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The Brothel's Bad Batter Cakes: A Poisoning Mystery

In 1892, a murder case lit up newspapers in Louisville, Kentucky, as it happened in a rather well-known brothel run by Emma Austin. On the morning of September 9, Mrs. Austin made a hearty pancake breakfast. Despite several other people being on the premises, the only ones to eat were Austin and her star prostitute, Eugenia Sherrill. Both women soon felt deathly ill.  

At first, the physician, Dr. Brennan, presumed the women were suffering from nothing worse than a case of severe food poisoning--an ailment sadly common in pre-refrigeration summers--and gave them the medicine appropriate for such cases. However, Austin and Sherrill continued to deteriorate. Their eyes dilated, they were covered in a cold sweat, and, most alarming of all, they had begun vomiting blood. The doctor soon realized the women had been poisoned, probably deliberately.

This shocking development opened up an embarrassing can of worms for everyone involved. As I said above, Mrs. Jackson was left trying to explain why she, a seemingly respectable lady, had spent the last two weeks living in a brothel. Eugenia Sherrill’s position was even more mortifying: prostitution was merely her secret side career. Up until now, she was known to society only as a member of one of Kentucky’s most prominent and respectable families. Even worse, for the past year she had been married to Edward Sherrill, a prosperous traveling salesman. In her agony, poor Mrs. Sherrill was frantic to be brought to her home so she could die without her double life being discovered. Unfortunately, she was far too ill to be moved. Dr. Brennan was helpless to save them. Eugenia died at 12: 45 p.m. Mrs. Austin’s sufferings ended two hours later.

The two women were found to have been poisoned, but it wasn't clear whether either or both were the intended targets. And there was no dearth of suspects. Was it one of Sherrill's clients who had stayed the night? Was it the grocer downstairs? Was it a family member? Or possibly a jealous rival from another brothel, or someone's wife? Was it a suicide? The investigation dragged on, and the local papers printed every scandalous detail, including the names of men who visited Austin's house of ill repute. Read the tale of the Louisville brothel murders at Strange Company.

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