Deadlier than the Male” Chris Dorries OBE 3rd Dec 2018

 Chris Dorries has been Senior Sheffield Coroner since 1991. Sheffield has a high national pro­file with approx­im­ately 3500 cases (40% of all South Yorkshire deaths) repor­ted to the Coroners jur­is­dic­tion annu­ally. Half are referred for con­ven­tional in-house CT autopsy. Sheffield is only one of three UK mor­tu­ar­ies with its own high dose CT scan­ner (a corpse is far more radi­ation tol­er­ant than a patient). Inquests are required in 600 cases on the basis of the autopsy find­ings. A huge reduc­tion in con­ven­tional autopsy fol­lowed the intro­duc­tion of CT. A sur­prise to me was that doc­tors are no longer allowed to be Coroners.

Today’s talk described 4 murder cases illus­trat­ing a recur­ring theme of his­toric cases of women accused of murder and he opened with a verse from a song recor­ded by an obscure Liverpool pop group called Space “The female of the spe­cies is more deadly than the male”, aping a much earlier Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name. Each case was fully repor­ted in news­pa­pers of the times because of huge public interest in female mur­der­ers.

Arsenic, a mining by-product and already known to the Egyptians in 1500BC, was used as a rather subtle murder weapon in the 17–1800s although more com­monly for this pur­pose on the con­tin­ent. It was favoured by females as no viol­ence was required to per­pet­rate, and it was feared by the para­noid. It was largely sold as rat poison, but also employed as a tonic in small doses. Ladies also liked it as an early form of wet wipes for skin and hand cleans­ing. Pharmacies had to record details of sales in the event of foul play. Industrially it was used in the pro­duc­tion of green wall paper. There was ready domestic con­tam­in­a­tion from touch­ing damp walls lined with said paper laden with arsenic.

Acute arsenic pois­on­ing induces vomit­ing, abdom­inal pain, brain prob­lems (enceph­alo­pathy) and bloody diarrhoea, but longer expos­ure gives other nasty things such as skin change, heart dis­ease, pain and diarrhoea and even numb­ness and cancer, most fre­quently from drink­ing water con­tam­in­a­tion, but also expos­ure in mining, agri­cul­tural and toxic waste sites, and wait for it, tra­di­tional medi­cines! No wor­ries then; over­dose gives a slow death likened to “rats gnaw­ing at the insides and insuf­fer­able thirst”.

The case of Mary Blandy

This famous case illus­trated the role of the early cor­oner. She was hanged aged 31 in 1752 for the murder of her father. Disfigured from small­pox, suit­ors were few, but her father advert­ised a dowry equi­val­ent to £10000 today. Enter Captain William Cranstoun, a Scottish aris­to­crat, also rendered ugly from small­pox. It tran­spired that he was already mar­ried with a child in Scotland aiming to annul the mar­riage (or so he said). Mary’s father dis­be­lieved him and ten­sions rose between them. What happened next is unclear. Mary claimed that Cranstoun sent her a love potion (in fact arsenic) asking her to add the powders to father’s tea and gruel and gradu­ally he became symp­to­matic, as did the ser­vants who helped them­selves to the leftovers. All was revealed when the gritty remains in the teacup were iden­ti­fied as arsenic. Mary pan­icked and tried to des­troy the evid­ence (arsenic powder and love let­ters) but a house­maid res­cued some of the powder from the fire­place. Blandy, her father, then died, Mary absconded on the day of the coroner’s inquiry, was chased and caught by a mob. She was sent for trial at Oxford Assizes in 1752 and kept in irons. Although this was the first use of detailed med­ical evid­ence in a trial prov­ing arsenic as the cause of death, the trial lasted just a day and she was hanged 6 weeks later from a low slung beam sup­por­ted between two trees out­side Oxford castle prison (nowadays the Malmaison Hotel and very nice too). Her last request was not to hang her high for the sake of decency. Although it was a public exe­cu­tion, she escaped ana­tomic dis­sec­tion by the skin of her teeth after a par­lia­ment­ary decision to change the Julien to the Gregorian cal­en­dar. Thus eleven days were instantly deleted from the cal­en­dar in September 1752 and the Murder Act was brought for­ward, to pre­cede her exe­cu­tion.

The case of Madeleine Hamilton-Smith

She was a beau­ti­ful but wild woman just 20 years old whose father was a famous Edinburgh archi­tect. She was charged with the murder in 1857 of a former boy­friend, Pierre L’Angelier, who came from Jersey. They met cov­ertly as lovers but the ulterior motive was his wish to marry into money. She then met another suitor and tried to break off the rela­tion­ship. He tried to black­mail her with the threat of show­ing her father the con­tents of love let­ters which expli­citly described their sexual exploits, an abso­lute poten­tial dis­aster in the 1850s.

He threatened sui­cide so for a while she “two timed him” before fatally pois­on­ing him with arsenic-laced cocoa. Cocoa very nicely dis­guises the gritty tex­ture of arsenic in the bottom of the cup. Probus mem­bers were advised to be very wary if ever offered cocoa.

The let­ters were dis­covered and massive amounts of arsenic were found in his body

There was a sen­sa­tional trial in the Edinburgh High Court and she was pub­licly executed at the Royal Mile gal­lows in 1857 in front of 50–100000 people.

There were flaws in the prosecution’s case: she was not allowed to give a sworn state­ment her­self, L’Angelier’s first ill­ness may have pre­ceded the time she pur­chased arsenic, she bought green arsenic but it was white in the body, there was less arsenic than could have been in the “fatal” cocoa com­pared with the amount in his stom­ach, L’Angelier never accused her in front of his land­lady after inges­tion, she would have known the let­ters would be revealed after his death, and sui­cide had already been threatened by him. As a psy­cho­path, intent on sui­cide, he might have been fram­ing her. The case was covered widely and inter­na­tion­ally. A ver­dict of “not proven” was returned and she was dis­charged. She even­tu­ally died in New York in 1928.

The case of Mary Ann Ansell

Mary Ann Ansel (22) was a maid in Bloomsbury. She had a men­tally ill sister in an asylum. She was engaged but there was no money for a mar­riage licence. She took out an insur­ance policy on her sister’s life; for 3d a week she’d get £11 on death. She baked a cake laced with phosphorus-based rat poison and sent it by post to the asylum. Her sister and asylum friends became ill but there was a delay in their assess­ment and treat­ment due to a con­cur­rent typhoid out­break at the asylum. Although the friends recovered, her sister inges­ted a lethal dose.

Delays in med­ical treat­ment were no mit­ig­a­tion for Mary Ann when she was con­victed.  The cake, wrap­per and post mark led back to her. She claimed she had bought rat poison but the mis­tress of the house denied there were rats. The insur­ance policy sealed her guilt and she was executed at St Alban’s prison in 1899

The case of Bloody Babs

Barbara Graham was executed in 1955 at California’s San Quentin gaol. She was per­haps wrongly accused of beat­ing and fatally suf­foc­at­ing an eld­erly woman in a house rob­bery

She was strapped into a chair in the gas cham­ber. A guard patted her knee and asked her to

take a deep breath and it won’t bother you”. She retor­ted “How in the hell would you know?”


Chris Dorries is a very enter­tain­ing speaker and reminded us that the right hand rail on the main stairs at the Cutlers Hall was his doing after a diner, worse for wear, fell down the stairs on the way to the lav­at­ory and was fatally injured. At the time there was only a left hand rail and our victim chose the wrong side to come down.

Andrew Shorthouse

3rd December 2018