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Episode 73 Fatal Night Cap: The Murder of Mary Cawein

Mary Cawein’s murder by carbolic acid poisoning in July 1965, shocked the social set in Lexington, Kentucky. Her murder would bring to light the affairs of her respected husband, Dr. Madison Cawein III. Did Madison murder his wife? Or did one of his lovers kill Mary?

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Dr Madison Cawein III and Mary Cawein were part of the elite social set in Lexington, Kentucky. Both were from well known and respected families.

Madison was named for his grandfather, a beloved poet known as the Keats of Kentucky. A poet so well known and loved that President Teddy Roosevelt often quoted his poems about beauty and nature.

Mary’s father, George Swineboard, was a renowned thoroughbred auctioneer who headed up the sale of nine yearlings who would win the Kentucky Derby.

Following Madison’s service as an army medical technician in World War II, he attended the University of Kentucky where he met fellow student, Mary Swineboard. By 1949, the two married, with Mary giving up her career track to support Madison who got his M.D. at Tulane University and his masters at Minnesota State. Madison and Mary would move their two children home to Kentucky in the late 1950s where Madison was on staff at the University of Kentucky Medical Center and School of Medicine.

Dr. Cawein specialized in hematology and his passion for his field would lead him to Hazard, Kentucky, where he helped solve the mystery of the Blue People of Kentucky. The Fugate family had been plagued for generations with a condition that caused their skin to appear blue. Their rare hereditary disease hindered hemoglobin from carrying oxygen to the skin. Rather than the pink, their skin appeared blue. The Fugates case was compounded by the genetic link and inbreeding. Dr. Cawein was able to come up with a simple treatment. He had the family members take an antidote, a daily pill of methylene blue that treated the issue and led to their skin “pinking up”.

Dr. Cawein published his groundbreaking research in the Archives of Internal Medicine in April of 1964 which garnered respect in the medical community and prestige for his university.

By July 4th 1965, Madison and Mary Cawein had been married for 15 years, and the 39 year olds were enjoying the life that Madison’s success afforded them. They had a lovely house on Chinoe Road in Lexington and enjoyed socializing with their neighbors and close friends Sam and Betty Strother.

On that July 4th, 14 year old Madison Cawein IV spent the night with friends. 62 year old Phoebe Edwards was called on to stay at the Cawein home with the Cawein’s 9 year old daughter Betsy and the Strother’s two children.

The Strothers picked up the Caweins around 6pm and headed to Lexington’s exclusive Idle Hour Country Club for their 4th of July party. The couples drank a lot that night, spending about $40 on mixed drinks before they left the club around 11:30.

The timing and accounts of what happened next would be cloudy for the Strothers and Dr. Cawein because of all that alcohol and the fact that the drinking continued once they arrived at the Strothers home sometime around midnight. Sam, Betty and Madison had more to drink but Mary mentioned she wasn’t feeling well and wanted to go home. An already drunk Sam drove Mary to the Cawein home three blocks away and went inside for another drink.

Sam called a taxi for Phoebe Edwards around 12:30am. Phoebe would later say she saw Mary before she left and Mary appeared fine.When Phoebe left the house around 1:00am, Sam had an another beer and Mary Cawein poured herself a bourbon and water. The only room in the home with air conditioning was the master bedroom, which is where the two sat and chatted for about 20 minutes before Sam headed home. According to Sam Strother, when he left the house, Mary was sitting in her armchair in the bedroom sipping her bourbon. That would be the last time anyone saw Mary Cawein alive.

Madison Cawein slept off his nightcap at theStrother home and was still asleep when Betty Strother ran errands late the next morning. Betty had called the Cawein house to check in on Mary a few times but never got an answer. Which is why Betty stopped by to check on her friend who she knew wasn’t feeling well the night before.

The Cawein’s always left their doors unlocked so Betty walked in and called for Mary but got no response. She went upstairs to Mary’s bedroom and that’s where she found her friend, still fully clothed in her pretty yellow dress she had worn to the July 4th party. Mary was sitting in her arm chair and her head was slumped to the side. It took Betty a moment to process that Mary Cawein was dead.

From that point on, things got really complicated and as one Kentucky reporter put it, Mary Cawein’s death appaeared to be one of Kentucky’s biggest mysteries and smallest murder investigations.  

Who killed Mary Cawein? And why?

Episode Sources

Fatal Nightcap for a Mysterious Killer. Daily News. September 1966.
Mary Cawein’s unsolved 1965 murder has all the juicy elements of a mystery novel. Kentucky Forward. January 2012.
Part two: Mary Cawein’s unsolved murder has all the juicy elements of a mystery novel. Kentucky Forward. January 2012.
Mary Cawein’s murderer was ‘clever,’ smart and – so far – has eluded justice for 46 years. Kentucky Forward. January 2012.
Investigation of 1965 Kentucky bluegrass killing has a horse-sized hole. Daily News. December 2015.
UK Grant Leave to Dr. Cawein. The Courier Journal. June 1966.
Dr. Madison W. Cawein. The Cincinnati Enquirer. 8 June 1985.
The Blue People of Troublesome Creek. Science. November 1982.
Cawein M, Behlen Ch, Lappat E, Cohn J. Hereditary Diaphorase Deficiency and Methemoglobinemia. Arch Intern Med. 1964Conscience. Madison Julius Cawein.


Theme Song “Dark & Troubled” by Pantherburn. Special thanks to Phillip St Ours for permission for use. Additional Music: “Gloomy Night” by Marwam Nimra; “Meditation Impromptu 1”, “Lightless Dawn”, “Tranquility Base”, “Dark Fog”, “Drone in D”, “Lost Time”, “Atlantean Twilight” by Kevin MacLeod. “Autumn Sunset” by Audionautix. Licensed under Creative Commons.