On the Ambiguity of History (and Murder)

February 11, 2020

By Robin Hazard Ray, Volunteer Docent and Historian

Every historian, professional or otherwise, faces a moment when the archives are having a laugh at his or her expense. One document swears that X is the case; another shows that X is impossible. The researcher is left holding the two papers in opposite hands, cursing the perfidy of the universe.

In pursuing research for our upcoming Friends of Mount Auburn program, Cause of Death: Murder” (March 15, 1 p.m.), we confronted such a moment.

Two of Mount Auburn’s permanent residents—Zora Jane Sammis, née More, and Valentine “Tiny” Johnston (both age 18)—met their deaths on Christmas Eve of 1886. According to newspaper reports, the young women ingested a household poison called “Rough on Rats”; their bodies were both discovered in a boarding house on Temple Street near Tremont. The conclusion was that the women had made a suicide pact and carried it out. Zora was later rumored to be in “a delicate condition” (i.e. pregnant).

But not much about the story makes sense. Tiny was found in the sort of shape one would expect of a poison victim, with “signs of nausea” and facial features contorted with pain. Zora, in contrast, “lay peacefully in death, with her features composed, as if in sleep. No indications of uncontrollable nausea were found, and doubt existed if the victim was alone when the end came.”[1] Yet Zora’s estranged husband, George Sammis, was not arrested; he seems barely to have been questioned.

The newspaper account goes to some lengths to explore Zora and Tiny’s association with a couple of questionable “Lotharios” who saw them the night before they died. One of the men was alleged to have “betrayed the fourteen-year-old daughter of a widowed lady on the hill.” But the inquest that convened on January 1, 1887, let stand the conclusion of suicide for lack of evidence to the contrary.

In places the Boston Globe reported complete untruths. George Sammis was portrayed as “a bright, intelligent man of about 28 years of age, steady in habits and disposition, and especially devoted to his chosen profession,” which was journalism. Yet the marriage registry of the City of Boston from 1885 gives George’s age as 36, more than double that of his 17-year-old bride Zora. Zora’s mother, Mrs. More, attested that Zora had left George on account of his cruelty. Yet the Globe reporter seemed completely incurious as to the whereabouts of George on the night in question. One could posit a professional courtesy, one journalist to another.

A month after the deaths, perhaps nagged by his conscience, the reporter revisited the story. On February 4, 1887, the Globe reported, “The most curious question in the case, which as yet remains unanswered, is, if Mrs. Sammis committed suicide, why did she do it? And also why was not the scene of her death marked by the same indications of distress and pain which were noticeable in the death of the Johnson [sic] girl, whose end came on Temple St?”

Why indeed? Why were the authorities content to sign off on two dead girls and let their bodies be hastily buried? Was there something more to the relationship between them that may have motivated someone to commit murder and bury the evidence?

Whatever the answers, bury the evidence they did: Zora and Tiny were interred together on December 29, 1886, in Lot 5000-54 Vesper Avenue. The plot had been purchased, probably on December 26 or 27, by Zora’s mother, Lucina More.

History is a story—in French, the word histoire means both things—and all stories require some creativity of the part of the teller. With the case of Zora Sammis and Tiny Johnston, one wishes the story were less of a fable. As my colleague Bill McEvoy said of this one, “I smell fish.”

[1] “Harry Hobart, One of the Gay Lodgers at Mrs. Murphy’s,” Boston Globe (Feb 4, 1887), 5.

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