By Sean E. Andres
Picture it: West Rome, Georgia, in the sweltering summer of 1890. Two houses across the Oostanaula River: one a pristine white cottage—the image of the American Dream—home to budding businessman L. D. McKee, his Atlantan socialite wife Ora Buice (pronounced Busey, as in Gary) McKee, both in their early twenties, and their daughter Clio. The other house was an urban farm—home to middle-aged Mat and Mary Wimpee, two of their daughters, two boarders, a dairy cow, and some chickens. Ora and Mary were great neighbors, having gotten close as friends recently. They sent each other neighborly gifts like canned goods from their yards, and Ora bought the milk and butter Mary made from her dairy cow.
Poisoned with Greed
Ora was known to live lavishly, beyond her means. So that summer, Ora asked to borrow money from Mary, probably having spent too much of her allowance, claiming it was for her father (who was well-off). Mary couldn’t afford that, but she was the gatekeeper of the family finances and important documents. So Ora hatched a plan. She’d have Mary borrow the money from Mr. McKee instead and then she’d borrow the money from Mary. The notes began adding up, totaling $300 that fall, and Ora wasn’t settling the credit.
Though Ora was frustrated with her friend, she kept up their tradition. Ora prepared a plate of canned peaches and sent them over to Mary. Mary ate a few, but she thought they tasted odd and threw the rest into the slop for the cow. Mary’s daughter Essie delivered Ora her milk and said her mother had been too ill to deliver.
The next morning Ora went to check on Mary. Ora knew what would help: what every doctor prescribes–a dram of whiskey! She also figured the one to have it would be their neighbor Juliana Dietz, who Ora figured “would be likely to have stimulants on hand,” because they’re German, after all. Only, after Mary took the whiskey down, she felt even worse. Whiskey’s not supposed to do that! (Unless you have way too much of it.)
The next day, Ora and Juliana returned after church to stay the night. The doctor reckoned she was being poisoned and that her organs were turning to mush. Ora urged Mary’s husband, Mat Wimpee, to go to bed after he had such long day at work as a blacksmith and sent the rest of the visitors home.
She and Juliana went to the kitchen to prepare her a glass of eggnog, one mixing the whites and one the yolks. Ora excused Juliana from the kitchen and said she’d meet her in the dining room where Mary awaited. Ora brought out the eggnog a few minutes later. Mary tried a sip and said it tasted odd. Back to the kitchen. Ora and Juliana repeated the process. Again Ora dismissed Juliana to finish the concoction alone. Again, Mary said it tasted odd. So Ora tossed them both into the cow’s slop pail, and Ora urged them all to go to bed.
So Ora lie with Mary in bed, while Juliana slept in the chair in the bedroom. When she thought they were both asleep, Ora got up and went into the wardrobe and retrieved the tin box that held the notes she owed Mary and tucked them away. Little did she know, Mary saw her snooping in the wardrobe. Ora went home in the morning and was approached by Mat who asked if she’d seen a tin box.
“Why, no, I haven’t,” Ora said. Later, she came to the Wimpee house and brought the tin with evidence of tampering. Mary checked to see everything was still there. Everything was still there. On her way out, Juliana accused Ora of poisoning Mary.
A Disappearing Act
Ora stormed off and wasn’t heard from until Juliana came over after finding that the cow had gotten sick, too. She started questioning the McKees’ cook on where Ora was. The cook didn’t know, but then Ora called out the front door to Juliana, she let her in. Juliana asked what she used to poison Mary, so the doctor can know how to treat it. Or Mary will die, and Ora will hang. So Ora admitted to poisoning her with “Get-There Rat Poison.” (I imagine he tagline to be: “Get-There: When you need someone to get there slowly but surely. Get-There Rat Poison.”)
Well the cow died. No surprise, with a diet of trash and whiskey-based, arsenic-laced liquids. It’s no surprise, then that after two weeks, so did Mary. During this time, Ora disappeared. Hot on her tail was the local detective, who eventually caught up to her at one of her parents’ places in New Smyrna, where he arrested her and boarded the train with her. She willingly went, declaring she fled in fright as the rumor against her increased.
She was met in Rome with a large crowd gathered around the train, everyone curious to see the pretty lady who murdered someone. She was placed in the Rome jail, cell #2, where her mother and sister helped decorate her cell, hanging up wallpaper, which was there a year later at least. Here she was held until her trial, which kept getting delayed, with a death of a notable lawyer in Rome and 3 jurors falling ill. I mean, it is the 1800s. Chances are higher that you’re going to die during this trial than outlive it.
The Wild Trial
By the trial in April 1891, all of Ora’s family and friends rallied around her, and they all showed up, along with half of Atlanta and Rome, to the courthouse. Ora showed up the first day, looking like a starlet, in a dark red dress, gloves, and hat, trimmed with black velvet and a gray jacket with variegated cords (as pictured above). The witnesses came forward and testified, all supporting the conviction that Ora likely poisoned Mary. Ora remained calm and stoic the entire time.
However, on the final day when Ora had a chance to provide her story, she countered every point against her, saying that she only did what the doctors and Mary wanted. She took the tin box away because Mary wanted her son to take care of her estate, not her husband. She said that Juliana couldn’t be trusted, having cheated on her husband, and accused her out of pettiness and jealousy. This new revelation sent the courthouse into utter chaos, pitting the testimony of a loose woman against a morally upstanding one.
The chaotic court had to be dismissed until the next day. Mat Wimpee gave the final rebuttal, opposing everything Ora said, especially her statements that involved him. Ora’s lawyer provided the closing argument and made the entire courthouse cry over the livelihood of such a beautiful young socialite having been ruined because of such accusations.
The trial had become a Southern sensation. One paper said that if she was proven guilty, it will show her character to “have the fault of weakness of vanity and of a desire to cut a figure beyond her means.” If proven guilty, it’s not that she’s a murderer? Sure, Jan. So dismissive was the entire South that someone had actually died, articles were written about the proper way to make eggnog based off of how Juliana (Southern) and Ora (Northern) made them; and slut-shaming Juliana by her wearing a skin-tight revealing outfit, while noting how upstanding and classy Ora is.
Her beauty was sensationalized for the trial, until her much prettier cousin Miss Buice came from Atlanta to the court house. A Southern paper reported that many were saying things like, “You can’t hang a pretty woman; it’s impossible.”
However, that was only true for white women. An Ohio paper wrote about the trial: “The high status that white women enjoy in refined southern circles in a relation not paralleled or understood in the north, but its effect is to entrance the women and in such a case as this it is apt to operate strongly in lessening the force of even the most directly damaging testimony.” In short, the trial became more about if the Southern courts can let a pretty, rich white lady get away with murder.
It turns out that, yes, yes, she can. Ora was acquitted, and no one ever followed up on Mary Wimpee’s death. They couldn’t (read: didn’t) really pinpoint the death, supposing that the coroner may have had arsenic-laced embalming fluid in the stomach before he examined it. The case was closed, and no one seemed to care about the death of Mary Wimpee. But Ora stayed in the papers for two more years.
After the Trial
After the trial, Mr. McKee dropped Ora off at her parents in Atlanta and left to work for Mr. McGee in Birmingham. By June rumors of their separation were abound, a new rumor had spread that she was going to star in a stage production of Mary’s death and Ora’s trial, a rumor she was quick to dispel. Ora sued for alimony and won on grounds of separation, and then she filed for divorce on grounds of adultery.
By the time, the McKees had been granted an absolute divorce in May of 1893, Ora was “leading a fast life in Cincinnati,” as Ora Buice. I have been unable to track her down after that, but she could have changed her name and developed a whole new identity. And, who knows, Ora the pretty poisoner could have poisoned some more peaches, or perhaps some pork, here in Cincinnati.
- Georgia Marriage Records
- The Illustrated American (also where the portraits came from)
- Census Records via Family Search
I’m only telling the story as it appears. If any descendants would like me to take anything (or the entire story) down, let me know.
Mary A. Wimpee is buried in Myrtle Hill Cemetery, Rome, GA.