"...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, April 8, 2019

Death Visits Birdhurst Rise; Or, Why It's Wise to Skip the Soup Course

“Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it's enemy action.”
~Ian Fleming

Violet Sidney, "Minneapolis Star Tribune," October 27, 1929, via Newspapers.com

When a family member suddenly and mysteriously dies, one tends to shrug it off. The sort of thing that can happen in the best of households. But when another relative passes away under similar circumstances, and then yet another...

...You start to realize you have a problem. Such was the unwholesome situation facing the Sidney family of 29 Birdhurst Rise, Croydon, England.

The Sidneys were a typical family, with the usual share of ups and downs. Prominent among the latter was when the marriage of the Sidney matriarch, Violet, suffered a painful breakup. Thomas Sidney, a prominent barrister, abandoned his wife and their three small children, Tom, Vera, and Grace, to run off with his brother's sister-in-law. Violet's bitterness about her husband's perfidy was something she clung to for the rest of her days. On the positive side, Violet's relationship with her children appeared to be a perfectly happy one. Grace, who lived nearby, dropped in nearly every day.  Vera, who remained--by choice, evidently--a spinster, opted to remain with her mother, and, as Violet aged, seemed quite content to take the role of her mother's chief caretaker and companion. Vera's life was quiet, but active and pleasant. She lived very well on the inheritance of £5,000 she had received from her father. She was an attractive, athletic, vivacious woman who enjoyed golf, bridge, and long, brisk walks.

Vera Sidney

The only hint of a rift in the familial relationships came when Grace married one Edmund Duff, a retired civil servant. Duff was good friends with Thomas Sidney--in fact, Mr. Sidney had been the one to introduce Duff to his daughter. This friendship was something for which Violet could never forgive Edmund. Any friend of Violet's hated ex-husband was, in her view, if not exactly an enemy, certainly far from a friend of hers. In addition, Edmund was seventeen years older than Grace, and not very good at making a living. The Duffs and their three surviving children (two died in infancy) had a standard of living well below that of the prosperous Sidneys. In addition, Edmund was no prince charming: he could be a crude, argumentative sort with a gift for frittering away what little money he had. Despite these drawbacks, Grace and Edmund appeared to have a happy enough marriage.

Edmund Duff

The first step on the road to tragedy and mystery began on April 26, 1928, when Edmund came home from a short fishing trip feeling strangely unwell, quite unlike his usual robust self. He and Grace presumed he was merely coming down with the flu. He had little appetite for the chicken and potatoes Grace served for dinner. All he could get down was a bottle of beer. Later that night, Edmund felt much worse. Grace called in a Dr. Robert Elwell, who could find nothing wrong with Edmund other than a slight temperature and nausea. The doctor, seeing no reason for any particular concern, prescribed aspirin, quinine, and plenty of rest.

Grace Duff

By morning, the sick man's condition had deteriorated further, with a sore throat, vomiting, and diarrhea. Dr. Elwell paid another visit, bringing with him his partner, Dr. John Binning, but the two physicians still believed nothing was seriously amiss. Just a common stomach upset, that would no doubt go away soon.

Edmund's ailment did not go away. Quite the contrary. By evening, he was suffering terrible stomach cramps, and was too weak and light-headed to stand. He could only lie in bed helplessly, moaning in pain and drenched in a cold sweat. For the first time, it began to dawn on Dr. Elwell that something might be drastically wrong with Edmund Duff. Elwell and Binning did whatever they could think of to ease the sick man's sufferings, but nothing they tried did the slightest good. Just after 11 o'clock that night, the two baffled doctors watched Edmund die.

Naturally, a post-mortem and inquest was ordered. The investigation did little to explain the mystery of Edmund's death. His wife and children had eaten the same food as Edmund, with no ill-effects. The only things ingested solely by Edward were a shot of whiskey and the beer. As he had begun to feel poorly before he arrived back home, it was presumed that he had eaten whatever it was that made him sick during his fishing trip. However, Edmund's host on this trip reported that no one in his household had been ill. The post-mortem found no signs of food poisoning, or any other toxins besides those from the medicine given by Edmund's doctors. The coroner's jury ruled that Duff died from natural causes, but what exactly those "causes" were seemed destined to remain murky.

Once the shock of Edmund's sudden and enigmatic death wore off, life went on for the Sidneys in its usual uneventful course until January 1929, when the normally brisk, energetic Vera began feeling poorly. It was nothing she could put her finger on: she just felt tired all the time. Then, she started suffering bouts of nausea. By February 10, she was too sick to even leave the house. The next day, Vera vowed that she would shake off her uncharacteristic funk. She forced herself to go for a long walk, and afterwards participated in a bridge game with friends. That evening, she and Violet had a dinner prepared by their housekeeper, Kathleen Noakes: soup, vegetables, fish, potatoes, and pudding. The two ate all the same foods except the soup, which was partaken only by Vera. Mrs. Noakes also had some of the soup, which she shared with the family cat, Bingo. That night, Vera suddenly began feeling very ill. So did Mrs. Noakes. So did Bingo. As had been the case with Edmund Duff, these were all illnesses that had no obvious cause.

On the morning of February 13, Vera felt well enough to run some errands. She came home to have lunch with her mother and her aunt Gwen. Grace had driven Gwen to the house, but she herself did not stay for the meal. Mrs. Noakes served them more soup--made with the same broth powder she had used before--veal, and vegetables. Again, Violet did not eat the soup, but Vera and Gwen did. Those two women soon had cause to regret their menu choices, as before the meal was even over, they both began feeling terribly ill. Vera, reasonably enough, blamed the soup, and questioned Mrs. Noakes about it. The housekeeper had no explanation. There was nothing visibly wrong with the powder, and the utensils used to cook it were all completely clean.

That night, Vera was sicker than she had ever been in her life. Like Edmund, she was suffering agonizing stomach pains. When Grace came by to check on her sister, she was so shocked by Vera's condition that she immediately called in Dr. Elwell. The doctor was as puzzled by her illness as he had been with Edmund's. All he could think of to do was give her morphine for the pain. When the next day found Vera no better, he called in a specialist, Dr. Charles Bolton. Bolton diagnosed her as having gastro-intestinal influenza, and prescribed the usual remedies. None of them worked. Just after midnight on February 15, Vera joined her brother-in-law in that undiscovered country whose bourne no travelers return. Again, the doctors attributed this new death to that handy phrase, "natural causes."

Naturally, Violet was devastated by her favorite child's unexpected death. Vera had not only been her daughter, but her best friend. Mrs. Sidney saw only a lonely, empty old age for herself. Tom and Grace did what they could to help their mother through this terrible time. They both visited her every day, and Dr. Elwell prescribed tonics to try to palliate Violet's grief. Mrs. Sidney's distress was heartrending to witness.

On the morning of March 5, Violet was visited by Grace and Dr. Elwell. After Violet had her lunch--something which seemed to be an increasingly hazardous thing to do in the Sidney household--she began to feel unwell. When Grace paid her another visit in the afternoon, she was surprised to see her mother looking pale and weak. Violet insisted that she had been poisoned. She blamed her tonic, stating that her last dose had tasted odd. Grace summoned Dr. Elwell, who, after hearing what Violet said about the tonic, examined the bottle. He saw a gritty sediment on the bottom. He called the chemist who had prepared the medicine. The chemist said the tonic had a small dose of strychnine, but in such minute quantities that it could not possibly do any harm. He confirmed that there was nothing at all in the tonic which could produce Violet's adverse symptoms.

By afternoon, Violet's illness was an alarming repeat of Vera and Edmund's: vomiting, diarrhea, intense stomach cramps. Dr. Elwell--who seems to have been competing for the title, "Doctor Who Is Of Least Use At Your Sickbed"--assumed she had food poisoning. By that evening, Violet was dead.

This fatal trifecta was enough to finally convince authorities that something very strange was going on with this family. Edmund and Vera's bodies were exhumed, and all three corpses put through an intense examination.

The results of these three autopsies were shocking: Pathologists ruled that Violet, Vera, and Edmund all died of arsenic poisoning. Edmund's body in particular was so saturated with the poison that he had to have swallowed a considerable amount. When the doctors who had performed the initial autopsies were asked to explain how they had missed this clear evidence of poisoning, they could only utter embarrassed mutterings about how they had tested "the only organ" not to contain arsenic, so had not thought to look any further.

The next step for investigators was to determine the vehicles for the arsenic. It was presumed that Edmund ingested the poison either through the whiskey he took on his fishing trip or the beer he drank at what proved to be his last dinner. Vera had obviously been poisoned by the soup. Traces of arsenic were found in Violet's bottle of tonic. It was also clear why these particular items of food and drink had been doctored: Edmund was the only one in his household to drink alcohol, Vera the only one in hers with a taste for soup, and only Violet took her tonic. Obviously, someone wanted only these three people poisoned, and it was someone who knew how to do it. The question was, who?

Mrs. Noakes? Although she obviously had the access to poison Vera and Violet's food and drink, she had none to poison Edmund's. She had no visible reason to want any of the three dead, and there was also the fact that the soup had made her sick, as well. It was, not unreasonably, presumed that the housekeeper would hardly dump a deadly poison in her cooking and then take a dose herself.

What of the curiously obtuse Dr. Elwell? He and Grace Duff had a close friendship--rather too close, if contemporary rumor is to be trusted. (Elwell admitted to police that he and Mrs. Duff had "been indiscreet," whatever that meant.) In fact, after Edmund died, some people expected the two would marry. If all this is true, the doctor could have a motive to want Edmund out of the picture. But what reason could he have had to also murder Violet and Vera?

To move on to even more lurid territory, some conjectured that Violet had murdered Edmund and Vera, and then, unable to live with her evil deeds, killed herself as well. This is probably the most unlikely theory of them all. Violet was not fond of her son-in-law, but there was no open hostility between them, and the staid, respectable Mrs. Sidney was a most unlikely candidate to turn Mad Poisoner. Most importantly, it was unthinkable that she could want her daughter, the person closest to her, dead.

Tom Sidney? Violet's son, a professional entertainer, was chronically short of money. Like Grace, he depended heavily on the financial generosity of Violet and Vera. His mother and sister left him reasonably large sums in their wills, which could have inspired him to have their deaths take place with a very unnatural haste. However, no one could find any reason for him to murder Edmund.

Tom Sidney

Students of this peculiar case, led by true-crime doyen Richard Whittington-Egan, soon find themselves staring fixedly at Grace Duff. She was the one person who had any possible motive to see all the victims six feet under. Only she had easy opportunity to poison them all. Only she gained financially from all their deaths. If the gossip about her and Dr. Elwell had any basis in fact, she had the additional incentive of trading in an unsatisfactory husband for a newer model. The grief and shock Grace displayed after each family tragedy was, according to this theory, just brilliant play-acting.

On the other hand, in her book "Poisonous Lies," Diane Janes offered a contrarian solution to the murders: namely, that they were no murders at all. In short, Janes argued that the arsenic found in the victims could have come from perfectly innocent environmental sources. Edmund and Vera truly did die of natural causes, just as their doctors had originally believed. Violet, unable to deal with the grief of her daughter's untimely death, committed suicide. (Janes is on stronger ground with the fact that Grace derived little financial benefit from the deaths of her mother and sister. She gained a small life insurance payment from Edmund's death, but that was offset by the loss of his pension.) Many strange and unlikely things happen in this world, so one cannot say Janes' scenario is impossible, but I find it highly improbable. As the old saying goes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And a murder is just a murder.

The lack of solid evidence in the case ensured that no one was ever charged with the deaths of the Sidneys and Edmund Duff. If Grace, or someone else, had stood trial for murder, perhaps we would have learned the truth of what happened to these three people. Or perhaps not. All we can do with any certainty is echo the words of Tom Sidney's wife Margaret: "Who can say who did it?"

[Note: the Croydon poisonings inspired one of Agatha Christie's most acclaimed novels, "Ordeal by Innocence."]

1 comment:

  1. I agree that natural causes seems an unlikely origin of these deaths, and that Grace is the likeliest suspect. If there had been a trial, it probably would have resulted in a 'not guilty' verdict, due to lack of evidence.


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