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About the Author
Diane Janes is a full-time writer and lecturer. She is the author of a number of crime novels and investigative non-fiction, including Edwardian Murder and Poisonous Lies.
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The Case of the Poisoned Partridge
The Strange Death of Lieutenant Chevis
By Diane Janes
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Diane Janes
All rights reserved.
'THE DOG IT WAS THAT DIED'
Oliver Goldsmith, 1766
In common with many of the officers stationed at Blackdown Camp in the 1930s, Lieutenant Elwin Evered and his wife Margaret were in the habit of keeping a pet at their bungalow. When their spaniel bitch came into season on 2 June 1931, Lieutenant Evered put her into kennels at the Farnborough Dogs' Home for three weeks, returning to collect her at noon on Saturday, 20 June. The dog appeared to be in perfect health and was allowed in and out of the bungalow as usual, but later that evening when she failed to return home, the Lieutenant's batman was despatched in search of her. He returned a few minutes later, carrying the dog in his arms. She was in a distressed state, unable to stand, and within fifteen to thirty minutes the unfortunate animal had died.
The Evereds immediately suspected that their pet might have consumed some sort of poison – suspicions which would have been significantly reinforced had they been aware of an unfolding tragedy taking place a matter of a few dozen yards away – for while they mourned their dog, frantic attempts were being made to save the life of Elwin Evered's brother officer and close neighbour, Lieutenant Hugh Chevis, whose agonies lasted rather longer than the spaniel's, although the outcome was the same. At 9.45 the next morning Lieutenant Chevis was pronounced dead at Frimley Cottage Hospital, with the cause of death stated as strychnine poisoning. The police were summoned soon afterwards and so began the investigation into what has become known as 'The Case of the Poisoned Partridge'.
It was not until 1946 that George Orwell penned his famous and oft quoted essay, The Decline of the English Murder, in which he wrote of the fascination which murder had once exercised over the British public and the enormous pleasure they took in reading of famous cause célèbres. Orwell proposed that the greatest period for these 'classic' murders occurred between 1850 and 1925, but the true connoisseur of 'classic' English murders would probably beg to differ, for it was not until 1931 that perhaps the most intriguing case of all would unfold – the murder of Julia Wallace in Anfield, Liverpool, for which her husband, Herbert Wallace, was arrested, tried, found guilty and then had his conviction overturned on appeal. It was also the year of the Evelyn Foster case, which brought the little Northumberland village of Otterburn to the forefront of national consciousness for perhaps the first time since a battle had been fought there in 1388. The Foster case (which also remains unsolved) ceased to dominate the headlines within a few weeks of Evelyn's death on 6 January, but the Wallace case would feature in the news over a much longer period, starting with Julia's brutal murder on 19 January, continuing as her husband was arrested at the beginning of February and committal proceedings were heard in the magistrates' court later the same month. The trial itself took place in Liverpool towards the end of April and the case came before the Court of Appeal on 18 May. It is possible that in the wake of this five-month drama, the prospect of another domestic murder mystery failed to excite the public's palate in quite the same way as it might normally have done, or perhaps the appetite for sensational poisoning dramas had diminished after the long running Croydon arsenic saga, which had dominated the headlines for most of 1929, but ended unsatisfactorily (from the public perspective at least) inasmuch that no one had been arrested or charged. It is more likely, however, that the public already had a sensational poisoning case to enjoy in the shape of Annie Hearn, whose trial for the murder of Alice Thomas was in full swing when news of Lieutenant Chevis's death broke. (Mrs Hearn was on trial for poisoning her friend with arsenic, using the unlikely medium of salmon sandwiches as her weapon.) In addition to the distraction provided by Mrs Hearn, several other headline-grabbing murders took place in the summer of 1931, including that of Mrs Annie Kempson in Oxford on 3 August – a brutal attack which sparked a nationwide manhunt and culminated in the apprehension of the killer in Brighton twelve days later.
Whatever the reason, 'The Case of the Poisoned Partridge' – although essentially the third in a hat-trick of classic unsolved cases in 1931 – never quite captured the public imagination in the same way that its Croydon, Liverpool and Otterburn counterparts did. Yet the case had many of the crucial factors which Orwell would go on to identify as 'from a News of the World reader's point of view, the "perfect" murder'. According to the premise set out in The Decline of the English Murder, the setting should be a domestic one and the main protagonists belong to the respectable middle classes. For preference the means should be poison and if at all possible the motive should involve guilty passions, or the damaging possibility of scandal and divorce. The murder itself should appear to display a high level of detailed planning and the utmost cunning in its execution. Not only did the Chevis case have all of these, but there was another facet which Orwell failed to mention in his list – one which was a virtual prerequisite of the fictional murders which formed an equally significant part of the nation's reading matter at the time – the hint of a mysterious outsider, bent on some kind of terrible revenge. No standard detective novel published during the period now categorised as the Golden Age of crime fiction would have been complete without at least one such character among its circle of suspects – but in spite of possessing all of these promising components, the 'Poisoned Partridge' story was slow to take off and after a brief flurry of excitement it vanished from the national dailies and was all but forgotten, save for the occasional anodyne chapter in one of the true-crime compendiums which appeared from the 1930s onwards.
Since the compilers of each successive murder compendia were apparently content to derive their information from one of their predecessors, unsubstantiated assumptions about the case were repeated, while key facts often went unchecked. The focus of these retellings was invariably a mysterious telegram received on the day of Lieutenant Chevis's funeral, which bore the message 'Hooray Hooray Hooray'. The 'Hooray' telegram and the identity of its untraced author provided such a rich source of speculation, that in several accounts the known participants in the drama are almost overlooked, with Lieutenant and Mrs Chevis dismissed as an ordinary army officer and his wife of six months, happily married, with no obvious enemies – such a commonplace couple – what could there possibly be to say about them? Mrs Chevis (who demonstrably could not have sent the telegram) is accorded such a minor role in events that some accounts do not even bother to provide her first name, still less the information that she was an immensely wealthy woman and (as in all domestic murders) the most obvious suspect. In all but ignoring Lieutenant and Mrs Chevis, however, these authors have done their readers a grave disservice – for Hugh and Frances Chevis were very far from being 'an ordinary couple' and 'The Case of the Poisoned Partridge' is worth far more than a routine regurgitation of half-known facts.CHAPTER 2
'ONE OUGHT NOT TO GIVE STRYCHNINE TO A RAT!'
Frances Chevis, 1931
Arsenic has sometimes been called 'The King of Poisons' and while cases of murder by arsenical poisoning have never been commonplace, they occurred with reasonable frequency throughout the Victorian period and well into the twentieth century. One of the supposed attractions of arsenic as a weapon was the possibility that the fatal symptoms might be confused with some naturally occurring gastric illness. Indeed it was the belief of several leading forensic experts, including Sir William Wilcox, that numerous cases of arsenic poisoning were going undetected in the first decades of the twentieth century, and a significant proportion of those tried for murdering their relatives with arsenic only appeared before the courts in the wake of an exhumation – their assumed victim having originally been buried following certification of death by natural cause.
Suspicious deaths by strychnine were far less common – not only was strychnine less abundantly available (by contrast there appears to have been scarcely a patent weedkiller sold in Britain during the 1920s and '30s which did not contain arsenic), but the symptoms of strychnine poisoning were sufficiently distinctive that even doctors who had never previously encountered a case were likely to recognise them.
A strychnine death was a particularly cruel and painful one. Initial symptoms, which generally commenced within fifteen to thirty minutes of ingestion, included increased sensitivity, particularly to light, but also of hearing, taste and smell, together with restlessness, agitation or apprehension. To these unsettling sensations were soon added the commencement of cramps and muscle spasms, followed by violent painful seizures, or convulsions, some so dramatic that the sufferer's entire body stiffened and arched so that only the heels and skull remained touching the bed (a state known as opisthotonic convulsions) and drawing the face into a forced smile (risus sardonicus). As well as occurring spontaneously, convulsions could be provoked by any external stimuli, such as an alteration in light levels, movement nearby or physical contact. Although death could occur with relative rapidity, the symptoms might equally continue for several hours, until the patient expired of heart or respiratory failure. A particularly dreadful aspect lay in the fact that the patient was likely to remain conscious and in full possession of their mental faculties throughout.
The only condition presenting similar signs was Tetanus, but there were clear distinguishing features between the two, with the onset of symptoms occurring suddenly in a case of strychnine poisoning, but only gradually in a case of Tetanus. In Tetanus, the seizures usually commenced in the jaw (hence the common name 'lock-jaw') and there was some residual stiffness present in the muscles between convulsions, whereas in instances of strychnine poisoning, the symptoms were more likely to start in the legs, and the body became completely relaxed between seizures.
To further discourage any would-be assassin, whereas some debate existed about the ease with which a fatal dose of arsenic could be disguised in a victim's food or drink, and how swiftly thereafter the poison would take effect, strychnine had a strong, bitter taste and its dramatic effects were liable to manifest themselves within a few minutes of the poison being consumed. By way of a final disincentive, even had the symptoms been successfully hidden from public view, any attempt to pass off the death as a normal one was liable to be foiled by post-mortem analysis, which could identify strychnine via a chemical colour test, a physiological test, or just by taste alone, since strychnine's distinctive bitterness remained detectable even in dilutions of 1 in 70,000.
Presented with such a high chance of detection, it is hardly surprising that few people attempted to dispose of their nearest and dearest using this particular agent – but there were occasional exceptions. During the course of the 1930s, both Ethel Major of Kirkby-on-Bain in Lincolnshire and Rose Sandford of West Dereham in Norfolk came before the courts charged with murdering their respective husbands by placing strychnine in their food. (The former was found guilty, the latter acquitted.) A similar case came before the Irish courts in 1926 and resulted in the acquittal of Elizabeth Reilly. All three deaths had occurred in poor rural households, into which strychnine had been introduced to control vermin. In the Sandford case the court accepted that there was no evidence as to how the poison had found its way into Lewis Sandford's system and nothing to suggest that his wife Rose had wished him dead, while in Reilly's the evidence was at best circumstantial and witnesses testified that her late husband had been 'a very peculiar and eccentric man' not thought capable of handling poisons safely. Ethel Major's guilt was supported by a variety of evidence, and underpinned by her own eccentric behaviour and self-incriminating statements. In giving their verdict, the jury made a recommendation to mercy, perhaps prompted by Ethel's obvious inadequacy and low intelligence. A perusal of the case papers leaves the modern reader questioning whether Ethel was entirely sane – though her mental state does not appear to have been called into question at the time.
A similar whiff of insanity hangs over the strychnine-related trial of the Wheeldon family in 1917 – though here perhaps it was the blindness of collective fanaticism, rather than mental illness, which led the family into court. The Wheeldons: mother Alice age fifty-one, daughters Harriett age twenty-seven and Winifred age twenty-three, together with Winifred's husband, Alfred George Mason, age twenty-four, were would-be terrorists, whose plot to poison the Prime Minister and various other senior government figures using strychnine was foiled by a 'secret government agent', known to them as 'Comrade Bert', who infiltrated their 'terrorist cell' by posing as a sympathiser and fellow traveller. During their trial at Derby Guildhall in February and March 1917, the public seems to have been more shocked by Alice Wheeldon's persistent use of bad language and the anti-religious sentiments she expressed, than by any actual threat posed by this middle-aged schoolmarm and her family. (So shocking to general sensibilities was the conduct of Mrs Wheeldon, that Mrs Pankhurst was allowed to make a public statement in court, disassociating herself and the Women's Social and Political Union with statement's made by the professed suffragette, Mrs Wheeldon.) Whether or not the quartet represented a real danger to anyone, the country was at war and a family said to be 'bitterly hostile to this country and [to] shelter fugitives from the army' was unlikely to be viewed with leniency – Alice Wheeldon was sentenced to ten years' penal servitude, Alfred Mason to seven years and his wife Winnie to five – the jury recommending mercy on account of their youth. Harriett Wheeldon was found not guilty.
Apart from this eccentric episode there had also been various instances of strychnine-laced confectionary turning up in the post (although arsenic was generally the preferred substance for such purposes), one of which ended in Annie Davenport facing charges of 'sending poison with intent to anger, grieve and annoy' at Gloucester Assizes in 1925, and the other, in 1920, saw Thomas Liddle, a fifty-nine-year-old farmer from Shipton Thorpe in Yorkshire, accused of sending strychnine-laced chocolates to five witnesses who were due to appear against him in court over a disputed will.
Between the end of the Great War and 1931, however, there had only been one instance of a strychnine murder coming before the British courts: the affair took place in 1924 and involved the death of a married man in Surrey, barely a dozen miles from the barracks where Lieutenant Hugh Chevis would be poisoned not quite seven years later. The victim was Alfred George Jones, the landlord of the Blue Anchor Hotel in Byfleet, a thirty-eight-year-old father of two children who had been married to his wife, Mabel, for nearly twenty years. Evidence given during the trial suggests that the Jones' marriage had not been without its problems. Mabel was an argumentative woman who spent freely and had previously been declared bankrupt, while Alfred may have enjoyed the beverages served in his bar rather more than was good for him. While holidaying without her husband in France, Mabel had begun an affair with a Frenchman called Jean Pierre Vaquier and, when she returned to England, Vaquier followed her, initially continuing their liaison in London, then moving down to the Blue Anchor Hotel at an opportune moment, when Alfred was away in Margate, convalescing from a bout of influenza.
Vaquier, who spoke virtually no English (Mabel similarly had no French), appeared to become part of the household, taking his meals with the Jones' and making no secret of his infatuation with Mabel. Alfred Jones' view of this is unclear, although regular customers assumed that he resented it.
Excerpted from The Case of the Poisoned Partridge by Diane Janes. Copyright © 2013 Diane Janes. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One 'The dog it was that died',
Chapter Two 'One ought not to give strychnine to a rat!',
Chapter Three 'He ordered that the partridge be burned',
Chapter Four The Product of an Alliance,
Chapter Five A Sporting Man,
Chapter Six Holy Deadlock,
Chapter Seven 'Chevis was a fascinating man',
Chapter Eight 'Principal evidence destroyed by the victim',
Chapter Nine Dogs, Partridges and Irishmen,
Chapter Ten Time to Call in the Yard?,
Chapter Eleven Discreet Enquiries and Assumed Indiscretions,
Chapter Twelve Leads, Blind Alleys and a Thickening Plot,
Chapter Thirteen No Shortage of Theories,
Chapter Fourteen 'Beautiful Widow Tells Her Own Story',
Chapter Fifteen 'It is a mystery they will never solve',
Chapter Sixteen 'One of the most mysterious poisoning cases of recent years',
Chapter Seventeen 'We will not drop our investigations',
Chapter Eighteen 'A talkie talkie man',
Chapter Nineteen Only Three People,
Chapter Twenty 'No justification to suspect her at all',
Chapter Twenty-One 'Actual proof is still missing',
Chapter Twenty-Two Accident or Murder?,
Chapter Twenty-Three Hat-Trick of Murders,
Chapter Twenty-Four 'Someone must have done it',
Notes on the Text,
Also by the Same Author,