"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, May 8, 2017

Book Review: "The Hay Poisoner," by Martin Beales

Herbert Armstrong, circa 1915

It was one of the most publicized poisoning trials in early 20th century England: 53-year-old Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong was accused of delivering fatal doses of arsenic to his wife, and attempting to do the same to a business rival.

Armstrong was a solicitor who lived with his wife and three children in Hay, near the Welsh border. He was a small, very dapper man with a jovial, pleasant demeanor. Most everyone in town liked him. Katharine Armstrong was a very high-strung, fretful woman endlessly obsessed with her health, and a stickler for etiquette that would have done Buckingham Palace proud. On one occasion, she cut short the Major's tennis game because, as she loudly reminded him, it was his "bath night." To all appearances, however, Herbert was devoted to his eccentric spouse.

By 1920, Katharine was showing signs of increasing mental instability. She went into fits of paralyzing depression, and periodically became delusional. In July 1920, Mrs. Armstrong made out a new will--or, rather, her husband did, as it was in his handwriting. In contrast to her old testament, which divided her property between her husband, her children, and other relatives, this new will left everything to the Major. Mr. Armstrong was in the habit of keeping quantities of arsenic around the house. The dandelions on his lawn were unsightly, he would sigh, and poison was the only thing that seemed to keep them in check. He kept the arsenic in neat little packets. He would fill a tiny squirt gun with arsenic, stick the nozzle against the weed's roots, and fire away. Herbert Armstrong: Dandelion Slayer.

Soon after signing her new will, Katharine's health swiftly declined. Her condition, both mentally and physically, deteriorated so precipitously that she was sent to an insane asylum. By January 1921, she returned home. Although her doctors still considered her mental and physical condition to be precarious, both the Armstrongs insisted that she be released from the hospital.

Mrs. Armstrong continued to deteriorate. She was unable to keep down food, and continued suffering from delusions and deep depression. In February, she died, aged only 47. Her physician said she had succumbed to a combination of perfectly natural diseases, and Katharine was given a quiet burial in the local churchyard.

After his wife's death, the Major took a little holiday abroad, and renewed his acquaintance with a widow he had met during the war, Marion Gale. The two discussed the possibility of marriage.

The only cloud in the Major's now-sunny sky was an unpleasant business complication. He and Hay's only other solicitor, Oswald Martin, were representing the two parties in a land deal. Various complications arose, and Martin became increasingly impatient. After about a year had passed, he finally declared the contract broken, and insisted that Armstrong's client return the down payment he had received.

Martin received an anonymously sent box of chocolates. The postmark was illegible.  He and his wife appear to have never heard that old truism about never taking candy from strangers. They cheerfully put the chocolates out for guests at a dinner party. One of those guests ate the candy, and she became quite ill afterwards.

A few weeks after this incident, the Major invited Martin to tea. Over the meal, Armstrong picked up a buttered scone and placed it on Martin's plate. "Please excuse fingers," he smiled.

Martin ate the scone, drank some tea, smoked a cigarette, and, after some innocuous small talk with the Major, went home. That night, he became extremely ill.

After Martin recuperated, he had a talk with his father-in-law, Fred Davies. Davies was a chemist--the same chemist, in fact, who sold the Major arsenic. Although Martin's doctor had diagnosed him as having stomach flu, Davies insisted he had been poisoned. Davies had Martin's vomit analyzed, as well as the remaining chocolates he had received. Both were found to contain arsenic.

Law enforcement was contacted. Scotland Yard agreed that there were grounds for suspicion, but they said they needed to proceed carefully. After all, Major Armstrong was a respected lawyer, a Freemason, a popular pillar of his community. He was not the sort of man one heedlessly accused of being a serial poisoner. They promised to investigate the matter. In the meantime, they advised Martin to decline any more of Armstrong's invitations to tea.

This was easier said than done. No sooner was Martin back on his feet that the Major began bombarding him with invitations to have more of those enticing scones and delicious cups of tea. The more Martin declined these offers, the more persistent Armstrong became. The Martins became so rattled that they took turns keeping awake all night. Presumably, they feared Armstrong might break into their home and feed them scones as they slept.

Ten months after her death, Mrs. Armstrong's body was exhumed. Sir Bernard Spilsbury, England's most famous pathologist, performed an autopsy. He ruled that Katherine had died from a massive dose of arsenic. And the next thing the Major knew, he was standing trial for murder. When he was arrested, one of those little packets of arsenic was found in his pocket.

The evidence against Armstrong seemed overwhelming, particularly after Martin was allowed to testify about the tea party. Martin's story transformed the Major from a possible wife-poisoner to a most probable would-be serial killer. In fact, it was his testimony, more than anything else, that put the noose around Armstrong's neck. The most the defense could do was to suggest that Mrs. Armstrong committed suicide. Armstrong himself stoutly maintained his complete innocence.

To no one's surprise, the Major was found guilty, and he was accordingly hanged. He remains the only solicitor in British history to be executed for murder.

All the above is the "accepted history" of the Armstrong case. The tragedy inspired several books, a couple of movies, and innumerable chapters in collections of true-crime tales, all giving precisely the same story: the Major was as transparently guilty as defendants can get, and "the little viper" (in the words of crime historian Edmund Pearson) got precisely what he deserved.

This open-and-shut quality was why I never paid much attention to the case. I like a bit of mystery with my villanies, and the arsenic-laden Major seemed as unmysterious as murderers get. However, I recently saw an excellent TV-movie about the case, "Dandelion Dead." The film followed the usual assumptions about Armstrong's guilt, but I was intrigued enough to read more about him. I soon learned that there are at least some people who argue that the case against him is not nearly as iron-clad as most think. In fact, it has been claimed that the Major was the victim not just of a miscarriage of justice, but of a sinister conspiracy.

The revisionist view of the Armstrong case was laid out by Martin Beales in his 1995 book, "The Hay Poisoner." Beales was a solicitor who settled in Hay--in fact, he bought the Armstrong house. Naturally intrigued by the grim events that had taken place under his new roof, he began his own investigation. He obtained access to the original files of the case, including the defense material and other official documentation which have largely been ignored by previous chroniclers of the case. He soon came to a stunning conclusion: the executed man was very likely completely innocent. More than that, Beales believed Armstrong had been framed. His book looked at every bit of "accepted history" about Armstrong and his alleged crimes, and systematically refuted them.

First of all, there was the matter of Katharine Armstrong's second will, which has often been described as something orchestrated by her husband before he carried out his plans to murder her. In truth, as early as 1919 Katherine herself had expressed to relatives her fears that the will she had made out in 1917--when Herbert was away serving in the war--was no longer satisfactory. She explained to her sister that the will had not left enough to her husband, and now that he was safely back home, it needed to be revised. She wanted to make sure that if anything happened to her, he would have enough money to raise their children. While her 1920 will may have been rather informal, no one was able to prove there was anything irregular about it. In any case, Herbert had no need for Katharine's money. Before her death, his bank accounts were in credit, and his client list had been steadily increasing. At the time of his arrest, Katharine's personal income was completely untouched by him. As for the secondary murder motive attributed to the Major--the "other woman"--a closer look at the truth casts doubt on that as well. His relationship with Marion Gale--who had also been a friend of Mrs. Armstrong's--was perfectly respectable. She was a pleasant middle-aged lady who, he hoped, might provide a motherly presence for his children (the youngest of whom was only five when Katharine died,) and amiable companionship for himself. His motives in wooing Mrs. Gale appeared to have stemmed from practicality, rather than passion.

The fact that Armstrong kept arsenic in the house is not nearly as damning as it would seem to modern sensibilities. For years past, he had, for reasons of economy, made homemade weed-killer, using a recipe clipped from a magazine. Among gardeners of his day, this practice--as well as the little device he used to poison individual dandelions--was extremely common.

There is even a possibility that Katharine's long history of illness had nothing to do with poison. Beales notes that her symptoms--which had been steadily worsening for years, including when Herbert was away during the war--did not fit the classic symptoms of arsenic. They did, however, precisely tally with a diagnosis of Addison's disease, an ailment that, unfortunately, did not seem to have occurred to her incompetent, and later duplicitous, doctor.

Key to Armstrong's conviction was the claim by the medical experts that Katharine died as the result of taking arsenic within 24 hours of her death. However, the medical literature quoted by Beales proves that this was an overly dogmatic declaration. To make a long story short, Beales argued that nearly a year after her death, it would be impossible to say with certainty how much arsenic Katharine may have taken and when. (Complicating the issue is the fact that she took medicines and homeopathic remedies containing various poisons.)

Beales concluded: "Katharine could have taken the arsenic from the study cupboard on 16 February accidentally, believing it to be something other than arsenic. She could have removed some of it and continued to take it during her final illness. She could have taken it intending to take her own life. [Note: Katharine had, during her last months, often spoken of suicide.] Equally, Armstrong could have given it to her. However, there was no evidence that he did...No man should be condemned in this way. There must be proof of guilt and there was no such proof."

It is when Beales turns his attention to Oswald Martin and his chemist father-in-law that the story takes a dark conspiratorial turn. Contrary to "accepted history," Beales asserts that Armstrong had no motive to want Martin dead. Rather, Martin's illness was "a potential nightmare" for him. The Major had finally received the necessary paperwork to allow the disputed land sale to be completed on time, and with Martin incapacitated, there was the danger of something going wrong with the contracts. (Also, contrary to Fred Davies' assertions that Armstrong was "jealous" of Martin's practice, Martin was not taking clients away from Armstrong. If anything, it was the reverse.)

There is reason to believe that the famous tea party between Armstrong and Martin--"excuse fingers," and such--was not what conventional wisdom would have us believe. Martin stated that Armstrong had handed him a scone covered with (presumably arsenic-laced) butter. However, it was established that the scones were all unbuttered. Armstrong himself denied ever handing Martin anything to eat. His story was that Martin was free to help himself from the tea tray. Martin did not become ill until hours after tea, and after he had eaten a hearty meal at home. Beales argued that if Armstrong had poisoned him at tea, Martin would have shown symptoms much earlier. It would also have been a remarkably stupid way to poison someone. What if Martin had suddenly taken ill in Armstrong's home, immediately after eating food provided by his rival? How would Armstrong explain that? Finally, Beales noted that Martin's symptoms, like Katharine's, were not characteristic of a large dose of arsenic, particularly since the solicitor had completely recovered within 24 hours. It could well have been, as Martin's doctor had originally believed, gastric flu.

The box of chocolates sent to the Martins on September 20, 1921 was, in Beales' words, "an enigma." Martin himself testified that he and his wife had eaten a couple of pieces with no bad effects. Apparently at least one other guest at the dinner party had taken some, too, without becoming sick. Only two of the surviving chocolates were found to be poisoned, and that had been done in a laughably crude manner. A large hole had been gouged in the bottom of these chocolates, with a clump of white arsenic messily pushed inside. There had been no effort to even close the hole with more chocolate. It was as if someone wanted the arsenic to be noticed.

Beales believed that someone did: Fred Davies. Davies apparently disliked Armstrong and had taken to voicing dark suspicions about Katharine's death. He was also the first to propose that the chocolates had been poisoned--just like he had been the first to assert that Martin had been poisoned at the tea party. Beales pointed to the interesting fact that Davies had warned the Martins about "anonymous gifts sent through the post such as chocolates"--before anyone had told him they had received such a present. Davies took possession of the remaining chocolates, keeping them for a day before handing them to the doctor for examination. It was only then that it was found that two candies were adulterated. It was Davies who had insisted that Martin's urine be analyzed for poison--even though the doctor was convinced Martin was suffering from an innocent illness. It was Davies who provided the bottle for Martin's urine sample and then sent it and the chocolates off for analysis. Was Beales correct in his belief that Davies, in his eagerness to convince everyone that Armstrong had poisoned Martin (which would lend credibility to his claims that the Major had fatally poisoned his wife) tampered with both the chocolates and the urine sample? (In regards to the urine sample, Beales also notes that during Martin's illness, he had been dosed with bismuth, which contains arsenic. That alone could explain the trace amounts of arsenic in Martin's urine. As a side note, Katharine's autopsy revealed traces of bismuth in her intestine.)

No one was ever able to connect Armstrong with those chocolates. The brand was unavailable in Hay. The serial numbers on the box established where and when the chocolates were boxed. They came from a factory some distance away. Armstrong had not left Hay during the period when those chocolates were manufactured and mailed. As was the case with the tea party, poisoned chocolates would be an incredibly bungling way for Armstrong to poison Martin. How could he be sure his intended victim would eat them, particularly since only a fraction of the candies had been tampered with?

In short, all the evidence that Armstrong poisoned Oswald Martin was either astonishingly feeble or decidedly dodgy. And yet, this was used as vital proof that the accused had murdered his wife. The twin charges against Armstrong validated each other: How do we know Armstrong killed his wife? Because he poisoned Oswald Martin. How do we know Armstrong poisoned Oswald Martin? Because he killed his wife!

Beales convincingly argues that Armstrong did not receive a fair trial. His counsel, Sir Henry Curtis Bennett, put up a startlingly lackadaisical defense, failing to take advantage of the multitude of weaknesses and errors in the prosecution's case, and doing little to promote his client's innocence, other than his diffident suggestion that Mrs. Armstrong had committed suicide. Bennett did not even call any character witnesses, allowing the unfounded slurs made against his client--that Armstrong had syphilis and spent his brief widowerhood in pursuit of hedonistic pleasures--to go largely unchallenged. The advocate for the Crown, Sir Ernest Pollock, conducted a prosecution that in Beales' opinion, "bordered on the unethical." Beales made a strong case that the crucial evidence of Oswald Martin should never have been admitted. English law normally protects defendants from the introduction of other offences committed or allegedly committed by them. Beales noted that as a result of Martin's testimony, "the jurors were bound to be prejudiced against [Armstrong,] because if they accepted that he had in fact tried to poison Martin, they had to be predisposed to believe that he had administered arsenic to his wife. In effect, this meant that Armstrong had to prove his innocence, not that the prosecution had to prove his guilt, and the basic law of evidence had been turned on its head."

However, nothing about the trial was more biased against the defendant than the judge. Lord Justice Darling had a reputation as a "hanging judge" that was more than justified in his handling of the Armstrong tribunal. Before the trial had even begun, Darling was convinced of Armstrong's guilt, and he set out to do everything in his power to send the accused man to the gallows. He took every opportunity to boost the prosecution's case and disparage the defense. And as for his summing-up to the jury, Beales commented that "in the annals of crime" it would be difficult to find a judge's summation that was "more perverse and damaging to any prisoner."

Beales believed that if Armstrong's conviction had been appealed to the House of Lords, the admission of Martin's evidence would alone have assured that the verdict would be overturned. However, only the attorney general could grant permission for this appeal. And the attorney general was...Sir Ernest Pollock, the man who had just won a triumphant victory over the condemned man. It comes as little surprise that he refused the appeal. The last chance to save Armstrong's life was gone, and he was hanged on May 31, 1922. He steadfastly denied his guilt to the end.

According to Beales, many people in Hay believed that Fred Davies had been instrumental in sending an innocent and well-liked man to the gallows, and they never forgave him for it. He was essentially driven out of town soon after Armstrong's execution. Oswald Martin left Hay as well. Martin had been crippled during the war, and the lingering effects of his injuries, coupled with his unpleasant experiences during the Armstrong case, left him broken in body and spirit. He died not long afterwards.

"The Hay Poisoner" makes a plausible case that Fred Davies framed Armstrong for the attempted murder of Oswald Martin, and successfully reclassifies Katharine Armstrong's death as an unsolved mystery. The Major may indeed have poisoned his wife: he had means and opportunity, if no evident motive. However, there is a haunting possibility that he did not.


  1. I saw the film "Dandelion Dead", as well. It starred the very busy character actor Michael Kitchen. Certainly, Mr Beales's arguments, as you've outlined, make for plausible reading. It's frustrating that both the pro and con in the matter are rather like two legal arguments resting on circumstantial evidence, neither conclusive enough to win - though, in reality, one was. Though I think Armstrong was likely a murderer, he should have won his case, legally speaking.

  2. I must declare an interest as the executioner was a distant relative of mine and I do wonder if he hanged an innocent man.


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