Few picnics have ended as disastrously--and mysteriously--as the outing made by Sarah Ann "Annie" Hearn and her friends, William and Alice Thomas.
Annie was a quietly sad specimen of humanity--the sort of person people automatically pity, without knowing quite why. She was a plain, dowdy woman with a stereotypically "spinsterish" air about her, although she claimed to be the widow of a Dr. Leonard Hearn. She had few friends, and even fewer activities. In 1921, she and her sister Minnie moved to the Cornish village of Lewannick to look after an elderly aunt, Mary Everard. After a long illness, Miss Everard died in 1926. Minnie followed her to the grave in July 1930, leaving Annie completely alone in the world.
Among her few friends was a neighboring couple, William and Alice Thomas. They took an almost parental interest in Annie, and especially after Minnie's death, they did their best to bring a little cheer into the lonely woman's bleak life. It was this kindly intention that prompted them, on October 18, 1930, to invite Annie on an outing to the nearby seaside town of Bude.
When the trio arrived at the little resort, they went to a cafe and ordered tea. Cornwall being a place where, in the words of one local, you focused on "saving the pennies," Annie had brought along a packet of sandwiches. They were prepared with tinned salmon, and a creamy salad dressing she had made herself. After they ate, Annie and Alice went for a walk along the beach, while William made his way to the nearest pub, where he downed some whiskey. He was, he explained, suddenly feeling unwell. When he rejoined the women, Alice complained that she had an unpleasant "sticky taste" in her mouth, and her husband obligingly bought her some bananas to wash away the sensation.
During the drive home, Alice became stricken with vomiting and diarrhea, causing them to send for a doctor as soon as they arrived back in Lewannick. The physician, Graham Saunders, assumed she had nothing worse than an ordinary case of ptomaine poisoning, prescribed a simple diet, and left unconcernedly.
Annie was the most attentive and solicitous of nurses to her ailing friend, and Alice soon began to recuperate. When the patient's mother heard of this illness, she too came to the Thomas cottage and tended to Alice while Annie took over the Thomas' housework and cooking. A little more than a week after that ill-fated trip, Alice was well enough to come down for a lunch Annie had prepared of mutton, brussels sprouts, and potatoes. For whatever reason, Mrs. Thomas ate alone in the dining room, while the others dined in the kitchen. After the meal, William gave his wife an aspirin Annie provided, and helped her back upstairs.
That night, Alice had a sudden, dramatic relapse. She became delirious and partially paralyzed. When Dr. Saunders arrived the following morning, he was so shocked by her condition that he brought in a consultant. The two doctors agreed that she was suffering from something far worse than a bad can of salmon--she had taken an irritant poison, probably arsenic. They immediately had her transferred to a hospital, but it was too little, far too late. By the next morning, Alice was dead.
A post-mortem found that the doctors' hunch was tragically correct. Alice Thomas' organs contained a lethal level of arsenic. The subsequent inquest was a stark "Murder by arsenical poisoning by some person or persons unknown."
The accusations that she had murdered her best friend drove Annie nearly hysterical. She exclaimed to William, "Life isn't worth living!" She fled the cottage, and disappeared. One week later, William received a letter that she had posted from a nearby village. She wrote that she was "innocent, innocent." Her life "is not a great thing anyhow," so she stated her intention of escaping the awful things being said about her by committing suicide.
Police soon learned that she had hired someone to drive her to a coastal town called Looe, about twenty miles away. A few days later, her coat was discovered near the edge of a cliff, and it was assumed the distracted woman had made good on her threat.
However, it was not long before investigators decided that Annie had escaped, all right, but not via a watery grave. Local fishermen insisted that if she had jumped at the spot where her coat had been found, her body would either have struck the rocks and remained on the beach, or, if she had drifted out to sea, the wind and currents would have immediately washed her back ashore. Police put out a bulletin giving the missing woman's photograph and a detailed description.
While the hunt for Annie went on, the police began to look back suspiciously at the deaths of her aunt and sister. Although both deaths had, at the time, been accepted as natural, in retrospect, investigators realized they had shown symptoms very similar to Alice Thomas. The bodies of the two women were exhumed, and, sure enough, their organs showed "distinct quantities of arsenic." It was looking very much like this meek, ladylike woman was a human viper. The hunt for this presumed serial poisoner intensified.
Meanwhile, a "Mrs. Faithful," a recent arrival in Torquay, was hired as a cook/housekeeper by an architect named Cecil Powell. He was pleased with his new servant, who impressed him as intelligent, well-behaved, and a devout churchgoer. She was a darn good cook, too. When he saw newspaper photographs of the missing murder suspect, Annie Hearn, he thought she looked familiar "in a vague sort of way," but just shrugged it off as one of those odd coincidences.
Let us hope Mr. Powell was a better architect than he was a detective.
All was well until "Mrs. Faithful" bought herself a coat. She left it at the store to be altered, giving her name as "Mrs. Dennis." When a shopboy delivered the coat to Powell's house a few days later, he caused a good deal of confusion. No "Mrs. Dennis" lived at that address! Powell's new housekeeper did such a remarkably clumsy and unconvincing job of explaining her use of a pseudonym that the architect's suspicions were finally aroused, and he contacted the police. When a constable addressed the housekeeper as "Mrs. Hearn," she knew the game was up, and quietly submitted to arrest.
Annie maintained her innocence. In her statement to police, she said she first became alarmed when, after Alice's death, William told her that his wife's organs were going to be analyzed, and that she would probably be blamed for the death. She went on, "It appeared as if somebody was going to be charged with murder...sooner than that I thought I would go my own way and take my life. I did go to Looe with that intention but later found that I could not do what I thought of doing."
It looked very, very bad for Mrs. Hearn, but she had been fortunate indeed when she entered the employ of Cecil Powell. He refused to believe that such a nice woman could be a multiple murderer, and used the reward money he had earned from her capture to hire her the expensive services of Norman Birkett, probably the most brilliant lawyer in England at that time. If you were a defendant who needed to convince a jury that black was white and two plus two equaled seventeen, Birkett was your man.
Birkett's first move was to have the great forensic scientist Sydney Smith review the medical evidence. Smith was of the opinion that it was not proven that Alice Thomas had ingested arsenic during the Bude outing. He argued that it could have been a genuine case of innocent food poisoning. He agreed that she had definitely taken arsenic shortly before her death, but there was nothing to show how or when this had been done. As for Minnie and Mary Everard, Smith could not say for sure how they had died at all. His conclusion was that Mrs. Hearn was "probably innocent."
Annie's next lucky break came when her trial opened in June 1931. The prosecution made the enormous mistake of including Minnie's death among their charges against her. Birkett was able to show that the soil in Cornwall contains an unusual level of natural arsenic. Burial in that soil could conceivably impregnate Minnie's corpse with arsenic--not to mention the fact that soil likely accidentally contaminated her remains during her exhumation. It was child's play for Birkett to make a plausible argument that her death was due to natural causes, which, of course, served as a strong implication that Annie was innocent of Alice Thomas' death, as well.
However, the defense made their most devastating point with a simple little experiment of Dr. Smith's. The prosecution argued that the arsenic which caused Mrs. Thomas' death came from weed-killer Annie used in her garden. Very well. Smith fixed salmon sandwiches identical to those Annie Hearn prepared on that tragic day, and added some weed-killer. He found that the dye used in the weed-killer immediately stained the sandwiches a very noticeable, and most unappetizing, bluish-purple. No poisoner in his or her right mind would try serving such sandwiches, and even if they did, no poisonee would dream of eating them.
Birkett still had some explaining to do about his client, of course. For one thing, her "husband," Dr. Hearn, showed all the signs of being a figment of Annie's imagination. Then, there was the fact that a neighbor testified that during the last illness of Annie's sister, Minnie had complained that the medicine Annie was giving her was "going into her hands and legs," paralyzing her in a way very similar to the symptoms suffered by Alice Thomas. Despite all of Birkett's efforts to portray Minnie as a "hysterical" woman, this neighbor continued to insist that Minnie was a rational woman, with legitimate fears she was being poisoned. The most intriguing part of Annie's trial concerned a diary Minnie had kept.
What did that diary say? We have no idea. All we know is that Birkett was very anxious that it should be kept out of evidence, and he succeeded.
The question of motive was another mystery. True, Annie had been her aunt's heir, but Mary Everard was far from wealthy. And what possible reason could she have had to kill her sister and Alice Thomas? The prosecution suggested that Annie wanted her friend out of the way so she could marry William Thomas, but there was very little evidence for this theory.
As for Mr. Thomas himself, he behaved nearly as suspiciously as the defendant. Although he never openly accused Annie of the murder of his wife, he pointedly said nothing in her favor, either. Although he conceded that he had given Alice medicine, he flatly denied that he had ever had arsenic of any sort in his possession. He and Annie both denounced the idea that there had been any sort of romantic or improper relationship between them.
Annie's third big lucky break came with the jury members. They were all foreign to that district, which may very well have saved her. The locals didn't give a fig for anything Annie Hearn's high-priced London lawyer might say--they were stubbornly certain she should hang. These out-of-towners, free from the virulent local prejudice against the defendant, deliberated for less than an hour before coming up with the verdict of "Not guilty." The judge then instructed them to deliver a similar verdict in the case of Minnie Everard.
After the trial, Annie Hearn was never heard from again, but it is believed she changed her name and moved back near her birthplace in Yorkshire.
No one else was ever charged with the murder of Alice Thomas, and the case remains unsolved. Logically speaking, only two people could have been Alice's killer--her friend, or her husband. Annie was tried, and--officially, at any rate--cleared of the crime, and it must be said that the evidence against her is far from overpowering.
That leaves Alice's widower. The most intriguing theory about this judicial puzzle posits that William Thomas did indeed poison his wife so that another woman could take her place--but that woman was not Annie Hearn. Crime historian Daniel Farson recorded that a Lewannick resident told him that after Mrs. Thomas' death, the postmistress predicted that William "will be able to have Mrs. Tucker now." Unfortunately, we know nothing more about this shadowy "Mrs. Tucker" or her possible relationship with Mr. Thomas.
A more tangible piece of evidence against William comes from the fact that he used worm tablets on his farm animals. These tablets contained copper. High levels of copper, as well as arsenic, were found in Alice's system. Did her husband use his tablets for a more sinister purpose than animal husbandry?
But if Thomas did poison his wife, who killed Minnie Everard? He certainly had no reason whatsoever to wish her dead. Or was Minnie's death due to natural causes after all?
If William Thomas was a poisoner, he gained nothing from the crime. After the trial, lingering suspicions and unanswered questions turned him into a recluse. He led a grimly quiet existence on his farm until his death in 1949.