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.
3rd December 2018