Medical Detectives

Medical Detectives by Robin Odell

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Authors: Robin Odell
total of 0.815 grains of arsenic in the tissues. Taking all the circumstances into account, he concluded that Edmund Duff had died of acute arsenical poisoning.
    This had the effect of putting Bronte on the spot because the possibility of arsenical poisoning had not featured in his report of the first post-mortem examination. He had, though, jotted down the letters ‘AS’, signifying arsenic, on the carbon copy of his report, denoting that he had considered the possibility. While this may have appeared to be an afterthought, worse was to come when it seemed that part of another body had become mixed up with the organs removed from Duff. Bronte had no answer for this except to suggest that someone had interfered with the sealed specimen jars. At any rate, it was confirmed that tests on the organs purporting to be those of Edmund Duff had been carried out at the London Hospital Medical School, with negative results for arsenic. Bronte agreed that his original finding of death from natural causes was wrong and confirmed that he now believed Duff had died from arsenical poisoning.
    Spilsbury’s opinion was that Duff had ingested a fatal dose of arsenic within twenty-four hours of death. The likely vehicle seemed to be the bottled beer he had drunk with his supper after returning home from a fishing holiday. The chicken he had consumed was ruled out because his wife had eaten the same meal and not been unwell. Sir Bernard was closely questioned by William Fearnley-Whittingstall, the young barrister representing the Duff and Sydney families. The twenty-six-year-old advocate gave the pathologist a hard time in what was described as a brilliant piece of advocacy. He attacked the basis of Spilsbury’s opinion that Duff took in the arsenic with his beer. They sparred over the pros and cons of the chicken as the purveyor of the poison, discussed the intricacies of digestion and debated the effect that Duff’s feverish cold might have had on events. At the end of it all, Spilsbury remained adamant that the arsenic had been ingested via the beer. This, of course, cast suspicion on the family or, at least, on someone close.
    The coroner’s jury concluded that Edmund Duff had died from arsenical poisoning, wilfully administered by some person or persons unknown. A similar verdict had been reached at the inquest into the death of Vera Sydney, but in the case of her mother, Violet, the jury was unable to decide whether she had been murdered or had committed suicide, although they were sure that arsenical poisoning was the cause of her death. In a full account of the Croydon poisonings, written in 1975, Richard Whittington-Egan concluded that the murders, which had thus far remained unsolved, were committed by Grace Duff, Edmund’s wife, who hated her spouse and wanted to eliminate him. According to this thesis, she poisoned Violet and Vera Sydney simply for gain.

    In the winter of 1929, Spilsbury featured in his second case of matricide and headed once more for a confrontation with Bronte. On 23 October, a fire at the Metropole Hotel in Margate appeared to have claimed the life of an elderly resident. The fire alarm was raised by Sidney Fox, who was staying at the hotel with his mother, and fellow residents dragged the semi-conscious old lady from her smoke-filled room. Medical assistance was sent for but Rosaline Fox was already dead by the time the doctor arrived. Her son was distraught and between sobs of ‘My Mummy, my Mummy,’ told the hotel manager, ‘She is all I have in the world.’ The inquest on Mrs Fox concluded with a verdict of death by misadventure. She was buried in Norfolk and on the day of her funeral, her son travelled to Norwich to make a claim on her life insurance policy. The insurance company was immediately suspicious and a wire was sent to its head office carrying the message, ‘Very muddy water in this business.’
    Sidney Fox was arrested on a charge of fraudulent dealing, while, behind the scenes, the

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