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My Ancestor Became a Morphine Addict and This Is What Happened

Always interested in researching historical events in hopes of gaining new insight and understanding.

"Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup For Children Teething” is a medicine label inscription that sounds innocent enough. This nineteenth century patent medicine, and others like it, were commonly available for over-the-counter-purchase. The core ingredient in the elixir was the opium derivative sulphate of morphia. Advertisements for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup recommended the product “should always be used for children teething. It soothes the child, softens the gums, allays all pain...”

Infant addicts were created and many died from Mrs. Winslow's and similar concoctions. “A teaspoonful of the syrup would have contained enough morphine to kill the average child, so it isn’t hard to understand why so many babies who were given Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup went to sleep only to never wake back up again, coining the syrup’s nickname the baby killer.”1

Be assured that adults were sampling Mrs. Winslow’s and many similar remedies merely for the morphine content. I’ll use this statement as the segway to tell the story of an ancestor of mine who became a morphine addict and died from the disease of addiction. Though I don't know specifically how the tragedy evolved nor whether an elixir similar to Mrs. Winslows may have been a catalyst for the addiction.

Maysville is in Mason County, Kentucky and the town borders a meander of the Ohio River. The area was included in the historic pioneer trail described as the Buffalo Trace. Margaret Lee Dayton was born in Maysville, Mason County, Kentucky in 1855 during a time when the region prospered prior to the US Civil War as the first and second generation offspring of the original settlers sought an education and a means to make their fortune.

Maggie Lee, shortened to the diminutive from the more formal Margaret, likely benefited from an upper-middle-class family life to include household servants. She spent some time at a Roman Catholic convent school in or near St. Clairsville, Ohio. There the instruction for girls and young ladies would have included "...Orthography, reading, Christian Doctrine, writing, practical and intellectual arithmetic, grammar, ancient and modern geography..."2 and so on. A well-rounded education for the era that would prepare Maggie to be an attractive, eligible young woman and ready for marriage to someone established financially or up-and-coming.

The father of Maggie Lee was Henry G. Dayton and he is listed, along with his wife also named Margaret, on the eighteen -fifty census as a lightning rod peddler but he was a man with big ideas. Maggie Lee was a late-in-life baby for H.G. Dayton and his wife and there were two adult sisters and an adult brother by the time she arrived. From seemingly humble origins, he achieved fifty-four patents for inventions like an improved apparatus for aging liquors and a combined water-cooler and refrigerator. An obituary for Henry G. Dayton was printed in the Cincinnati Enquirer in the April 19, 1878 edition. “He was a man of great magnetism, and peculiarly original in every form and feature of his make-up.” The author elaborates about the patents, renown, and the fortune “that brought him thousands and thousands of dollars which went as freely as it came, and left him to die poor.”

John Dexter Kehoe, known as JD Kehoe, began working as a printer apprentice at the age of ten. He was born in Lewis County, Kentucky but raised in Mason County. By the age of thirteen, J.D. Kehoe was a printer foreman in the office of the Maysville Republican newspaper and was well on his way to a successful career in the industry.2 He developed political aspirations and became a member of the Kentucky General Assembly and eventually achieved this goal.

Imagine the pomp and the circumstance of the wedding at Saint Patrick Catholic Church in Maysville on February 15, 1876, between twenty-two-year-old J. Dexter, Kehoe, and twenty-one-year-old Maggie Lee Dayton. To maintain the appearance of wealth as befitting a famous inventor, H.G. Dayton would have spared no expense. No written account of the affair remains other than a note for the marriage license application that the groom was a printer by trade.

"The marriage of Miss Maggie Lee Dayton, daughter of the famed inventor H.G. Dayton, to John Dexter Kehoe, in Maysville was a brilliant event," or something similar would have heralded the wedding announcement." Descriptions of the church auditorium with a beautifully frescoed-ceiling, tinted walls, and gracefully festooned floral designs would leave readers of The Evening Standard newspaper captivated while hanging on to every word. A wedding gown of ivory white, a long train, and the nuance of point d'Alencon lace would have the female reader of the day salivating.

Exactly nine months after the marriage, a son was born to Maggie and J.D. Kehoe. George Dexter Kehoe was born on February 15, 1876, in Maysville. Circa 1880, there were several reports in the social section of the Maysville Evening Ledger newspaper of sightings of Mrs. Kehoe and her little son. As J.D. Kehoe sought the election to the Kentucky General Assembly, social affairs and keeping up appearances would have been paramount to the success of the effort.

Not knowing how long or how well Maggie Lee Dayton and J.D. knew each other prior to their wedding. before or during eighteen-eighty-four the marriage began to break down. There are unanswered questions about the evolution of Maggie's morphine addiction. “Uterine and ovarian complications cause more ladies to fall into the [opium] habit, than all other diseases combined,”4 The divorce action documents provide an array of witnesses that stated they'd seen Maggie Lee Kehoe whiskey drunk and also under the influence of morphine.

The brother of J.D. Kehoe and brother-in-law of Maggie Lee was called to testify. Under oath, he testified about Maggie Lee that "She has been drinking and using morphine...I have seen her full of whiskey and often stimulants." He continues "I have had to help hold her in bed. I have also seen her in such stupid condition that she would dose off while sitting in a chair talking."3

Mary B. Harahan, née Dexter, was the sister of J.D. Kehoe and sister-in-law of Maggie Lee. Her deposition stated that her husband received a telegram from Maggie Lee in May of eighteen-eighty-five alerting them that she was coming to stay with them in Louisville. At the train depot, Maggie Lee arrived inebriated. During the two weeks stay Mary contacted the Sisters of Mercy "to take her and prevent her from doing herself personal violence." Mary elaborates that "While here she ate nothing but lived on wine, whiskey, and morphine," At the end of the stay, J.D. Kehoe sent money for Maggie Lee to travel to Belmont, Ohio. While she was again at the train depot to depart, Maggie Lee bought a bottle of wine and boarded the train drunk.3

J.D. Kehoe was elected to the Kentucky legislature and in eighteen-eighty-two he and Maggie Lee lived at the Bruhn Hotel in Frankfort, Kentucky for the legislative session. J.S. Russell was also a boarder at the Bruhn Hotel during the same time and in his deposition, he stated that when J.D. Kehoe was absent from the hotel "his wife...would send out the servants and boys about the hotel to the drug stores for stimulants." 3

The divorce decree shows Maggie Kehoe as unrepresented by an attorney yet the case was decided "in equity." Both parties now free to go there separate ways though it is probable that the defendant was in absentia as she was dealt the crushing blow "...George D. Kehoe free from the molestation of the defendant Margaret L. Kehoe but the said defendant shall have the privilege of seeing her said son...but not to have any direction or control over him in any way..." With no money and no way to fight back against the suit and the divorce from the now prominent J.D. Kehoe, Maggie fled to Cincinnati where she had some connections.

Likely ostracized by the Maysville community and alone in the world with little money, both parents dead, and her son George Dexter Kehoe in the custody of her ex-husband, Maggie Lee left the area. She may have tumbled around staying with friends or acquintances of her previously well-known father. But there remained the morphine addiction and Maggie Lee would have worn out her welcome quickly.

"Sold His Father-in-Law's Burial Lot" was the title of an article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune on August 9, 1891. The shocking story centers around J. Dexter Kehoe who by then was employed by the "State printing office and an ex-member of the Legislature who on Monday sold his father-in-law's lot in the (Maysville) cemetery." The article continues with "He first dug up the bones of his wife's (ex-wife) parents and threw them into a wheelbarrow, where they lay until charitable people buried them."

"Money Sent From Washington by J.Dexter Kehoe, Ex-State Senator in Kentucky, Provided For Former Wife's Funeral," was a featured story in the Cincinnati Enquirer on March 7, 1907. Maggie Lee Dayton Kehoe died the anonymous death of a pauper at the City Hospital in Cincinnati Ohio of morphinism.

"The three or four flashily-dressed women who yesterday accompanied to its resting place in the Wesleyan Cemetery, the body of "Maggie St. Clair," who died...of morphinism." The details of the woman's life had been reported by a friend Blanch Patton and were intriguing enough to make page 3 of the newspaper. The article made way to J.D. Kehoe who sent money for a funeral and burial. J.D. Kehoe resided in Washington D.C. and was then an auditor for the U.S. Government.

The article in the Cincinnati Enquire details how Maggie Lee grew up in Maysville, Kentucky to a wealthy inventor. As a young and beautiful woman and brilliant musician, she'd married J.D. Kehoe and they had one son. She'd been employed as a housekeeper in Cincinnati. On the previous Sunday evening, she made way to by cab to the Betts Street hospital but was turned away for the City Hospital and it can be assumed that Maggie Lee, now known as Maggie St Clair, was treated as a charity case. The article continues that the last words for Maggie Lee were "a plea to bring her baby to her again."

1.“Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup: The Baby Killer,” Museum of Healthcare Blog, June 28, 2017, https://museumofhealthcare.wordpress.com/2017/07/28/mrs-winslows-soothing-syrup-the-baby-killer/.

2. "Academy of the Sisters of Mercy, Crawford Street," The Vicksburg Herald, September 2, 1881.

3. J.D. Kehoe vs. Margaret L. Kehoe, Mason County Circuit Case Files, October 1885.

4. Hubbard, Dr. Frederick Heman, The Opium Habit and Alcoholism, 1881.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Sharon R Hill