D.R. Smith – The Man, Prussic Acid, Two Brides & a Scandal
by Shelley M. Dziedzic (all rights reserved)
As all the eager researchers who take up the Lizzie Borden case will find, it does not take very long to run into the name of Eli Bence. The earnest face of Bence, with his close-cropped hair and determined mouth, was the man who gave evidence right through the Borden case preliminary about the doings in the corner pharmacy on the day of August 3, 1892. All who are familiar with the case know of his claim that Miss Borden came in Wednesday before noon and asked for ten cents’ worth of Prussic acid, a deadly poison. The lady claimed she had purchased it before with no difficulty at this establishment and it was needed to remove moths from a set of sealskin furs. Without a prescription, the young woman walked away without the desired substance, the entire proceeding observed by two gentlemen in the drug store, Mr. Kilroy and Mr. Hart who claimed it was Andrew Borden’s daughter Lizzie .
After the murders the next day one can only speculate what Bence did next as news of the murder details emerged. Most likely he told his employer, David R. Smith, owner of the pharmacy at the corner of South Main (#135) and Columbia St. about the encounter or possibly even his brother Peter Gaskell Bence, once a Fall River Police patrolman, and wondered what he should do next. Bence did go to the police with his story and was taken to Second St. to identify Lizzie as she paced the kitchen at #92. Bence looked down the long hall from the side door and identified Lizzie by voice and sight as the woman who had been in Smith’s the day before. Luckily, for the defense, this testimony was not allowed at Lizzie’s trial in New Bedford in June of 1893 as it was deemed “too remote in time” from the grisly deeds. In addition no Prussic acid had been found in the stomachs of the victims or in the house on Second St. Thus Eli Bence and his testimony faded away into the mists of time and history. One can only wonder if his testimony might have made any difference in decision to acquit. Lizzie would maintain that she was feeling ill, never left the house during the day until much later in early evening when she went to see Alice Russell, and was not acquainted with the location of D.R. Smith’s apothecary.
Human nature being what it is both now, and in 1892, no doubt D.R. Smith’s pharmacy was a place of curiosity once the news of the Prussic acid emerged. It’s easy to imagine inquisitive shoppers walking by, peering in the window or even going in to make a purchase at the place where Lizzie Borden was said to have tried to buy Prussic acid! David Smith and Eli Bence might have even been sought out to some degree. Much has been written about Bence but who was his employer and what do we know about David R. Smith?
David R. Smith was one of a large family whose parents had come over from Ireland in 1850. His father, Samuel Smith was born in Guilford, Ireland on June 18, 1815, the day of the Battle of Waterloo. His mother, Eliza A. McCleary stayed home to tend to a growing family including Mary, David, Eliza J., Sam Jr., Josephine, William, Hattie, and Margaret. Sam worked as a machinist for the company of Kilburn and Lincoln, which made power looms and other mill equipment and machinery in the city since 1846. The family home was at 683 Second Street.
David knew from a fairly young age that apothecary work would be his career path. He was very fortunate to have been childhood chums with Alice Whitaker whose father, Dr. John Whitaker, (born in England) and brother John Wesley Whitaker had an apothecary down on the corner of Ferry Street and Canal Street. The Whitakers lived at 181 Second Street, and so when David was ready to begin work in earnest, he gained a position in the Whitaker Apothecary on Canal Street corner of Ferry Street., where Lizzie and her family lived until they moved to 92 Second St. in 1872. David was a hard worker and by 1875 he was able to open his own pharmacy in Stafford Square. That business also being very successful, he then moved to 135 South Main at the corner of Columbia Street, a very desirable and high traffic address where he was able to take on assistants and a clerk in the person of Mr. Eli Bence.
In November of 1879 David Smith married old Dr. Whitaker’s daughter Alice, who was a great asset to David’s career and business, and greatly admired in the neighborhood. The couple were happily married for 22 years. The last ten of those years Alice had suffered ill health and preferred to be a homebody at their house at 589 Second Street. Paralytic shock is given as the cause of her death in August, 1902. David, who had enjoyed a comfortable life with Alice, puttering about in his home laboratory inventing a cure for dyspepsia and managing his apothecary on South Main St. was devastated. There were no children to soothe his lonely hours. David had instead sponsored and supported a local baseball team of boys who had many wins on the baseball diamond. Life had been very satisfactory for the Smiths in every way.
At the peak of his success, his brother Sam, also a thriving druggist with an apothecary on North Main, the Smith brothers were well-known and respected in the city. With Alice no longer by his side, David surprisingly wasted little time in procuring the second Mrs. Smith. Miss Ida A. Murphy, of 57 Whipple St. (also the street where Eli Bence lived in 1892) caught the attention of David Smith and according to Miss Murphy and her outspoken mother, started to pay serious court to her daughter with intent for the relationship to culminate in engagement and marriage. Miss Ida, a clerk at the public library, is quoted in 1904 as saying David Smith had been ardently courting her for two years, which would put the time just after the death of his wife Alice, and that he had proposed no fewer than three times to her! After putting David off twice, she had finally consented to become the second Mrs. Smith and had set the date for September, 7, 1904. With her gown selected, her trousseau purchased and the announcement put in the city papers, Miss Ida Murphy was to very soon get the shock of her young life.
There, in black and white in the newspaper for July 12, 1904 was published the announcement of the marriage of David R. Smith to Miss Celia Gesner (twenty-one years his junior)! Miss Gesner was a seamstress, born in Canada, who lived at 1380 Globe St., the daughter of Catherine and Jacob Gesner, her father being a carpenter. This would be Miss Gesner’s first marriage. The ceremony took place at 268 Highland Avenue and was presided over by the Rev. W.J. Martin.
Ida, not believing her eyes must have run to inform her mother of the shocking news. Mrs. Murphy, said to be of a charming disposition as a rule wasted no time in giving an interview to the Globe about the shameful occurrence. Breach of promise was a real thing in 1904 and the Murphy ladies were quick to let the scandal out of the bag. Mrs. Murphy declared David had spent the two years from 1902 – 1904 practically parked in her parlor, taking most of his meals at her table and suggesting perhaps he might board at the Murphy’s address. As only a mother of a jilted bride-to-be could exclaim, Mrs. Murphy declared David Smith was in for a thrashing if she could just get her hands on him and promptly declared him a scoundrel in just those words! It would appear that scoundrel was the nicest word that she had to call him. The furious mother of the bride deemed him a nuisance who had haunted their home and that she had misgivings from the very start about Mr. Smith. No time was wasted in engaging the services of John W. Cummings in drawing up papers for a suit to sue the romantic David Smith who had one bride too many, for breach of promise.
Ida, still in a daze , refused to believe the situation could be true unless she heard it from the marrying minister himself. Revenge was in the air but David Smith went yet a step farther and settled all of his business concerns on his new bride immediately and thus Mrs. Celia Smith became the new owner of Smith’s Pharmacy. David Smith himself maintained his total innocence in the whole affair, pitied poor Miss Murphy who was surely in error, and what with there being no proof of his promise to marry poor Ida, happily went off on his honeymoon with the comely Celia Gesner Smith, his new wife.
It is presumed there was an end to it- the breach of promise suit pressed by Mrs. Murphy was dead in the water as Smith’s new wife held all of the Smith family property and assets and there was nothing financially to be gained.
David R. Smith died on December 2, 1923. Lizzie Borden, who had made his pharmacy famous was alive at Maplecroft. His second wife Celia died in 1966. He is buried between his two wives as is the custom, in Oak Grove Cemetery Plot OG1790. But what happened to his spurned paramour Ida Murphy? In 1925, two years after David’s death, Ida was still working at the library, now living in a nice neighborhood on Madison St. , her outraged mother having died in 1919, her father Jeremiah, a liquor dealer in the city, still living until 1928. The Murphys are buried in Old North Cemetery on North Main St. Ida never married. So closes the curtain on D.R. Smith.
interesting article… thanks for all the info you give us. really enjoyed the read
Wow! That would make a great Netflix special!
Yes it would! Who would play David Smith? He needs to be a smooth operator around 50ish. Too bad Robert Wagner is too long in the tooth.