SL undertaker at center of murder trial

The most intriguing murder cases are not the “who done it” variety — but rather when it is unclear whether a murder had been committed at all.
Kevin Collier
Jun 17, 2013

Thus was the case of The People vs. Hughson, a murder trail that crisscrossed the Muskegon County and Ottawa County line in 1895.

            On trial was Mary E. Hughson, a 45-year-old, four-time married shadowy figure with a past subject to suspicion.

            Born Mary E. Root in New York in 1851, her father died when she was a baby. Her mother passed her along to relatives for most of her upbringing. As a young adult, Mary moved to Michigan, where she was a domestic servant and seamstress.

            Mary's troubles began when her first husband, Justus Hissong, a newspaper editor and compositor, died at their Fruitport home on March 16, 1890, at the age of 36. They had been married 14 years, and had a a son, Justus Hissong Jr.

            Hissong's untimely death and Mary's collection of $1,000 on a life insurance policy fostered considerable gossip. Justus seemed to be recovering from a stomach ailment before his sudden passing. Some suspected Mary had poisoned him.

            Two years later, Mary tied the knot with Nathan Douglas, a Civil War veteran who lived on a farm in Fruitport. Sixty-four days after their marriage, Douglas became violently ill and died Aug. 20, 1892.

            Enter Eunice Williams, sister of Nathan Douglas. She had looked after her brother and was to inherit his estate upon his death. But one week before Douglas died, Mary and someone she identified as her “nephew” convinced Douglas to rewrite his will, leaving everything to her in the event of his death.

            The “nephew,” a man named George King, ended up profiting from the old soldier's death. Mary gave King $2,000 from a $3,500 life insurance payout to start a pharmacy.

            Eunice swore Mary had poisoned her brother, but no solid evidence existed and no one knew Mary had given King money.

            On Dec. 9, 1893, Mary married again, taking Fruitport photographer Martin Fadner as her third husband.

            According to one newspaper account, Mary “insisted that (Fadner) sign over his war pension” to her. The greed caused Fadner to run off, taking up residence in Wisconsin. Mary divorced him for abandonment and next married Henry Hughson, a Fruitport fireman, on Sept. 19, 1894.

            Seven months after Henry's marriage to Mary, he was visiting her in a Muskegon County jail cell. Suspicion concerning Douglas' death resurfaced and his remains at Spring Lake Cemetery were exhumed April 5, 1895.

            Spring Lake undertaker John Pruim — who had prepared Douglas' body for burial and conducted his funeral two years earlier — dissected samples from the corpse, which were put in jars and sent to Ann Arbor for chemical analysis.

            Eunice William's suspicions seemed confirmed. Her brother's brain and internal organs were full of arsenic.

            Authorities promptly arrested and jailed Mary Hughson.

            George King, 20 years Mary's junior, was arrested and jailed as an accomplice.

            King was also charged with arson. The Muskegon pharmacy he'd opened using Douglas' death money had suspiciously burned down and he stood to collect $5,000 in insurance.

            Investigators discovered King was not Mary's nephew at all, but “a paramour.” Some suggested King was a flattering opportunist, not a lover.

            During the June 1895 murder trial, it was revealed Mary had given King the $2,000 — and money and secret love became a motive for murder. Mary insisted King was just a polite friend, and the $2,000 was a loan, although never repaid.

            One would think at trial the fix was in for Mary — but it was Spring Lake undertaker John Pruim who became the unexpected focus. When preparing Nathan Douglas' body for his 1892 funeral, Pruim had washed the deceased with a solution to eliminate skin discoloration. The solution contained arsenic, which was problematic. Did the poison, over time, make its way through the skin into the body cavities postmortem? Or was it ingested by Douglas when alive, causing his death?

            It was reported 51 witnesses took the stand against Mary and only one was presented on her behalf — that being herself. On the witness stand, she denied killing Douglas.

            The jury deliberated for “seven minutes,” then returned with a verdict of “not guilty.” Pruim's procedure had caused “reasonable doubt.”

            Mary walked — and since the verdict deemed no murder had occurred, George King was set free, too. The arson charge against King was dropped due to lack of evidence.

            After the trial, Mary lived a rather uneventful life. Married to Henry Hughson for nearly 30 years, she died quietly on May 20, 1924, and is buried beside him in an unmarked grave at Oakwood Cemetery in Muskegon.

            George King became a Grand Rapids doctor who, in 1903 (and several times later), made headlines when he was accused of insurance fraud. In 1921, he served a year in prison after being convicted of illegal distribution of narcotics.

            Almost 120 years after the trial, it remains a mystery if Mary killed Douglas — or King did — or anyone, for that matter. But one thing is certain: It was reported after the trial that undertaker John Pruim suspended use of arsenic in solutions used to minimize discoloration in corpses.

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