By M.P. Pellicer | Stranger Than Fiction Stories
It was a bitterly cold winter day when the body of Marion Lambert, 18, a high school girl was found frozen in the snow near a clump of bushes at the edge of the Sacred Heart Academy grounds in Highland Park, Illinois.
Rumors, Lies and Innuendos
It was her father Frank Lambert, the caretaker at the Jonas Kruppenheimer estate who found the body. It was a desolate place in a place known as Helm's Woods.
She left in the morning for school, and told her parents she would be home late since she had plans to attend a party.
Police traced her steps. She had been at Lake Forest in the evening and then made her way down Green Bay Road towards her home.
Though there were no marks of violence on her body and her clothing was undisturbed, police suspected it was a homicide. Her bracelet, watch and a small of amount of money which had been knotted in a handkerchief, were not taken.
The path she took from the Chicago and Milwaukee railroad station at Sacred Heart Convent indicated a man was with her, and they walked for a mile before reaching the place where her body was found. There was no evidence she'd been sexually assaulted.
The police followed a track left by a man's shoes that circled the body, and then went off in a straight line to the railway tracks, where they were lost.
The police were leaning towards suicide by poison, but pending the outcome of the analysis of her stomach, and also a rumor she had met her sweetheart William Orpet, who had come from out of town to see her; they waited to decide if foul play was involved.
Marion and William were both children of gardeners who worked on the estates of the wealthy on the outskirts of Chicago. William was three years older than Marion, and they attended school together when they were younger.
He finished high school and went off to the University of Wisconsin to study journalism. She flirted with other boys, but William Orpet held a special place in her heart.
In the spring of 1915, he wrote her a letter that read, "I'm afraid you'll forget all about me down there, and that would be the finish of yours truly. I want to see you badly, dearest, and want you badly. If I could get my arm around you now and get up close to you and kiss the life out of you, I would be happy."
That summer when William came home to Lake Forest, the pair started an intimate relationship.
Supposedly after the summer when Will returned to the university, she told him she was pregnant. She confessed this to her friend Josephine Davis.
That fall William's letters became more casual, and soon Marion found out he was interested in another girl who lived in Madison.
William didn't totally cut communications with Marion, since he had the cloud of an unwanted pregnancy hanging over his head.
There were other circumstances that cast doubt on the suicide theory. The positioning of her body was described thus:
She was found lying upon her left side, with her left hand resting under her head. She was a right-handed girl, yet in the crook of her arm were her school books. It doesn't seem possible that if she took the poison herself with her right hand, that she still would have held the books in that position as she toppled over in the snow, and the books wouldn't' have been in that position if she first laid down in the snow, placing her left hand under her head and then took the poison. It looks as if somebody placed those books in the crook of her arm after she lay helpless in the snow and that they also carefully placed her head resting upon her left hand.
Eventually it was determined that Marion Frances Lambert had taken a "subtle but violent poison." It was cyanide of potassium. However no container for the substance was found by her body. Crystals of the poison were found in her hair and beneath her fingernails.
A school mate of Marion described seeing a young man hiding behind a tree near where the girl's body was discovered. She said he had "an evil face" and "staring eyes". She had seen the same man at the same spot three months before.
Eventually Orpet was summoned by the police. His father said that his son was involved with another girl, and that he could account for all of the boy's time. He had a landlady and a clergyman who could corroborate this.
By February 12, William H. Orpet confessed to having knowledge of Marion's death. He said he met her in the woods after writing her a letter to meet there. He said she pleaded with him for two hours to renew their relationship. He told her no. As he left her, she swallowed the poison that killed her. He had no idea where she got the poison, or that she had intentions of using it.
He told authorities that he had fallen in love with Celeste Youker, a chemical instructor in the Normal College at De Kalb, Illinois, and intended to marry her.
This is when the motive for the murder materialized for the state.
Initially it was reported that the relationship between Orpet and Lambert was less serious, but there were hints that she had been ruined by her passion. In other words she was driven to suicide because she had sex with a boy who she thought would marry her, but eventually he got cold feet.
Prosecutors charged that William Orpet had given Marion poison to get rid of her, because he believed she was pregnant with his child, and this would prove to be an impediment in marrying his new love Celestia Youker
Within three weeks of the discovery of the girl's body William Orpet was held for her murder. He pled not guilty.
Celestia Youker was called the "other woman". A reporter who went to interview Celestia discovered that she was not even engaged to William Orpet, and she had not heard of Marion Lambert until the tragedy of the girl's suicide. Her character was slandered by innuendos printed in many newspapers that followed the story throughout the country.
The case became contentious when in March, 1916, Judge C. C. Edwards of Waukegan granted Orpet a change of venue. Soon after the newspapers claimed the judge received a death threat. The letter ended, "If you free him by not letting him stand trial you will never have but a few more chances yourself, for we will get you, too. You may laugh now, but you won't. Yours in warning."
Only initials were at the end, and police believed it had been composed by a woman.
Amidst the turmoil of the investigation, Orpet's father, Edward Owen Orpet was sued for slander in April, by another gardener named John Tiplady who claimed that Orpet Sr. had been peddling a story that when "he was employed as gardener by A. B. Dicks he traded a number of rare and very valuable plants with another Lake Forest gardener and then sold the plants which he received in the trade to a Highland Park florist."
It was suspected the suit was brought about because his son was accused in the murder of Marion Lambert, and that public opinion was against William Orpet even before the trial had started.
During his last visit to see Marion, Will did a lot of strange things before boarding the train. He wrote a letter to her that said, "If everything is not all right by the time I see you, it will be then." He also swore her to secrecy regarding his visit. Then he wrote 2 more letters, one to his mother, and the last to an unknown person. He asked a college friend to send them from Madison on Wednesday morning, which is when he would be in Lake Forest. In other words he was establishing an alibi that would place him somewhere else.
He later explained he did these things because his parents would have been angered to learn he had left the university campus. Will sneaked into a garage on the McCormick estate where his father worked, and slept in a little room upstairs. As planned, his family didn't know he had returned to Forest Lake.
The night before Marion was found dead, her friend Josephine Davis was spending the night with her. The next morning Marion told her she had to post a letter, and did not continue to school.
The trial started May 15. It took three full weeks to find jurors. In the process 1286 jurists were called, and 1203 were examined before eight were chosen.
William Orpet's mother was ordered by the judge to stop kissing her son when she went into court, and when she left to go home. This of course was requested by the state attorneys.
Supposedly Orpet asked a student friend, Charles Hassinger, who worked at a drug store to procure a powerful drug, which it was inferred would produce a miscarriage. He asked the same friend to find a physician with "not too many scruples". It was understood that Will wanted someone to perform an abortion in case the drug didn't work.
But there was one secret that Marion never divulged to her lover, which was that she was not carrying his child. Later an autopsy of her body confirmed she was not pregnant, and never had been according to the report issued by the Cook County coroner's office.
The defense presented a school mate of Marion who said he found her alone in the chemical laboratory of the school just before she died. He said there was cyanide of potassium, both liquid and solid, on the shelves nearby. Then the chemistry professor at the high school said he had recently given a lesson that included a paragraph about cyanide of potassium. He said the students were not supposed to take supplies, but the lock to the storeroom didn't work.
The state had two main witnesses. Josephine Davis, Marion's friend and another was David James a deaf and dumb teamster, who said he saw the couple in the woods the morning of the murder. He said he saw the boy press a bottle to the girl's lips.
The problem was that neither the prosecution or the defense knew where the poison had come from. Either Will or Marion could have obtained it from the chemical laboratories of their school. Both of their fathers kept cyanide for their work on the estate grounds.
Then events took a turn for the worse for the prosecution.
Hassinger the drug clerk vacillated on his testimony as to whether Orpet had bought the bottle.
James the teamster could not positively identify Will as the young man he had seen in the woods.
Lastly Josephine Davis who had started out as a witness for the prosecution ended up a witness for the defense. She said that Marian had threatened to commit suicide. After a telephone call with Orpet the day before her death she said, "if Bill throws me over and marries that other girl, I'll kill myself!"
Other witnesses testified that Josephine was in love with William Orpet herself.
The prosecution could not provide direct proof that Orpet had poison, and Marian didn't.
The defense established that Marion had killed herself because she knew she'd lost the boy she loved.
Orpet's blossoming romance with Celestia Youker met with a decisive end when the prosecution urged her to write Will a letter while he was in jail awaiting the trial since he was denied bail. The contents were dictated by Mr. Dady the prosecutor. In a short note she urged him to tell all. She wrote, "I know you have done it for love of me. You once said you would kill anyone who came between us."
He returned a note stating, "Your letter's all bunk. Good-by, then. Don't come near here." All her letters to him were returned as well.
Eventually the tie breaker in Orpet's favor with the jury is that the defense team verified the poison that killed Marion Lambert was powdered postassium cyanide, and not the type his father kept for work on the estate which was sodium cyanide.
There were also allegations that evidence had been tampered with. Two members of the coroner's jury were called by the defense to testify that there were no spots on Marion's coat when it was produced with other clothing at the inquest, however now it had 3 drops of cyanide poison.
The crux of the case rested on the allegations that the prosecution said that Marion had been poisoned when the cyanide had been dissolved in water, and the defense claimed she had committed suicide by taking the poison in powder form.
Ultimately William Orpet was found not guilty.
By 1917, William Orpet's family had relocated to California, however William's exact whereabouts were unknown. There were rumors that the men of Lake Forest were planning to coat his body with tar and feathers if he appeared on the streets of the city.
After the sensational trial Orpet changed his name to William Dawson.
Orpet faded from the headlines until 1920 when he applied for a marriage license in San Francisco. He had joined the military during WWI and met his wife, Olga Margaret Sarnowski in Detroit.
Even years after the end of the trial whenever a similar case presented itself, there was comparisons made with the death of Marion Lambert.
If there was any revenge from the grave Marion got hers, when the romance she killed herself over, ended, with never a chance to flower again. By Will Orpet's own admission, he planned to marry Celestia Youker, but with the tragedy of Marion's suicide between them he was desperate to alienate himself from anything that existed during that terrible year of 1916.
For many months afterwards, Celestia was followed by newspaper reporters who kept asking her if she had resumed her romance with Orpet.
The three trees growing together in Helm's Woods where Marion's body was found were hacked to pieces by souvenir hunters.
Dady and Joslyn lost their offices as state attorneys due to their inability to get Orpet convicted.
Celestia Youker married Colonel Lloyd Merrill Boyce, and gave birth to a daughter in 1934 named Barbara.
William Orpet's dream of becoming a journalist died the summer he went on trial. He joined the Air Force during WWI and achieved the rank of sergeant. Eventually he moved to California to join his parents, and like his father became a gardener.
He divorced Olga, and married Katherine Swann Pender, who was a divorcee with two sons.
He lingered the last two years of his life at the National Military Home in Los Angeles. He suffered from peptic ulcers, and died from a massive left cerebral malacia. He was 52 years old. His wife Katherine had died the year before in 1947.
The shadow cast by Marion Lambert's death followed him his entire life.
THE ALTERNTE ENDING
If for one moment we view Marion as a young woman who was obsessed, capable of seeking revenge against the man she loved, even if ultimately it meant her death we could see a chain of premeditation that started months before she died.
Perhaps that last summer she spent with Will Orpet she realized he had no intentions of ever marrying her. This could have motivated her to have premarital sex with him, something that in those years was strongly frowned upon by society, and could have forced him to marry her.
Had she been planning to use the threat of pregnancy even then? But there must have been some part of her that suspected that she could not bend him to her will, and she went prepared to commit the ultimate act of self destruction which would tarnish him by association alone.
This perhaps was Marion's vengeance for her unrequited love.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer