The 1911 murder of a 19-year-old music student, Avis Linnell, in the Boston YWCA was one of the most sensational crimes in New England history.
She was several weeks pregnant by a charismatic minister who had dumped her for a wealthier woman. For a while, the minister thought he had committed the perfect crime. He was wrong.
Avis Linnell was born in Hyannis Port on Dec. 19, 1891. She graduated from the high school in 1908, and from the Normal School in 1910.
She had “an exceedingly bright intellect which carried her through school with ease, of a lively and happy disposition, which endeared her to her friends,” according to the Sandwich Observer.
Avis had a soprano voice described as “angelic.” She sang in the choir at the small Baptist church in Hyannis that she attended with her parents and three sisters.
In 1908, a new preacher, Clarence Richeson, came to her church in Hyannis. People said the tall, handsome giant from Virginia was touched with mysticism. Avis fell in love with him, and he returned her feelings. On her 19th birthday, he gave her a ring.
Richeson employed an energetic Southern style of preaching. The conservative Cape Codders couldn’t take his exuberance, so he resigned in 1910.
Richeson got a job at the prestigious Immanual Baptist Church in Cambridge. He then convinced Avis to apply to the New England Conservatory of Music. She did, and in the fall of 1910, she moved to the YWCA in Boston.
In early 1911 Avis told her mother they had broken up. In March, Richeson announced his engagement to Violet Edmands, a well-connected, rich young woman from Brookline.
On Oct. 14, 1911, Avis Linnell was starting her second year at the New England Conservatory when she was found nearly dead on the floor of the YWCA bathroom. She died before an ambulance arrived. An autopsy revealed she was several weeks pregnant and that she had taken cyanide. Her death was ruled a suicide.
But several hours after Avis died, a YWCA matron called Richeson to tell him what happened. He said he barely knew her and demanded to know why she called him. The matron replied that he’d had lunch with her that day and ought to know.
Richeson may still have thought he was safe from suspicion. The matron told him Avis had not regained consciousness after she was discovered. But the crusading newspaper editor of the Boston Post, Edwin Grozier, brought him to grief. Grozier, who came up with the idea of the Boston Post cane, put his reporters on the story. They found Richeson had bought the cyanide from a druggist in Newton, Mass..
Suicide Ruled Out
The Post demanded a police investigation into the death of Avis Linnell. The medical examiner, Dr. Timothy Leary, ruled out suicide as a cause of death.
Richeson was soon in the Charles Street Jail. On Jan. 12, 1912, he signed a written confession that he killed Avis Linnell. He had given her capsules laced with cyanide, telling her it would induce an abortion. He was indicted, convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair.
While in jail, Richeson tried to castrate himself. His lawyers sought clemency on the basis of insanity.
Massachusetts Gov. Eugene Foss then asked doctors to look into Richeson’s mental health. It turned out he had a family history of insanity, and as a boy he had received several blows to the head.
As a theological student he had asked three women to marry him. He had gotten caught cheating at college, and one of the trustees wrote to his father describing as deranged.
Dr. L. Vernon Briggs, director of the Massachusetts Society for Mental Hygiene, concluded Richeson had delusions, hallucinations, amnesic periods and delirium. Wrote Briggs,
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.
Author Theodore Dreiser took a different view. He believed Richeson murdered Avis Linnell because he aspired to wealth and fame through a marriage to Violet Edmands. Dreiser wrote six chapters of a novel based on her murder, but then abandoned it to write about another murder. Eventually the story became the novel An American Tragedy.
Clarence Richeson died in the electric chair on May 21, 1912, and now lies buried near his family home in Virginia.
This story was updated in 2023.