The Two Mrs. Smiths
Jennie Elizabeth Whitton fell in love with a traveling man, a circus showman who married her just after Christmas 1894 in McKinney, Texas. Ten months later, she died in a rented room on Ervay Street in Dallas. She was 28 years old.
It was October — then as now, time for the State Fair of Texas — and Jennie was in town with husband Francis “Frank” E. Smith who, as manager of McMahon Circus, had brought a sideshow to the fairgrounds. Jennie’s new father-in-law, J.F. Smith of Kansas City, Missouri, joined them in Dallas.
Also in town that October was Ada Henderson, whom Frank met in Kansas City in 1890 when she rented rooms from his mother. An Iowa native then separated from her husband and son, Ada became romantically involved with Frank. She followed him first to Ogden, Utah, where they lived together as man and wife.
During their four years together, Ada sometimes went on the road with Frank; when apart, he wrote letters addressing her as his wife, though they never married. In fact, Ada was married to John T. Henderson until 1893, when she divorced him for cruelty.
In 1894, Frank met and married Jennie, the oldest of nine children born to Benjamin and Julia Whitton of Poultney, Vermont. Unlike the peripatetic man she married, Jennie’s father was rooted in Vermont, where he supported his large family as a farmer, carpenter and teamster.
It’s unclear how Jennie, 28 years old and far from family, and Frank, then 29, became acquainted. What is clear is that by December 1894, Frank was finished with Ada. Ada, however, was not finished with him. Fully invested in the idea that she was “a woman scorned,” Ada traveled from her home in Denver to Dallas during the 1895 state fair to confront the man she considered her husband.
During the sideshow run, Frank, Jennie, and his father lodged in a house owned by Helen Spencer on Ervay at Wood Street. Upon her arrival in Dallas, Ada made several attempts to rent one of Mrs. Spencer’s rooms, but the landlady seemingly suspected Ada was trouble and turned her away. On Ada’s fourth attempt to secure lodgings near the Smiths, for example, she asked Mrs. Spencer if Jennie was pretty.
Ada managed to rent a room above Linskie’s undertaker establishment on Main and Harwood. She soon sent a note to Frank’s father, whom she knew from her time in Kansas City, and asked to meet him. He agreed.
Mr. Smith listened as Ada addressed Frank’s desertion of her; she made it clear she expected some kind of settlement. Ada also asked him about Jennie, “the woman who had taken Frank,” warning that she planned to “make it hot for her.” When Mr. Smith walked Ada back to the undertaker’s, he asked whether she was afraid to stay so close to the corpses. It wouldn’t be long, she replied, “till there’d be another corpse around there.”
Mr. Smith saw Ada once again, when she walked by as he and Jennie stood talking in the yard of Helen Spencer’s home. Ada was there looking for Frank. She was tormented by his rejection — “driven mad,” she said — because Frank had “promised to return to me as my husband.” As she walked by Mr. Smith and Jennie, she later claimed, she heard Jennie say “something about hurting me.”
Two days later, Ada returned to find Jennie alone. This time, Ada was carrying a loaded revolver, one given to her by her former husband.
At her murder trial in March 1896, Ada testified that she went to the door of Frank Smith’s home and asked “the dead woman where my husband was.” Ada claimed that Jennie answered “by striking me on the head, knocking me against the wall. I raised my pistol and fired. After this, I went back to my room where I was soon afterward arrested.”
When asked what effect it had on her mind when Jennie struck her, Ada replied that she didn’t think she “had any mind at that time.”
As for Jennie, a doctor and a Dallas Morning News reporter arrived at the shooting scene at about the same time. The reporter described Jennie’s wounds — one bullet in the right shoulder and two in the abdomen, with severe bruises on the head and face, as if she had been pistol-whipped — and captured her cries, “Give me morphine! I am suffering awfully. Why don’t you give me something?”
The reporter also heard Jennie name her killer, but the newspaper printed two blanks instead of naming Ada Henderson. Jennie was quoted as saying, “ I do not know why she shot me…a tangle with my husband.”
Mrs. Frank E. Smith died at 10:35 the next morning. Her husband later testified that, on her death bed, Jennie told him that she had begged for mercy, but that she hoped God would forgive Ada, because she had. Frank buried his “beloved wife” in Dallas’s Oakland Cemetery.
Jennie wasn’t the only witness to the events that night. Three others stepped forward. Mr. O. Pagett said he heard a shot and ran out on the street, where “a colored man” and an 11-year-old boy both reported hearing a struggle and glass breaking before seeing a woman running up the street.
Ada was brought to jail, charged with murder. A newspaper reporter encountered her “sitting in the office of the bastille all hatted and cloaked.” She denied her name was Ada Henderson and insisted, “I have been arrested on a false charge and know nothing about the matter.”
The reporter described her as “obstinate” and estimated her age at 35; she was of medium size with a sharp face, brown hair, and gray eyes.
The murder trial of Ada Henderson took place in March 1896, five months after Jennie’s death. In addition to the testimony of Mr. Smith and Mrs. Spencer, Frank took the stand to say that he had spoken privately with Ada when she arrived in Dallas.
“She asked me which I loved the most, her or my wife. I made no reply,” he said. “My feelings for her are indifferent.” He also reported that Ada asked him for a settlement of $1500.
Two physicians testified to Ada’s mental condition. Dr. William Bonnie of Denver said she “suffered mentally,” while Dr. R.E. Wilmot said, “She seemed so despondent that my attention was attracted to her. She was not mentally well. I consider her condition [to be] what is called primary dementia.”
The sheriff and two jailers who saw Ada frequently during her incarceration prior to the trial testified that they considered her sane.
And then, Ada herself was called to the stand. The Dallas Morning News reported that she rose with difficulty; she was “fairly quaking with nervousness,” her voice weak. The story focused on four points she made. She said she failed to divorce Mr. Henderson before 1893 because she thought “Mr. Henderson had obtained a divorce himself.” She denied that she asked Frank who he loved more. When she spoke of a tragedy (presumably her comment to Mr. Smith about “another corpse”), she said she meant “I would kill myself.” And, she insisted, “I don’t remember hitting the dead woman with my pistol.”
In the end, seven jurors voted for acquittal, five for conviction. It was a mistrial.
Ada was tried again 14 months later. On May 15, 1897, Ada was declared not guilty of murdering Jennie Smith. The brief news account suggests that it was Ada’s mental state that freed her. The defendant, it was determined, was “not perfectly rational at times.”
When Ada’s attorneys congratulated her, “the woman was too full for utterance,” wrote a Dallas Morning News reporter who added that she “maintained a dignified silence…then she walked out of the courtroom a free woman.”
Ada still wasn’t done with Frank E. Smith, and he anticipated that. He died four years after losing Jennie, on October 16, 1900, from a faulty heart valve. His last will and testament begins with these words: “I, Frank E. Smith, a single and unmarried man, of Kansas City, Missouri, being of sound mind and memory…” He specifically left each of his parents $350, and named his brother William his executor.
Two months after Frank’s death, Ada appeared in a Kansas City courtroom in gold-rimmed spectacles to make a claim for a “widow’s half” of his estate, valued at more than $35,000. A reporter for the Kansas City Star described her as having a gentle appearance.
Her attorney acknowledged Ada and Frank had not been married but had lived together, that for four years, she traveled with Frank and his circus, during which he introduced her to others as his wife.
As for her role in the death of Mrs. Frank [Jennie] Smith, the paper reported that what took place there is not exactly known, “but it was all over that Mrs. [Ada] Smith had shot (her) to death” with a revolver. She then gave herself up and was acquitted after one of the most sensational trials in years.
[NOTE: Jennie is buried in section 2, tier 6, grave 6]