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Dr. Rustin's Mysterious Death

The strange death of prominent Omaha physician and surgeon Frederick Rustin in September of 1908 ushered in a series of widely publicized events culminating in accusations of suicide, a trial for murder, and a lengthy legal struggle by his widow to collect her husband's insurance benefits. Dr. Rustin, discovered by his wife with a mortal gunshot wound on the front porch of his Farnam Street home at about three a.m. on September 2, died shortly afterward in an Omaha hospital. The sensational details were reported by newspapers across the state, especially after an inquest turned up evidence of a tangled suicide pact that resulted in the arrest of Charles E. Davis for murder.

A key witness at the Rustin inquest was Mrs. Abbie Rice, who had been detained by Omaha police because she was one of the last persons to see the well-known physician alive. Rice claimed to have been an intimate friend of Rustin, who prior to his death was having financial problems. According to Rice, the doctor wanted to end his own life, but realized that his widow would be unable to collect his life insurance benefits if he did so, and accordingly tried to induce Rice to do the job for him. The Morning World-Herald, which reported extensively on the death and its aftermath, noted on September 9, 1908, that "[t]hrough love of him, Mrs. Rice was to fire the fatal shot and afterward kill herself."

Rice told the coroner's jury that she had initially agreed to the double suicide scheme but later backed out, and Rustin had been forced to find someone else willing to kill him. "The man she loved told her, she says, that he had secured a person [Charles E. Davis], one addicted to morphine, who would fire the fatal shot upon the condition that he be given enough poison to end his [Davis's] life." As a result of Rice's testimony, Davis, a local bank employee and member of a prominent Omaha family, was arrested, indicted, and tried for the murder of Dr. Rustin.

Rice testified at Davis's trial, repeating the story she had told at the inquest that implicated Davis in the killing. Davis maintained his innocence, admitting that he had a drug problem, but denied that he had ever entered into a suicide pact with Dr. Rustin. In a move to deflect suspicion from Davis, his defense team produced a surprise witness who testified that she saw-not Davis, but Rice-near Rustin's house about an hour after the shooting.

After thirteen hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. The Kearney Daily Hub said on December 11, 1908, that the decision freed Davis, but "left the death of Dr. Rustin involved in as deep a mystery as it was on the morning he was found dying on his front porch."

The unsolved Rustin case again surfaced in the Nebraska press in September of 1910 when the first guns were sounded in the fight to collect more than $38,000 worth of insurance on the principal figure in the tragedy. Five separate suits were filed by Mrs. Rustin, but later consolidated, in the district court at Louisville, Kentucky. When the jury returned a verdict awarding her the money, the affected insurance companies appealed, only to have the verdict upheld by the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

From the Kearney Daily Hub, September 9, 1908.

Omaha Chief of Police John J. Donahue helped investigate the baffling death of Dr. Frederick Rustin in 1908. From Howard Bartling, comp., Omaha Police Department Official Historical Souvenir (Omaha, 1909)


(August 2012)



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