Between 1908 and 1911, four members of the Sparling family of Ubly, Michigan, died after experiencing similar symptoms, including vomiting and abdominal pain. The first family member to die was the patriarch, John Wesley Sparling, in July 1908. His son Peter, who was 24 years old, died in June 1909. In May 1911, his son Albert, 23 years old, died.
On August 4, 1911, John Wesley’s 20-year-old son, Scyrel, fell ill with the same symptoms. The Sparling family physician, Dr. Robert MacGregor, who had begun treating the family in 1907, arrived at the family’s house on August 4 after receiving word that Scyrel was ill. The next day, MacGregor called Dr. Herrington from the nearby city of Bad Axe, Michigan, for consultation. Herrington was a physician and surgeon with 30 years of experience. According to Herrington’s later testimony, his expectation on August 5 was that Scyrel would recover. Herrington was called back to Ubly several days later when Scyrel’s condition had worsened. Over the next week, additional doctors, including Dr. E. Conboy and Dr. Holdship, were called in to assist MacGregor and Herrington with Scyrel’s case. According to later testimony from Herrington, he and MacGregor discussed whether Scyrel had been poisoned, by arsenic or another substance, during this week.
Scyrel died on August 14, 1911. MacGregor and Holdship performed the post-mortem evaluation that day, in the presence of an undertaker named Hector J. McKay. Herrington and Conboy were not able to make it to Ubly until the next day; the post-mortem was performed without them present. MacGregor determined that the cause of death was cancer of the liver. Scyrel’s stomach was not opened or removed for analysis.
Several days later, samples of Scyrel’s liver and other organs were taken to the pathological department at the University of Michigan for examination. Dr. Warthin, head of the pathological department, would later testify that the condition of the organs was consistent with poisoning, and specifically indicated arsenic poisoning. Dr. Vaughn and Dr. Pryor, also with the University of Michigan, performed a chemical analysis of the organs and found arsenic present in greater than trace amounts.
Following these findings, the body of Albert Sparling was exhumed. Warthin and Vaughn performed similar analyses and found evidence of poisoning and the presence of arsenic in Albert’s organs.
As police and the prosecutor investigated the suspicious deaths of the Sparling family members, they obtained information about insurance policies that had been purchased on the lives of the Sparling sons. In 1909, the Sparling matriarch, Carrie Bodie Sparling, had purchased life insurance policies from Sun Life Insurance Company on her four sons: Peter, Albert, Scyrel, and Ray. In 1910, after Peter’s death, she purchased additional insurance from Gleaners on the lives of Albert, Scyrel, and Ray. Police learned that MacGregor was the local examining physician for Sun Life and that his father was an agent for the company. With the assistance of MacGregor, after Peter’s death, the policies had been changed so that the benefits could be paid out without going through probate court. After Albert’s death, Carrie had paid some of the life insurance proceeds to MacGregor, which he then used to purchase a car. Records indicated that Carrie had purchased a house that MacGregor rented from her and that she had also paid him some cash after receiving the insurance proceeds following Albert’s death. At MacGregor’s trial, it would be debated whether these funds were for payment of the Sparlings’ medical bills or were evidence of a plot between Carrie and MacGregor.
Police arrested MacGregor and his assisting nurse, Marguerite Gibbs, in November 1911, charging MacGregor with first-degree murder in Scyrel’s death and charging Gibbs as an accessory after the fact. First-degree murder charges in the death of Scyrel were also filed against Carrie Sparling in December 1911.
The case against MacGregor went to trial in April 1912 in Huron County Circuit Court, with Judge Watson Beach presiding. After a lengthy jury selection process, testimony began on May 1, 1912. Xenophon A. Boomhower prosecuted the highly publicized case, assisted by special counsel Ernest A. Snow. George M. Clark initially represented MacGregor but became ill with typhoid fever during jury selection and was replaced by Joseph Walsh.
Conboy served as a primary witness for the prosecution. Conboy testified that he had suspected arsenic poisoning as a possibility on his first examination on Scyrel on August 7, 1911 – a week before Scyrel’s death. Conboy testified that during his first time examining Scyrel, MacGregor had been present and said he believed that Scyrel might have pancreatitis. Conboy testified that MacGregor told him he had been giving Scyrel ipecac and bismuth in an effort to stop Scyrel’s vomiting. He testified that he initially believed Scyrel was taking too much medication and had recommended stopping all medicine for a day, except for strychnine tablets he provided.
Conboy testified that he returned August 8 and conducted a more thorough examination of Scyrel, whose condition had not improved. According to Conboy, MacGregor followed him out after the examination and asked him if he suspected arsenic poisoning, which Conboy said he did. Conboy testified that MacGregor had said he also suspected arsenic poisoning and implied Carrie Sparling was responsible for the poisoning. Conboy reached out to prosecutor Boomhower at that point, to alert him to his concerns regarding a possible poisoning. Conboy testified that he, MacGregor, and Boomhower had agreed that a nurse should be hired to watch Scyrel and ensure no one was able to poison him further. Nurse Gibbs had been hired for this reason on August 9. Conboy continued to return daily to the Sparling house to check on Scyrel, sometimes with Dr. Herrington, and Conboy testified that on these visits, MacGregor pulled him aside several times to ask whether he had discussed his suspicions regarding arsenic poisoning with other people.
Conboy had also consulted on Albert’s case prior to Albert’s death, and he testified about his interactions with MacGregor during that time as well.
The doctors from the pathological department at the University of Michigan who had examined portions of Scyrel’s liver and other organs testified regarding the presence of poison and the condition of the organs.
Other witnesses testified that MacGregor had told them the Sparling family members suffered from syphilis and that the children had been weakened by excessive sexual indulgence by the Sparling parents.
The prosecution called McKay, the undertaker, to the stand. McKay testified on cross-examination that he had ample opportunity to examine Scyrel’s stomach if he had opted to and that MacGregor had not prevented him from doing so. According to testimony by Holdship, MacGregor discouraged him from opening or removing Scyrel’s stomach in the post-mortem examination.
The prosecution emphasized the insurance money at stake, the payments MacGregor received from Carrie Sparling and his alleged influence over her. The state presented witnesses claiming an involved personal relationship existed between Carrie Sparling and MacGregor.
MacGregor testified and faced five days of questioning. He denied poisoning Scyrel or trying to influence the other doctors involved in his treatment and post-mortem examination. MacGregor’s wife also testified in his defense.
The jury found MacGregor guilty of first-degree murder on June 5, 1912, and he was sentenced to life in prison on June 10, 1912.
Carrie Sparling’s trial was repeatedly delayed, and she continued to state publicly that MacGregor was innocent and that her husband and sons had died of natural causes. In interviews with reporters, she shared her deceased family members’ histories of illnesses and operations. In early January 1914, she met with a reporter and emphasized her desire to have her day in court, where she planned to stand trial and clear her name. In late January 1914, the charges against Carrie Sparling and Gibbs were dismissed. That same month, the Michigan Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision to deny MacGregor’s request for a new trial.
The next month, in February 1914, Carrie filed a lawsuit against Gleaners, which had turned down her claim on Scyrel’s life insurance policy. Available records do not indicate the outcome of this lawsuit.
In 1914, Governor Woodbridge Ferris launched an investigation into MacGregor’s case. The investigation took two years to complete, and Governor Ferris did not publicly share the information uncovered in the investigation. But, on November 27, 1916, Ferris pardoned MacGregor on the basis of innocence, saying, “I am firmly convinced that Dr. MacGregor is absolutely innocent of the crime for which he was convicted.” After receiving this pardon, MacGregor served as the prison physician at the Michigan state prison where he had once been a prisoner. He held that position until his death in 1928.
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.