June 23, 2011
Our concept of Jell-O-centric criminality typically doesn’t go beyond the idea of ill-conceived potluck salads with fruits or vegetables suspended in the death grip of technicolor molded gelatin. (We all smile and politely eat them anyway.) But while researching a recent post on Jell-O, I came across several instances of the jiggly dessert being at the root of some nefarious activity. I’ve enjoyed food and true crime stories—involving files baked into cakes and ice cream men—so much that the following stories were impossible to pass up. Although this is hardly how Jell-O manufacturers want their product to be remembered. “It is not a usage that we promote for Jell-O,” a General Foods spokeswoman said about Jell-O during the Martin Eisen trial (detailed below), “and, as with any product, it has to be used responsibly, and that is the responsibility of the consumer.” From drunk driving to acts of Cold War espionage, here’s a look at how Jell-O has sprung up in our criminal justice system.
New York City, New York. July, 1950. Jell-O and spy rings.
Husband and wife Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were brought to trial in one of the most famous and controversial Cold War-era court cases. They were accused of securing top-secret information about the atomic bomb for the Soviet Union—and a Jell-O box played a role in their conviction. The Rosenbergs orchestrated a meeting between Harry Gold, a New York chemist who was also part of the Rosenbergs’ spy network, and David Greenglass, Ethel’s brother who had worked on the Manhattan Project and had top-secret information on the atom bomb. So that the pair could covertly signal to each other that they were a part of the same spy ring, a Jell-O box was cut up, half of it given to Gold, the other half given to Greenglass. When the two met up, the matching box piece was an “all clear” sign for Greenberg to pass on his bomb information, which eventually made its way back to the Soviet Union. Although the original Jell-O box was never found, a facsimile (a box of raspberry-flavored gelatin, now in the National Archives) was used in the trial to link the Rosenbergs to the atomic information leak. Greenglass got 15 years in prison in exchange for his testimony against the Rosenbergs while Harry Gold was sentenced to 30 years. Julius and Ethel were convicted on espionage charges and sentenced to death, and both went to the electric chair on June 19, 1953. Whether the punishment suited the couple’s activities later became a hot debate topic. In 2008, Morton Sobell, who was charged with espionage along with the Rosenbergs but had always maintained his innocence, confirmed that he and Julius were indeed active Soviet agents.
Westport, Massachusetts. January, 1990. Death by Jell-O
Richard Alfredo died at age 61 from a massive heart attack, and because he suffered from chronic heart ailments, his mortal end did not come as a surprise. However, police suspected that he did not die from natural causes and an autopsy revealed that he had massive amounts of the hallucinogenic drug LSD in his system. Attention turned to his 39-year-old live-in girlfriend Christina Martin, who moved to Montreal a month after her boyfriend’s passing, and she was put on trial for murder. Witness testimony revealed that Alfredo suffered the heart attack after Martin, thinking she could inherit her boyfriend’s money and property, served him a lime Jell-O dessert that was laced with a lethal dose of LSD. Martin was convicted of the crime in 1992 and sentenced to life in prison.
Los Angeles, California. November, 1992. The Jell-O Defense.
On the evening of November 11, 1992, Martin Barry Eisen was pulled over by police for driving 55 m.p.h. in a 35 m.p.h. zone, and at the time of his arrest, he had a blood alcohol content of .10. At trial, Eisen testified that some 25 minutes before getting behind the wheel, he enjoyed several bowls of cherry Jell-O that, unbeknownst to him, his friend had spiked with vodka. The court failed to sympathize with that line of defense. Eisen was fined $1,053 and ordered to attend 3 months of alcohol education classes.
Durham, New Hampshire. February, 1992. There’s always room for free speech.
University of New Hampshire English professor J. Donald Silva was giving a lecture to his technical writing class and his description of belly dancer Little Egypt’s skills landed the 59-year-old tenured teacher in hot water. “Belly dancing,” he said, “is like Jell-O on a plate, with a vibrator under the plate.” Nine students complained and the university suspended Silva on sexual harassment grounds. Silva later filed suit and in 1994, Federal District Courts ruled that the university violated his first amendment rights and that there were legitimate, pedagogical reasons for his language choices. Silva was reinstated, but the court decision did not address the $42,000 in damages or back pay he had sought.
East Northport, New York. March, 2010. The proof is in the pudding. (Or lack thereof.)
Something was definitely amiss when a Long Island supermarket customer bought a box of Jell-O pudding only to find that it was filled with sand and salt. Police were able to trace the suspicious box back to a Long Island couple, 68-year-old Alexander Clements and his wife of 40 years, Christine, age 64. The couple had a penchant for pistachio and butterscotch pudding and, hitting up four area stores, would buy up to 10 boxes of pudding, take them home to empty their contents and replace the powdered pudding mix with plastic bags full of salt and sand and return the resealed boxes to the store to get a refund. Per the authorities, Christine was suffering from age-related mental issues and the couple did not intend to harm other people—but rather just wanted pudding without paying for it in spite of being financially stable. The couple was arrested and charged with petit larceny and tampering with a consumer product.
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