It started with the discovery of the bruised and battered corpse of a baby boy in an old dress suitcase. The suitcase turned up on October 1, 1907 in the backyard of a home in Prospect Hill, a well-to-do neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island.
A police investigation led to a tenement rooming house on Benefit Street, more than half a mile from where the suitcase and its grisly contents were found. It was the home of Mabel Brown, age 36. Mabel told the police that her sister, Sarah McDonald, had lived in the house until recently, but had left for Worcester, Massachusetts. Mabel said Sarah hoped to find work there in a carpet factory.
Mabel identified the baby as Eddie McDonald, the eleven-month-old child of Sarah. She told police the baby was a “heavy and strong child, with pretty, light, curly hair and good form.”
The police searched Sarah’s room. According to The Boston Globe, the room “presented a shocking scene and the stench in the place was all but unbearable.” Evidence in the room led the police to the theory that after Eddie was killed, his body was hidden inside a feather bed cut for that purpose. Later it was moved to a closet, and then to a trunk, before it was finally put in the suitcase.
Mabel admitted to police that the suitcase had previously belonged to her mother. She denied any knowledge of the boy’s death and said she’d been out at the theater on the night of September 30, 1907, when the body, hidden in the suitcase was removed from the house. She also insisted she hadn’t noticed the foul smell coming from the room. Mabel admitted to the police that in the past she’d been a prisoner at the state prison in Cranston, Rhode Island, for “keeping a nuisance.” (What kind of nuisance wasn’t spelled out, but it was likely either a saloon or a brothel.
The police went to the home of another sister, Maggie Brown, in Worcester, Massachusetts. They found a woman there who claimed to be named Irene Clark. She denied ever having been to Providence and said she’d lived in Worcester for two years, during which time she worked for the Massachusetts Corset Company. But when police questioned her further she was unable to tell them the names of any businesses in Worcester and she didn’t know the name of the landlady at the boarding house where she claimed to live. Convinced she was Sarah McDonald, they arrested her and took her to Providence.
At the Providence jail she admitted the baby boy was hers, but she denied he’d been murdered. She said he died of natural causes and she’d kept the body for a week, unsure of what to do with it. Ultimately she decided to put it in her mother’s old suitcase, carry it more than half a mile north in a rainstorm, where she left it in a yard behind a house.
According to the medical examiner, Eddie’s injuries showed that someone had beaten him to death “in a rage.” Sarah was charged with the baby’s murder.
Sarah pointed the finger at Patrick Edward McDonald; the man she claimed was her husband. He gave himself up to authorities. The police found no evidence that he was involved in the boy’s death and they let him go. Further investigation revealed that the couple was not actually married. Sarah’s surname was her maiden name — Heagney. Born in 1885 in Rhode Island, she was the 22-year-old daughter of Irish immigrants, Frank Heagney and his wife, Sarah Kane Heagney.
In 1900, when she was 15, Sarah was a resident of the Oaklawn School For Girls, a juvenile reformatory in Cranston, Rhode Island. Oaklawn was located in a walled complex with other state institutions including the state prison, an insane asylum and a workhouse for the homeless.
The Providence police wondered why Sarah hadn’t simply disposed of Eddie’s body in the Providence River, less than a quarter mile west of her boarding house. Why did she carry the suitcase, which likely weighed close to 20 pounds, more than twice as far and leave it the backyard of Charles H. Jefferds?
By 1907 Jefferds, age 52, had been a widower for almost ten years. He was a well to do “provisions dealer” — a wholesaler merchant selling to grocery stores and markets. He had an adult daughter, Geneva, who lived with him, and three sons: Lawrence, Charles Jr. and Chester. The family was wealthy enough that during the early twentieth century they always had one or two female servants living with them.
There was no mention in the news of Sarah having worked for the Jefferds family, but according to the back of her arrest card she had worked as a maid. If she worked for the family and become pregnant by Charles Jefferds or one of his sons, it might explain why she went to the trouble of taking her baby’s body to their property and leaving it there. Girls and women who worked as servants were sometimes viewed by the men who employed them as fair game for sex, consensual or not.
After she was arrested the press lost interest in Sarah and didn’t report on the outcome of the case. By 1910, according to the US Census, she was one of 16 female inmates at the state prison in Cranston. It may be that she was sent to prison as a punishment for the murder of her child.
The census enumerators in 1910 were tasked with asking how many children a woman had given birth to. That column in Sarah’s listing on the census form was left blank. There is no record of her after the 1910 census.