THE SOOTHING LINIMENT THAT COULD LEAD TO DEATH
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.
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;
SAVED BY HER SISTER
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.
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.’
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 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.