In Apponaug, everyone pretty much knew everyone else. Twenty-three-year-old Florence Smith watched Thomas Henry Holden pour something into a dish and cross the street. She had no idea what it was but she saw him bend down near the river, mix some water into the dish and drink the contents.
Thomas was a 37-year-old African-American who had married a Caucasian woman, Nellie Maria (Greene) Phillips, five years earlier, on May 20, 1896. The same age as Thomas, Nellie had first married James Phillips, on Jan. 1, 1886, and had a 12-year-old daughter, Viola Glen Phillips, by him before they were divorced.
Thomas and Nellie resided in an area of Apponaug known as ‘the Blocks.’ Thomas was a day laborer said to accept work wherever he could find it, but had recently been employed by 33-year-old farmer and building mover, Charles Poole. When Thomas went into the village hardware store that summer day of June 23, 1901, he told the cashier that he was buying Paris Green for Poole.
Paris Green was an emerald-colored powder used as a paint additive and as an insecticide, proving quite effective at killing pesky potato beetles. An arsenic-based product, it was toxic to humans.
It was no secret that Thomas raged with jealously anytime he even thought that another man was paying attentions to his wife. Neither was it a secret that Thomas liked to drink. Just recently, Nellie had made up a story to anger Thomas, hoping he would become so jealous he would stay home with her instead of going out drinking.
The ploy had the opposite effect. In his anger, Thomas didn’t come home for two weeks. Nellie complained to the neighbors that even though she knew he was earning nine dollars per week at his job, he had not come home with a single dollar toward the support of her, Viola or their three-year-old son Willie Thomas.
When neighbors caught word that Thomas had been drinking heavily, they warned Nellie to steer clear of him. She had previously accused him of threatening to kill her. Other times, when he was intoxicated, he would threaten to kill himself and had made an attempt on two occasions. Nellie packed up the children and went to stay with her friend Sylvia (Mooney) Dailey, who lived in another part of Apponaug.
It didn’t take long for Thomas to find out where his wife was. That same day, he showed up at the Dailey home, intoxicated. He told Nellie that he was going away and asked if he could kiss Willie goodbye. She told him that Willie was sleeping. An argument began and Thomas called Nellie by several vulgar names before he left. He went on to the hardware store.
The following morning, Thomas was discovered close to death at the home of Michael Thomas. Portions of the box of Paris Green were near him. Two physicians were called but neither of them arrived until he was deceased. The Medical Examiner was then summoned. He arrived around noon, declared the death due to suicide and approved the release of the body to his wife for burial.
A little over a year later, 37-year-old Nellie was married for the third time, exchanging vows with her friend Sylvia’s 28-year-old son Frederick Dailey. On July 30, 1903, they welcomed daughter Nellie Dailey. A record of Thomas’s burial place has not been located.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.