines. No more candy is known to have been sent to Mr. Foulk or the children.

Upon aging out of the Orphans’ Home, Andrew Foulk returned to Marion to live with his father. He died at the age of 20 from tuberculosis. His younger brother George would die at the age of 20 as well. He died on May 26, 1918 in France becoming the first young man of Marion to be killed in World War I.

The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, November 2, 1918. Pg. 15

Mamie became Jonathan Foulk’s only surviving child. She married William J. Martinez in Los Angeles, California on June 13, 1917. Jonathan remained close to Mamie and moved to Los Angeles to live with Mamie and her husband around 1918.

We did find something unusual related to Mr. Foulk later in his life. We noticed in the 1910 United States Census, Jonathan’s birth year was 1827 instead of 1838 as we had found on all previous documents.  In 1910, his age is listed as 82 indicating a birth year of 1827 or 1828. By the U. S. Census of 1920, Jonathan claimed to be 102 and born in 1814. We were able to find census records in 1850 and 1860 for his father and mother showing their birth years listed as 1806 and 1811 and Jonathan as 1838. Mr. Foulk’s 1814 birth year appears to be more than a slight exaggeration on his part.

By 1925, Los Angeles and nearby newspapers celebrated the 108-year-old Jonathan Foulk. He became a local newspaper favorite with his witty advice on long-life and his involvement with the local GAR. With official documents being scarce, no one realized he was actually only 88-years-old. In September of 1925 he was named Los Angeles’ oldest living citizen and oldest living member of the local GAR.

Los Angeles Evening Express, September 4, 1925. Pg. 9

Mr. Foulk eventually settled in the Soldiers’ Home in Danville, Illinois where he passed away on March 15, 1929 aged 90 or 110 years old. He is buried in Oak Shade Cemetery in Marion, Linn County, Iowa with his second and third wives, stepdaughter Georgeanna, and four of his five children. Daughter Mamie is buried in Los Angeles.

The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, March 15, 1929. Pg. 30

No one was ever caught for leaving the poisoned candy that Mr. Foulk mailed in a package to his children on late September 1905. If it is true that poisoned popcorn and popcorn balls were mailed previously to the orphanage and then more poisoned candy was left for Jonathan later; why would someone want to fatally harm the Foulk family?

Was the perpetrator angry with Mr. Foulk for unknown reasons and wanted to punish him by hurting his children? Was it the Hess family who had opposed the marriage of the young Ella Viola Hess to the much older Jonathan and now grieved her death?  

Or was the perpetrator closer to home? Could Jonathan Foulk have poisoned his own children for unknown reasons?

It appears this is a mystery that will never be solved.

As for Jonathan Foulk’s advice on living a long life. His usual advice was work hard, don’t drink, don’t smoke, eat plenty of cornbread, and avoid sweets.

(posted by Amy D.)


  • The Daily Times, May 2, 1900. Pg. 1
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, October 1, 1905. Pg. 16
  • The Daily Times, October 2, 1905. Pg. 6
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, October 2, 1905. Pg. 10
  • The Daily Times, October 3, 1905. Pg. 6
  • The Daily Times, October 6, 1905. Pg. 2
  • The Daily Times, October 6, 1905. Pg. 7
  • The Daily Times, October 20, 1905. Pg. 6
  • The Daily Times, October 30, 1905. Pg. 4
  • The Daily Times, March 7, 1906. Pg. 6
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, April 11, 1906. Pg. 12
  • The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), October 29, 1918. Pg. 11
  • Los Angeles Record (Los Angeles, California), September 4, 1925. Pg. 11
  • The Chico Enterprise (Chico, California), September 17, 1925. Pg. 4
  • The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), March 15, 1929. Pg. 30

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