lyric5.jpg

The cover of a program from 1903 

Courtesy of George Simms

The story so far: In Chapter 4, Frances Martin leaves for the theater, telling her employer she will not return. She purchases poison and spends the night in a room above the box office, through which several people come and go. Just before dawn, John “Spikes” Innis finds his girlfriend, Frances, in convulsions.

Amos Martin was sleeping atop one of the pool tables down the hall from the Lyric Theatre's box office when he was shaken awake by John “Spikes” Innis. “Oh God, Frances is dying!” Spikes cried. Amos watched him run from the room. At first he thought Spikes was simply joking. Then, as he got his senses about him he realized that couldn't be. Amos quickly left the building and ran up past Chestnut Street to the Lewis Hotel, where Daniel Forrest, manager of the Lyric Theatre, was living. Amos roused him from sleep and told him what Spikes had said.

“For God's sake, Martin, that cannot be!” he said, and the two hurried back to the theater.

A few minutes later, Forrest and Spikes carried the lifeless body of Frances Martin down the steps and into the alley. At that moment Alfred Thomas, described in newspaper accounts at the time only as “a colored man,” was walking by and was summoned by Forrest to help them carry the body to the building next door. When they reached the door, Forrest told Thomas to leave and warned him not to say a word about what he had seen to anyone.

Forrest's stage manager, John V. Cook, opened the door and the three began carrying their burden into the building at 78 North Main St. just as Dr. James Shannon approached.

Daniel Forrest was a member of one of Washington's most prominent and respected families. Several of the buildings on Main Street were constructed by his father, Joshua Rhodes Forrest, and uncle, Robert R. Forrest, and a section of North Main was called “the Forrest block.”

Joshua Forrest graduated from Washington High School and began studying at Washington & Jefferson College but left at age 17 to join the Union army during the Civil War. Less than a month after his enlistment he was with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Petersburg. He fought with the army through Virginia in the last days of the Confederacy and was present for the surrender at Appomattox.

Joshua returned home to study law, but eventually his real estate holdings at the time of Washington's great oil boom made him wealthy and occupied his attention. He and his wife had three children: Daniel, born in 1872; Earle, in 1883; and Alma, in 1890.

Daniel graduated from Washington & Jefferson College as well and began working for the family businesses, among them being the Lyric, Washington's first theater. In 1890, he married Ella Frye. The marriage did not work, and at the time of the tragic event of February 1907, Daniel found himself living alone in a hotel room.

The grief, or the panic, that young Dr. James Shannon saw on Daniel Forrest's face was not entirely due to the corpse he helped carry upstairs that frigid morning. Forrest's dark demeanor had much more to do with the effect the death would have on attendance at his theater and the damage it would cause to his own reputation and that of his family.

Strychnine rapidly enters the blood, and symptoms of poisoning usually appear within 20 minutes. They begin with cramps and soon culminate in powerful and agonizing convulsions that subside after a minute but recur at a touch, a noise or some other minor stimulus. Victims often experience uncontrollable arching of the neck and back and tightness of the jaw.

Though Dr. Shannon had his suspicions about the death of Frances Martin as he examined her that morning, it would take an autopsy to confirm them.

On Monday, Feb. 4, Dr. Shannon performed the autopsy. He testified at the coroner's inquest two days later that he had found what he believed to be strychnine in the stomach, along with a small amount of liquid and bread. He said that all of her muscles showed signs that she had taken the poison. The intestines and bladder were greatly contracted, the liver enlarged and white spots were visible all over the spleen. He concluded that she had died in convulsions.

At a cost of $1.50, the stomach was sent for analysis to a laboratory in Pittsburgh, which confirmed that strychnine was present.

The doctor's testimony at Coroner Sipe's inquest was heard by a jury of six men: John Curran, clothier; Thomas Bebout, farmer; W.P. Wilson, reporter; Lee Knode, a clerk at Gabby's shoe store; William Ecker, reporter; and George Y. Fields, the proprietor of a poolroom. After hearing witnesses in secret most of the day, they returned the following verdict: “We the jury, find that Frances C. Martin came to her death on Sunday morning, February 3, 1907, in a bedroom in the Lyric theater, from the effects of strychnine, which from the evidence we believed to have been self-administered with suicidal intent.”

Though no one would be charged with aiding in Frances' death, the criminal activity it uncovered would be prosecuted. Following the inquest, County Detective William McCleary arrested Spikes Innis on the charge of aiding an abortion a year earlier. Innis' boss, tin mill owner William Griffiths, posted his $1,000 bond.

From The Reporter of Feb. 7, 1907:

“The most sensational feature in connection with the coroner's investigation ... was the arrest of Daniel B. Forrest, manager of the Lyric Theatre, who is charged with keeping a bawdy house. Forrest gave bail in the sum of $500 with his father, Joshua Forrest, who owns the theatre building, as surety. ...

“The information against Manager Forrest was made by Detective William McCleary at the insistence of District Attorney Underwood. Forrest had been subpoenaed to testify at the coroner's investigation into the death of the Martin girl. As soon as testimony had been adduced to the effect that the girl had died in a room above the box office in the Lyric Theatre and that the room was kept by Manager Forrest, officers were at once sent out to arrest Forrest. The arrest seemed to come as a surprise to Forrest, who grew very pale when the officers placed him under arrest. ...”

There would be hearings for Innis and Forrest two weeks later. Innis was held for court, but charges against Forrest were dismissed for lack of evidence. Though he was cleared of charges in Frances Martin's death, Daniel Forrest's troubles were not over.

In fact, they were just beginning.

A Death in the Lyric
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