Church politics can get a bit intense. This is especially true in small American towns where much of daily life centers around the church. And it appears that church politics were out of control in the tiny town of New Sweden, Maine in the spring of 2003.
On April 27, 2003, parishioner Daniel Bondeson, 53, put about a teaspoon full of arsenic in one of the two coffee urns set out after church services. It was enough to do severe harm. Parishioner Walter Reid Morrill, 78, died from the poisoning, and 15 others were sickened.
A nursing student saved the day
Seven critically ill patients were admitted to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, where Rose Tanguay, a nursing student working overnight at the poison center, began to suspect arsenic.
At first, food poisoning seemed the likely cause, but none of the snacks set out after services seemed tainted. Eventually, hospital staff realized the one thing each patient had in common was the coffee. Tanguay was the first to suspect arsenic, “I sort of, just put the pieces together. Narrowed it down to arsenic.”
In a stroke of good fortune, Dr. Dora Anne Mills, the director of the Maine CDC had recently received arsenic antidotes. It was shortly after 9/11, and the fear of terrorism was real. The CDC of Maine had wanted every hospital to have arsenic antidotes available.
However, doctors were concerned because the blood tests weren’t back yet, and an arsenic antidote given to a patient without arsenic poisoning could have caused more damage. Mills took a chance and ordered the antidotes to be given immediately. It worked, the patients improved, and though it was too late to save Morrill, who had died soon after he was poisoned, the others’ lives were saved.
“Could have been a dozen people dead by then, if we hadn’t had that antidote in the state.” — Dr. Dora Anne Mills
Later, the blood tests came back positive for arsenic poisoning. It was such high levels there was no question the poisoning was not accidental. Someone had poisoned the church coffee with the intent to kill.
A close-knit community
In 2003, the population of New Sweden was 651. In 1870, the town was settled by 51 immigrants crossing the border from Canada. The Gustaf Adolph Evangelical Lutheran Church, where the poisoning occurred, was founded a year later, in 1871. The original church building, completed in 1880, still stands as home to the congregation today.
In such a small town with such deep roots, everyone pretty much knows everyone. It was hard for the townspeople to believe one of their own would do something so cruel and so deadly.
But five days after the poisoning, parishioner Daniel Bondeson committed suicide, leaving behind a note that said, according to court papers, “I acted alone. I acted alone.”
The case baffled the nation. Nobody could figure out Bondeson’s motive. Eventually, an understanding of what may have happened began to emerge.
Change brought dissension to the church
It took a deep look at church politics, and into a storage room at a donated table, for a possible motive to emerge. Bondeson is gone and can no longer tell us what he was thinking or what he felt when he mixed the arsenic into the coffee. But investigators uncovered details of a theological battle waged among two Lutheran churches, as with fewer and fewer members, they struggled to remain relevant.
The town of New Sweden had changed. Once a community of potato farmers, it had shifted to be composed of mostly retirees. The congregation of the small Lutheran church was dwindling, and they were without a pastor. In the hope of securing a new pastor, some members wanted to merge with another small Lutheran church.
To outsiders, the two churches appeared to have much in common. But to some of the members, like Bondeson, there were deep divides. In one church, the pastor faced the altar when he blessed the Communion host. In the other, the pastor faced the congregation during the blessing.
Though it may seem like a small thing to you and me, for a few parishioners, including Bondeson, it held great importance. Those who wanted the pastor to face the congregation during the blessing won the battle.
It may have been this doctrinal change that drove Bondeson to commit murder. Or it may have been over a donated oak table. Bondeson and his relatives had pooled their money together to donate the Communion table to the church.
It was traditional for families to donate an important item to the church, but this table had sat unused and in storage for months. When the Bondesons asked why their table was not in use, they were told the time hadn’t come to use it.
Was it a loss of identity?
It was a thing of pride for a family to donate an important item to the church, and it may have caused deep resentment for Daniel Bondeson when his family’s table sat unused in a storage room. Perhaps it was the combination of this, with the change to the blessing of the host that motivated him.
Yet, it remains hard to understand how such seemingly minor things could drive a man to commit such an atrocity. In this dwindling town and in this dwindling church, perhaps the loss of the traditional ways created a loss of identity for Bondeson. The truth is, we’ll never know what he was thinking when he mixed the arsenic into the coffee on that spring morning in 2003.
Sources: 1. The New York Times, Arsenic Poisoning at Church Mystifies a Maine Town. 2. Los Angeles Times, Town’s Church Poisoning Leads to Soul-Searching, 3. The New York Times, Conspiracy Is Now Seen In Poisonings At a Church 4. 13WGME News, Special Report: New Sweden arsenic poisonings, 5. ABC News, Church Poisoning May Never Be Solved