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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 3rd September 2011

I started out to write about an unexplained death by strychnine poisoning that featured in a radio programme, today, but when I started to look for extra details I found so many different versions of what should have been a simple story that I’m inclined to think more about the difficulty of identifying truth in historic events.

The death of Lieutenant Hubert Chevis in the early hours of Sunday 21st June 1931 was the subject of a BBC Radio 4 programme in the series ‘Punt PI’ where comedian Steve Punt investigates a range of stories from the past. Punt’s aim was to see if he could shed new light on what has been an unsolved murder case for 80 years.

I’ll try and begin with the facts of the case that are agreed by all the various versions I’ve been reading before looking at the differences, some trivial but others potentially significant.

Chevis sat down to dinner, in Deepcut Surrey, on Saturday 20th June 1931 with his wife, Frances. Frances had been previously married to Major G. T. T. Jackson of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and, after her divorce, had married Chevis six months before.

The main course, prepared by the cook and brought to the dining room by the batman, was a brace of partridge. When Chevis began to eat his, he immediately complained of its taste and asked his wife to taste it. She described it as filthy and told the batman to remove it and destroy it, which he did by putting it on a fire. Within 45 minutes Chevis became ill and a doctor was called. Shortly after his wife Frances also felt unwell. Chevis was taken to hospital where he died of asphyxiation in the early hours of the following morning.

Two grains of strychnine, the principal alkaloid in Strychnos nux-vomica, were found in his stomach. His father was sent a telegram from Dublin reading ‘Hooray, Hooray, Hooray’ and signed J. Hartigan. Later he received another worded ‘It is a mystery they will never solve’. J. Hartigan was never identified and the coroner, after a long inquest, said that the true events of the death would never be known.

That much of the story is common to all the versions I’ve read or heard but there is a lot of divergence once you get into further details.

Most accounts say the Chevis’ were dining alone and that only the cook and the batman were with them in the house. One or two accounts, however, says they dined with guests but does not give any details of who these guests were and there are no references to any guests being called at the inquest.

There is also disagreement about the source of the partridges. Frances Chevis had inherited her father’s fortune when she reached twenty-one and is said to have had her own car and driver. One account says she went ‘up to town’ to obtain the partridges, which would be taken to mean she was driven from Deepcut in Surrey to London to shop. Another says the birds were purchased from the local butcher and a third says they were delivered to the house by ‘the poultry man’.

While every account says Lt. Chevis was taken to hospital only one claims that Frances was also admitted. But, the biggest differences are related to the ‘Hooray’ telegram and J. Hartigan.

Some say Chevis’s father, Sir William, received the telegram on the day of the funeral. Another says it arrived, three days after the death, on the day the death notice appeared in the press. One account says though addressed to the father it was the mother who opened it and, in her shock, immediately showed it to a reporter who was outside the house meaning its existence became public damaging the chances of identifying Hartigan. Another account says that the death was not public knowledge so the telegram had to have come from someone involved in the case. Those last two are, of course, mutually exclusive; if the death hadn’t been made public then there wouldn’t be a reporter outside Chevis’s parent’s house.

The second telegram also produces divergent stories. Most accounts says it was received some days later, in some cases the date, 4th August, - that is over a month later - is given, but one maintains it arrived before the police had answered Sir William’s summons after he received the first.

Sometimes, it is said that a chemist in Dublin claimed to have sold strychnine, months before, to a man who resembled the man described by the telegraph office as sending the ‘Hooray’ telegram but this line is ignored by others.

Given that there is substantial divergence over the ‘facts’ of the case it is no surprise that there are various theories over what may have happened. Frances Chevis married a further three times and her grandson, speaking during today’s radio programme, said she told her daughter, shortly before her death, that Chevis had been the love of her life so it seems unlikely that she murdered him.

The partridges are known to have come from Manchuria and quite a lot of time was spent looking into the methods used to kill the birds. Some people say that hunters use poison berries to kill the birds and believe that there was enough residual poison to have caused Chevis’s death. That doesn’t stand up to scrutiny mostly because strychnine does not come as berries so why would someone bother to add poison to a berries when poisonous berries could be found. And, of course, the science says that there could not have been two grains of strychnine left in Chevis’s stomach after his death if this were the route of the poison.

Slightly more credible is that it is suggested that farmers in Manchuria would place poison in the flesh of dead partridges and use them to kill foxes and other vermin endangering their livestock. With strychnine being a popular component of rat poison that could well have been the substance used and the theory says that a poisoned bird had, inadvertently, been included in a consignment for sale. That sounds more plausible than the poison berries argument because it would explain why only one bird was contaminated.

In that case, Lt. Chevis’s death would be a most unfortunate accident and not murder but that, of course, leaves the Hartigan telegrams unexplained. It could be that someone with a grudge against the British army was just pleased to hear of the death of an army officer. There were newspaper reports of the case on 29th July, presumably, marking the start of the inquest so it could be that the ‘mystery’ Hartigan referred to in the second telegram, on 4th August, was simply to do with his identity.

On the other hand, another detail that seems to have been reported only by the Melbourne Argos in its story, 7th August 1931, about the outcome of the inquest may be important. According to this story, the partridges had been hung outside the Chevis’s home in a meat safe so that anyone could have poisoned the larger of the two in the knowledge that this would be served to the master of the house. But it seems improbable that the killer would have come to the house with strychnine in their possession on the off chance of finding something to which it could be added.

But the final point that doesn’t seem to have been considered by anyone concerns the stability of strychnine. The USA’s ‘Centre for Disease Control and Prevention’ publishes ‘The Emergency Response Safety and Health Database’ on its website. Its page for strychnine says ‘Strychnine decomposes on heating, producing toxic fumes, including nitrogen oxides’. Would strychnine, if present in the raw bird, have survived the cooking process or would it have to have been added to the cooked bird by one of those present in the house?