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The Birth of the Breathing Monitor Industry | SIDS Series Pt 2

You might think that home infant breathing monitors are one of those IOT’s for 21st-century parents but their history goes back around 50 years and is darker than you can imagine.

Reader discretion advised

This post will include graphic descriptions of infant and child abuse, murder, and death; as well as discussion of suicide and emotional abuse. — Seriously, this project has dragged on for so long because I can only stand to work on it in short bursts, but as difficult as this subject matter is, I’m publishing it because it’s really important.

Don’t want to do the reading? Now you can listen instead. (Note: there is a short audio distortion at the beginning and my phone rings around 14 mins– “Bring Out Your Dead” is a custom ringtone for my local hospital. So inappropriate, I know, I know.)

A Quick Review

This is the second part of the on how bad science gave rise to the home infant breathing monitor industry and became a cover for serial murder. You may want to check out the first part on the history of SIDS research, if you haven’t already. It’s a long one but has a lot of important information. To review the main patterns in our history of SIDS: there’s always been an assumption of breathing obstruction whether accidental or intentional: person, bedding, thyroid, baby’s spit up– and this assumption continued long after suffocation was ruled out as a cause of sudden infant deaths in the 1930’s and 40’s, and in fact unfortunately continues to this day.

In the US, starting in the mid-20th century researchers wanted a federally mandated universal response to unexpected sudden infant deaths including a mandatory death investigation which would include an autopsy by a forensic pathologist as this would give researchers a better understanding of the cause of crib death and to rule out those deaths attributed to abuse or homicide. 

But it was parent advocacy groups in the 1960’s who pushed back against these measures as being insensitive to grieving parents. Instead of working with law enforcement and social workers to find a compromise that showed respect to grieving families while ensuring a thorough death investigation, many went further– in the face of contradictory evidence– denying the existence of people who intentionally killed infants and passed off the deaths as SIDS. This attitude impeded research that may have helped prevent future SIDS deaths and allowed murderers escape justice. 

Alfred Steinschneider

At the end of the last part, I introduced Alfred Steinschneider, the doctor from New York who Abe Bergman invited to the 1969 SIDS conference. While there, Steinschneider, who had no background in SIDS research decided that he had figured SIDS out (based on what he picked up at the conference) and that the rest of them should focus their research on his theory that prolonged apnea was the cause of SIDS deaths. He didn’t realize that his theory wasn’t original, having been proposed by Dr. Guntheroth, and dismissed, at the 1963 conference.  All infants have apneic breathing and the other researchers had concerns about medical profiteers selling breathing monitors with the false hope of preventing sudden infant death. 

One of the top SIDS researchers had called Steinschneider out, asking if he had any examples of infants dying after prolonged apneic episodes, and he didn’t. Steinschneider wasn’t used to having his ideas criticized and with that embarrassing exchange, his research plans were set in motion– as soon as he got back to Syracuse, he was going to prove his theory — a terrible place to start for a legitimate scientist. 

But in order to understand Steinschneider it helps to see where he came from: when he first applied to medical schools in 1950, he was rejected by them all. He would explain that there was a Jewish quota at the time and there was, many medical and law schools in the U.S. were openly anti-Semitic and had limits on the number of Jewish students they would accept. It just so happened that Steinschneider missed the quota to every school he applied to.

Instead of medical school he married his high school sweetheart and moved to St Louis Missouri to attend graduate school. After completing his MA in Psychology, he applied to Cornell University back in New York and while there, earned his PhD in “experimental psychopathology.”

“Exploring a subdiscipline known as experimental psychopathology, he studied the nuances of human drive and determination, and one of the things he learned from watching rats scurry around their cages was that too much focus could sometimes be blinding. He made it the subject of his doctoral dissertation.”

Death of Innocents, 203
Medical School

After earning his PhD he got a job at General Electric in the advanced electronic center as a  “human engineer” but after three years he decided to reapply to medical school and was accepted to the school at Syracuse for the fall of 1957. This was the year that researchers Earle Lipton and Leo Walsh developed the first infant breathing monitor, which

“used a small, temperature-sensitive bead that could be placed either in the nose or at the mouth to check the respiration of premature infants, who were especially vulnerable to spells of apnea. The bead sensed exchanges of cool and warm air that were then recorded electronically, setting off an alarm when respiration failed to occur. The alarm, reminiscent of a fog horn, had two purposes: to startle the infant and summon a nurse.”

Death of Innocents, 212
The Children’s Clinical Research Center

It was in the spring of 1958 that Lipton asked Steinschneider if he would like to do summer research. By that Autumn, he was given a paid job in the lab with Dr. Richmond and Dr. Lipton but it quickly started causing problems. Alfred wasn’t attending classes, and Richmond suspected that he was focused on the money, so Richmond promised Alfred a wage regardless of the hours he put into the lab so long as he attended classes. Lipton had taught Steinschneider that research without dissemination (i.e. publishing) was worthless, but even Lipton thought that Steinschneider took that too far, wanting to published every errant thought or theory that floated through his mind. But while Lipton was annoyed, Richmond saw “raw talent” and drive. And it was in this lab that Steinschneider met Abe Bergman who was also a student doing research there. 

By 1960, Richmond and Lipton were one of the hottest research teams of their time. For example, they were able to conduct research in the USSR at the height of the cold war, publishing about swaddling techniques in 1961. And Steinschneider was being listed as a co-author on their work (he didn’t go with them to USSR).

By 1963 Richmond’s role in the lab was in name only, so it was just Lipton and Steinschneider. And a big change was made to the way the US government funded research: instead of having the research-based at the NIH, the NIH subsidized hospitals and universities around the country to do the research. The first place to get this new funding stream was the Children’s Clinical Research Center. They would be moving into a brand new hospital, Upstate Medical Center.

In 1964, Steinschneider finished his pediatric residency and because, tragically, the following summer, Dr. Lipton committed suicide, Steinschneider inherited all of Lipton’s custom monitoring equipment and their research projects. After moving into the new hospital, Steinschneider started the psychosomatic clinic, believing that vague medical problems in infants and children could have a psychological underpinning. 

By 1968, Steinschneider had been made associate professor of pediatrics and was on a number of hospital boards- all with the understanding that he would only see patients that he wanted for his research projects. In the Death of Innocents, the authors noted that because of his age and demeanor (haughty, arrogant) people at the hospital allowed him more authority than was due to him considering his lack of experience and his recent completion of medical school. 

Steinschneider was infamous for running random, frankly useless experiments on infants producing tons of data that had no direction or theories behind them. And today, it’s unimaginable that a research center would allow anyone to work with newborns without a clear research plan, but it was a different time. Dr. Jack Schnieder was the technical head of the research center, in charge of approving or denying projects but most of the pediatricians working at the hospital were too busy actively caring for patients to get involved with research. And Jack needed to make sure that research money was used up so that they would continue to receive it, and that he would be able to continue his own research on metabolic diseases in infants like PKU. So he approved a lot of research he described as “bullshit” including Steinschneider’s which he considered “absurdly abstract”. 

So when Alfred returned from the 1969 SIDS conference in a huff, Jack Schnieder’s reaction to him suddenly shutting down his somatic research and starting research on SIDS, was a shrug. Whatever man.

Steinschneider was on the hunt for otherwise healthy infants who’d been seen for life-threatening apneic spells…  

Waneta Nixon

Waneta Nixon, Grade 10

Backtracking just a bit to 1963 where we meet 17 year old Waneta Nixon, who was the fifth of eight children born to a poor family living in rural upstate New York. Her family lived in an old farmhouse but not on a working farm, as they couldn’t afford to be farmers, that was what the “rich” kids’ families did. Her father took road construction work when it was available. People thought Waneta was shy but she had a flat affect and was just taciturn around those she thought she was better or smarter than, which was just about everyone. When she sent Tim Hoyt, a letter telling him she wanted to get married, she was anything but shy, especially for a teen girl in a conservative area in the early 1960’s. 

When she told her mother that she intended to drop out of high school to get married, her mother threatened to disown her. While her mom believed that a woman’s place was as a wife and mother she also believed that her children needed to finish their education first.

So Waneta decided to wear Tim’s shirt to school.

Today such an act would hardly be noticed but in 1963: the world just about ended. Had she spent the night with him? Did they have sex? Is she pregnant? Aren’t they engaged? The rumors were flying and the school principle did not approve. Waneta was effectively forced to drop out of school and Tim? Well, now he had to marry her. Waneta’s mother was as good as her word, she kicked Waneta out. Waneta moved into her to-be in-law’s house. I wonder if it was a bit of a let down for Waneta, the Hoyts were supposed to be one of those “rich” farm families, yet here she was having to share a room with her sister-in-theory. Tim hadn’t even been living in the family home, he’d been staying at the farm down the road that he worked at. Tim’s father was an abusive alcoholic, for example, when Tim was a child, his father shot at him believing that he’d forgot to milk the cows; all the Hoyt children moved out as soon as they were old enough. 

Marriage

On January 11th 1964, Waneta Nixon became Waneta Hoyt. Tim moved back into the family home to live with his wife. She briefly got a job at Endicott Johnson, but quit pretty soon after because she couldn’t handle the pressure of working with so many people, she would say that housewife was the only job she wanted.

The whole family started to realize Waneta was… peculiar (their word, very diplomatic). Tim and Waneta were welded at the hip, beyond what was considered normal for 1) teenagers 2) honeymooners. Waneta got upset if Tim paid any attention to his family members, she hated that he had to go to work. How did she expect to be a housewife if her husband can’t go to work to, you know… afford a house?

The family recalled one day when Tim was going to a cousin’s farm to help bail hay, when he refused to stay home with Waneta, she tagged along with him. Once there, she tried to prevent him from helping out by claiming that she had a migraine and needed to be taken home. But when that also failed to work, she pretended to faint into a puddle of mud, which she stayed in on the advice of Tim’s cousins who said that she would get up when she was done being dramatic.

Wanetta developed a habit of randomly wearing maternity clothes and the sisters-in-law soon realized that she was wearing them the days after she and Tim had sex. Ewww. And it didn’t take long for her to actually become pregnant; she likely conceived her first baby soon after the wedding. But before the celebration of the new baby came tragedy when Tim’s father committed suicide, hanging himself in the barn that summer.

Eric
When known, the names of the children are in the captions.

Baby Eric was born October 17th 1964, a perfect, healthy baby boy who was enthusiastically welcomed into the extended Hoyt family (remember, Waneta and Tim were living in Tim’s mother’s house along with a few of his siblings). Tim was so happy to be a father, he was very nurturing, always holding and cuddling the baby but they noticed that Waneta seemed unchanged by motherhood. If you’ve had a baby, or have had friends that you’ve known before and after parenthood, you know that personalities shift, habits adapt, it’s unusual to be wholly unchanged as a person after having a child– but Waneta seemed to be unfazed. But that’s not to say that they thought she wasn’t a good mother, in fact, she seemed like a really good mother: everything was done by the book, feeding and sleeping schedules, bath time, milestones, and everything was pristine, even Eric’s bibs. 

Then one morning in January of 1965, when Waneta was home alone with the baby, she laid Eric on the sofa, picked up a pillow and pressed it into his face until he smothered to death. Then she put the pillow back, got up, and went out to the driveway way and began screaming for help. A neighbor, Betty, who wasn’t on friendly terms with the Hoyts generally, answered the call for help. Waneta dragged her inside to show her the baby. Betty asked if she had tried to resuscitate him, Waneta said no. Betty picked up Eric and brought him to the kitchen table, wiping the blood and mucus away from his nose and mouth and attempted mouth-to-mouth but he was dead. Betty, in a panic, left the baby on the table and ran home to call the rescue squad, never returning to the Hoyt home. 

Eric was pronounced dead at the scene, and without an autopsy, without even matching Waneta’s or Betty’s description of the baby, the cause of death was listed as a congenital heart defect. 

The family mourned for the loss of Eric, believing it was a terrible tragedy. But their patience was severely strained by Waneta’s need for attention especially around healthcare matters. She had seemed to develop hypochondria about Eric when he was alive, every sniffle required immediate medical attention. Now, if someone had a cold then Waneta had the flu, if someone had a headache, she had migraine. The sisters-in-law decided to make up a fake disease: made up name, made-up symptoms. They made sure not to talk about it to Waneta but within earshot just to see how long it would take for her to diagnose herself with it or try to outdo it. It took one week. She had the made-up disease and suffered terribly from it. When they admitted the prank she tried to back-peddle but the damage was done.

These illnesses were one of the many ways Waneta had tried to keep Tim from going to work or spending time with his family. Even though the family didn’t believe that she had anything wrong with her (especially after the fake disease prank) Tim genuinely believe she was suffering from some mysterious medical condition and wanted to comfort her.

Another tactic she used with Tim was threats of suicide. About a month after Eric’s death she told Tim she wanted a home of her own, so he bought a small trailer and had it parked in the yard of his mother’s house. One day, while he was trying to work (road construction), Waneta called him and was in hysterics, screaming and crying that if he didn’t come home right now she was going to kill herself. He could not leave work but he was worried about her so he called his sister and asked if she would go out and check on Waneta because she was so upset and threatening to kill herself. So Loretta walked the fifteen or so feet across the yard and knocked on the trailer door. It had only been a couple minutes since Waneta had hung up on Tim in an apparent fury. Yet, Loretta was greeted by a calm, even happy looking, Waneta, who was wearing a maternity dress. Lorretta didn’t explain the reason for her visit to Waneta but she talked to the rest of the family about it. Her in-laws were fairly certain that if Waneta had a chronic illness, it was mental, even though it was a big taboo, they wanted her to see a psychiatrist. But whatever may or may not have ailed her, it didn’t affect her fertility. By the fall of 1965, she was pregnant again. 

Jimmy
Jimmy Hoyt, age 2

James, who they called Jimmy, was born May 30th, 1966. He seemed as healthy as his brother had been but due to the sudden death the doctors ran EKG tests on him to be sure, they were normal and he was released home. Again Waneta seemed emotionally distant from her baby but was still a model mother– everything by the book and extremely tidy, though the hypochondria had shifted to him again, only it seemed conditional. For example, one day Jimmy, as a toddler had a terrible fall outside. When grandma went to pick him up to comfort and inspect him, Waneta snatched him out of her arms and put him down saying that he would just need to learn. These sudden outbursts alarmed her in-laws, the one sister recalled that when Jimmy was less that one year old, he pooped his diaper and Waneta slammed him against the wall in anger. She thought it had to do with how clean she liked to keep everything and didn’t suspect abuse because Jimmy was thriving, early walker, early talker, and so adventurous. 

When Jimmy was around two years old, Waneta and Tim upgraded to a larger trailer home in preparation for a new baby due in July. Now that they were near new neighbors, Jimmy made a friend around his age and Waneta made mom-friends with the boy’s mother, Natalie.

Julie

On July 19th, 1968, the Hoyts became a family of four when little baby Julie was born, healthy like her big brother. 

But on the morning of September 5th, 1966, Julie just six weeks old, Waneta was holding her as though to burp her but instead pushed her face into her shoulder until she stopped breathing and died. Then she waited until she saw a truck coming up the road. She told Jimmy to sit on the couch while mommy took care of the baby. Then she ran out of the trailer, Julie limp over her arm and screamed for help. The truck driver, Dick Rinker just happened to be a member of the local rescue squad. He radioed for help and then tried to resuscitate the baby. Waneta said that the baby had choked on a bottle of rice cereal and milk, nevermind that if it could come through the nipple of a bottle then it was unlikely to be enough to choke a baby to death.

Julie was declared dead at the scene and no autopsy was performed. 

Two weeks later Jimmy was being clingy, he wouldn’t leave Waneta alone in the bathroom to get dressed. She had to push him out and shut the door in his face. So of course, toddler fashion, he started crying and yelling for mommy. Waneta grabbed a bath towel, flung open the door, snatched Jimmy and smothered him with the towel. Unlike her previous infant victims, Jimmy was stronger, he fought her, in the struggle she broke his nose. Once he was dead, she half-finished dressing then picked up his body and ran out of the house to Natalie’s home (where his friend likely saw everything that followed). Waneta said that Jimmy had just finished eating breakfast, ran to her, called out for her then collapsed, dead. So sudden. So mysterious.

Suspicion

Again, the rescue squad, again, a Hoyt child pronounced dead at the scene. Everyone in town was horrified, two children mysteriously died (oh and the family dog too) in a two-week time span. Dr. Hartnagel was suspicious too, and he ordered an autopsy this time but it was shoddily done, for example, the pathologist didn’t know that Jimmy was just barely 2 and half years old, he thought he was a “normal 4 yo” and in measuring the organs he used a general scale, not a pediatrics scale– so when his diagnosis came back as adrenal insufficiency, it could hardly be trusted. Besides, it would have been obvious long before Jimmy would have died from it. But that was what was written on the death certificate so people just accepted it. 

Waneta demanded to be the focus of sympathy for these deaths, both from the community and from Tim. She used these deaths as more leverage in her attempts to keep Tim from going to work and now it was more effective. Tim lost his job not long afterwards.

“Everything in their marriage and former family was about adapting to her needs, even if it destroys them all.”

Death of Innocents

Tim’s siblings were split, some, like Chuck, were fairly certain Waneta had something to do with the deaths. Though some were horrified by the rumors, not because they involved their family but because they could not imagine anyone killing their own children for any reason. It was inconceivable.  

Fabrications

In 1966, Tiagoa county started a home-visit nursing program, and not realizing the new baby had died (let alone Jimmy), nurse Joyce Aman arrived at the Hoyt home. She had been referred to Waneta’s case by the hospital’s social services to “assess bonding skills, feeding, and baby’s reaction in home”. But upon learning of the deaths, Joyce referred Waneta to a psychiatrist to help her cope with her grief.

Wanetta told the psychiatrist, Dr. Burnett, that all of her children had died of enlarged thymuses. “It runs in the family” claiming that six other children in her extended family had also died of unknown causes or enlarged thymuses. (this was untrue) He decided that Waneta was experiencing natural grief after the natural deaths of her children and referred her to the church (because only god could save her now?) 

Growing Their Family

With three children dead and her newly fabricated family history of deaths, no one in the community or family thought that Tim or Waneta should have any more biological children. Waneta disagreed. She wanted more babies and of course, Tim wasn’t going to refuse her anything. Within six months of killing Jimmy and Julie, Waneta was pregnant again in the Spring of 1969. But Waneta had a miscarriage.

So they put in an application for adoption with social services with letters of recommendation from Dr. Burnett and their new church pastor. The church pastor made it clear that the deaths of their previous children weren’t their fault but that he doubted that Waneta had really given up on having biological children. He added “Tim and Nita are limited intellectually and limited financially” but that he still supported their application for adoption. 

And within a month of submitting the application… can you guess? Waneta was pregnant. 

MollY

Molly was born March 18, 1970 to very little celebration from her extended family. The medical staff ran every test but this baby was perfectly healthy and she was sent home. Dr. Perry, the doctor who attended all the Hoyt children after their births was worried he was missing something: all of them had been healthy too but they still died. He wrote “sudden deaths 3 siblings” on all of her medical records. 

Image: BBC News Health.

In her first week of life, Molly Hoyt was a crier. But Waneta had this hack for getting a baby to “sleep” in seconds: press a pillow to their face until they stop breathing but don’t die. And that’s what she did when Molly was less than a week old, Waneta pressed a pillow into Molly’s face one morning until she stopped breathing and then was able to resuscitate her, taking her outside to help improve her color. The following week she did it again but this time she went too far. Molly didn’t restart breathing on her own, or with shaking– Waneta had to give her mouth to mouth and even then her color wasn’t improving. She called the rescue squad, all of them sure they would arrive at the Hoyt place to another dead baby. But Molly was alive, Waneta told them she went to “check the baby after a feeding late in the morning, and found her in her crib not breathing, her color dusky, and making jerking movements with her arms.” (Firstman, 225)

Molly was rushed to the hospital and Dr. Perry ordered a chest x-ray, cardiogram, urine and blood tests, allergy tests and another test for adrenal insufficiency. Everything returned normal. For just a moment, common sense dawned on Dr. Perry and he contacted hospital social services to do a home check on the Hoyts, but they said they already had and there was no evidence of foul play.

Waneta must have brought up Molly’s crying during the whirlwind of testing because Dr. Perry diagnosed colic and prescribed donnatal, a barbiturate with belladonna in it, 4tsp/day and Molly was sent home. 

But Dr. Perry was still concerned. He wasn’t going to let another Hoyt baby die on his watch. He heard about this researcher in Syracuse looking for babies with apnea for SIDS research so he called him up to give him a case report. 

The Apena Study

As you can imagine, Dr. Steinschneider was thrilled to hear about the Hoyt family. 

And forget congenital heart defect, forget about choking on rice cereal from a bottle, forget insufficient adrenal glands or the enlarged thymuses… No, now Waneta’s previous children had died from SIDS. Oh and her sister had lost two babies to breathing problems, one soon after birth and one at 3 months of age (is this true? No. even a little bit? Not a bit.) SIDS is what Steinschneider needed and Waneta was happy for a trending alibi. 

Steinschneider’s first test was to see if he could trigger an apneic spell believing that perhaps with her family history, Waneta was blowing a minor spell or color change out of proportion. Molly was hooked up to monitors and fed a bottle, and allowed to nap on her back and on her tummy. Nothing unusual occurred. The next trial, the temperature in the lab was turned to 90°F (32°C) as it was known that higher heat exacerbated normal apnea. Still, Molly’s breathing was normal for her age and activity. 

When Molly was first brought to the hospital lab, the nursing staff assumed that Waneta seemed distant because she’d lost three previous babies and almost lost this one twice; her coldness was a kind of self-preservation against heartbreak. But it went beyond that. Waneta had to be asked to feed or hold her baby. When Tim was able to visit his daughter, Waneta sat on his lap and would even take Molly out of his arms and put her in the crib in order to have Tim to herself. It’s the same stuff her in-laws have been seeing since they got married. Because child abuse had become a public health concern the nurses in Steinschneider’s lab were worried. 

As days turned to weeks it became clear that Molly didn’t have apnea out of the ordinary for babies her age. When the alarm sounded, it was a false alarm or a lead had become unplugged (the breathing monitors used, Air Shields were known at the time to be crap). Molly certainly never turned blue and she never required resuscitation. The Nurses’ Record was an around the clock, hour by hour account of how much formula the baby took, the color and consistency of her bowel movements, and, of course, how she was breathing. When there was a false alarm, the nurses noted it as such. But on Dr. Steinschneider’s notes, he counted them as true apneic spells, sometimes even “prolonged” apnea spells, and sometimes just threw in a couple extra for funsies. And he used these imaginary apneic spells to persuade the Hoyts to keep Molly in the lab longer than originally intended. 

Meanwhile, Waneta put it around town that her baby was being treated by a big shot doctor in Syracuse for her breathing problems. But finally, Dr. Steinschneider decided that Molly should go home for a week or two. Waneta asked to have a breathing monitor sent home with the baby and he agreed. And so it was on Friday 

“May 8th, 1970, Molly Hoyt became the first baby in the world put to bed while attached to an apnea monitor in her own crib, in her own home.”

Death of Innocents

On Sunday, Molly seemed to have a cold which set off the stupid monitors twenty times. Even Waneta thought that Molly was fine but Steinschneider told her to bring the baby in that day. And whenMolly arrived at the hospital, they went HAM: around the clock nursing observations, an apnea monitor, full resuscitating equipment at hand. But Molly didn’t need any of it. And after a few days she was back in research ward. 

The nurses started to agree that Molly was a normal healthy baby that had no business being in the hospital except for her family history. The head nurse, Thelma who was family friends with Steinschneider outside of their professional relationship (previously married to Lipton and now married to Jack Schneider), brought her concerns to him regarding Waneta. She gave the example of how she held the baby at arm’s length and that she seemed jealous of the attention Tim paid to the baby.

“the baby’s father, and not the baby, seem to be Mrs. Hoyt’s focus when she visited. ‘Today, daddy was holding the baby, and she came along and took the baby away from him, sat on his lap, and then held the baby out that same way. That’s not normal behavior. It’s like the attention has to be on her.'”

Death of Innocents, 239

Beyond the respect due to Thelma for her professional experience and education, there should have been additional layer of trust as a friend. But Alfred just didn’t get it. Thelma knew that when he was focused on a research goal he would develop tunnel vision. Remember the topic of his doctoral dissertation? “one of the things he learned from watching rats scurry around their cages was that too much focus could sometimes be blinding.” uh huh. And that’s being charitable about his motivations.

But the nurses, having finally mentioned the elephant in the room amongst themselves, started paying more attention to both Waneta’s behavior and looking into the family history. Jimmy died after age two, from SIDS?! They all understood that crib death peaked at 2-3 months and then declined. None of this was making sense and they began to gravely fear for Molly. 

On May 19th Molly was sent home again. 

The next day Waneta claimed she’d stopped breathing twice (which we can assume meant that Waneta partially smothered her twice). Waneta called the Rescue Squad dispatcher to send someone to drive her to Syracuse. This was the second rescue call in six weeks and this time they observed a baby not only alive and breathing, but in no distress at all. 

Waneta told Steinschneider that Molly was sleeping on her back when the alarm went off and “I came into her room and she wasn’t breathing, and she was blue. I started shaking her to get her to breathe, but it took longer than the last time period and then it happened again about an hour later.” But at examination in the ER, Molly was “vigorous infant with good color, no respiratory difficulty and strong cry” (Firstman, 242).

By this point Thelma was getting concerned that Molly’s episodes from that morning were “an abortive attempt on [Molly’s] life” (Firstman, 242) and she tried gently to encourage Steinschneider to assign some social workers to see what was going on in the home– without bringing up her concerns of attempted homicide– but Steinschneider ignored her again.

Polly Fibiger, a young nurse, a research assistant of Steinschneider wondered aloud why Molly only had troubles breathing at home: maybe there were stuffed animals in the crib or something, and suggested that they send a nurse home with the Hoyts next time Molly was discharged, to get a look at the home environment. But Steinschneider lied, claiming they’d already looked at the home and there was nothing unusual.

And it’s true, Molly never had breathing troubles while in the hospital, whatever Steinschneider’s personal notes read. In fact, the entire time Molly was in the hospital, there was only one moment of drama: when Waneta was alone with the baby. When the nurses rushed in they found the leads to the monitors had been unplugged… all the leads to all the monitors. /eyebrow raise/

With the nurses fearing for Molly’s life, on the evening of June 4th Molly was discharged again.

From Death of Innocents.

Within twelve hours of going home with her daughter, Waneta smothered Molly to death and this time did not attempt resuscitation. And instead of calling for the Rescue Squad she called her mother-in-law. The Rescue Squad eventually got there and tried in vain for 45 minutes to resuscitate Molly while Waneta called the hospital and talked to Steinschneider’s nurses. When the death was finally called, the sheriff told Waneta they would do an autopsy and she initially refused, saying she didn’t want her baby cut up. When Steinschneider got a hold of Waneta, her story was she had left the room for a minute to get something and when she came back Molly was blue and not breathing.

Dr. Muelling, who performed the autopsy noted how blue Molly’s face still was. Note: SIDS deaths do not involve cyanosis. But he couldn’t find anything else wrong so he diagnosed her as dying from acute interstitial pneumonitis. Of course the nurses could not believe that Molly contracted and developed fatal pneumonia within the 12 hours since leaving the hospital. Dr. Perry wrote up his report too, saying that because Molly had been in the hospital for “this condition” and that there was a “gland problem” on the mother’s side of the family, he didn’t think that further investigation was necessary. 

The day after Molly’s funeral Waneta bought herself a new dress and decided that she and Tim should go out dancing, and the next day she bragged to everyone about what a good time they had. When her in-laws questioned whether it was appropriate for them to be having a good time so soon after their baby’s funeral she snapped back that everyone grieves differently. Of course they do. Everyone celebrates differently too I suppose. 

It runs in the family

Tim believed that the problem was genetic, he thought perhaps it was his father’s alcoholism or there was something else running through Waneta’s bloodlines. But there was a confounding factor, “Waneta’s sister Donna was married to Tim’s brother Donald, and they had four perfectly healthy children” (Firstman, 251). No deaths, no gland problems.

Steinschneider tried to comfort Tim and Wanita by telling them that the deaths could have a familial aspect but that it was probably not genetic. “Familial meant that some environmental or social circumstance common to a family – prenatal care, for instance, or smoking [or a murderer] – could cause subsequent siblings of SIDS victims to have a higher than normal risk themselves.” (Firstman, 250)

Basically, Steinschneider was encouraging them to have more research subj– erm, babies. And within two months after Molly’s death, Waneta Hoyt was pregnant again. She called Steinschneider to tell him and he said that the next baby should not go home after the birth but rather to the research center. 

Right after Molly’s death, Waneta and Tim reactivated their adoption application, revising it once they realized Waneta was pregnant to say that Waneta needed an older child to help her through her pregnancy and to be a backup child if this baby died too. Ummmmm. As you can imagine the social worker who read this was not okay with this. But Waneta gets what Waneta wants, so they put in an application with a private adoption agency. When the private agency contacted the social worker she replied, 

“It seems like an adopted child could be an ‘insurance policy’ for the family. The Hoyts need a child in their home to help them through their fifth pregnancy. They need the child to buffer their grief should the fifth child not survive. The question in mind is whether a child needs them as parents.”

Alberta Weisz, quoted in Death of Innocents, 257

Meanwhile, Steinschneider received the autopsy results. He didn’t agree with pneumonia as a cause of death either, so he contacted Molly Dapena, who he had met at the’69 SIDS conference, and got her opinion on Molly’s lung tissue slides. She didn’t believe it was pneumonia either, in fact they looked normal. But Steinschneider’s motive in challenging the autopsy results was not to find the true nature of Molly’s death but to benefit his theory by changing her cause of death to SIDS. 

Noah

Noah was born May 9th 1971, he was normal and healthy. A nurse noted his dead siblings “1st- heart, 2nd-thymus, 3rd-choked, 4th-died” on his medical records and he was taken asap to Dr. Steinschneider’s lab in Syracuse. 

Waneta with Noah.

Due to Nixon cutting NIH funding, the inpatient unit of the CCRC closed and many of the nurses who had worked with Molly were now gone. But Thelma and another nurse, Julie (mid-fifties, grandma to three) who had known the Hoyt’s were still at the hospital. Thelma was stuck in the lab with outpatients but Julie would have the majority of Noah’s care– and she was passionate about her work with “her” babies. He would get the very best care with Julie. 

And even though she only had sporadic interaction with Molly, and no interaction with the Hoyts Julie was quick to notice the strangeness of Waneta compared with other mothers of in-patient babies.

“You don’t see your baby for a few days. You come in and you want to pick up your baby and hold him and feed him and talk to him. She didn’t do any of that.” 

“She comes in, looks at the baby, and then she sits down. She doesn’t kiss the baby. She doesn’t pick him up. She doesn’t ask, but I tell her how he’s doing.”

Nurse Julie, Death of Innocents

Julie would put the baby in Waneta’s arms but she could tell that she didn’t want to hold him, in fact she was afraid Waneta was going to drop him. So she would take the baby from Waneta and hand the baby to Tim, who was affectionate. Waneta resented the affection Tim showed their baby, visibly upset until the baby is back in the crib. 

“And she doesn’t like that one bit. She pulls her chair next to him, and she strokes her husband’s leg, runs her hand up and down his leg. She’s jealous, is my impression.”

Nurse Julie, Death of Innocents
Steinschneider with Noah

Julie had known Steinschneider since he was a med student and they always had a good report. She felt comfortable giving him a piece of her mind and she did so right away with regards to Waneta. “I’ve never seen a mother act that way.” Of course, he heard this all before and disregarded it and he wasn’t a man to reevaluate anything he had already made up his mind on. But she warned him not to send the baby home.

During the experiments on newborn Noah, Steinschneider measured REM with relation to his apnea, sleep positions, and even injected him with Ritalin and Diamox, finding that both decreased his apnea but also made him hyperventilate. But here’s the thing– Noah’s breathing was even less apneic than Molly’s and Molly’s apnea was normal for her age– once again, Steinschneider was fabricating apneic episodes based on false alarms and fuzzy math and an active imagination.

Discrepancies between the Nursing Notes and Steinschnieder’s, Death of Innocents, 293.

When Noah was ten days old, being monitored by a polygraph machine in the lab, Dr. Steinschneider received a letter from Dr. Stuart Asch, the psychiatrist I introduced in the first video, his research had been on the issue of infanticide during postpartum depression (we would now consider it postpartum psychosis) being misinterpreted as SIDS deaths. Asch’s aims were not to prosecute these deaths but to get mothers treated and screened for postpartum depression asap to prevent tragedies. As far as we know, Dr. Steinschneider did not respond, he was focused on his own theory. 

And he had a problem: Molly’s death, which he had determined to be SIDS, had all the hallmarks to fit his theory: near-misses, recurring apnea (of course, only according to him and Waneta), the association with a respiratory infection (Molly’s cold), and the death occurring in the third month of life. However, there was one thing that didn’t fit, based on Waneta’s story it didn’t seem likely that Molly would have been sleeping when the death occurred and SIDS deaths and apnea were associated with sleep. 

He had been studying other babies in addition to the Hoyt children but Molly’s case stood out as unique. He believed there was a quantifiable difference between normal infant apnea and “perilous” apnea. He came up with a nonsensical Apnea Duration formula: A/D%

“He calculated a baby’s A/D% by adding up the duration of all periods of nonrespiration of two seconds or more (measured in tenths of a second), dividing that number by the duration of the total sleep, and then multiplying that number by 100.”

Death of Innocents, 258

Now, if someone just gave this formula to me I would assume it meant something even if it sounds stupid (and it does) because I suck at math. However, rest assured, it’s as Jack Schnieder put it, “A crock of shit.”

Or as the saying goes, “If you can’t beat them with brains, baffle them with bullshit.” 

From his admission to the hospital, from the hospital he was born at, until June 15 when he was sent home for the first time in his life, Noah had never had one episode of respiratory distress.

The following morning, 16 hours later, he was rushed the to ER. Waneta claimed that she had been in the kitchen when the alarm went off, she found him not breathing, and had to revive him with mouth to mouth. (Is she lying outright or did she partially smother him and then resuscitate him like she did so many times to Molly?) Her story became more elaborate as Steinschneider later questioned her: she went in and he wasn’t breathing, a dusky pale color, but perked up when she shook him. But 15-20 mins later while she was holding him he turned dark and pasty and stopped breathing again thus the mouth to mouth which caused him to start breathing again. (Dusky and pale? Dark and pasty?)

But on examination Noah was fine, he had a slightly runny nose. Electrocardiogram, urinalysis, blood work, chest x-ray all returned normal. Steinschneider decided that Noah had survived a near-miss SIDS episode and ordered around the clock nursing and more reams of respiration charting. Of course, this was costing the Hoyts a lot of money because there was little research money now and the cost of all this testing was on them. And always looking for an angle, Steinschneider used their financial difficulty to get the Hoyts to sign over more rights to experiment on Noah over to him.

By mid-July it was getting closer to the date when Noah would be sent home again. Julie told Steinschneider to find an alternative because she thought that Waneta had done something to her previous children and Noah would suffer the same fate if allowed to go home. 

Steinschneider ignored her and Noah was sent home July 20th as planned.

On July 21st, Waneta called Dr. Steinschneider and said that after morning feedings Noah started to cough and turn colors, red blue and pale, and then held his breath until she gagged him which caused him to spit up. (red and blue and pale?) Steinschneider told her to bring Noah back in.

Waneta asked her brother-in-law, Chuck, the one who had suspected her in the deaths of the first three children who had by this time, because of her involvement with Steinschneider, believed that something was terribly wrong with these children and it wasn’t her fault. 

But while Noah was in the hospital he was perfectly fine.

On the evening of July 27, Noah was sent home again. 

The next morning Waneta smothered him to death soon after Tim left for work. Then she hopped in the shower to get ready for… everyone. He was 80 days old.

Waneta claimed that she couldn’t hear the apnea monitor going off because she was in the shower, and by the time she found him he was blue and couldn’t be revived.

Dr. Scott called Dr. Steinschneider from the scene of the death (crime) and arranged to have Noah’s body brought to Upstate Medical for autopsy. When Steinschneider told Julie about Noah’s death less than 24 hours after he was sent home, she snapped at him, “I TOLD YOU SO!” 

Dr. Steinschneider discussed the family history with Dr. Markarian before he performed the autopsy and based on that conversation he noted in his report that all four brothers and sisters died from SIDS, nevermind their recorded causes of death nor Waneta’s previous stories. The coroner didn’t know what to put on the death certificate, he wanted to put “sudden unexplained death” but worried that looked bad on him so he put “acute bronchiolitis,” and where it ask how long between onset and death he put two-hours. This wasn’t supported by the physical findings. But to all the professionals over-seeing this case it didn’t matter. It was just a baby who died. Who cares? Dr. John Scott, the pediatrician for all the Hoyt babies, and who damn well knew better) wrote up the final report attributing the death (and all the deaths of the Hoyt children) to SIDS and sent it to the sheriff’s department. 

Then Dr. Steinschneider got to work on his research article, his first solo publication.

Publication

In 1972, when the paper was submitted for peer review at Pediatrics, they recognized that his paper was more anecdote than science with a far too small sample size (five infants) to make any real conclusions but Dr. Jerold Lucey, the editor in chief of Pediatrics at the time, pushed it through to publication in only four months because SIDS was a hot topic, a decision he has regretted since (BBC News Health, 1999). 

As to peer reviewers, one of them was Dr. Guntheroth, who suggested apnea as a cause of SIDS in 1963 and supported Steinschneider at the 1969 conference, so of course he was enthusiastic about it. Basic errors in the paper were never caught or corrected before the paper was published: including listing the newborn Molly as being 28 years old when she was 28 days old or the description as Noah as having been disease-free for 71 days and sick (with a cold) for 28, which adds up to 99 days, but Noah died at 80 days of age. 

Then there were the bigger issues with the study itself that we’ve already touched on: the monitors frequently sounded false alarms, while the nurses recorded the false alarms as such, Dr. Steinschneider recorded them as true apnea spells, while adding in completely fabricated apneic spells. And Steinschneider didn’t have a universal definition for what he considered apneic breathing, let alone “prolonged apnea,” for each infant it was a different measurement.

“The critical data upon which his thesis rests was based largely on clinical ‘observation’ that was either presumed, embellished, or on occasion apparently fabricated. The discrepancies and ambiguities in what had and had not been observed, however, were masked by Steinschneider’s description of his innovative research techniques.” (Baffle them with bullshit.)

Death of Innocents, 291

And Steinschneider claimed that “All infants had a number of prolonged apneic and cyanotic episodes during sleep, some requiring vigorous resuscitative efforts.” But the cyanotic spells and vigorous resuscitation didn’t occur in the hospital, they were reported by Waneta, having occurred at her home when she was alone with the babies. Gutheroth, aware that this claim wasn’t supported by any evidence in the paper went on to further the lies in his book, Crib Death: The Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, writing that the babies in Steinschneider’s study who died, “were documented polygraphically as having episodes of prolonged sleep apnea with cyanosis, some requiring vigorous resuscitation.”

Steinschneider also laid the foundation for the breathing monitor profiteering, “It is suggested that infants at risk might be identified prior to the final tragic event” and by “infants at risk” he meant all infants, and by “identified” he meant putting them to sleep with breathing monitors. In his subsequent studies at CCRC, he had former research assistants and nurses put their children into his studies.

Remember Polly Fibiger who considered something must be wrong at the Hoyt home for Molly to only have breathing trouble while at home? Well she had a baby boy in 1971 and he was quickly recruited into Steinschneider’s research as a normal subject. But Steinschneider quickly declared that this baby wasn’t normal and told Polly it was vital that he be kept on a breathing monitor at home. The monitor was always giving false alarms and she realized she hadn’t enjoyed her new baby, her first baby during his first six months because of the monitor but Steinschneider she needed to keep him hooked up all the time, for at least two years. Fortunately, her pediatrician told her to stop it. Another family, whose firstborn died from a congenital heart defect and pneumonia, was told by Steinschneider it had really been SIDS and insisted that without a breathing monitor their new daughter would die too. That little girl remained on a breathing monitor well into her preschool years.

“The research made him something of a medical celebrity around Syracuse, where he was creating a virtual monitoring culture of parents who passed the coveted machines among themselves with a fervent belief that the black boxes would save their babies from SIDS.”

Death of Innocents, 311

His paper didn’t go entirely unchallenged though. Dr. John Hick, from Minnesota, who had personally witnessed a case of what would later be termed Munchausen’s by Proxy: a mother brought in her child with flailing limbs and after putting the child in a room with a one-way mirror, the doctor and medical staff witnessed the mother forcing phenobarbital pills into her child’s mouth to cause the limb flailing. When he read the case of Mrs. H’s children, he became skeptical for all the reasons noted above, but because the deaths of Jimmy and Julie, one too old and both awake when they died, didn’t make sense by Stienschneider’s own definition of SIDS. He wrote in to Pediatrics to challenge the paper noting that, “Apnea of greater than 15 seconds has been well documented for the two siblings studied. This is not long enough period of apnea to produce cyanosis” and he went on to call out the issue of when and where the artificial stimulation was used, “neither child apparently required resuscitation during extended periods of hospitalization.”

Steinschneider wasn’t about to let that go. He understood the political climate around SIDS and child abuse, being on friendly terms with Abe Bergman who’s “political philosophy” for the past decade had been “Don’t ever blame the parents” and he leveraged it to his advantage. To question Steinschneider’s paper was to blame a SIDS parent, Mrs. H, and that wasn’t acceptable. How dare I? In fact, within a month of Noah’s death, at the NICHD meeting he attended, infantcide was discredited as a factor in suspected SIDS deaths.

Aftermath

Federal Money for SIDS research

Dr. Steinschneider became the first researcher awarded a federal grant of $406,405 over four years to continue building his research. Whether by luck or design, Steinschneider got into the SIDS research game just as the money started flowing. In 1974, President Nixon gave $9 million for SIDS research and within the decade a breathing monitor industry-sponsored SIDS foundation hired Steinschneider.

His crap paper became the basis for an entire generation of fruitless SIDs research and was still being cited even after a 1982 study by Dr. David Southall of North Staffordshire Hospital in the UK, with 9000 infants, debunked his paper completely. Many critical contemporaries of Steinschneider recall his following to be almost cult-like in its intensity.

And the Hoyts? Their adoption application goes through.

Closing

Due to their relationship, in which Waneta’s dead children legitimized Steinschneider’s junk research and his professional authority legitimized the suspicious deaths of her children, it looked like he was going to get away with scientific fraud and Waneta with serial murder.  

In part three: the trail of a sex offender from Syracuse in the 1980’s brings the issue of false SIDS claims to the public’s attention and brings justice to more than one serial murder.

Sources:

BBC News Health. Feb 25 1999. Cot Death Error ‘Cost Lives.’ BBC. Link.

Beckwith, J. Bruce. 1977. The Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. US Dept of Health, Education, and Welfare. (available free on Google Books).

Cohen, Marta C., Irene B. Scheimberg, J. Bruce Beckwith, and Fern R. Hauck. 2019. “Investigation of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.” Diagnostic Pediatric Pathology. Cambridge University Press.

Diamond, Eugene. 2012. Sudden Infant Death or Infantcide?: An Unresolved Mystery. AuthorHouse (self published)

Firstman, Richard and Jamie Talan. 1997. The Death of Innocents: A true story of murder, medicine, and high-stakes science. New York: Bantam Books. [Except where noted, images are from this book; I highly recommend finding a copy! It’s chock full of information but reads like a thriller. If you get it as an e-book, invest in a Otterbox for your device because you will be throwing it across the room at regular intervals.]

Gurbutt, Dawne J. 2007. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome: Learning from Stories about SIDS, Motherhood and Loss. Oxford: Radcliffe Publishing.

Havill, Adrian. 2014. While Innocents Slept: A Story of Revenge, Murder, and SIDS. MacMillan.

Johnson, Joyce. April 10 1995. “Death Runs in the Family.” New York Magazine.

Johnson, Michael P. and Karl Hufbauer. 1982. “Sudden Infant Death Syndrome As A Medical Research Problem Since 1945.” Social Problems, 30(1): 65-81.

Neuroskeptic. Jan 16 2018. “Waneta Hoyt: The Serial Killer Paper.” Discover Magazine. Accessed April 24 2020.

Valdés-Dapena, Marie A. 1978. “Sudden Unexplained Infant Death, 1970 Through 1975: An Evolution in Understanding.” US Dept of Health, Education, and Welfare. (Available free on Google Books.)

Categories: Babies

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Aradia Wyndham

Proficient nerd on most things baby/ culture/ history/book related. Disability advocate. Has a penchant for photography, languages, and panics when low on chocolate rations. Will embarrass self in any social situation to point out or pet other people's dogs. Habitual stumbler and tea drinker. People watcher, pizza slayer.

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