Poisoned Salmon and Attempted Murder at Maxwell Place

By Sally Shearer

Long before Maxwell Place was purchased by the university, a mysterious crime happened there that has never been solved. 

In 1904 Judge James Mulligan and his second wife Genevieve lived at Maxwell Place. At luncheon meal, servant Lewis Mitchell served a baked salmon dish. Just prior to the family eating the fish, Mitchell warned them not to, saying it had been tampered with. When a family member inquired how, Mitchell replied that arsenic had been added to it.

The salmon was served in a silver bowl.

The police were called, and the salmon dish was sent to chemistry department on the University of Kentucky campus. A large amount of arsenic was found, enough to kill 50 people, according to one account. 

Police arrested Mitchell. During questioning, Mitchell told officials that James J. Mulligan, the son of Judge James Mulligan and his first wife Mary who was in Lexington for a visit from his home in Chicago, had offered him $100 to place the arsenic in the food to poison the family, specifically the judge.

The younger James had been trying to arrange a meeting with his father, but his father refused. He returned to Chicago and under oath said he was angry with his stepmother and father because they were spending his mother’s money that rightfully was his and his siblings.

The court exonerated the Mulligan son of any wrongdoing. There was a hung jury at Mitchell’s trial and in 1905 he was set free. 

Reinette Jones, UK Library Archivist

In UK Library Archivist Reinette Jones’ research, she found that Mitchell and his brother, Henry Mitchell, had been accused of murdering John Sanders in a saloon in Lexington in 1898. Lewis Mitchell was sentenced to prison. 

One account says Lewis Mitchell was on parole and working at Maxwell Place in 1904. It is unclear if Lewis Mitchell and the Mulligan family knew each other before 1904 although several articles refer to Lewis Mitchell as the “long trusted” servant of the James H. Mulligan family. 

Sally Shearer is Managing Editor of Kentucky Alumni magazine. Read more about Maxwell Place in the Fall 2022 issue of Kentucky Alumni magazine.

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