First, Do No Harm

A family doctor’s motive for murder is fueled by passion and greed.

Nestled in Michigan’s Thumb, Ubly was a peaceful village—until Dr. Robert A. MacGregor arrived in 1905. Dr. MacGregor played the role of country doctor in the small farming community, developing an honest reputation.

In January 1909, Carrie Sparling sought the doctor’s care for an eye condition, making the hour-long trek by horse to his office. After an eye-drop treatment, MacGregor promised he’d soon drop by the Sparling farm.

Days later, John Wesley, Carrie’s husband, greeted MacGregor. After a thorough examination behind a closed bedroom door, MacGregor treated Mrs. Sparling with eyedrops. Before he left, MacGregor told Mr. Sparling he’d gladly stop by whenever he traveled the neighborhood, which happened frequently in the upcoming months.

John Wesley and Carrie Sparling’s sons were men in their prime: Peter, the eldest at 25; Albert, 23; Ray, 21; and Scyrel, 19. Strong and healthy like their father, they toiled in the fields.

One June day, John Wesley quit work midday, clutching his stomach. Peter rode his horse at breakneck speeds to fetch MacGregor, who diagnosed a kidney ailment. John Wesley died on July 8, 1909, and was laid to rest in the Tyre Cemetery. The whole community attended the service.

The farm fell into the capable hands of Carrie’s sons. The widow consulted MacGregor regarding finance decisions. The doctor suggested Carrie purchase life insurance for her sons. Carrie agreed, but the boys stated it wasn’t necessary; they were healthy. The doctor reminded that John Wesley had been, too. Carrie purchased policies from Alexander MacGregor, the doctor’s father.

The boys each named Carrie the sole beneficiary.

Carrie’s eyes required MacGregor to make numerous trips to the farm. Within two months, Peter Sparling joined his father in the Tyre Cemetery. Before he died, the doctor had diagnosed him with acute pancreatitis.

Folks began to think the unthinkable.

As Carrie grieved, MacGregor advised she sell the farm and buy another parcel closer to Ubly. Albert, Ray, and Scyrel fell into a comfortable routine at the new homestead. A shrewd advisor, the doctor suggested Carrie insure her three surviving sons with an additional $1,000.

In April 1911, MacGregor ordered a horseless carriage in Bad Axe. The physician didn’t dispute the $684 price, informing the salesman he’d pay cash within a month.

By mid-May, Albert complained of stomach pain. The doctor diagnosed, again, acute pancreatitis.

By June, fresh dirt in the Sparling plot showed John Wesley and Peter had company.

Carrie purchased a home in Ubly for $5,000, placing $1,000 down. Gossip escalated when Dr. and Mrs. MacGregor returned from vacation and moved into the home in Ubly, using a portion of the space for his office. Carrie stayed with Ray and Scyrel on the homestead. It was only natural she checked on her property in Ubly. Her eye ailment continued to cause her grief.

Meanwhile, MacGregor paid for his new auto. Gossip at the bank ensued. Carrie had endorsed her check from Albert’s death over to the good doctor. He walked away with $1,000 in cash, $684 of which he left at the auto garage.

Disaster followed the Sparlings. On August 4, after the oats harvest, Scyrel complained of nausea.

MacGregor raced to the Sparling farm, fearing Scyrel suffered from liver cancer. The next day he called Dr. Willet J. Herrington, requesting a second opinion. Unbeknownst to Dr. Herrington, he also called Dr. Daniel Conboy for his opinion.

Earlier that day, MacGregor had summoned Dr. Eugene Holdship, who performed the autopsy, not knowing that Boomhower had requested Conboy and Herrington to do the honors. Carrie held the lantern with a shaky hand as Holdship sliced. MacGregor diagnosed Scyrel’s death as liver cancer, promptly asking for and receiving Holdship’s agreement. Holdship inquired if the stomach should be dissected, but MacGregor said it looked fine.

At first light, MacGregor drove to Bad Axe, the jars containing Scyrel’s organs clanking together. Boomhower was surprised to see MacGregor, who handed over the organ-filled jars. The coroner, the sheriff, and Doctors Herrington and Conboy stood in front of the courthouse, their mouths agape. When Boomhower asked why he had proceeded with the autopsy, MacGregor assured him he had been happy to help. The coroner immediately questioned the stomach’s absence. MacGregor stated he had opened the stomach himself, and the organ showed no indication of arsenic. 

Scyrel’s burial proceeded, while his organs were sent to Ann Arbor. Four dead Sparlings in three years warranted answers. University of Michigan pathologists Dr. Vaughn and Professor Alfred Warthin shed some light: Scyrel had been poisoned.

Ray Sparling now farmed alone, but his heart was no longer in it. Carrie, too, had had enough. On November 10, 1911, they auctioned off the livestock, machinery, and household goods. It was time to move.

On January 12, 1912, Dr. Robert A. MacGregor was charged with the murder of Scyrel Sparling, despite his efforts to shift the blame to Mrs. Sparling.

Officials ordered the exhumation of John Wesley, Peter, and Albert Sparling. The results: John Wesley and Peter had been poisoned with strychnine, and Albert with arsenic.

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Jury selection began April 12, 1912. Locals, visitors, and reporters flooded Bad Axe to witness the trial of the century. Prosecutor Boomhower, armed with only circumstantial evidence, prepared his case. Defense attorney George M. Clark prepared for the trial that would make his career.

Judge Watson Beach presided. He informed the court that MacGregor stood trial for the death of Scyrel Sparling. MacGregor pronounced his plea of “not guilty.”

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 performed Scyrel’s autopsy—under the guiding hand of Dr. MacGregor, who 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 that he himself had slit open the stomach.

Trial Spectators
The jury. Courtesy of The Thumb Pointed Fingers by Jacki Howard, with news clips originating from The Huron County Tribune.

Annie Pieruski, a domestic hired to help Mrs. Sparling, testified to MacGregor’s many visits. MacGregor and Carrie conducted their 30-minute business behind a locked bedroom door.

The most compelling testimony came from the pathologists who had analyzed Scyrel’s organs. The level of arsenic found could not be explained by the consumption of patent tonics as suggested by MacGregor. Scyrel Sparling had been poisoned.

Many people came to support MacGregor, including his father. Carrie, who had been charged with conspiracy, believed in him. Carrie testified that she sprayed plants with arsenic, explaining the box of poison found in her home. Ray Sparling also defended the doctor.

Ida MacGregor took the stand on behalf of her husband. If anything improper had been going on between MacGregor and Carrie, Ida MacGregor had been clueless.

MacGregor faced a grueling five days of questioning. His answers directly contradicted the testimony of the coroner, sheriff, and Doctors Conboy, Herrington, and Holdship.

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

Neighbor Nick Prezinski testified the bottle MacGregor drew drops from to administer to Carrie’s eyes contained atropine. The drug dilated the pupils and could cause temporary blindness. Had MacGregor purposely impaired Carrie’s vision?

More than 100 witnesses on both sides took the stand. Testimony ran from May 1 through June 6, when the jury heard closing arguments. The Sparling murder trial had been the longest criminal case in Michigan.

Just after midnight, the jury arrived at a unanimous vote.

Bad Axe came alive as reporters and country folk, who hadn’t dared return 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: “We find Dr. Robert A. MacGregor guilty as charged of murder in the first degree; of murdering Scyrel Sparling by arsenical poisoning.”

The courtroom erupted. MacGregor sat expressionless and strangely quiet as Judge Beach sentenced him to life imprisonment in Jackson. Charges against Carrie had been dropped, due to insufficient evidence.

The Sparling murder case was over—or was it?

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Robert MacGregor gained employment within the prison as assistant physician, all the while professing his innocence. In December 1912, his attorney requested a new trial. Judge Beach reviewed the supposed new evidence; in February 1913, he denied the request.

MacGregor’s attorney then appealed to Michigan’s Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court’s decision.

MacGregor advanced to the position of physician at the prison. He still professed his innocence, so his attorney wrote a letter to the governor, requesting his involvement. Governor Woodbridge N. Ferris noted the prisoner had served four years of his life sentence and decided to launch his own investigation. Had MacGregor murdered his patient? 

After extensive interviews in Bad Axe and Ubly, in 1916 Governor Ferris granted a full pardon—without explanation. Dr. MacGregor was free!

MacGregor traveled to Ontario where he thought he’d start his life anew. Word had spread. Everywhere he went, he faced animosity. MacGregor decided prison life hadn’t been terrible; of his own volition, MacGregor resumed his position as the Jackson prison physician—only now he could come and go as he pleased. He continued to serve as physician until he died of typhoid fever in 1928.

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Area folks still think about the Sparling murders. Why did Governor Ferris ignore the verdict of MacGregor’s peers? Why did he ignore the opinion of Michigan’s highest court? And why did he grant a full pardon without offering evidence of his decision to the people?

The mystery of MacGregor’s pardon remains, and, a century later, folks in Ubly and its surrounds still wonder just who was responsible for the Sparling murders.

Conboy had extensive toxicology training. Conboy thought Scyrel’s symptoms indicated arsenical poisoning. The question wasn’t if Scyrel would die, but when.

After a joint exam, MacGregor, perhaps anticipating Conboy’s thoughts, asked Conboy if he suspected arsenic. Conboy agreed. Concerned, Conboy traveled to Bad Axe where he met prosecuting attorney Xen Boomhower. Conboy alleged Carrie Sparling had poisoned Scyrel. Her motive: insurance money.

Boomhower contacted MacGregor, telling him he wanted an autopsy upon Scyrel’s death, and he wanted Doctors Conboy and Herrington to assist. MacGregor mentioned the autopsy would likely show signs of arsenic because the Sparling boys consumed patent tonics, which contained the same. MacGregor also hired a nurse to administer Scyrel’s medicine and monitor his food and drink. In her spare time, the nurse would search the Sparling home for poison.

Two days later, the nurse showed MacGregor a cardboard box filled with arsenic she found in Mrs. Sparling’s kitchen cupboard. MacGregor delivered the arsenic box to Boomhower; the implication of Carrie’s involvement in the deaths of her husband and sons lay within its collapsing walls.

Scyrel breathed his last on August 14, 1911.

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