The Rainham Poison Mystery of 1931
A dead woman dressed in her night clothes on the bedroom floor, a critically ill lodger on a bed in the same room and a gas heater turned on shocked and puzzled Rainham residents and led to wide speculation and press coverage about the reason for the death at 23 Webster Road in December 1931.
Mary Brown aged 49 and her 25 year old lodger Ernest Frith were rushed to St Bart’s Hospital where Mrs Brown died without regaining consciousness but doctors were unable to determine the cause of her death. Meanwhile, Ernest Frith recovered after being critically ill.
Ernest Frith’s brother Cyril had called the police and when they arrived police-constable Bareham found Mrs Brown unconscious on the bedroom floor. There were two beds in the room, a single and a double bed. Ernest Frith was lying on the double bed close to the slightly open window vomiting violently. The police arrested Frith after he had recovered in hospital and then Chatham Magistrates Court charged him on suspicion of attempted suicide by poisoning but Frith pleaded not guilty then later released.
Mr R Stedman the Rochester City Coroner opened an official inquest in late January but an initial analysis of Mary Brown’s organs resulted in reasons not being found for her death. Her organs were sent to the Home Office for analysis while the gas heater was sent to experts in London. Mr Stedman adjourned the case until further results were obtained. Four separate inquests had to be held until a final verdict could be given.
Neighbours suspected that Mary Brown was an affectionate but jealous lover who had lured Frith away from his foster parents to go and live with her but Frith denied this stating that he went to live in her house as a lodger out of his own free will.
Frith’s version was that he came home from work at Kemsley Paper Mill at the end of the week Mrs Brown gave him potatoes, fish, a glass of beer and a cup of milk then he went to bed at about 10-45 pm. He said he awoke in St Bart’s Hospital unaware of what had happened.
Frith’s aunt Mrs Jane Drury of Albany Road in Chatham said that after the death of their mother Cyril and Henry Frith went to live with Mrs Brown. A few months later Ernest and his brother Montague also went to live there because their father was in Australia.
Frith’s brother Cyril Frith said that when he left his bedroom at 6 am the door of the bedroom occupied by Mary Brown and Ernest Frith was closed. He did not know if the gas heater in the room was switched on or off and could not smell gas, although he stated that he felt ill when he awoke that morning. He immediately called Dr Drake and the police. However, police-constable Bareham said that there was a smell of gas in the bedroom of the deceased when he entered. The coroner adjourned the inquest again until Tuesday March 15th while organs from Mrs Brown’s body were sent to the Home Office for analysis.
The final inquest was held at St Bart’s Hospital in March and began when Mary Brown’s daughter Lilian Pickavance from Chatham said that her mother and Frith had a good relationship. She also stated that her mother had had the gas heater since December 1930 and that she had frequently switched it off complaining of a nasty smell coming from it and that the heater made the bedroom stuffy and uncomfortable when switched on. She also stated that her mother and father had been separated for some time.
Police-constable Bareham backed up what Brown’s daughter had said when he stated that there was a smell of gas. He also said that later in the day he had returned to the house with Sergeant Winn and after searching the property they found a bottle half full of white tablets but Dr Gerald Lynch, senior analyst at the Home Office said that he could find no trace of poisonous or noxious substance in the body of Mrs Brown or in Ernest Frith’s vomit.
Cyril Frith said that he and his brother had lived in the house for six years and that Ernest and Mrs Brown were living together as husband and wife and were very happy.
The final verdict given by Dr Gerald Lynch of the Home Office at the March 15th inquest was that the death of Mrs Brown was accidental. It had resulted from inhalation of carbon monoxide and the illness of Frith from the same source. Dr Lynch stated under certain circumstances carbon monoxide could be dangerous and lethal. Evidence showed that the heater had been burning throughout the night. Dr Lynch also said that because Ernest Frith had been on the bed close to a slightly open window with ventilation explained why he survived and was not totally unconscious when found and why Mrs Brown had died. Therefore, the case closed but after months of mystery, speculation and gossip.