Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Mid-week trio: Mystery writers, Major Armstrong and arsenic eating

In a recent post at her interesting blog on the science of poisoning, Deborah Blum mentioned a few things that caught my eye, as they were also relevant to the Pace case.

First, she comments on the use of poisoning in the crime fiction of the inter-war period, particularly that by Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. I refer to that background in The Most Remarkable Woman in England, as the case was often styled by the press as something on a par with the murder mysteries of the age.

My own use of one of the books Blum cites -- Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) -- is however to highlight the sensationalist (and often intrusive) role of the press in reporting crime in this period. (The recent follies involving The News of the World et al. would not have surprised the crime reporters of the 1920s: if they could have hacked phones, many of them would have.) 

The narrator in Styles captures the mood: ‘The papers, of course, had been full of the tragedy. Glaring headlines, sandwiched biographies of every member of the household, subtle innuendoes, the usual familiar tag about the police having a clue’. ‘Screaming headlines in every paper in the country’, one character complains: ‘damn all journalists, I say! Sort of Madame Tussaud’s chamber of horrors business that can be seen for nothing’.[1]

(Interestingly enough, Christie's fellow mystery writer from the period, Dorothy Sayers, is one of the things that connects my work hitherto on crime history with my developing research interests in Christian social thinking in Britain in the inter-war period. Along with murder mysteries, she wrote articles and books like this.)

Second, Blum refers to what was probably the most famous poisoning trial of the early 1920s, that of Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong for the murder of his wife and the attempted murder of a fellow solicitor. (Armstrong remains, I believe, the only solicitor hanged for murder in British history. Which actually strikes me as rather surprising.)

Major Armstrong
The Armstrong case was raised many times during the Pace case in a variety of contexts both inside and outside the courtroom. One of the more striking connections was that William Willcox -- a pioneering forensic expert -- testified in both cases. (Willcox had also testified in the famous Crippen trial.)

Willcox's testimony had been crucial in convicting Armstrong, and, as the main expert witness appearing for the Crown in the Pace case, he did his best to put the case that Beatrice Pace had poisoned her husband Harry. In that case, though, he was unsuccessful.

(The account of the Pace case given in a biography of Willcox gives a rather one-sided version of the trial: Willcox apparently remained convinced of her guilt until his death.)

The ghost of the Armstrong case definitely haunted the proceedings in Gloucester; happily for Mrs. Pace, however, her own trial turned out quite differently.

Third, Blum makes a brief reference to 'arsenic eating'. Arsenic, though highly poisonous, has a long history of being associated with various positive, healthful properties; one of them was its allegedly aphrodisiacal nature.

In a book written in the early 1930s on the history of poisoning, there is a short section on the Pace matter (which would have then still been recent and well remembered). It raises the curious issue of 'arsenic eating' in the region where the Paces lived, the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire.

A suggestion was made after the trial, that Pace might have been in the habit of taking arsenic and a lady living at Newport wrote to the Home Secretary, stating that she know of people living in the Forest of Dean who were addicted to the habit of eating arsenic.

She stated, that she knew that the dangerous habit prevailed in the neighbourhood of Coleford and around Tintern. “People get fascinated with the idea that arsenic taken in small quantities at regular intervals will benefit them. They become known as arsenic eaters, and knowing that the habit is condemned by doctors, they try to keep it as quiet as possible.”

Another person living in the district corroborated this statement and stated that arsenic eating was a habit well-known in the Forest of Dean. Her aunt, she declared, used to make up a secret preparation of herbs and poison. “In the district arsenic is believed to have wonderful powers and people get gripped with the idea of its potency.”

There was, however, no evidence to show that Pace had been addicted to arsenic so the suggestion that he met his death through taking an over-dose can hardly be entertained.[2]

On this latter point, my own research on the case is in agreement.

Nonetheless, speculations were rife at the time about what 'really' happened in the case, so this kind of notion was anything other than unusual.

Sadly, though, I never did find the alleged letter to the Home Office from 'a lady living at Newport'....


[1] A. Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (London: HarperCollins, 1994 [1920]), pp. 120-1, 135.

[2] C. J. S. Thompson, Poisons and Poisoners: With Historical Accounts of Some Famous Mysteries in Ancient and Modern Times (London: Harold Shaylor, [1931]), p. 350

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