Just before midnight, on 5 January 1893, Walter Nelson died from arsenic poisoning from eating just a single piece of jam roll. Matthew Gray, in his book Tales from the Crypt (2010), stated that Nelson had died while other members of his family had suffered but survived, because he had been hungry and had eaten more of the tainted snack. Something repeated in the Western Leader, republishing from the book, this week.
This, according to the reports on the inquest in the Auckland Star, was not the case. He only had a single piece of the jam roll, before he left the house, feeling the beginnings of illness. Had he vomited, as the rest of the family had done, he might only have had lingering stomach cramps telling him he had eaten something he shouldn’t have. But, he didn’t vomit, no matter how hard he tried. Medical help wasn’t forthcoming that night – he died because what ailed him wasn’t viewed as serious enough until after he had actually expired.
At the time of Nelson’s death, the Star reminded its readers of another horrific poisoning case, that at a Pahiatua wedding in December 1891 where arsenic (the “arsenic of commerce”, or arsenious acid) was involved, possibly in the preparation of a lamb roast. The poisoned were guests of Mr Edward Naylor. There were two deaths (Joseph Moore, member of the County Council, and Mr Dickson, manager of the Wholesale Drapery Company), and twenty poisoned. It was thought to have been done deliberately by person or persons unknown, although the coroner’s inquest finding was inconclusive. Soon after, some biscuits made by a Mrs Marsh in the vicinity and sold by a grocer in Woodville, were also found to have contained arsenic. Cats and dogs, given some of the tainted meat at the time, before investigations were underway, also shows signs of distress and vomiting.
Walter Nelson was aged 25. He worked as a millhand near Kaukapakapa, and had arrived in Auckland 23 December 1892 with his wife Aneata and baby Vera to spend the holidays. They stayed with his wife’s grandmother, Ann Webb, just off Union Street in Freeman’s Bay, near the Robert Burns Hotel. Walter and Aneata had been married two years. She, her sister Laura Webb and brother Jamie were the children of a bricklayer, William Webb of Cook Street.
5 January 1893
Around 4.15 pm
Walter Nelson was away from the house, but the rest of the family ate some jam roll, freshly made by Laura Webb. Mrs Ann Webb (88), Mrs Nelson, Miss Laura Webb (17), and Vera Nelson (17 months) each consumed pieces of the snack. A currant cake baked at around the same time with the same ingredients as the jam roll wasn’t touched.
The baby started vomiting first, followed shortly after by the others within half an hour. Laura stated her throat felt dry, and she vomited, but there was no stomach pain. She continued to feel unwell until 6 January, the first day of the inquest.
Laura Webb testified that only the infant had been sick by the time Nelson arrived home. He arrived in a “jolly mood”, asked what was for tea as he had to head out again that evening, and sat down to have a read of the Star at the table. He saw the jam roll on the dresser and asked for a piece. Laura stated he only ate one piece of the jam roll. At that point, all the adults complained of feeling sick. He complained of feeling sick, but not enough to vomit. He had a cup of tea, then went out for a walk in the fresh air to Watkinson’s, a Wellesley Street tailor.
Between 6.15 and 6.30 pm
Walter Nelson returned, feeling much worse. He complained of pains in the stomach and burning in the throat. He took to bed, feeling sick, but unable to vomit. Mustard and water was administered as an emetic, but to no avail. Laura’s brother Jamie got some emetic from a Freeman’s Bay chemist, but this didn’t work either. Instead, Walter experienced several bouts of diarrhea.
The family went to bed, apart from Jamie Webb.
Mrs Nelson woke Laura, saying Walter Nelson had cramps and was worse.
Dr. Hooper was sent for by Jamie Webb, but, strangely, did not see Nelson, although Webb asked him to do so. Instead, he made out a prescription which was filled and the medicine taken to Nelson, along with some impecacuanha. Jamie Webb then tried Dr Coom, who wouldn’t accompany him back to the Webb home (he said he was tired, and had to get up early to go away somewhere), as with Dr Walker (who said he had a cold). Webb even tried elderly Dr Purchas, who refused as well, but offered to call Dr Lawry for Webb or furnish medicine. Webb got Purchas to contact Lawry. The coroner, Dr. Philson, stopped the line of questioning as to why the various doctors said they couldn’t come, as “they could not compel a doctor to attend any more than they could make a baker supply them with bread.” Perhaps he regarded this as an attack and a part laying of blame for Nelson’s death upon his fellow members of the medical profession. A juryman remarked in response, “It was quite time they had the power to compel a doctor to attend in a case of life and death,” but nothing more was said regarding that line of enquiry.
Shortly before midnight
Walter Nelson died. Jamie Webb was still out at the time trying to find a doctor to come back to the house.
Dr Bayntun, who performed the autopsy, said that Walter Nelson was a healthy man, but his bowels had purged 20 times just before he died. The Foreman of the jury asked if Dr Bayntun might have been able to help Nelson if he’d have been called earlier. The doctor said he couldn’t say, but he might have helped him to vomit. The Foreman suggested a stomach pump should have been used.
Chief Detective Martin Grace arrives at the Webb household. He took possession of a parcel of jam sandwiches, some currant cake, a paper bag of sugar, a cotton bag of flour, the cream of tartar tin, an open tin of jam, a baking dish, and other items.
Later at James Boyle’s shop, he took a stone jar labelled “cream of tartar”, still containing a quantity of white powder, and a tin canister also containing white powder.
The inquest began that day.
The cream of tartar was sent to chemist John Kenderdine in Karangahape Road, who confirmed the ingredient was nearly all pure arsenic. Laura Webb said she had a small tin of it in her cupboard, not previously used. It was purchased on Wednesday 4 January, the day before the poisoning, from James Boyle’s grocers shop in Union Street by Aneata Nelson, who said she purchased 2 ounces. The tin was always used for cream of tartar, taken along to the grocers whenever they needed a refill. The tin had also, from time to time, been used for baking soda.
The jam roll had been made from Ireland and Golden Grain Lily-White flour from Oamaru, three eggs, one and a half spoonfuls of cream of tartar, three-quarters of a spoonful of baking soda, and Tui brand plum jam (Orleans Plum) from a Mrs Margarita Watson, originally from Mennie & Dey’s store in Albert Street. The flour had previously been used for Christmas Cakes, so was ruled out as a source of the poison.
The ingredients were analysed by James Alexander Pond, colonial analyst. Pond also tested Nelson’s stomach from Dr Bayntun, and found undigested pieces of fruit and an estimated 3.97 grains of arsenic. Crystalline remains in the stomach lining proved to be arsenious acid. Traces of arsenic were also found in Nelson’s excreta.
5.35 grains of arsenic were found in each of the pieces of jam sandwich Pond analysed, or 42 grains in the whole quantity examined. The currant cake, 42½ oz, contained a whopping 175½ grains of arsenic. The cream of tartar in the Webb’s tin was nearly 84% pure arsenic, with only 11% actually cream of tartar. 5 % was lime. The large stone jar from Boyle’s shop contained just over 15% arsenic. The tin confiscated by Chief Detective Grace from the shop was nearly 18% arsenic. Another tin found contained nearly 2% arsenic. Dr Bayntun testified that from 1 ½ to 3 grains of arsenic was a fatal dose.
Another family in Wellington Street, Freeman’s Bay, the Rashleighs, had bought a tin of the cream of tartar from Boyle, and had also vomited after eating food and drink made from it.
Boyle obtained the stone jar of cream of tartar, 10lb in weight according to the invoice, from chemical importers Sharland & Co in Lorne Street in May 1892. He had been selling tinfuls of the contents to his customers from that time – but only in the case of the Webbs, from December, and the other Wellington Street family had reports of vomiting been traced to the stone jar at Boyle’s shop and its contents. No arsenic was kept at the shop, witnesses said, not even in the form of rat poison. The jar, unreplenished from any other source during that period, for example from supplies at auction, had been originally filled by Sharland & Co employees.
Arsenic was imported by Sharland & Co in iron drums, according to an employee who testified, Herbert Hayward Baber, while the cream of tartar came in casks, and were then transferred to stone jars for sale to grocers like James Boyle. Baber declared that he couldn’t see how the arsenic could be mixed up with the cream of tartar, as the arsenic was kept on the ground floor of the firm’s warehouse, while the cream of tartar was two floors above. When sold, arsenic always went in drums, tins or parcels, not stone jars. The question was raised as to whether the cream of tartar had been adulterated with arsenic in England, but this couldn’t be proved. Most likely, at some point, the stone jar reused by Sharland & Co for the cream of tartar they sold had previously contained arsenic. Whether Sharland & Co had done this, or whether they hadn’t washed the jar properly before reuse, again could not be proven.
James Cragg Sharland is reported to have been the first importer of pharmaceutical drugs into New Zealand in 1847, but the earliest record I can find comes from Taranaki in 1852, where he was importing medicinal herbs. He was trading as a chemist in Auckland by 1872 in Shortland Street, one of his first products made by him was “Sharland’s Carbolic Acid” in sachets, advertised as both a powerful disinfectant, and a perfume. He died in July 1887, but his firm continued on as wholesale agents, supplying the retail trade. They remained in business down to the 1960s.
13 January 1893
Verdict returned, accidental death by arsenical poison. A rider was added by the jury that chemists should be more careful in future. That tacked on rider, though, caused discussion between the coroner Dr. Philson and the jury.
Dr. Philson, the coroner, asked whether the jury meant that anyone had been culpably negligent, and thereby caused deceased's death. Such negligence had not been proved in evidence.A juryman: Such a verdict was not intended.Dr. Philson : Then perhaps the rider casting such a reflection should not be added.The Foreman: That is our verdict. I don't think that the jury will be willing to alter it in any way. I am not quite prepared to give reasons.A juryman: There has been neglect somewhere. Chemists should be more careful in the handling of poisons.Dr. Philson : Then you are simply giving advice to chemists in general.A juryman : Yes, Mr Coroner.Dr. Philson : I suppose you will be thanked for it.
Sources: Auckland Star 6 -14 January 1893; December 1891-April 1891. NZ Card index for general info on Sharland & Co., Taranaki Herald, 1852.