Dr. Robert A. MacGregor


Dr. Robert A. MacGregor

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Classification: Serial killer?
Characteristics: Poisoner - To collect insurance money
Number of victims: 4 ?
Date of murders: 1909 - 1911
Date of birth: 1879
Victims profile: John Wesley Sparling, 53 (his lover's husband) and three sons, Peter, 25, Albert, 23, and Scyrel, 19
Method of murder: Poisoning (arsenic)
Location: Ubly, Michigan, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison on June 10, 1912. The Governor Ferris granted a full and unconditional pardon to Dr. MacGregor on the ground of his innocence on November 27, 1916. Died in 1928

Dr. Robert MacGregor was convicted of the murder of Scyrel Sparling, a boy whose age was not reported. Circumstances surrounding Scyrel's death in 1911 were unfortunate. His father had died in 1908 and two of his brothers died in 1910 and 1911. Arsenic was reportedly found in Scyrel's body. The arsenic finding, if true, may have been due to medicines he had taken. MacGregor's alleged motive in the killing was that his modest doctor fees could be paid from Scyrel's life insurance proceeds.

After Michigan Governor Ferris received an appeal on MacGregor's behalf, he had the case reinvestigated. The results of the reinvestigation were not made public, so it is not known what facts it established. Nevertheless, in 1916, the Governor issued MacGregor a full and unconditional pardon. The Governor took the unusual step of having MacGregor brought to the state capital at Lansing where he handed him the pardon personally. In his statement the Governor said, "I am firmly convinced that Dr. MacGregor is absolutely innocent of the crime for which he was convicted."

Tall Tale Or Truth? You Decide!

The Sparling Murders, Part 1

The Lakeshore Guardian, Harbor Beach, MI

Small town life in Michigan proved to be quiet for most good Christians in Michigan’s Thumb. Or at least it was until Dr. Robert A. MacGregor established his practice in the Ubly area in 1905. Following is a tale both bizarre and intriguing and, before the final word in this yarn is read, it’s likely you’ll be scratching your head just as some folks in Ubly still are.

Most folks knew Ubly to be a sleepy little hamlet nestled in Michigan’s Thumb and it was for the most part, that is, until Dr. Robert A. MacGregor rolled into town in 1905, purchasing the practice of Dr. Wesley A. Griffen. Doc McGregor haled from London, Ontario, where he was born and raised, and never did the community see a doctor more able.

Doc MacGregor’s handsome, athletic build and tall stature caused more than one housewife to blush during an examination. All of Dr. MacGregor’s exams were very thorough, but his confident bedside manner reassured many an ailing patient. The good doctor treated everything from ringworm to rickets in the small farming community, developing a reputation of a man of good character and enjoying the elite status of physician.

Dr. MacGregor played the role of country doctor well, never badgering his patients about overdue bills and accepting in kind the occasional bartered chicken. Well liked, Dr. MacGregor traveled within all the societal classes, sipping a cold drink with the boys at the local pool hall one day and delivering Ubly’s newest baby the next.

Some still wonder if the ensuing scandal would have come to light had Mrs. Carrie Sparling not developed a problematic eye affliction in January of 1909. Traveling by horse and carriage, Carrie Sparling made the hour-long trek to Ubly to seek the help of Dr. MacGregor.

Though only her eyes were ailing her, the doctor examined her completely, as was his nature. Dr. MacGregor proclaimed Mrs. Sparling’s trouble was not serious, though he did put in eye drops before she left for home. Ever the caretaker, the doctor called to her as she left that he would drop by the farm in a week or so to take a second look.

True to his word, barely a week had passed when Dr. MacGregor hitched his horse and headed southward over the Huron County line en route to the Sparling family dairy farm located in Austin Township, Sanilac County. John Wesley Sparling greeted him upon his arrival, the doctor indicating he had come to look after Mrs. Sparling troubling eyes.

After a thorough examination behind a closed bedroom door, Dr. MacGregor administered more eye drops and bid Mrs. Sparling a good day. As he climbed in his buggy, Mr. Sparling caught up with him, inquiring after his wife. Not quite sure of the cause or the solution, the doctor said he would gladly stop by every time he traveled the neighborhood. As it turned out, the doctor just happened to be traveling in Sparling territory a good deal over the next several months, or so the neighbors said.

John Wesley Sparling and his wife, Carrie, reared five children, four boys and a girl. A righteous man, John Wesley frowned upon alcohol and tobacco, and ensured his family observed the Sabbath, crowding the whole family into the buggy to attend the Sunday church service in Ubly. At the age of 53, John Wesley’s long black beard and blue eyes commanded attention.

Eating Sunday dinner at the Sparling home proved a treat to any who passed through their door. More and more, that someone proved to be Dr. MacGregor. Carrie Sparling spared nothing; she dressed her table with mounds of mashed potatoes, a small roasted pig, an abundance of vegetables, loaf after loaf of homemade bread and such a spread of pies some thought they’d attended the county fair. To wash it all down, the boys drank milk by the gallon.

Daughter May had since married and moved away, and the Sparling boys really weren’t boys at all. Peter, the oldest at 25, and Albert, aged 23, proved their worthiness on the farm as did Ray, 21, and Scyrel, 19. No stranger to work, like John, the boys toiled in the fields all day. So great was their energy at night, the Sparling sons retreated to the barn where they converted a portion into a makeshift gymnasium. Lifting weights, doing chin-ups and working on the exercise rings burned up some of their energy. Physically fit, the boys never tired. When John’s presence was missing, some said the boys enjoyed several swigs of drugstore tonics, which contained a high percentage of alcohol.

As spring gave way to the warmer days of June, John Wesley worked hard making hay. Strong as an ox and healthy as his sons, John Wesley at first tried to ignore his rebellious stomach. He had never quit work mid-day, but that’s exactly what John Wesley did this day, clutching his stomach as he made his way to the house.

Peter rode atop his horse to Ubly to fetch Dr. MacGregor, prodding the beast along at breakneck speeds. Morning and night, the physician dutifully ministered to John Wesley, who couldn’t keep an ounce of food in his stomach. The doctor diagnosed him with Bright’s disease, a fatal kidney ailment. John Wesley needed more care than the doctor could provide, so Dr. MacGregor made arrangements for John Wesley to seek treatment in an Ontario hospital.

John Wesley died a few days later on July 8, 1909. Well liked by all, the whole community traveled to the Tyre Cemetery, where John Wesley was laid to rest next to an infant son who had died in January of 1894.

John Wesley had an uncle named John. Uncle John worked as a veterinarian, was a well-known auctioneer and had previously served as a state senator. Uncle John could be a bit loud and, at the graveside of his beloved nephew, he spouted that somehow things didn’t quite add up. John Wesley lived a good life and was as strong and active as ever a man in Ubly was. It plain didn’t make sense. Unfortunately, Uncle John was a bit outspoken more often than not and folks sort of got in the habit of tuning him out. No one paid any mind to Uncle John’s ramblings at all.

Carrie Sparling mourned the death of John Wesley for he had been a good, strong man. She felt fortunate to have four healthy sons; the many labors involved in the farming operation fell into their capable hands.

Dr. MacGregor contributed to the Sparling household, too, consulting and guiding Carrie in pertinent decisions, for the widow had little skill in handling the family finances. Mrs. Sparling’s eyes, too, required him to make numerous trips out to the Sparling farm, her eyes never improving but getting no worse either – as far as the neighbors could see. As the ever faithful doctor spent more and more time with Carrie, tongues in Ubly began to wag.

The doctor advised Mrs. Sparling to consider buying insurance for each of the boys. Without question, Carrie agreed, for she had come to depend on Dr. MacGregor for his stellar advice. The boys, though, didn’t think insurance was necessary for they were known far and wide for their athleticism. So, too, the doctor reminded, had John Wesley been.

Residing in Canada, Alexander MacGregor, the doctor’s father, sold life insurance policies through the Sun Life Association, and he was more than happy to accommodate the Sparling tribe. Dr. MacGregor examined each of the boys in his meticulous way, proclaiming a clean bill of health for all. To his credit, Alexander MacGregor indicated each should appoint a separate personal representative; perhaps because they were bachelors the suggestion was nixed – Carrie Sparling was named the sole beneficiary on all four policies.

When Dr. MacGregor wasn’t busy tending to his patients, he and his wife, Ida, who he’d married in Nebraska before coming to Ubly, enjoyed visiting and playing cards with their good friends, Mr. Xenophon A. Boomhower and his wife. Xen, a young attorney working in Bad Axe, proved to be an able prosecutor with a promising career ahead. After sharing a delightful dinner, the men often retired to the sitting room to discuss their work.

This night, Xen asked after the Sparling family, and the doctor confided his concerns about Peter. At 25, Peter stood six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds. Peter worked like a horse, but he had slowed down a bit as of late. No longer did he throw 100-pound feed bags around with ease, and his brothers noted Peter no longer exercised in the barn at night with his usual fervor. Before the ladies joined them for dessert, the good doctor whispered to Xen he suspected Peter had acute pancreatitis.

In two months time, Peter’s conditioned worsened. Like his father, Peter had never quit work mid-day, but so sick was he, he stumbled into the house clutching his stomach, while another of the Sparling’s rode to fetch the doctor.

In a few short days, Peter joined his father in the Tyre Cemetery. The Sparling family plot was growing.

Folks in the neighborhood speculated just how two men, a father and son, no less - who had attained their strength by working hard and living clean, could have died within such a short span of time. To think the obvious was unthinkable.

Talk at Ubly’s General Store always seemed to come around to Doc MacGregor and Mrs. Sparling. Uncle John didn’t want to believe his ears, but he could see with his own eyes and that he couldn’t ignore. Life at the Sparling farm had run amuck. And he vowed to get to the bottom of it. Uncle John would not be silenced.

Be sure to look for the continuation next month as Carrie Sparling follows the advice of the good doctor, purchasing a new farm closer to Ubly – and his practice.


The Sparling Murders, Part 2

Join in the continuation as Carrie Sparling moves what’s left of her family to a new farm she purchased closer to Ubly. Her husband, John Wesley, and eldest son, Peter, have already made their home in the Sparling cemetery plot. Will Albert, the next in line, join them?

For Carrie, losing her husband and her eldest son so quickly had been beyond difficult. So great were her memories, everywhere she looked in the old farmhouse she could still see John Wesley and Peter. Dr. MacGregor, ever the supportive friend, suggested to Carrie perhaps the remaining Sparling’s should move to a new farm.

The physician continued to guide her in all matters of business and found the perfect farm in Huron County. Since this farm was located near his office in Ubly, Dr. MacGregor would be nearby should she need him, especially for her pesky eye irritation, which still caused her a good deal of grief.

Carrie Sparling purchased her new 40-acre, Bingham Township farm located in Section 31 for the price of $1, though she would assume responsibility for the mortgage, totaling $2100. According to the deed filed at the county courthouse on March 24, 1910, the sellers named were Robert E. and May Hurford. (The writer has some reason to believe the sellers were Carrie Sparling’s daughter and son-in-law.)

To aid her in running the house, Mrs. Sparling hired a young girl in the neighborhood. Annie Pieruski worked hard in all the tasks assigned from laundry to cleaning to baking the many loaves of bread now consumed by the three male remaining Sparling’s.

Things quieted down for a while as the Sparling’s acclimated themselves with their new farm and met the neighbors, though sparse in number. Albert was now the head of the family and worked hard at providing an ample living. Brothers Ray and Scyrel did their fair share, too, and life at the new homestead slid into a comfortable routine. At least for a year or so…

Why the Sparling’s started dropping like flies, no one knew, but ever the shrewd advisor, Dr. MacGregor thought it might be prudent Carrie insure her three surviving sons with an additional $1000. She bought another policy for each, this time with The Gleaners.

About this time, Dr. MacGregor confided in his faithful attorney friend, Xenophon Boomhower. Albert Sparling had not been feeling well as of late, and the good doctor was concerned if something should happen to poor Albert, suspicions of foul play would be placed upon Mrs. Sparling. Carrie Sparling had class, and the good doctor couldn’t bear to see her name slandered.

As April 1911 rolled around, a good many farm folk itched to start the field work, though with all the April rains, they had to content themselves a bit longer with work in the barn. Spring fever had struck Dr. MacGregor, too, for he decided to ride to Bad Axe and order one of those new-fangled horseless carriages. Someone in his position clearly deserved to ride in style.

Now, it should be said some folks wondered how a humble country doctor, who earned a good deal of his pay in the form of bartered eggs, chickens and the like, could afford an automobile. When he did receive cash, the typical house call in the country garnered an average of $2. The physician didn’t bat an eye at the price of $684, though, informing the salesman he’d pay in cash within a month’s time.

Back at the Sparling farm, the boys geared up for another year tilling the soil. Around mid-May, Albert complained of stomach pains and, in no time at all, he took to his bed, vomiting the days away – much the same as Peter had done just two years prior. Diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, the doctor predicted he had injured this organ when he had fallen from the apple tree. Others speculated young Albert perhaps died of internal injuries after he strained himself lifting a heavy piece of farm machinery.

May turned to June; fresh dirt in the Sparling plot at the cemetery showed John Wesley and Peter had company.

Uncle John sounded off even more about his suspicions. First his nephew and now two of his great-nephews were pushing daisies well before their time. He just knew something wasn’t quite right. While he repulsed most folks with his rantings, Uncle John was known to possess one very impressive quality: He never told a lie.

Dr. MacGregor had been working so hard tending to the Sparling family, after the death of Albert, he suggested to his wife they take a road trip to see the sights in Ontario. He needed a vacation.

While they were gone, Carrie Sparling purchased a house in Ubly for $5000, placing a down payment of $1000, proceeds from one of the insurance policies, to close on the investment. Some thought it nice Mrs. Sparling would be moving off the farm. She had faced so much misfortune. Others, though, thought something not so nice was going on. Their tongues wagged a bit more when Dr. MacGregor and his wife returned from their trip and moved into Carrie’s recently purchased house, using a portion of the space to set up his office.

Mrs. Sparling remained on the farm with Ray and Scyrel; perhaps it was only natural she checked on her property in Ubly from time to time. For the folks who kept track of her comings and goings, her eye ailment must have been causing her a good deal of grief.

Meanwhile, Dr. MacGregor remembered to make good on his debt, traveling with his new horseless carriage to Bad Axe to pay for his ride. Gossip at the bank followed shortly after, for Mrs. Carrie Sparling had endorsed her check from the insurance company’s proceeds – the Sun Life policy from Albert’s death - over to the good doctor. He, in turn, signed off and walked away with $1000 in cash - $684 of which he dropped off at the auto garage.

Disaster seemed to follow the Sparling’s. On August 4, not long after the boys harvested the oats crop, Scyrel, the youngest of the boys, retreated to his bed with complaints of nausea. The day before, he had helped a neighbor thrash, and the night before, on August 3, Scyrel and his friend, Lem Douglas, along with their girlfriends, spent the evening in Bad Axe, where they frequented the town’s ice cream parlor. Would Scyrel follow in his brothers’ footsteps?

Some folks thought, for once, Carrie Sparling should summon someone other than Dr. MacGregor. Something hokey was going on in Ubly.

Like so many times before, Dr. MacGregor drove his horseless carriage out to the Sparling farm faster than seemed acceptable, ignoring the upset horses and the disgruntled farmers he passed, leaving them in a cloud of dust. After consulting his medical books, the physician feared young Scyrel suffered of liver cancer. To be sure, the following day he called in Dr. Willett J. Herrington, requesting a second opinion. The Sparling men had been keeping him busy these last years, and Dr. MacGregor was growing weary.

Unbeknownst to Dr. Herrington, Dr. MacGregor also contacted Dr. Daniel Conboy for his opinion, who, in turn, didn’t know Dr. Herrington had just been consulted as well.

Dr. Conboy had extensive training in toxicology. While he had been consulted in Albert’s death and had previously agreed to the diagnosis of acute pancreatitis for Albert, something hadn’t quite seemed right. Since the passing of Albert, Dr. Conboy consulted his trusty Encyclopedia of Medicine and found Scyrel’s symptoms indicated something else entirely: arsenical poisoning.

After a joint exam of young Scyrel, Dr. MacGregor, perhaps anticipating the thoughts of Dr. Conboy, surprisingly asked Dr. Conboy if he suspected arsenic as the cause for the patient’s itchy extremities and the irritation in his nose, mouth and throat. Dr. Conboy agreed and, though old and weary after offering the community his physician’s services for more than a quarter century, Dr. Conboy could finally see the forest for the trees.

Concerned about Scyrel’s situation, Dr. Daniel Conboy paid a visit to Xen Boomhower in Bad Axe, giving him an update on the boy’s condition. Dr. Conboy alleged Carrie Sparling was poisoning Scyrel, the motive: insurance money.

Be sure to look for the continuation next month…just what is going on at the Sparling farm, and is the good Dr. MacGregor to blame?


The Sparling Murders, Part 3

by Janis Stein

The scene is set in rural Ubly in the early 1900s. A father of five, John Wesley Sparling found himself in the family plot in the Tyre cemetery. He wasn’t lonely for long though – his eldest son, Peter, was quick to join him. And he, followed by son Albert. And now, it seems young Scyrel has taken to his bed. Perhaps the good Dr. MacGregor will soon get to the bottom of things in Ubly…

After Dr. Conboy and Mr. Boomhower conferred, the pair, in turn, traveled together to Ubly to see Dr. MacGregor, where they learned from the physician Scyrel’s condition had grown worse. Just what was going on out at the Sparling farm?

Xen specifically told Dr. MacGregor to notify him upon Scyrel’s death, for he wanted to order an autopsy. Drs. Conboy and Herrington would assist with the post-mortem. As an afterthought, Dr. MacGregor added folks shouldn’t be surprised if the autopsy did show signs of arsenic, for the Sparling boys consumed patent tonics, which contained the very same. Manufacturers did not have to adhere to any government regulations, and these “medicines” promised cures for everything from scarlet fever to gout.

Dr. MacGregor then suggested they hire a nurse from the Port Huron Agency to keep an eye on Scyrel. Dr. MacGregor wasted no time and hired Miss Marguerite Gibbs the following day. Tall and attractive, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed nurse met the good doctor’s approval; she would be responsible for tending to Scyrel, administering his medicines, monitoring all of his food and drink and, in her spare time, she would search the Sparling home for poison.

Two days later, the nurse discretely showed Dr. MacGregor a cardboard box in the Sparling kitchen filled with arsenic. Dr. MacGregor dutifully delivered the box of arsenic to the desk of Xen Boomhower, the implications of Carrie Sparling’s involvement in the deaths of her husband and two sons lay within the flimsy walls of the cardboard box.

After Dr. MacGregor’s departure, Xen Boomhower contacted the local sheriff, Donald McAuley, and requested he look into additional arsenic sources. Sheriff McAuley, a tall bear of a man in his 40s, began to canvass the countryside, and he learned a good deal more than what he had expected, hearing from the Sparling neighbors about an alleged affair between Dr. MacGregor and Mrs. Carrie Sparling. Nor could the sheriff ignore the ravings of Uncle John; despite his 70-plus years, his knowledge and suspicions warranted Sheriff McAuley to dig a bit deeper.

Though it was beyond comprehension, perhaps in addition to Mrs. Sparling, a closer look needed to be taken at the good doctor. Upon further investigation at the bank, the sheriff learned each time Mrs. Sparling cashed an insurance check on the proceeds of her dead sons, Dr. MacGregor’s accounts profited quite nicely. Had Dr. MacGregor purposely thrown suspicion upon Carrie Sparling in attempt to divert the sheriff and the prosecutor?

On August 10, Dr. Conboy - at the request of the prosecutor - paid a surprise visit to the Sparling home. Mrs. MacGregor assisted the nurse in bathing Scyrel, who drifted in and out of consciousness. Dr. MacGregor comforted Carrie. Painfully obvious, Scyrel wouldn’t last long.

On August 14, Dr. MacGregor called his physician comrades back to Scyrel’s bedside. Drs. Conboy and Herrington arrived, as did Dr. Eugene Holdship. Jay S. Corcoran came as well. Only Dr. Conboy knew the complexity of the case, for he had been familiarizing himself with the side effects of poison late into the night for the past 10 days. All present agreed Scyrel Sparling would die before dawn. The doctors departed, save Drs. MacGregor and Holdship. Dr. Conboy called out a reminder to summon him and Dr. Herrington in regards to the autopsy.

A few hours later, Scyrel breathed his last.

Always a man of action, Dr. MacGregor made the suggestion to Dr. Holdship they should perform an autopsy immediately. Dr. Holdship was unaware that Prosecutor Xen Boomhower had his own ideas of just who should do the honors.

Outside, Ubly’s undertaker, Mr. Hector McKay lounged on the Sparling hammock as he grieved yet another Sparling boy’s death. Dr. MacGregor approached Hector, asking him for his knife. Dr. MacGregor promptly handed the blade to his acquaintance, informing Dr. Holdship he would make the cuts.

In the dark of night, Carrie Sparling held the lantern with as steady a hand as she could manage while Dr. Holdship sliced away, following the direction of Dr. MacGregor. Dr. Holdship removed a few vital organs; the liver, spleen, pancreas and part of the upper intestine, the liver appeared swollen and ruptured. Dr. MacGregor diagnosed his death as cancer of the liver, promptly asking Dr. Holdship if the organ appeared diseased. Dr. Holdship nodded his agreement. When Dr. Holdship inquired as to whether he should dissect the stomach, Dr. MacGregor indicated Scyrel’s stomach looked fine; there’d be no need to disturb it.

At first light, Dr. MacGregor hopped in his auto and drove to Bad Axe, the jars containing Scyrel’s organs clanking together in an eerie tune along the way. Mr. Boomhower, who had been preparing to leave for the Sparling farm so he could be present during the autopsy, was most surprised when Dr. MacGregor drove up. Dr. MacGregor handed the jars filled to the brim with Scyrel’s organs to Xen, who had previously indicated the contents would be shipped to the University of Michigan for analysis.

Dr. Charles B. Morden, the Huron County coroner, along with Sheriff McAuley and Drs. Herrington and Conboy stood in front of the courthouse, their mouths agape.

Why had Dr. MacGregor performed the autopsy, wondered Xen? The doctor was quick to explain it had been no trouble at all; he was happy to help.

The coroner inspected the jars, questioning the absence of the stomach, for pathologists at U of M would indeed be interested in its telling signs of arsenical poisoning: If arsenic had been present, the mucous membrane would show signs of irritation and inflammation. Dr. MacGregor explained there was no need for concern, for he opened up the stomach himself. The organ showed no indication of arsenic, insisted the good doctor.

As Dr. MacGregor raced away in his horseless carriage, the leading officials and prominent citizens who gathered in front of the courthouse scratched their heads in dismay. Burial of Scyrel’s body would proceed, and the organs sent to Ann Arbor immediately. Four dead Sparling’s in three year’s time warranted some answers.

University of Michigan pathologists, Dr. Vaughn and Professor Warthin provided those answers to Prosecutor Xenophon Boomhower: High levels of arsenic contaminated Scyrel’s major organs. Scyrel Sparling died, without question, from arsenical poisoning.

Ray Sparling now worked the farm alone. Without his brothers, though, his heart no longer yearned to spend time in the barn or in the fields. Mrs. Sparling decided to leave this farm, too, which was located two miles south and two and a half miles west of Ubly. The two remaining Sparling’s, Carrie and her son, Ray, decided once and for all to pull up stakes.

James R. Turnball auctioneered the sale held at 12 noon on Friday, November 10, 1911. Livestock for sale included one brood mare and colt; three horses; one yearling colt; six cows; two yearlings; four calves; one boar; and 20 sheep. Farm equipment consisted of one Sterling hay loader; one Kemp manure spreader; one Champion disc seed drill; one McCormick binder; one McCormick mover; one Champion hay rake; three harrows; two John Deering plows; one Kraus riding cultivator; and two hand cultivators.

Neighbors flocked to the Sparling farm, for the Sparling boys had had a stellar reputation for keeping their equipment in top-notch shape. Before the day was out new owners would walk away with two of the Sparling’s heavy sleighs. Also on the auction block were two sets of light sleighs; two lumber wagons; three buggies, one of which was advertised as nearly new; two cutters; and a spring cutter. Ray gathered the gardening tools, hay forks, multiple sets of harnesses, two incubators - one with a 100-egg capacity and the other 200 - and even the Empire cream separator from the barn.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Sparling worked inside gathering the household goods. Three heating stoves and four bedsteads made the sale bill as did three kitchen tables, six dining room chairs, one rocking chair, one dish cupboard and even the organ. Mrs. Sparling had had enough – it was time to move on.

Be sure to look for the continuation next month when Dr. MacGregor stands trial in Huron County for the murders of John Wesley Sparling, Peter Sparling, Albert Sparling and Scyrel Sparling. Will justice be served at last?


The Sparling Murders, Part 4

by Janis Stein

Join in the continuation as jury selection begins for the trial of Dr. Robert A. MacGregor who faces a murder charge for the death of Scyrel Sparling. Though circumstantial evidence would be allowed for consideration regarding the death of Albert Sparling, testimony would not be admitted (yet) for the deaths of John Wesley Sparling and Peter Sparling. Will the good doctor be found guilty? Just what did go on in Ubly during the early 1900s?

On January 12, 1912, Dr. Robert A. MacGregor was charged with the murder of Scyrel Sparling.

In Huron County, officials ordered Albert Sparling’s body exhumed and his organs sent for analysis - the results: arsenical poisoning. In Sanilac County, shovels dug into the Sparling plot in the Tyre Cemetery. The bodies of John Wesley and Peter Sparling required further inspection. Portions of their organs were shipped off for testing, too. John Wesley and Peter had been poisoned with strychnine.

** The Trial **

On April 2, 1912, Bad Axe flooded with locals, visitors and reporters, all hoping to witness Huron County’s trial of the century. Anticipation for great crowds combined with a dilapidated courthouse building prompted officials to move the trial to the second floor of the building housing The Huron County Tribune.

Jury selection began. This alone proved a cumbersome process, for everyone in the county, it seemed, had heard of the Sparling case and either adamantly defended the reputation of Dr. MacGregor or were ready to see him hanged. Two full weeks passed before 12 men, who had not formed an opinion, were selected.

Prosecuter Xenophon Boomhower prepared his case and, while all of his evidence was circumstantial – after all, no eyewitnesses could attest to seeing Dr. MacGregor poison any of the Sparling’s – the young prosecutor with a promising career weaved the evidence string by string. Attorney E.A. Snow of Saginaw acted as special counsel, assisting Prosecuter Boomhower in the case.

Meanwhile, attorney for the defense, George M. Clark, prepared for the trial that would make his career, with Paul Woodworth, a prominent local attorney at the ready to assist. The defendant, Dr. MacGregor, pronounced his plea of “not guilty.” The defense ran into problems early on when in mid-April Mr. Clark could no longer function: He had been stricken with typhoid fever. The trial was adjourned for a week, while a new Defense Attorney, Joseph Walsh of Port Huron, stepped up to fill Clark’s vacancy.

Judge Watson Beach presided. He informed the court that Dr. MacGregor was being tried solely for the death of Scyrel Sparling, though circumstantial evidence regarding Albert could be taken into consideration. Testimony regarding the deaths of John Wesley and Peter Sparling would not be admitted at this point. The jurymen would be residing at the Steadman Hotel during the course of the trial. No contact with members outside of the jury would be permitted.

Defense Attorney Walsh reminded the jury they would first need to decide if Scyrel Sparling died of arsenical poisoning and, secondly, the decision would need to be made whether Dr. MacGregor had been involved. It was not the duty of the defense to prove his client was innocent. It was the duty of the people, though, to prove these points beyond a reasonable doubt.

Link by link, the prosecuting team created a chain against the defense. Dr. Conboy testified that Dr. MacGregor had placed the blame directly on Carrie Sparling. Dr. Holdship testified he, in fact, did perform Scyrel’s autopsy, but it had been under the guiding hand of Dr. MacGregor. Furthermore, Dr. Holdship testified that Dr. MacGregor had specifically told him not to cut open Scyrel’s stomach during the post-mortem, while Dr. MacGregor not 24 hours later had told the prosecutor MacGregor himself had slit open the stomach. Another link in the chain.

Annie Pieruski, the domestic hired to help Mrs. Sparling in the home, testified to the many visits by Dr. MacGregor. It wasn’t uncommon for Dr. MacGregor and Mrs. Sparling to go behind a locked bedroom door to conduct their 30-minute business. Oddly enough, on the rare occasions when Mrs. MacGregor accompanied her husband to the Sparling farm, the doctor had no need to go into the bedroom with Mrs. Sparling.

Henry Bacon took the stand on behalf of the defense. He worked as a farm hand under the guidance of John Wesley, back when he’d been alive. Bacon claimed he, too, saw Dr. MacGregor and Mrs. Sparling go into the bedroom together a week before John Wesley died. Dr. MacGregor locked the door behind him and the pair remained in the bedroom for a period of 20 minutes.

The combined testimony of Pieruski and Bacon, no doubt, caused more tongues in Ubly to wag.

The most compelling testimony in the circumstantial chain of evidence came in the form of Assistant Professor of Hygiene, Richard Pryor, and Professor of Pathology, Alfred Scott Warthin, the University of Michigan pathologists who analyzed Scyrel’s organs. The level of arsenic found could not be explained away by the consumption of patent tonics. In their combined expert opinion, Scyrel Sparling had been poisoned.

A good number of people came in support of Dr. MacGregor. His father attended court each day it was in session, and Carrie Sparling, too, who had also been charged in the conspiracy, still believed in the goodness of her family doctor. Carrie Sparling stated she sprayed plants with arsenic, explaining the box of poison found in her house. The doctor was not responsible for her loved one’s deaths.

Ray Sparling, Carrie’s last surviving son, defended the good doctor, stating the brothers changing the representative to Carrie Sparling on each of their life insurance policies had been their own idea – to ensure their mother would be properly cared for in the event that they passed away before she did. When Prosecutor Boomhower asked the surly young man how many times Dr. MacGregor frequented the Sparling farm, he smartly stated, “more than a half-dozen and less than 3,000.”

The doctor’s wife, Ida MacGregor, took the stand on behalf of the defense and proved to be a valuable witness, testifying with righteous honesty. Though she couldn’t change the facts, Ida MacGregor did testify to the relationship in question between the Sparling’s and the MacGregor’s. The families exchanged Christmas gifts and took turns entertaining in each other’s homes. The Sparling boys made themselves at home when visiting the MacGregor’s, and Ida helped Carrie in any way she could during the Sparling’s harvest season. If anything improper had been going on between Dr. MacGregor and Mrs. Sparling, it became evident to the jury that Ida MacGregor had been clueless.

When Dr. MacGregor took the stand, he faced a grueling five days of questioning with an answer for everything, though his statements directly contradicted the testimony of Drs. Conboy, Herrington and Holdship as well as the county coroner and the sheriff.

Dr. MacGregor explained that Mrs. Sparling’s eye ailments required multiple visits to the farm. The endorsement by Mrs. Sparling on Albert’s insurance proceeds merely paid off the Sparling debt owed to the doctor. All eyes in the court were on his wife, Ida, when the doctor testified nothing improper had been going on between him and Mrs. Sparling. Ida, noticeably relieved, sat a little straighter.

If only Carrie Sparling hadn’t had such a baffling eye ailment.

The jury sat with rapt attention when Prosecutor Boomhower called Nick Prezinski to the stand. Prezinski, a neighbor, testified the bottle Dr. MacGregor drew drops from to administer to Carrie Sparling’s eyes contained atropin. The drug dilated the pupils and could cause temporary blindness. Had Dr. MacGregor purposely impaired the vision of Mrs. Sparling’s eyes?

In all, over 100 witnesses on behalf of either side took the stand to tell their story. Jury selection had begun on April 2, with testimony given between May 1 and June 6. On June 6, 1912, the opposing attorneys completed their closing arguments. It was 6 p.m., and the case was now in the hands of the jury. At that point, the Sparling murder trial had been the longest criminal case in the state of Michigan.

Midnight came and went as the jurors deliberated. At 12:15 Thursday morning, the jury sent word to the judge; they had arrived at a unanimous vote.


The Sparling Murders, Part 5

by Janis Stein

Join in the conclusion as the jury arrives at their unanimous vote. Will the good doctor be found guilty…or was he innocent after all? Do not miss the aftermath of the trial… what happens next is unbelievable. It’s no wonder folks in Ubly are still hashing over the verdict!

Bad Axe came alive as reporters and country folk, who hadn’t dared return back home lest they miss the verdict, herded back into the makeshift courtroom on the second floor of the Tribune Hall. Anticipation of the verdict silenced the courtroom, and attendees listened to every drop of rain as it struck the building.

Robert Bowman, foreman of the jury, rose to give Judge Watson Beach their verdict: “We find Dr. Robert A. MacGregor guilty as charged of murder in the first degree; of murdering Scyrel Sparling by arsenical poisoning.”

While the courtroom erupted, Dr. MacGregor sat expressionless and strangely quiet.

Judge Beach sentenced Dr. MacGregor to life imprisonment; he would serve his time at Michigan’s state prison in Jackson.

Nine weeks had passed since the beginning of jury selection. The Sparling murder case was finally over…or was it?

The Aftermath

A mob had all but gathered at the Bad Axe depot expecting to see Dr. MacGregor off to prison. Sheriff McAulay anticipated as much, and made prior plans to transport the prisoner to Elkton, expecting to avoid a riot. To his surprise, word had spread to all corners of Huron County and an even bigger crowd had gathered at the Elkton depot than the one that patiently waited to catch a glimpse of the not-so-good doctor at the depot in Bad Axe. Sheriff McAulay, to his credit, safely escorted the prisoner to his new home in Jackson.

By July, word came back to Huron County that Dr. MacGregor had gained employment within the prison confines, serving as an assistant to the prison physician. He continued to profess his innocence and vowed to work toward redeeming his freedom.

In December of 1912, Dr. MacGregor’s attorney requested a new trial. New evidence supposedly came to light in the form of a written statement by a Mr. J.W. Douglas of Bingham. In the statement, Douglas alleged Scyrel had consumed dangerous amounts of patent tonics. Douglas saw a bottle fall from Scyrel’s coat pocket – the bottle filled with an arsenic concoction.

In addition, the defense claimed the jurors had not been sufficiently contained at the Steadman Hotel. Jurors must be completely isolated, and the defense alleged letters and mail were handed to jurors on the street. Further, the defense claimed jurors had been seen talking to various parties on the street numerous times.

Judge Beach considered the information presented before him. January came and went. During the last week in February, the judge announced his decision: He denied Dr. MacGregor a new trial.

MacGregor did not lie down. His attorney pressed the matter, and took an appeal to the Supreme Court in Michigan. The Court upheld the lower court’s conviction.

Still the good doctor professed his innocence from his confines in the Jackson prison. He would not give up on his freedom, for he was, he claimed, an innocent man.

Meanwhile at the prison, Dr. MacGregor moved up from his position as assistant to that of physician. He took good care of his clientele, and his patients thought him to be a fine doctor.

Years later, Dr. MacGregor continued to fight the good fight. At his insistence, the physician’s attorney wrote a letter to the governor, imploring his help and requesting his involvement. Governor Woodbridge N. Ferris noted the prisoner had served four years of his life sentence, when Governor Ferris decided to launch his own investigation. Had Dr. MacGregor murdered his patient? Maybe it was time to give the matter another look…

After extensive interviews in Ubly and Bad Axe, Governor Ferris called the Jackson prison, requesting inmate Robert MacGregor to report to his office – without an escort. In 1916, Governor Ferris granted Dr. MacGregor a full pardon.

Why had Governor Ferris ignored the verdict of a jury of MacGregor’s peers? Why, too, had the governor ignored the opinion of Michigan’s highest court? When pressed as to the reason why, Governor Ferris refused to reveal the evidence on which the pardon was granted.

Dr. MacGregor was now a free man. Traveling to Ontario, he thought he’d pick up his life and start anew. Word had spread, though, from the little town of Ubly, all the way across the country’s border. Dr. MacGregor’s name preceeded him, and some folks didn’t look too kindly upon his past alleged actions.

After weighing his options, Dr. MacGregor decided prison hadn’t been so bad. After contacting the proper authorities and of his own volition, Dr. MacGregor resumed his position as the Jackson prison physician – only now he could come and go as he pleased.

Happily Ever After?

Mrs. MacGregor, though still committed to her husband, remained in Ubly for a time. Eventually she moved. In 1955, she passed away in a San Diego rest home.

Xenophen Boomhower served as a Circuit Judge for 24 years. He died in 1954. Attorney Snow, who assisted Boomhower in sending Dr. MacGregor up the river, later became Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. Likewise, attorney for the defense, Joseph Walsh, later served as Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.

Back in 1912, Prosecutor Boomhower dropped the charges against Carrie Sparling, due to insufficient evidence. Mrs. Sparling and her son, Ray, moved to Port Huron to escape the never-ending speculation of her involvement in the deaths of her husband and three sons. Carrie Sparling died in 1933.

Final Thoughts

Though all the players are now dead and gone, folks in Ubly and the surrounding area still think about the Sparling murders from time to time. Questions still arise over cups of coffee shared among neighbors. What exactly did happen to the Sparling’s and who really was responsible for their deaths? Why did the governor grant a full pardon without offering evidence of his decision to the people?

Folks still speculate about young Ray Sparling, too. First, it had been the father, John Wesley. Peter, the next oldest male then died, followed by Albert who fell in line by age behind Peter. If the killer had been following a pattern by murdering the oldest male Sparling down to the youngest, Ray should have been next. Yet, he wasn’t. Scyrel, instead, met his Maker.

If Dr. MacGregor was indeed innocent and his only crime falling in love with Carrie Sparling, who then, had poisoned the Sparling men? Had the sheriff and the town and the prosecutor been so busy looking at Dr. MacGregor and Mrs. Sparling that they failed to look at someone, anyone, who had something to gain? What, if anything, could be gained? A farm, perhaps?

Little is mentioned of Ray Sparling in the 15 varying accounts compiled at the Sleeper Public Library in Ubly. No allegations have ever been made against Ray, the last surviving male Sparling, and this writer will make no allegations of her own.

It is interesting to note, however, a particular document on file at the Huron County courthouse. After Mrs. Carrie Sparling held the auction on November 10, 1911, to sell her house and farm wares, she deeded her Bingham Township property on December 18, 1911, to one, Ray Sparling. Following the paper trail, a deed dated March 21, 1917, shows Ray Sparling sold the 40-acre farm to Mr. William Elliot for the hefty sum of $4000. Not bad pocket change for the times. It’s no wonder tongues are still wagging in Ubly!

Sometimes varying accounts of the truth really are stranger than fiction. John Wesley Sparley’s tombstone still stands in the Tyre Cemetery. Special thanks to the Sleeper Public Library in Ubly for sharing their compilation of information regarding the Sparling murders. Information was garnered from the following previously published articles and books: The Huron County Tribune, April – June 1912; Master Detective, 1938; Ione Umphrey; The Detroit Free Press, 1943; The Man’s Magazine; Liberty; Ubly History Book, 1896-1976; The Detroit News, 1958; The Times Herald, 1972; The Grand Rapids Press, 1988; Butcher’s Dozen; Oh, Doctor; Murder in the Heartland; and a few miscellaneous articles within the library’s file.


MO: Killed his lover's husband and two sons for insurance

DISPOSITION: Life sentence, 1912 (pardoned by governor, 1916); remained as prison physician until his death.