My great-grandfather, Irving, followed in his older brother’s footsteps when he emigrated from Poland to Chicago a century ago. This was a crucial move for the brothers because three of their siblings who stayed behind in Europe later died in the Holocaust.
But Irving would meet his own untimely death in Chicago. What happened on that warm night in 1935 led me on a very personal hunt through Cook County public records and the Waldheim Cemetery, west of Chicago, for clues.
I started looking into Irving’s story late in 2020 when I discovered his death certificate while cleaning out my family’s storage space. I was able to obtain the inquest into Irving’s death through a Freedom of Information Act request that took months to process because the papers had been folded for decades. Heavy books were used to flatten them so they could be photocopied.
The 33-page typewritten transcript provides a glimpse into the hardships experienced by a Jewish immigrant during the Great Depression. Even more, it revealed allegations that he was slain, offering the rare chance to hear from witnesses in their own words as if I was in the jury room with them.
The case of a long-lost family member’s demise was officially closed as an accidental poisoning, of all things, but was it?
Born in Lomza, Poland, in 1895, Irving was 26 years old when he arrived in Chicago after traveling through St. John’s, a city off Canada’s Atlantic coast, and Detroit.
One of the first things he did when he stepped on American soil in 1921 was change his name from “Isaak Michalski” to “Irving Michelson.”
On his immigration paperwork, Irving described himself as 5-foot-6, 115 pounds and a chemist. He noted he would be staying with his older brother, Louis, who ran a cigar shop out of his home in what is now posh River North.
I’ve walked that stretch of Wells Street many times over the years. Louis’ storefront is long gone. In its place is an apartment building where rents start at $2,400 a month.
Irving didn’t live in the neighborhood long. He married Charlotte, a cousin from Poland, in 1923. The couple was living on the Near West Side in 1924 when Charlotte gave birth to a daughter six months into her pregnancy. Charlotte’s unspecified “debility” was listed as the reason for the stillbirth, and the girl was not officially given a name.
Irving and Charlotte were able to expand their family twice, in 1925 with the birth of son Harry, and in 1928 with daughter Tobia (my grandmother). Irving became a U.S. citizen that year, according to his naturalization paperwork. He was working as a cigar merchant at the time, perhaps making use of his knowledge of chemical compounds.
Life was hard in the Michelson home. At some point after Tobia’s birth, Charlotte began living in a mental health facility in Elgin. Newspaper reports from the time describe a hospital so crowded that hundreds of people were forced to sleep on mattresses on the floor. Charlotte was a patient there for years, eventually dying there in 1941. The few public records I obtained about her yielded no hints of her diagnosis.
After his wife left, Irving needed help caring for their two children. According to testimony given during the inquest into Irving’s death, an unidentified Jewish organization sent a housekeeper to the Michelson home for support. Rebecca Goldstein started her new job on a Monday. Irving died five days later, on Saturday.
I picked up the inquest paperwork from the Cook County medical examiner’s office, not far from the site of the hospital where Irving died. Deputy Coroner James Whalen had prepared the case history and coroner’s verdict by hand, while the inquest proceedings were typewritten.
Rebecca had testified the prior housekeeper initially showed her around the Michelson apartment in what is now the Humboldt Park neighborhood. Rebecca said she spoke at length with Irving for the first time on Thursday, when he gave her $1.50 to buy chicken and bread and prepare a meal on Friday. He told her not to work on Saturday because he is an Orthodox Jew and observed the Sabbath. “He would not allow me to do it,” Rebecca testified.
She said there were several obstacles to cooking this meal, starting with a rusty food grater she was afraid to use. Ingredients were also a problem. I’ve never heard Rebecca’s voice, but my mind gave her one as I continued to read the document.
“I looked in the pantry. I was looking for flour. I couldn’t find flour. And then there (were) two bags. One was empty,” Rebecca testified. “I looked in the oatmeal box. I (had) seen a bag with several pieces of cinnamon, red pepper, allspices, garlic, black pepper. I figured when I looked at it, I figured it must be flour.”
The powder inside the brown paper bag was white, odorless and crusty, so Rebecca guessed it was cake flour. She said she stuffed it into the neck of the chicken with a soup spoon and roasted it with the rest of the chicken.
At dinner Friday, she served a soup course and then the chicken neck, just to Irving. She assumed he would divide it up for the children, but he kept it for himself.
“He bit into the first piece. He called me, ‘What did you stuff that neck with?’ ” Rebecca testified. “I looked at him, I says, ‘Why, don’t you like? I stuffed it with flour?’ And he says, ‘No, that ain’t the question, if I like it. That is not flour. That is roach powder.’ ”
Rebecca said she brought Irving the box. He confirmed the substance inside was roach powder, which he presumed was tucked away and not with his spices. With this revelation, Irving’s kids stopped eating their chicken. Irving said he had swallowed some of the chicken neck, Rebecca testified, but spit out what was in his mouth before rinsing it out.
Because of his background as a chemist, I wondered whether in those moments, Irving knew he was in serious danger.
What happened next is the subject of contradictory testimony. Rebecca said Irving went to the drugstore about an hour after dinner to get a bottle of medicine (“red stuff”) to help himself vomit. He reminded her he had pharmacy training.
Rebecca said she was nervous and restless that night as Irving got sicker. She said Irving told his son to call the doctor early Saturday — but she advised him against it. “And so I talked to the little son, ‘Don’t call the doctor because we haven’t got any money in the house. The best thing is to call the police station,’ ” Rebecca testified.
She said she checked on Irving that morning after he called for help. “I says, ‘Now, Mr. Michelson,’ I says, ‘We ain’t poisoned. I better make you a hot glass of milk,’ ” she testified. She said Irving initially declined the milk before drinking a glass and a half. The police arrived shortly thereafter and found him laying in bed moaning.
Irving was taken to the county hospital, where he died that day — a few years before one of his younger brothers and two of his younger sisters were killed in the Holocaust.
Irving had rented the first-floor apartment on Hirsch Street for less than a year before his death, city records show. He shared a bedroom with his son, Harry, while Rebecca briefly stayed in his daughter’s room.
Harry, then 9 years old, was called to the stand after Rebecca, my rare document showed. He said his father immediately noticed the bitterness of the chicken when he tasted it. He spit out part — but not all — of the neck upon learning it was stuffed with roach powder, Harry testified.
He said Irving got up from the table and vomited multiple times. Later, he instructed Harry to call the doctor.
“I was ringing the bell on the third floor because our phone was disconnected. Nobody heard the bells, I suppose,” Harry testified. He said his father — not Rebecca — directed him to contact police. “She didn’t say nothing about it,” he said.
Harry also offered a shocking piece of information — the family had been served roach powder about a month before, by a different housekeeper who was not identified in the testimony. Harry said he and his father got sick from eating the pesticide, which was baked into “some kind of a cake.” Harry said that time, he and Irving took a laxative and vomited.
“And then I went to go out to play because my boy friends were calling me,” he testified.
Irving’s older brother, Louis, then asked to say a few words to the inquest panel. He said neighbors told him Rebecca and Irving quarreled before his death. He offered to produce witnesses to corroborate the argument.
He also testified that Rebecca left the apartment after Irving went to the hospital. The police waited for her to return. When she did, she said she had been shopping. Rebecca interrupted Louis’ testimony to say she went out to fetch milk. Louis testified that Rebecca had admitted to him she purchased a pair of shoes. “She made a terrible impression upon me,” Louis said.
Louis raised issue with Irving being the only person to get sick when the neck was cooked with the rest of the chicken, which everyone at the table ate.
Louis blamed Irving’s death on the Jewish society that sent Rebecca to the Michelson home.
“I was notified by the society to take care of his case. They were the ones that sent his wife away to the insane asylum. They were the ones that wrecked his life,” Louis said. “They sent the woman over to take care of his affairs. This woman murdered him.”
The name of the Jewish society was not disclosed during these proceedings.
The six jurors on the inquest were not convinced this was murder. They struggled to identify a motive for the housekeeper, who had only started working in the home a few days earlier. And Rebecca didn’t bring the roach powder into the apartment — it belonged to Irving, according to police.
The officer who handled the case testified an exterminator sprinkled roach powder in the building once a month. Other tenants kept similar pesticides in their home. The officer also said he interviewed neighbors, and no one reported hearing any arguments.
The death was ruled an accident, though, for me, the testimonies raise more questions than answers. I’m not ready to put this mystery to bed.
A post-mortem examination by Dr. J.J. Kearns found hyperemia (an increased amount of blood) and edema (swelling caused by trapped fluid) in Irving’s brain, lungs, liver, kidneys and spleen. A chemical analysis of his stomach and its contents revealed “strongly positive tests for fluorides.”
Irving is buried at Waldheim, not near Charlotte. It took me two trips through the snow in the winter of 2021 to find the two of them.
Suddenly I was standing before Irving’s grave. The stone marking it notes he was a “beloved father.” In some of his final moments, had he wondered whether his future descendants would know what had happened to him?
The Chicago Tribune published an 85-word account of Irving’s death on June 30, 1935, under the headline “Insect powder used as flour; father of 2 dies.” The newspaper misspelled Irving’s last name, got the names of Irving’s children wrong and said his wife was on vacation at the time. Let this story serve as a very long correction of the record.
This was not even the most shocking roach powder poisoning of the time. In 1940, roach powder was whisked into pancakes served at a Salvation Army site in Pennsylvania, killing 12 men and sickening dozens more. Two years later, 47 deaths and hundreds of illnesses were linked to scrambled eggs prepared with roach powder at Oregon State Hospital. The incident was said to be an accident — a cook’s assistant confused poison for powdered milk.
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Deborah Blum, author of “The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York,” studied New York poisoning cases between 1915 and 1936. She said accidental poisonings were not unusual back then — just like they’re not now. About 77% of poison exposures reported in 2020 were unintentional, according to the National Capital Poison Center.
Poison was also an easy way to get rid of someone in the early 20th century, Blum said, because of ready access to arsenic, cyanide, thallium and strychnine and primitive detection methods. I gave Blum, director of the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and publisher of Undark magazine, a brief overview of my great-grandfather’s case via email. She shared my suspicion that Irving’s death may not have been an accident.
“It would take a high degree of carelessness to pick up a poison container — those were usually marked as such — instead of a seasoning,” she wrote. “And sometimes we never do know or get the motive for a killing — sometimes it’s for the pettiest of reasons, nothing most of us would ever do.”
I kept Blum’s words in mind when I visited the block that was once home to Irving, Harry and Tobia. It was a summerlike afternoon, not unlike the day Irving died. His apartment building has been replaced by a different apartment building festooned with lawn decorations and a Puerto Rican flag.
Any clues about what happened to Irving have vanished. But there may be some answers in Charlotte’s hospital records — if I can get my hands on them.
Tracy Swartz covers Chicago Public Schools for the Tribune.