An Unspeakable Crime: The Cambridge Death Curve, Part 1

Life is slow in Henry County, Illinois. With 86.7 percent of its land devoted to agriculture, the most commotion a visitor is likely to hear comes from tractors rumbling across the land as farmers plow their fields. Cambridge, the county seat, is a village of little more than 2,000 residents. Less than a mile outside of Cambridge sits Timber Ridge Road. As motorists travel west along Timber Ridge, they meet a sharp curve marked by a Mulberry tree and an old, rustic fence that divides two cornfields. Here the wind gently caresses the grass along the roadside.

This bucolic scene hides a dark history, a history that few would remember if it weren’t for the ghost stories whispered from one generation to another. The stories concern a crime eerily similar to one we are familiar with today, only the murders committed near this curve were much more brutal, if equally horrifying.

In June 2001, the story of Andrea Yates, a deeply religious mother who drowned her five children in Houston, Texas, shocked many Americans. Years before the murders, Yates and her husband had fallen under the spell of a preacher named Michael Woroniecki. Woroniecki, besides encouraging them to have as many children as possible, often scolded Andrea and her husband for their ungodly behavior. Andrea already had four children when she suffered a mental breakdown and tried to commit suicide in 1999. Her psychiatrist counseled her not to have any more children, but in 2000 Andrea and her husband conceived a fifth child even after she had been hospitalized for her illness.

During the spring of 2001, her mental health rapidly deteriorated until, one tragic day in June, she drowned all five children in their bathtub. She placed the bodies of the four youngest on the bed next to each other and covered them with a sheet. Later, while in jail, Andrea told a psychiatrist, “My children weren’t righteous… The way I was raising them, they could never be saved. They were doomed to parish in the fires of hell.”

The Yates case raised awareness of postpartum depression, a mental illness which affects a small percentage of new mothers. While this alone does not explain why a woman would commit filicide, a history of depression is one of the highest risk factors for postpartum depression. The illness was unknown in 1905 when one deeply emotionally disturbed woman in rural Illinois, Julia Markham, used an ax to take the lives of her seven children.

Like Andrea Yates, Julia had previous episodes of severe depression and a history of attempted suicide. Other elements of the two incidents were uncomfortably similar. One stark contrast was that in 1905, although the story of the Markham murders found its way into several Illinois newspapers, the national media never picked up on the tragedy. There were no interviews or book deals. Julia’s heinous crime faded from memory and became nothing more than legend.

Photo by Michael Kleen

The murders, however, were all too real. In 1896, Julia Johnson married a man from Andover named Clarence B. Markham, and the young couple settled down on a farm in Andover Township outside of Cambridge, Illinois. Although Julia had a colored past, by all accounts the Markhams began a happy and prosperous life together. Ten years before their marriage, when Julia was 13 years old, she tried to commit suicide by jumping in a well, but was rescued.

Her mother, Mary E. Johnson, had a history of mental illness. According to the Cambridge Chronicle, she had been “mentally deranged for some time,” and was in the insane annex at the county hospital in Knoxville. Authorities committed her on September 13 for “wandering spells.”

In nine years of marriage, Mrs. Markham gave birth to seven children, an average of one every 15 months. There were four girls and three boys, aged from between five months to eight and a half years. Their names were Clara, Harry, Charles, Mary, Lucy, Eliza, and Asa. Coincidentally, Andrea Yates’ youngest child was six months old at the time of the drowning, but Andrea had drawn a bath a month earlier with the same sinister intent.

Something happened during the first five months after the birth of both Julia and Andrea’s youngest that led them to consider murder. Whether it was the stress of feeding so many mouths, or depression triggered by the births, we will never know. Julia Markham died with her children, leaving behind only a short letter to give a glimpse of her motivation.

On the morning of Saturday September 30, 1905, while her husband labored in a neighboring field, Julia Markham, “committed one of the most dastardly deeds that has ever occurred in Henry County.” At around 11 o’clock, Julia sent her two eldest children to a nearby spring to bring back water. While they were gone, she took an ax and swung it at the heads of her five youngest, killing them instantly. When her eldest returned, she dealt with them the same way. One can only imagine the horror of the scene inside that house.

Julia had carefully planned the massacre and intended to commit suicide afterward, but the knife that she used to cut her throat was too dull. Reeling from the wound, she laid her children out on a bed, side by side, and doused them with coal oil. She lit the oil on fire and the entire house went up in flames. She intended to die with her children, but the heat of the conflagration proved to be too much and she tried to crawl to safety.

Meanwhile, the Markham’s neighbors saw smoke billowing from the house and rushed over. Intending to save the children, they instead stumbled on a terrible scene. “Mrs. Markham stayed in the burning house until nearly all her clothing was burned off, and then crawled out doors,” the Chronicle reported. Sheriff B.H. Stiers and his deputy, a Mr. E.A. Swain, and a doctor from Woodhull, quickly arrived and found Julia clutching to life.

Dr. Clanahan stitched the wound in Julia’s throat, but told her that she didn’t have long to live. Seeing the end was finally near, she confessed to the crime and died at 3 o’clock that afternoon. “The sufferings of the woman from the self-inflicted knife wounds and severe burns were something dreadful,” wrote the Chronicle. However, “she seemed perfectly sane after the deed had been committed.” Flames consumed the house, and the sheriff found the bodies of the children in a corner of the smoldering ruins. They were burned beyond recognition.

Continued in Part 2

Houston Chronicle (Houston) 6 March 2002.
Sarah J. Breese McCoy, et al., “Risk Factors for Postpartum Depression: A Retrospective Investigation at 4-Weeks Postnatal and a Review of the Literature,” The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association 106 (April 2006): 193-198.
Cambridge Chronicle (Cambridge) 5 October 1905.
Suzanne O’Malley, Are You There Alone?: The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), 20.
Cambridge Chronicle (Cambridge) 5 October 1905.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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