Poisonous Lies: The Croydon Arsenic Mystery

Poisonous Lies: The Croydon Arsenic Mystery

by Diane Janes

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Poisonous lies

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750954372
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 01/12/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 3 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

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Poisonous Lies

The Croydon Arsenic Mystery

By Diane Janes

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Diane Janes
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-5437-2


A Happy, United Family

Mrs Violet Sidney breathed her last at around 7.20 on the evening of Tuesday, 5 March 1929. She expired in the front bedroom of 29 Birdhurst Rise, South Croydon: a large Victorian villa complete with attics and cellars – the very place in which to stage a melodramatic murder mystery – and in a coincidence entirely in keeping with the set piece detective story which Violet's death was about to become, all the principal suspects were on the premises at the time.

There was Kathleen Noakes, the household servant who was responsible for providing all the meals at no.29 – a distinctly uncomfortable position to hold in a household whose address was shortly to become synonymous with poisoning. Moreover, far from being a trusted old family retainer, Mrs Noakes had only arrived on the premises six months earlier and was already working her notice. Another contender in this speculative list was Dr Robert Elwell, who had been present at the deathbeds of all three members of this unfortunate family whose deaths would shortly be perceived suspicious. In itself the presence of the family doctor was hardly remarkable, but Dr Elwell's involvement took on a particular significance in the light of a rumour that he was enamoured of Mrs Sidney's daughter, Grace Duff. Dr Elwell's partner, Dr John Binning, was also in the house, and although not considered a suspect at the time, Dr Binning was a major participant in the unfolding drama, and questions about his involvement would arise later.

Violet Sidney's two surviving children were at her bedside and, needless to say, they both stood to benefit under their mother's will – although it would later be suggested that her son Tom's real motive for murder could have been a desire to break free from his mother and start a new life in America. And finally, what of Violet Sidney's daughter, Grace? Grace would eventually emerge as the most favoured suspect of all – with many willing to believe her sufficiently avaricious or deranged, that over a period of just under a year, she masterminded the murder of three members of her immediate family.

Before her death, Violet Sidney had lived quietly in South Croydon for more than a decade. Ladylike, reserved and rather old-fashioned, Violet had attended the local church and run her household, tended her garden, received callers and made visits; to all intents and purposes a very ordinary, very private life. Yet within days of her death her name would be headline news and the lives of herself and her family would be illuminated in a blaze of publicity. Magazines and newspapers would speculate about them, whole books would be devoted to their fate; eventually they would be represented by actors and actresses in a medium which was then scarcely known – television. It would be suggested that Violet had been murdered by her beloved son Tom, or more frequently that she was done to death by her daughter Grace. There would even be speculation that she herself had murdered two members of her family, before taking her own life in a belated fit of remorse. Every theory was possible, because in spite of a series of inquests, a long police investigation, and massive public interest, the Croydon Arsenic Mystery has never been solved.

The Metropolitan Police's desperate attempts to pursue every lead are well illustrated by the reaction of Croydon detectives on receiving a letter from Utah some five years after the investigation had faltered to a halt. The author claimed to know something about the case and, in spite of the letter being written in blue crayon and couched in the vaguest of terms, Detective Inspector Morrish, who was by then in charge of the Croydon case, took this missive seriously enough to contact the American authorities in order to have the matter followed up. It transpired that the author was 'a mental patient' who made a habit of writing to various individuals (including ex-President Calvin Coolidge) claiming to be in receipt of answers to a variety of outstanding mysteries, courtesy of information received via dreams.

The Utah letter is just one of numerous crank communications which survive in the police files; letters came from as far afield as New York and the Leeward Island – news of the mystery had spread around the world and everyone apparently had a theory. The Croydon Poisonings swiftly achieved 'classic' status, with accounts appearing in one true crime compendium after another. As a murder mystery the case truly had everything – except a definitive solution. In 1975 Richard Whittington-Egan claimed to provide the answer in his book The Riddle of Birdhurst Rise which confidently named Grace as the killer. More than thirty years later in the occasional television series A Most Mysterious Murder Julian Fellowes concluded that the guilty party was Tom.

On the face of it, the Sidneys were an ordinary middle class family and Birdhurst Rise a quiet suburban enclave of respectability. No.29 had three main living rooms on the ground floor, together with a kitchen and scullery. Upstairs there were four generous size bedrooms and a dressing room on the first floor, a bathroom and WC on the half landing and two further bedrooms on the second floor. It was also a house of nooks and crannies, well provided with linen cupboards, pantries and cellars: premises which could be accessed via front, back and side doors, to say nothing of French windows into the garden. By March 1929 only sixty-nine-year-old Violet Sidney and Mrs Noakes, the general domestic, were living there.

Violet Sidney had been born Violet Emily Lendy in Middlesex in 1859. (In later life, her middle name became corrupted to Emelia, whether by accident or affectation is not known.) At the time of her birth her father, Captain Augustus Lendy, was the principal of the Sunbury House Military College and it was here that Violet grew up. In 1884 she married Thomas Stafford Sidney, a soon-to-be barrister four years her junior, with whom she had three children: Grace, born in 1886, Vera, born in 1888 and Thomas, born in 1889. For the duration of their marriage, Thomas and Violet lived in Enfield at a house called Carlton Lodge, but in the early 1890s Thomas left Violet for another woman. Although Thomas Sidney or his family continued to support Violet and the children financially, enabling Violet to live comfortably and send the children to boarding school, marital breakdown was a social disgrace and Violet must have felt the matter acutely.

Violet and her three children were said to have been exceptionally close. Certainly when the census was taken in 1911 all three of them were still residing with her at a house named Garleton in The Ridgeway, Enfield. Neither daughter was employed and Tom listed his occupation as 'entertainer, piano'. Garleton had thirteen rooms, not including kitchen, scullery or bathrooms and the cook and housemaid lived in. However, things were about to change, because two years earlier Grace Sidney had fallen in love with Edmund Creighton Duff, one of that vast band of men who, although born and raised in India, thought of himself as British and spent most of his adult life working in the Colonial Service in various parts of the Empire. He met Grace Sidney while on leave in Britain in 1909 and when he returned to Nigeria they began to correspond. During his next leave in summer 1911, he and Grace were married. On the face of it, Violet Sidney may have had cause to disapprove. Edmund Duff was forty-two to Grace's twenty-four, they had had little opportunity to get to know one another and, to cap it all, Duff had originally been introduced to Grace by Violet's despised errant husband, Thomas Sidney. When the time came for Edmund Duff to return to Africa, Grace stayed with her mother to await the arrival of the couple's first child, Kathleen Margaret, who was born in July 1912. At the end of Edmund's next leave in 1913, Grace travelled out to Africa with him and they spent nearly a year there, before Grace came home to have their second child, John, in 1914.

In the meantime, Violet's youngest, Tom, had also been globetrotting. His career as an entertainer had taken off to the degree that when war broke out in 1914 he was in the process of fulfilling a series of concert engagements in Australia, with fellow concert performer Peter Dawson. At the outbreak of hostilities, Tom returned home to join up and do his bit, while sister Vera became a nurse. In the meantime, Grace had set up an establishment of her own as befitted a married woman, and by the end of the war, she and Edmund had a third child, Grace Mary (always known as Mary in order to distinguish from her mother). In spite of the difficulties of wartime travel, Edmund Duff managed to get back to Britain for leaves in 1916 and 1917. In 1919 he resigned from the Colonial Service and 'came home' to England for good.

At the end of the war, family life reverted to familiar patterns. Tom Sidney picked up the threads of his old career and began touring again; while playing in the USA he met Margaret Neilson McConnell, the American girl he would go on to marry in 1922, but until his marriage he continued to live with his mother when in London. Violet had moved to 29 Birdhurst Rise in 1917 and it was to this house that Tom first brought his bride in 1923, while they looked for a place of their own. They eventually settled on no.6 South Park Hill Road, barely five minutes' walk from Violet's house, and this was still their home at the time of Violet's death in March 1929. Grace and Edmund also lived close by, initially a few hundred yards further north at 16 Park Hill Road, but in 1926 they moved down the road to rent 16 South Park Hill Road, only half-a-dozen doors away from Tom and Margaret Sidney. By now Grace had produced another daughter, Suzanne, born in 1921 and would go on to have a fifth child, Alastair, in April 1927. Tom and Margaret Sidney also had two children, Cedric, born in 1923, and Mary-Virginia, born in 1925.

Vera Sidney remained unmarried, and was still living with her mother as she approached her fortieth birthday. In 1917 Violet's three children had each received £5,000 legacies from their father's family, and this left Vera in a sufficiently comfortable position that she had no need to work – although she took occasional work as a masseuse, a legacy of her nursing days. Although devoted to Violet, Vera also had an active social life of her own; she was a keen golfer, with a membership at Croham Hurst Golf Club, an enthusiastic bridge player and regularly visited the theatre in the company of family or friends. Gregarious and likeable, to all intents and purposes she did not have an enemy in the world.

While Tom and Vera were doing well in their separate ways, their sister Grace had been less fortunate. Her £5,000 inheritance had been lost through bad investments and since leaving the Colonial Service, Edmund's earnings had been drastically reduced. In order to help make ends meet, the couple had been in the habit of letting part of their house to a paying guest or lodger. Violet considered Grace and Edmund not only extravagant, but also unwise to have had so many children – five in all – but Vera was more sympathetic and had generously offered to help with her nephew John's school fees. Nor were Edmund and Grace's misfortunes confined to financial matters. In 1919 their seven-year-old daughter Kathleen died after a failed operation to remove an intestinal blockage and, in 1924, they lost a second daughter, Suzanne, to tubercular meningitis – but worse was to come.

At the end of April 1928 Edmund Duff returned home from a few days fishing, feeling unwell. In less than forty-eight hours he was dead – heart failure following heat stroke was the inquest verdict. Grace was left a widow with three children: John age fourteen, Mary age twelve and baby Alastair. Now in an even more financially precarious position, she moved from South Park Hill Road to 59 Birdhurst Rise, where she endeavoured to let both the ground and top floors, while living on the first floor with herself and the children. She turned to her mother and sister for comfort, popping in even more frequently, now that she lived almost within sight of their front door.

Then in early 1929 another blow fell; Vera became ill, apparently with gastric influenza, and on 15 February she died, leaving Violet, who had always been closest to her younger daughter, inconsolable. Tom Sidney handled the funeral arrangements, utilising the services of J.B. Shakespeare, a family firm of undertakers still operating in Croydon today. Vera was buried in the Queen's Road Cemetery, occupying a grave in the same large plot in which her brother-in-law Edmund Duff had been laid to rest some eight months previously. Violet was pronounced too ill to attend Vera's funeral and from then until her own death, not quite three weeks later, she never left the house again.

It had been a long, bitter winter; snow, frost, fog and icy pavements confronted everyone who ventured outside, with the cold weather even causing problems for those able to stay at home. Frozen water pipes led to so many bursts that water companies were forced to erect standpipes in many parts of London and the South East. Although the supply to Birdhurst Rise was not interrupted, Violet Sidney had to call a plumber out to deal with frozen pipes on several occasions throughout the winter, the last of these visits taking place only the day before she died. When company arrived for Sunday tea it was taken not at the table, but clustered around the drawing room fire, with the maid required to answer the front door to all callers, in order to protect Violet from the risks presented by cold draughts.

However, although unwell over the preceding fortnight, Violet Sidney's condition had not been considered life-threatening until the hours immediately preceding her death. Moreover, there were some extremely peculiar circumstances to be considered – not least Violet's own dramatic declaration, 'I have been poisoned!' Thus, although to the world at large Violet Sidney's death initially appeared to be just one more tragedy in a run of family misfortunes, and although arrangements for her funeral went ahead (with Messrs Shakespeare again being called upon to provide a polished oak coffin with brass handles, to arrange for a service in St Peter's Church, followed by interment in the Queen's Road Cemetery on 11 March) behind the scenes, affairs were moving in a very different direction.

In line with normal procedure in cases of unexpected death, the coroner had been informed and a post-mortem ordered. This was conducted by Dr Robert Bronte on the morning after Violet's death, Wednesday, 6 March. Dr Bronte sent some of the deceased's organs for analysis by Dr John Ryffel, the Home Office Analyst based at Guys Hospital. On Friday, 8 March Dr Henry Beecher Jackson, the Croydon coroner, opened and almost immediately adjourned the inquest in somewhat enigmatic terms, informing the jury:

I cannot say very much to you today as to the object of your enquiry. The deceased was Mrs Violet Sidney, who died somewhat suddenly on Tuesday, March 5. I am not in a position to put before you medical evidence as to the cause of death, as investigations are now being made.

After taking evidence of identification from Tom Sidney, Dr Jackson adjourned the inquest until 4 April.

This first abortive act in the drama provoked no more than minor interest – 'Croydon Lady's Death – Coroner Adjourns Enquiry', announced the Croydon Advertiser & Surrey County Reporter, but the unusual length of the adjournment, coupled with various rumours which had begun to circulate, ensured that journalists would be keeping an ear to the ground, awaiting a possible escalation in the story.

They were not disappointed. By the time Violet Sidney's funeral went ahead on 11 March, a full-scale police investigation was already under way. Detective Inspector Frederick Hedges of Z division, Metropolitan Police, had been called in on the day after Violet's death, and he wasted no time in searching the house and removing a whole selection of articles he considered to be of potential interest in a possible case of poisoning – principally various liquid medications, or liquids which could have been deemed medicinal, such as a bottle containing a small amount of brandy. On the following day he took statements about the events leading up to Violet Sidney's death from Tom Sidney, Grace Duff, Dr Binning, the housekeeper Kathleen Noakes, and Frederick Rose the local chemist, who had provided various medications for the deceased. By 12 March he had extended these enquiries to encompass statements from Margaret Sidney, Dr Robert Elwell, and Arthur Lane, Violet Sidney's gardener and odd-job man. He had also received various samples of food and vomit retained after Violet Sidney's last illness, which he forwarded on to Dr Ryffel of Guy's Hospital for analysis.


Excerpted from Poisonous Lies by Diane Janes. Copyright © 2013 Diane Janes. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chapter One A Happy, United Family,
Chapter Two 'Developments Expected in the Next Few Days',
Chapter Three Sons and Daughters, Chemists and Doctors,
Chapter Four 'To the best of my recollection ...',
Chapter Five 'New Turn in Arsenic Drama',
Chapter Six 'Like some horrible, ghastly nightmare.',
Chapter Seven 'I cannot say I am glad it is over',
Chapter Eight Specially Trained,
Chapter Nine An Aftertaste of Oxtail,
Chapter Ten The Poisoning Twenties – Arsenic's Last Hurrah,
Chapter Eleven Deadly Controversies,
Chapter Twelve 'No man's life should depend on a comparison between one shadow and another',
Chapter Thirteen The Great Post-Mortem Blunder,
Chapter Fourteen Riddled with Arsenic,
Chapter Fifteen Rounding Up,
Chapter Sixteen A Colossal Error?,
Chapter Seventeen 'Do you read stories ...?',
Notes on the Text,
Select Bibliography,
Also by the Same Author,

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