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The Mysterious Death of Jennie Lanahan in a Washington Boarding House in 1885

This post tells the story of Jennie Lanahan's mysterious death in a Washington DC boarding house in 1885. Follow along to find out what happened and read more about running a boarding house in the 1880s.
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Here’s an interesting story that we dug up in The Washington Post from August 21st, 1885.

A few weeks ago a respectable-looking young woman rang the bell at George Duval’s boarding-house, at the corner of Four-and-a-half street, on the south side of Pennsylvania avenue, and proposed to engage a room for herself and a pretty baby girl which she carried in her arms. Mrs. Duval refused to let her have a room in her house, on the ground that she never rented her rooms to women. Last Tuesday the same young woman, with the same baby in her arms, made the same application at the same door, and told a tale of sorrow that induced Mrs. Duval to comply with the request. Jennie Lanahan, the young woman, was about twenty-two years old, pretty, with long, wavy black hair and lustrous black eyes, and had the air and conversation of a person of education and refinement. The baby was a little beauty, and its mother appeared to be passionately fond of it. She told Mrs. Duval that the little one was nine months old and that her husband an Odd Fellow, had been killed in the collision which occurred in a tunnel at Four-Mile Run, on the Alexandria and Fredericksburg railroad, at the beginning of the present year. She also told mrs. Duval that she was unwell, which was the principal reason that influenced the boarding-house keeper to break her usual rule of receiving none but male boarders and families. All the rooms in Mrs. Duval’s house are fitted up with a view to cooking convenience. The colored servant had occasion several times on Tuesday and Wednesday to visit Jenny Lanahan’s room with firewood and provisions, and she left delighted with “the nice, pleasant young lady.”

About 10:30 o’clock on Wednesday night old Dan Robinson, a pensioner, who occupied the room next to Jennie’s went down stairs to inform Mrs. Duval that he had heard what made him believe the new tenant was sick. The boarding-house keeper and several of her lady boarders ran up and found Jennie lying helpless and moaning on the floor of her room.

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“Why, what’s the matter, my dear?” the women asked.

“I feel very bad,” Jennie answered, feebly; “I feel as if I was paralyzed.” Then she raised her hand to her head and said the pain was ll there.

The women bathed her head with cold water until Mr. Duval came in from a meeting he had been attending. As soon as he saw the young woman’s condition he ran across the street for Dr. Townsend, who returned with him immediately. This was shortly after 11 o’clock. the Doctor saw the girl was in a comatose state; the pupils of her eyes were dilated, and her pulse, which should have been over eighty, had fallen below forty. Poison immediately suggested itself to his mind. In the bureau he found two three-ounce bottles, each nearly empty. They bore the label of Dr. Houk, Baltimore. One had contained valerian or valerianade of ammonia and the other, the Doctor believed, had been filled with aconite, a deadly poison.

Before she died Jennie asked Mrs. Duval to send for her brother-in-law, Henry Moore, a clerk in the Adams Express Office, in Alexandria. Mr. Moore was sent for, and, with his wife (Jennie’s sister), came to the city yesterday. He has been about twenty years in the service of the Adams Express Company–the last three or four years in Alexandria and before that in Washington. Before he arrived the dead body had been handed over Joseph C. Lee, undertaker, 325 Pennsylvania avenue. Mr. Moore recognized Jennie and telegraphed to her friends in Baltimore. Her two brothers–one a policeman and the other a junk storekeeper on Lexington street, Baltimore–started at once for Washington.

A stepmother seems to have been the original cause of the girl’s troubles. She left home in Baltimore on account of her father’s latest wife, and for nearly three years she lived with her brother-in-law, Mr. Moore. Three years ago, when Moore removed from Washington to Alexandria, she left his house to come to Washington for an engagement in the Arlington Hotel–as it was then understood. Since then her friends never heard from her until about six weeks ago, when Mr.s Moore in Alexandria received a letter from her brother in Baltimore, stating that Jennie had turned up at home and a fine babye with her. When Jennie applied to Mrs. Duval for a room on Tuesday, she said she had just come from Baltimore, and this seems to be true, although it was doubted then.

When Mr. Duval yesterday handed the baby to the police to have it committed to St. Ann’s Asylum the police said they recognized it as the same which a young woman had taken to them a few weeks ago with the request to have it placed in some asylum. the police then offered to have the child so disposed of if she would go along with it, but she would not accept the terms, and so the baby was taken away in its mother’s arms out into the world again. That woman, the police say, was Jennie lanahan.

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If the analysis of the dead woman’s stomach proves that poison was taken an inquest will be held, when all the facts will become officially known to the police. If the inquest is avoided, the story of her death will always be, as it is now, a mystery.

And so goes the mystery of this young woman’s death.

Also, if you want to read a little bit more about running a boarding house in Washington in the 19th century, check out this post from a short while back.

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