Suspecting ‘evil eye,’ burial interrupted for autopsy

Posted 4/10/24

Seventeen-year-old Theresa DeRensis of East Greenwich had been prepared for burial. The daughter of Italian par-ents, Callisto and Felicia DeRensis, she had passed away a few days earlier, on June …

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Suspecting ‘evil eye,’ burial interrupted for autopsy


Seventeen-year-old Theresa DeRensis of East Greenwich had been prepared for burial. The daughter of Italian parents, Callisto and Felicia DeRensis, she had passed away a few days earlier, on June 28, 1923, at the Rhode Island Hospital for the Insane in Cranston.

As the hours counted down that sad day, those who’d been close to the young woman awaited their final chance to say goodbye. Then the quiet of the somber interim was broken. One family friend could no longer remain silent and hurried to make contact with the Rhode Island Assistant Attorney General to explain the importance of an autopsy being performed. The Assistant AG was assured that such a probe would show Theresa had been poisoned.

As it happened, it was not only one friend but several who went on to report a variety of strange occurrences surrounding the death of Theresa. As one friend told it, Theresa had experienced an altercation with a co-worker named Cecelia Polacino on June 7, at the Apponaug mill where they were both employed. Allegedly, Cecelia had approached Theresa and performed some sort of witchcraft, sprinkling a powder over her head which she claimed was made from the bones of a dead man.

Terrified that a curse had been placed upon her, Theresa was desperate to rid her body of it. She sought out the help of an unqualified medical practitioner who sold her two bottles of a concoction which he claimed would neutralize the damning effects of the evil powder. The bottles, which still contained a portion of the quack’s cure, were turned over to the Attorney General’s office and placed in the custody of the Rhode Island State Board of Health for analysis. A full investigation into the girl’s death was then ordered.

Theresa had been transported to the state insane hospital on June 19. The superintendent of that institution recalled that when she arrived, she was highly nervous and excited and her body appeared to be strangely discolored. A few days later, her neck and chest began to swell considerably. The medical staff at the hospital had a mystery on their hands as no diagnostic tests gave any explanation for what was causing the swelling. Theresa’s death at the institution occurred only nine days after her arrival.

After learning of the liberty Theresa’s co-worker had taken in dusting her with magic powder, family and friends became certain that Theresa had died as a result of ‘the evil eye,’ being cast upon her by Cecelia. The cursing glance has long been believed in by cultures and religions across the globe, certain to bring forth injury, misfortune or death to whomever it falls upon. For thousands of years, the reality of ‘the evil eye’ has been so trusted that amulets, talismans and jewelry have been worn to ward off anyone attempting to curse the wearer and can still be easily purchased today. During this particular investigation of 1923, the State of Rhode Island took the supernatural considera-tion very seriously as the facts of the matter were determined.

The Assistant Attorney General ordered the medical examiner for the Town of Warwick to perform an autopsy on Theresa immediately. Therefore, instead of her body being taken to Saint Patrick Cemetery in East Greenwich for burial, it was taken to the East Greenwich undertaking rooms of Frank Hill.

Cecelia was located, charged with assault and placed under arrest. However results of the autopsy later showed that Theresa had died of nothing other than natural causes. Her body was returned to the custody of her family and the funeral plans resumed, the unfortunate girl being interred in the cemetery later that day.


Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.


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