ABC Liniment

There is a chapter in  my true crime book The Water Doctor’s Daughters titled;  AS EASY AS ABC.      The letters are a reference to a popular 19th century rubbing liniment made from three powerful, but potentially fatal compounds;    ACONITE, BELLADONNA (derived from the plant known as Deadly Nightshade) and CHLOROFORM.  To prevent accidents, all  such dangerous preparations  were  sold in easily recognized bottles, usually blue.  Many were  also  ribbed, for easy identification in dimly lit Victorian homes.

Antique Poison Bottle

However, the following is an account of a death by ABC liniment where, one suspects, the type of bottle was of no consequence.  On September 7 1907  Dr Henry Baildon, a highly respected Scottish  academic and author, had been found dead after failing to return from walking his dog.  Baildon was well known as the biographer of his friend Robert Louis Stevenson;

Mrs Baildon became alarmed and her fears were accentuated when, late at night, the dog arrived back without his master. A search was instituted but it was not until midday on Sunday that a constable discovered the body in Hillside Quarry, Glamis Road, Lochee.

Dr Baildon’s  obituary, reprinted in  the  Otago Press 1907, read;

Much regret has been expressed in Edinburgh at the sudden death under tragic circumstances, of Dr Henry Bellyse Baildon, lecturer in English History in University College, Dundee. He had gone out for a walk, and when his dog returned home alone his friends were alarmed and insitituted a search. On the following day his dead body was found near Balgay Hill. Life had been extinct for hours. Dr Baildon, who was 58 years of age, was the son of a leading Edinburgh chemist, and at first entered his father’s business, but forsook it for literature. He was a schoolfellow and life-long friend of R.L.Stevenson. As an author and lecturer he was always actively occupied. The months before his death he married a Manchester lady, who is well-known in educational circles. It is stated that latterly he had been suffering from intense depression of spirits.

The death certificate described the cause of death as  Melancholia. Poisoning (ABC Liniment)   The word suicide was not mentioned, but it was self-evident.   The fact that Baildon had a knowledge of poisons   through  having worked for  his chemist father was  significant.  He had chosen a lonely spot,  ensuring that he would not be found in time to be resuscitated.  ABC liniment was prescribed for the relief of physical pain, but in this case it was clearly used to alleviate mental agony.

Earlier that year, on the other side of the world, a woman took an accidental dose of the liniment.  That she was not in total isolation at the time  saved her life.

From the Melbourne newspaper The Argus, on Wednesday, February 14 1907;


 CHILTERN, WEDNESDAY – Mrs Anderson, wife of Mr David Anderson, of Barnawartha, took a liniment composed of aconite and belladonna last night by mistake. Before the poison could take effect her sister, who had learnt of the unfortunate occurrence, administered an emetic. Mrs Anderson was then driven to Chilton and remedial measures were adopted by Mr Harkin, M.D. Mrs Anderson, though still suffering from the effects of the poison, is out of danger.

The Water Doctor’s Daughters  reveals that thirty four year old Rosa Marsden ingested ABC liniment a few days before Christmas.

No. 1 St Margaret's Terrace, St Leonards - where Rosa Marsden died from Belladonna liniment poisoning in 1877.
No. 1 St Margaret’s Terrace, St Leonards – where Rosa Marsden died from Belladona poisoning in 1877.

The  entry  on her death certificate was intriguing. It stated that the deadly  poison had been  swallowed  from a  bottle labelled as an innocent  ‘ mixture’, . ‘…but how the liniment came to be replaced there is no evidence to show.’

(33) Rosa Marsden - extract from Death Certificate 1877 mentioning liniment.

Oddly enough there were similarities with  both the  cases mentioned above.  As with  Mrs Anderson, Rosa’s  younger sister  (Alice} was close  at hand. But had Alice  tried  to save her sibling,  or was her behaviour  more sinister?  And like Dr Bailden, both  Rosa and her sister  had an intimate   knowledge of  the effects of the liniment.  Their father, Dr James Loftus Marsden, had used  belladonna  preparations throughout his career. What were the exact circumstances  of Rosa’s poisoning?  And more importantly, what would be the outcome of the   subsequent inquest?

The story of a 19thC family, and a mysterious poisoning.
This  story of a 19thC family includes a mysterious poisoning.

The Water Doctor’s Daughters is available  through major UK bookstore s and via  all the usual on-line sites. It is also available as an ebook.

  1. Great post Pauline! I never knew where that saying came from! What a powerful mixture and a macabre tale. Thanks

    • Pauline

      Hi Chloe, thanks for visiting. To my mind the incident re Rosa Marsden and the liniment is the most tragic and intriguing chapter in my book.

  2. Never heard of the ABC Ointment! Wow!


    • Pauline

      It was actually a liquid liniment used to relieve arthritic conditions and all similar aches and pains. If ingested, belladonna affected the lungs very badly.

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