The Milk Bottle Murder trial makes history: part 2

Posted 7/26/22

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the conclusion of a two-part series. Part one appeared in the July 21 edition.

When Elmer Leduc’s parents were informed that he had been arrested and confessed …

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The Milk Bottle Murder trial makes history: part 2


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the conclusion of a two-part series. Part one appeared in the July 21 edition.

When Elmer Leduc’s parents were informed that he had been arrested and confessed to killing his grandmother, 72-year-old Anna May Baker, they refused to believe it. His mother, Vernal, stated that Elmer was her mother’s favorite grandchild. Despite his wishes to forgo an attorney, his mother secured one for him. The defense was going to be not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. Elmer would now state that his confession was not voluntary and that he simply told the police what they wanted to hear as he was afraid of physical repercussions if he did not. On March 22, he underwent a three-hour examination by 58-year-old Dr. Arthur Hiler Ruggles.

Ruggles was a native of New Hampshire who had obtained degrees in medicine and science from Dartmouth, Brown and Harvard. A member of the Yale Advisory Council on research into nervous and mental diseases, he served as the superintendent of Butler Hospital as well as the Emma Pendleton Bradley Home in East Providence. The first psychiatric hospital for children to ever be established in America, the Bradley Home would later become known as Bradley Hospital.

Two days after his examination of Leduc, Ruggles employed the use of a “brain wave machine” in making his determinations. Such a machine had been invented by 51-year-old German psychiatrist Hans Berger in 1924 and would later develop into what we know as an EEG. Ruggles was instrumental in having a similar machine produced here in America and had it placed at the Emma Pendleton Bradley Home. In an act unprecedented in the history of the RI court system, the results produced by a brain wave machine were allowed to be entered as evidence on April 19 during Elmer’s trial for first-degree murder.

Donald Benjamin Lindsley, a 32-year-old psychologist employed at the Bradley Home, operated the machine the day it was utilized on Elmer. Ruggles testified that the machine was highly efficient and that it had confirmed the conclusion he had come to after his examination of Elmer, that he was completely sane at the time of the murder. He told the jury that the results revealed no pathological waves or diseased condition of the mind as it recorded the electrical activity taking place in the brain. Even if Elmer had suffered an attack of epilepsy; before, after or during the murder, the machine would have picked up abnormal waves, he stated.

The defense attorney argued against his client’s alleged sanity, informing the court that one of Elmer’s paternal uncles was suffering from schizophrenia at the RI Hospital for Mental Diseases and that three of his cousins had attempted suicide and were probably also suffering from schizophrenia. Elmer’s mother testified that he had experienced two “fits” as a child, breaking everything that was around him. Often, she said, he would sit and stare as if in a trance and experienced periods of body stiffening and fright.          

Dr. John Edward Donley, a psychiatrist for the prosecution, testified that very little was known about hereditary insanity and that claiming a person was insane because their ancestors were insane was like saying one was sane because their ancestors were as well. He stated that, in his opinion, Elmer’s act was a wilful, free choice; one with purpose, direction and intelligence. In the time that he had spent with Elmer, he had noticed no irrational characteristics. Believing that Elmer knew the difference between right and wrong and understood the nature and consequences of his act, his determination was that Elmer was sane within the law’s definition of sanity.  

The defense called 58-year-old Dr. Harvey Beede Sanborn, a specialist in neuropsychiatry. He took the stand with his massive 6’7 and 255 pound frame to testify that his examination of Elmer led him to believe that he was indeed insane at the time of the murder. Another doctor for the defense, 43-year-old general practitioner William Newton Hughes, testified that Elmer was definitely insane at the time the crime was committed as a sane person would have stopped the assault after the strike with the bottle.

The RI court saw another first that month when they allowed a dog to sit in on the proceedings. John Payne Despres was a 28-year-old blind Brown University graduate whose mother, Mary (Walker) Despres, was serving on the jury. His seeing-eye dog “Gypsy” was allowed to accompany him in the courtroom while he listened to the trial.

When the jury returned their verdict, Elmer Leduc was declared guilty of second-degree murder. The following day, his lawyer petitioned for another trial but Elmer later abandoned the appeal. He was sent to the RI State Prison where he remained for over a decade. He later married and moved to CA, passing away in 1993 at the age of 74.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.