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The Washington Theatre is shown in this photo from the 1920s. The room in which Frances Martin died is on the second floor above the drugstore.

The story so far: The death of 18-year-old Frances Martin in February 1907 draws public attention to the Lyric Theatre, where she died, and to moral decay eating away at the foundations of the town.

On the frigid morning that Frances Martin suffered an agonizing death, her boyfriend, John T. “Spikes” Innis, was arrested and lodged in the county jail. Though the cause was not known at the time, it was obvious to county detective William McCleary that Innis had something to do with her demise. Several witnesses told McCleary they had seen Innis with the young woman throughout the evening, and it was Innis who summoned help and was with her when she died.

Following a coroner's inquest a few days later, Innis would be cleared of involvement in Frances' death, but he would still face other charges that grew out of his testimony at that hearing: aiding in procuring an abortion.

Though he was advised by Coroner William Sipe that he was not compelled to answer questions, Innis was candid. He testified that he had known Frances for four years and had been intimate with her for the past 18 months. More than a year earlier, in December 1905, when Frances was 17 years old, she informed Innis that she was pregnant. Innis said they talked it over and decided on an abortion. Shortly after Christmas that year, he went to Pittsburgh and procured the necessary instruments and drugs for the procedure, which was performed successfully in one of the rooms above the Lyric Theatre.

One year later, about three weeks before she died, Frances told Innis she was pregnant once again. This time, Innis testified, they talked about getting married.

Frances apparently had some doubts about her boyfriend's commitment and sought the advice of a fortune teller, who told her, “Spikes will never marry you.” After this, Frances drafted an agreement – one that she showed to her friends and was entered as evidence at the inquest. It read: “I hear by state that on the 10th day of December, in the year 1906, that John T. Innis promised to marry Frances C. Martin after his mother's death, and Frances Martin agreed to this and so did I.”

Innis testified that he had heard about the agreement but had never seen or signed it.

Frances had confided in a friend, Carrie Prowitt, that she considered killing herself if Innis would not marry her. On Jan. 26, Frances went to the McNulty drug store at 92 North Main St. and asked the druggist, Frank DeNormandie, for poison to kill a cat that she said “was running about with all the hair on it and about half dead.” DeNormandie advised her to drown the creature because strychnine was an awful death, and she left without buying it.

Irene Martin and her two other daughters were living in Indiana, Pa., at the time of her daughter Frances' death. Mrs. Martin and daughter Elizabeth came to Washington when they were notified of the tragedy. The mother visited Innis in the jail on Monday, Feb. 4, and afterward spoke with reporters. From what she told the press and later testified at the inquest, giving birth to an illegitimate child, or even death, would have been better for Frances than a life with Spikes. This account of an interview with Mrs. Martin the day after her daughter's death was published in The Washington Observer:

“ The story told is a sorrowful one and showed the love of a mother for her child, regardless of what the past life of the girl had been.

“... Innis had often abused Frances and had said he would choke her to death unless she did as he told her. Mrs. Martin says she has seen Innis choke Frances and has driven him out of the house while a resident of Washington because he insisted on abusing the girl.”

At 15, Frances had gone to work at the William H. Griffiths Tin Works, where she met Innis. At that time, her mother and two sisters were living in rented rooms on West Cherry Alley and later above a furniture store on East Wheeling Street, now occupied by Countryside Frame Shop. Her brother had been placed in a reform school. When her mother and sisters moved to Indiana, where they would find work at the new Pennhurst State School and Hospital, Frances became a domestic for John and Mary Cook, next door to the Lyric Theatre.

As “successful” as Frances' abortion was, she lost her job in the Cook household over it. Mrs. Martin managed to convince her daughter to come to Indiana, but she testified at the coroner's inquest that Innis sent Frances money and persuaded her to return to Washington, where Mrs. Cook agreed to take her in again.

In agreeing to employ the recently disgraced Frances, Mrs. Cook had insisted that she not go out with Innis except on Saturday nights.

About 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 2, 1907, Frances told Mrs. Cook as she was preparing to leave for the theater that she would not return that night. She said she expected a final answer from Innis that evening, and if he refused she would first kill him and then herself. But just before stepping out of the door, Frances told Mrs. Cook, “I have thought of a better plan. I will have him arrested Monday.”

A Death in the Lyric
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