This article is as yet incomplete: several members have looked at the issue as to whether Bertha Mabel Farmerey was murdered and opinions differ as to what might have been the true series of events leading to her death. Here is one possible interpretation and comments and further contributions are welcome. There are several "loose ends". For example, her husband left the Beehive shortly after her death and soon re-married, but we know very little about him other than that. The argument that the strychnine behaved in the same way as in the Agatha Christie story is tempting, but it is unclear as to why this did not also happen with the first bottle. The newspaper reports seem to contain errors and contradictions when it comes to quantities of poisons, and while there is a brief report in "Chemist and Druggist" this is also inconsistent.
On 10th February 1906, Bertha Mabel Farmerey, the wife of the landlord at the Beehive Hotel, died - but was she murdered?
She died of strychnine poisoning and one might think that such a noted poison could only be given by accident or with an intent to kill. Indeed, there had been many noted well-publicised instances of its use in poisonings. Thomas Neill Cream the "Lambeth Poisoner" had used it in the 1880's, as had Christiana Edmunds the "Chocolate Cream Killer" of Brighton in the 1870's. Strychnine, when inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the eyes or mouth, causes poisoning which results in muscular convulsions and eventually death through asphyxia. Before the development of chemical testing and a railway system to get samples to an expert strychnine would have been a difficult poison to detect in a corpse. In 1856 the country was hugely entertained by the trial of Dr William Palmer. This brought strychnine before the public eye, but the experts were unable to agree whether they could detect it and the evidence in the Palmer case was circumstantial.
However, strychnine, in small doses, was like modern-day Warfarin, considered a useful medicine. Karl Lashley found that strychnine enhanced the ability of rats to learn their way around mazes; and it was said to have helped marathoner Thomas Hicks achieve Olympic Gold in 1904 after a dose of 1/60 of a grain (roughly 1 mg) of strychnine and some brandy (he collapsed at the end of the race and had to be carried over the line). In fact later research was to show that it had no actual pharmaceutical benefit at all. It became the "favorite poison" of Agatha Christie. Indeed, strychnine is listed third in the top ten poisons by number of criminal cases, behind only arsenic and cyanide. In Alfred Swaine Taylor’s "Manual of Medical Jurisprudence", published in 1897, Taylor remarked of vermin killers that:
- "the powders are a fertile source of poisoning, either through accident or design; they are openly sold by ignorant people to others still more ignorant, and are much used for suicidal purposes."
So readily available was strychnine that, marketed as “Vermin Powders,” its purchase didn’t warrant any raised eyebrows, even if the buyer had a murderous intent. However, preparations such as "Butler’s Vermin Killer" consisted of a mixture of flour, soot, and strychnine, to be applied to a piece of bread or cheese and left on the kitchen floor overnight. So rapid and effective was strychnine as a rodent killer that mice and rats would often be found dead close by the poison. Not only would the presence of soot give way the presence of a vermin poison, but strychnine has an incredibly bitter taste. It is also a moderately fast-acting poison, causing a rapid onset of characteristic symptoms and death in humans in about 1-4 hours.
No transcript is available from the Coroner's Court, only two accounts from the newspapers (see links below) which are identical (even down to the typographical errors). There is also an account of the inquest from the journal of the Chemists and Druggists which is shorter and possibly differs in a significant respect, as discussed below. There is also what might be called the "technical literature" which sheds some light on some potential issues with the formulations of perscriptions containing strychnine, and forms the basis of the link to Agatha Christie's first novel, which may of course be itself a "red herring".
The earliest record of a licensed premises on this stretch of Hoole Road appears in an 1857 Directory. The 1861 Census lists the Globe Tavern run by Robert Hand, who was described as a “railway servant and beerhouse keeper”. An application for a fuller licence in 1884 revealed that The Globe had been replaced by a new hotel called The Beehive. Old maps show the difference between the buildings. The Beehive was owned by Thomas Henry William Walker, an architect from Liverpool who probably also designed it. Together in partnership with his brother, John Lightfoot Walker, he also owned the Lion Brewery in Pepper Street, Chester. They were the great grandsons of John Lightfoot and the grandsons of Thomas Walker who was associated with the Ermine. Refusal for the fuller licence resulted in a fresh application in 1886 which described The Beehive as “picturesque and pretty and having 8 bedrooms and stabling for four horses”. William Arthur Farmerey was landlord from 1902 (just prior to when the house was taken over by Bents} to 1906.
Farmerey had been in court in 1904 when the Chester Courant of 4th May reported a case in which he was accused of selling under-strength whiskey. The cask in which the spirit was stored supplied the bar via a pipe and a tap. The contents of the cask were of the proper strength, but upon ordering a pint of whiskey the weights and measures officer was supplied with spirit that was "30% under proof". The only explanation that Farmerey could offer was that "some water must have got into the jug by accident". He was given a token fine of 10 shillings in circumstances which are not entirely clear given the report of the hearing.
Francis John Butt was born in 1863, his father died in 1869, and in the 1871 Census his widowed mother appears as a goldsmith employing 2 men at the Eastgate Street premises. Francis went to the Kings School and then became a medical student, living at the age of 18 at No.8 Curzon Park with his mother and sister Mary Leonara. He went to medical schools at University College London and at Edinburgh University, worked in Nottingham Hospital and qualified in 1887.
On the 23rd of January 1906, Bertha visited Dr Butt and complained of a "skin irritation", and there were further consultations on the 31st. Dr Butt prescribed medicine which appears to have been innocuous. She summoned him back to the Beehive on the 2nd Feb, after which a different medicine was prescribed. Repeat doses were issued on the 6th and on the evening before she died, all on a single prescription. Also involved in the case was Alexander Hamilton (MB, ChE) of 23 Hoole Road (just a few doors up from the Beehive).
The prescriptions were obtained from Thomas Carter's branch dispensary (and Post Office) at Flookersbrook. This building is now (2023) occupied by a Veterinary practice. Shufflebotham had qualified in London in 1904 and first practiced in Newcastle. By 1931, the chemist who dispensed the medicine, Ernest Shufflebotham, had set up his own business at 24 Christleton Road, where he was declared bankrupt. He then became assistant pharmacist at Chester Royal Infirmary, until his retirement at the end of 1955 (when he was aged 80). He died as a result of a road accident in April 1956 at the age of 81, so in 1906 he would have been around 30 years of age.
The inquest was held on Saturday 26th February, 1906 at the Council Offices in Hoole. The Coroner for West Cheshire was Mr J. C. Bate a solicitor based at Old Bank Chambers by the Eastgate. The proceedings had been twice adjourned to allow of a post mortem examination of the body and an analysis of the contents of the stomach to be made. Mr. E. S. Giles, solicitor (also of Old Bank Chambers), was in attendance on behalf of Mr. Farmerey, the husband of the deceased; Mr. R. T. Morgan (of Newgate Chambers) represented "the interested parties" whose names he did not mention, but from the nature of his questions he appears to have been representing the dispensing chemist. The Police were represented by Superindendant Hicks and the aptly named Detective Hoole.
The Coroner opened the proceedings by giving a brief summary of the facts. On tho 23rd of January deceased went to see Dr. Butt at his surgery on account of some skin irritation, and again visited him on the 31st. On the latter day, after her visit to the surgery, Dr. Butt went to the Beehive and saw her. She was then still suffering from a skin irritation, and up to the time of her death the doctor did not for a moment consider that her ailment would terminate fatally. On the 31st ult. he prescribed medicine for her, and this medicine contained nothing which could in any way refer to her death. On the 2nd February be was again summoned, when deceased made no comprint of feeling in any way different from usual, although the day previously she bad been suffering from a chill. He then prescribed a change of medicine and deceased was supplied with three bottles of that medicine — the first about the 2nd of February, the second on the 6th, and the third bottle on the evening before she died. The Coroner gave the following account of her death:
- "At 5.20 he [Mr Farmerey] got up and attended to his business, when his wife asked him for a drop of brandy. This he administered, but as she went worse he sent for Dr. Butt shortly after six o'clock. According to the husband's statement, after deceased was attended by Dr. Butt he went upstairs to shut the bedroom door, which had been left open. "I did not like the look of my wife," he said, "and called Dr. Butt up again, and he said. "She is dead."
The Coroner then gave his reasons for requesting a Post Mortem:
- "He (the coroner) was sorry to say they had no evidence as to how deceased took the medicine, or when she took it, there being no one in the house who appeared to have seen her take it. On the Saturday morning the bottle contalning the last medicine was found, and one dose had been taken from it. The second bottle was also found, and that was empty. He did not know that that oiroumstance bore very materially on the case, but at the same time there was the fact that she had taken the second bottle and one dose out of the third bottle in much quicker time than she ought to have taken it. That might probably be accounted for by the varying capacities of the tablespoon. Some tablespoons were larger than others, and deceased did not use a medicine glass. When these facts were reported to him he thought there was no other course but to order a post-mortem."
The first witness was Farmerey himself, who explained that his wife was in good health and not in the habit of taking medicines. While he does not see his wife take her medicine he did note something of the rate at which she was taking it:
- "The bottle then contained ten doses, and the chemist considered there were sufficient doses to last three days afterwards. The patient would therefore be expected to finish the bottle some time on the Saturday night. Mr. Farmerey told them, however, that on the Friday at noon he saw the bottle, and so far as he could judge there were two doses left. His wife told him she wanted more medicine, and another bottle was got from the chemist. He (the coroner) was sorry to say they had no evidence as to how deceased took the medicine, or when she took it, there being no one in the house who appeared to have seen her take it. On the Saturday morning the bottle contalning the last medicine was found, and one dose had been taken from it. The second bottle was also found, and that was empty."
Looking at what was reported there seems nothing suspicious in Farmerey's conduct.
Next up was Ernest Shufflebotham, a duly qualiifed chemist, and manager of the branch dispensary at Flookersbrook, who had personally dispensed all the medicine. The medicine supplied on the 31st January contained one half ounce of epsom salts, carbonate of magnesia two drams, and peppermint water added to six ounces. This is effectively a mild laxative with something to settle the stomach and quite innocuous if taken in small doses. There was also an ointment for outward application. On the 2nd Feb. Mr. Farmerey brought another prescription, which contained (according to the newspaper report) three drams of carbonate of potassium, tincture of nux vomica one dram, spirits of chloroform one dram. Nux vomica is the pharmaceutical name for strychnine and derived from the "Poison Nut" tree which is native to India and southeast Asia. It is one of a class of compounds known a "alkaloids" whose solubility differs depending on whether they are under acidic or alkaline conditions. Strychnine was very well known to be toxic, as it can cause nerves to fire uncontrolably but in low doses thought to be similar in its effect to caffiene, as found in coffee, as well as a general tonic.
The witness described other medicines and ointments he dispenced for deceased. In one bottle had added to the ingredients already named some solution of arsenic, and another had sal volatile (an alcoholic solution of ammonium carbonate or "smelling salts") in it, The last-named was ordered by Dr. Butt by telephone to be added to the mixture. The doctor had told the chemist that Mrs Farmerey was complaining of pains in the stomach, and he asked witness if there was anything in the prescription likely to cause them. Witness read the prescription over to the doctor, and he said it was all right. All the doses were directed to be taken as one tablespoonful three times a day in water: although we do not know whether this instruction was followed. Arsenic was also a common component of "tonics" at the time and also a known poison commonly refferred to as "inheritance powder". It was widely used in "Fowler's solution" which was taken orally for some skin complaints. Unlike strychnine, arsenic is a cumulative poison and symptoms might be delayed, but strangely there were no questions asked at the inquest about arsenic contributing to the death, such as how much of it was present in the prescription.
Shufflebotham explained that all the medicines had been dispensed correctly. There was a total of 3/8 of a grain of strychnine in all the medicine that he supplied. The "grain" is a unit of measurement of mass, and in all of the troy weight, avoirdupois, and apothecaries' systems, equal to exactly 64.79891 milligrams. It is nominally based upon the weight of a single ideal seed of a cereal. From the Bronze Age into the Renaissance, the average masses of wheat and barley grains were part of the legal definitions of units of mass.
Shufflebotham said that when a bottle that had previously contained medicine was returned for a further supply it was the regular custom to always thoroughly wash it before refilling. Mr. Morgan then added that even if the bottle had not been washed there would not have been sufficient nux vomica left in it to injure the patient: something which he is not entitled to say as he is not an expert. He adds that all the labels on the bottles contained a warning not to exceed the dose prescribed by the doctor, also to use proper measures. Morgan is clearly acting on behalf of the chemist and/or his employer. Just why the issue of washing-out and refilling should come up is unclear, but it is possible that the first of the three bottles was refilled. Evidently, the second was not.
The following witness was Joseph Carter Bell the County Analyst. He had been made public analyst for Salford in 1873 and would therefore have been considered a persuasive expert by the time of the inquest. Strychnine is not adsorbed in the acid conditions of the stomach, but must pass into the intestines before it is taken-up. However the other materials present in the medicine could have changed this slightly. Bell, who had been County Analyst since at least 1887, found 1/10th of a grain of strychnine in the stomach and 1/8th of a grain remaining in the medicine bottle. This is clearly confusing unless the case is being misreported: in total Mrs Farmerey was supplied with three bottles each containing 1/8 of a grain, and yet the analyst reports 1/8 of a grain in the part-used final, six-ounce (twelve-dose) bottle. Possibly he calculates what would have been in the bottle were it full, possibly he is given a fresh bottle of the same medicine.
In any event the level of strychnine is likely to be at best a rough estimate. The chemical tests of the time (using Mandelin's reagent and first suggested in 1883) were somewhat inaccurate and other available tests included tasting what had been extracted or seeing if it would kill young mice. Bell states that the fatal dose of strychnine varies from 1/2 to two grains, but then states that he cannot explain how "he actually found in his analysis more strychnine in the stomach than was actually contained in all the medicine that was supplied from Wednesday". This contradicts the evidence reported that the analyst found 1/10th of a grain in the stomach and that a total of 3/8th of a grain had been supplied. Clearly a single dose of the medicine as prescribed should have only contributed only about 1/96th of a grain. Of course, strychnine still in the stomach would not have been a cause of death, as Bertha Mabel would have been killed by what was adsorbed not what remained.
There is no mention in the analysts report as given in the court of arsenic being tested for, despite at least one of the bottles being reported to having contained "some solution of arsenic". Arsenic is far less toxic by weight than strychnine (although it is adsorbed in the stomach) and any lethal dose (above about two grains) would have detectable in tissues. It was also widely available from products such as fly-paper and was possibly obtained as such by Florence Maybrick to murder her husband in 1889 prior to her very well-reported trial. Bell states that he had tested the brandy, gin and peppermint found in the room for strychnine, which indicates that at least some suspicion had fallen on Farmerey.
Dr Butt gave his evidence next. He had been treating the deceased for a skin complaint and since the 21st January and from the 1st February for a chill (with the medicine containing strychnine).
On the 7th Dr Butt was informed by her husband that she had some stomach pains and Dr Butt changed the prescription slightly. On the Friday, the 9th, he again examined her, and appears to have had no suspicion that she would be dead the next day. Mrs Farmerey clearly became much worse during the course of Friday and overnight. Butt was summoned early the next morning (at around 06:15) and by this time her condition was evidently very serious. He called for a second opinion from Dr Hamilton, who lived nearby and while Dr Butt briefly suspected strychnine poisoning both doctors now seemed to agree that their patient was having some form of fit. The symptoms of strychnine poisoning being somewhst similar to those of epilepsy or tetanus.
Butt was not an incompetent medic, and although he had prescribed strychnine he was possibly justified in considering that Farmerey was suffering from a fit rather than the terminal convulsions of that particular poison. Evidently she had experienced something similar before. In any case, if it was strychnine, there would be very little that could be done with the medical resources available at the time.
Butt left the room briefly and for a short while Farmerley was alone with this wife before summoning Butt upstairs again, by which time the wife was dead. Butt then immediately changed his diagnosis to strychnine poisoning. A post-mortem was later performed by Butt and Hamilton which indicated the cause of death to be asphyxia, a common result of strychnine poisoning.
Hamilton's evidence confirms that of Butt: he considers that death was from strychnine and cannot account for the quantity of poison found in the body, which he implies must have been taken shortly before death.
At the University of Liverpool, Robert James McLean Buchanan had risen from junior posts to become assistant lecturer on toxicology in 1905 and later professor of forensic medicine and lecturer on clinical medicine in 1909. He published a Textbook on Forensic Medicine and Toxicology based on Husband’s Forensic Medicine, that achieved an eighth edition in 1915. His evidence as reported is quite short, but he confirms that the strychnine prescribed was probably not the source of the lethal dose. He is quite vauge about the level of strychnine which might be lethal.
Reports of the inquest conclude:
- "The jury, having considered their verdict in private, came unanimously to the conclusion that death was caused by strychnine poisoning, but that there was no evidence to shew how the poisoning was contracted."
This seems a strange decision. The quantity of strychnine recovered from the stomach is several times stated to be more that the total prescribed (although the 1/7th to 1/10 grain as reported is far less) and simple calculation shows that it is close to what would be expected if a whole bottle were consumed in one dose. The figure of 1/10th grain could be explained if the deceased had not taken the medicine but stored it to take it in a single dose, but even this would be unlikely to be fatal unless perhaps if the victim were particularly sensitive to strychnine.
So what actually happened? There only seem to be four possible resolutions:
To have done away with herself it would appear that Bertha Farmerey would have had to obtain more poison, in the form of strychnine, than was prescribed. If she has done this then she has evidently done it without leaving any trace of recent purchase. Of course it is possible that a place such as the Beehive might have vermin killer on the premises, but again there is no evidence that a commercial vermin killer (which typically contained soot) was used.
The only reasonable candidate available from the facts as presented is the landlord of the Beehive. He too would have had to obtain more poison to augment that which was already (and conveniently) present in his wife's medicine. He also had the opportunity to stifle her with a pillow, which would exhibit similiar evidence, of suffocation, post-mortem. A potential problem with the husband as the murderer is the low level of poison found in the body. Strychnine is lethal at a very low level and a poisoner who was unfamiliar with it might be expected to use far too much. Many of the witnesses agree that the level of strychnine in the medicine prescribed and dispensed was not enough to kill and that they could not determine where the "extra" came from. However, just how much "extra" strychnine was present is never made entirely clear.
It is possible that the dispensing chemist made a mistake. At first sight this seems unlikely. The nux-vomica ticture used in making up the medicine is a prepared solution and it is not a case that powder could be weighed wrongly. While not completely clear it appears that the part-used third bottle was analysed and found to contain the medicine as prescribed. Although arsenic also appears to have been included in the medicine the Coroner's Court does not go into this at all. The chemist is very vague about exactly what was added referring only to "some arsenic solution" and the Analyst does not seem to have been concerned with the level or nature of it. There is also a discrepancy between what is reported in the press and what was reported in the medical literature as the two disagree over whether the prescription contained potassium carbonate (used in soap-making) or bi-carbonate (a replacement for baking soda). Perhaps importantly (or perhaps not - given that he unable to defend himself) Shufflebotham did not prosper as a commercial dispensing chemist, but went bankrupt. Later he became an assistant pharmacist at Chester Royal Infirmary and appears to have stayed in that position until the age of 80.
Is it possible that it was Dr Butt who made the error? This would depend on how the prescription was written out, but it is just possible that an error was made and not noticed by the relatively inexperienced dispensing chemist. The second bottle appears to have not been a standard preparation and as discussed below interaction between components of a prescription can cause problems. Another possibility is that Butt is wrong about the cause of death and that Mrs Farmery did in fact die of convulsive status epilepticus while having a sub-lethal dose of strychnine in her stomach.
Agatha Christie's Solution ?
In Agatha Christie's first novel, the The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), a clever plot point is that the addition of a dose of "bromide" to a medicine containing strychnine causes the poisonous components to precipitate out and be concentrated in the last dose taken from the bottle. Remarkably, the novel appears to be based on a very similar actual event. This was a tragic misadventure in which a young lady died because the common sleep aid potassium bromide had been added to her tonic, containing the easily soluble strychnine sulfate. The case was reported in Joseph Price Remington's "The practice of pharmacy" (1886) and became known to Christie who had worked in a dispensary during the Great War.
In fact Christie has her fictional Poirot quote directly from an equivalent text "The Art of Dispensing" (1901) by Peter MacEwan. These facts should also have been known to the expert Buchanan - the "Art of Dispensing" describes the defect as "famous". The combination was such that the potassium bromide present caused, over time, a considerable quantity of the less soluble strychnine bromide to crystallize out. Colorless crystals of the latter gradually collected, eventually covering the entire bottom of the bottle. Unfortunately, the young woman failed to follow the instructions she received, which called for shaking the bottle before each use. As a result, along with her last dose of tonic she also swallowed all the accumulated strychnine bromide crystals – and promptly died from an overdose.
Christie cleverly uses the same chemical effect in her novel, by mixing a little of the victim's bromide powder (a mild sedative) into the bottle of tonic. This ensures that the murder would take place when the victim took the final dose from the bottle, something that would occur on a predictable date when the murderer could arrange to be absent. All that would be found by post-mortem would be medicines that the victim habitually took.
Mrs Farmerey had some of her second bottle of medicine left on the friday - her husband confirms that she has two doses left at around noon. He is then sent for the third bottle, yet another formula, from which a single dose had been taken by the time of her death - the next morning. Although there are some gaps in the facts, especially as regards the exact contents of the second bottle, it is possible that Mrs Farmerey was uncommonly sensitive to strychnine. There is also a suggestion from the chemist in response to a question from the solicitor Giles, who is representing Farmerey:
- "If deceased had not shaken the bottle she would have taken a larger dose of strychnine with her last dose than at all other times." (he presumably means last dose from the second bottle).
Does Christie provide a solution to the "Mysterious affair at Hoole"? It would need two things: the second unshaken bottle of medicine to form a precipitate of strychnine creating a fatal final spoonful, and Mrs Farmerey to be exceptionally sensitive to this particular poison. Of course there is no intentional bromide in the medicine given to Farmery, but could it still have precipitated a potentially lethal sediment given that other things were added? Notably, the examples given in Remington's Handbook show an incompatable mixture of Morphine (another alkaloid) and potassium bicarbonate (which is described as alkaline). The report of the inquest of Mrs Farmerey in the Chemist and Druggist gives (in a section headed "The Week's Poisonings") a related formulation (with the bi-carbonate) and not that with the more strongly alkaline carbonate reported in the Chester local press.
A look at the medical literature of the times around 1906 shows that many causes of instability in a strychnine solution were known. Problems being noted due to the presence of carbonates, ammonia, arsenic and/or chloroform. Each of these was present in the various mixtures prescribed by Dr Butt. Despite the issues around precipitation of alkaloids being known, and the in the case of strychnine evidently even "famous" in text-books, only the solicitor Giles raises the matter. The test to see whether it was a factor in this case would have been very simple, to make-up a bottle of the second variant of the prescription and leave it to stand so as to see whether it deposited strychnine.
This was never done, and the case of poisoning, which may have resulted from an accident, has often been reported as an "unsolved murder". But where then does the fault lie?
We can never know what really happened, but the possibility that it was the same kind of dispensing or prescribing "error" that Agatha Christie was to base her first Poirot plot upon does appear to be a contender. There is certainly confusion as to what was actually in the prescription (carbonate or bicarbonate of potassium) which would each appear to interact with strychnine quite differently. It seems odd that while well-known textbooks had already mentioned that the final dose from a bottle might contain an enhanced level of active ingredient, especially a lethal dose of strychnine, no-one considered that further, even when solicitor Mr Giles mentioned it, and despite there being at least one expert (Buchanan) present in the Coroner's Court.
Overall, the Coroner's Court does appear to behave somewhat strangely. The Coroner states:
- "the jury would see there was no quantity of strychnine in the medicine prescribed that would account in any way for a person's death".
The Analyst states that he:
- "could not tell how it came about that he actually found in his analysis more strychnine in the stomach than was actually contained in all the medicine that was supplied from Wednesday".
The expert toxicologist actually says very little. As Poirot says in the "Mysterious Affair at Styles" - "There is altogether too much strychnine about this case", and yet the jury just seems to conclude on that point.
Sources and Links
- The Chester Courant and Advertiser for North Wales: 28th February 1906;
- Cheshire Observer: 3rd March 1906;
- Killed by Agatha Christie: Strychnine and the detective novel;
- A study of Mandelin's test for strychnine;
- The Beehive: at "Vanished Pubs of Chester";