CHRISTMAS 1877. At St-Leonards-on-Sea, in the English county of Sussex, a Christmas market was being held in the ‘old town’. The shops and churches were decorated with laurel, holly and ivy. Nevertheless, perhaps due to the unseasonable mild weather, the jollity of the Hastings & St Leonards Observer editorial appeared slightly forced;
‘It is Christmas, unmistakably Christmas. Frost and snow have found more congenial climes; the sun shines brightly overhead: there is slush and mud, almost warm beneath one’s feet; but it is Christmastide for all that. Even if the Almanacs did not tell us, we might see it in the gaily-decked trappings of the shops…Come in what garb it will – in showers of freezing rain, in cold biting frost and falling snow, or in misty muddy mugginess – it is always welcome…’
BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON
Christmas, with its emphasis on home and family, can be a difficult time for the lonely. Seventy one year old Miss Mary Roberts had recently arrived in St Leonards.,where she was living with a companion. On the night of Thursday, December 20, she retired to bed and her companion went back downstairs to the kitchen. Soon afterwards there was a thud in the courtyard, described as sounding like the fall of a rolled up carpet. Upon investigation, the body of Miss Roberts was found lying in a crumpled heap. An unworldly glow from a full moon revealed a sight those who witnessed it would never forget.
At the inquest held next day at the British Hotel it was revealed that Miss Roberts had fallen from her bedroom window, a height of between thirty and forty feet. She had multiple fractures, but it was a terrible head wound that killed her. The coroner, Mr Davenport-Jones, concluded she had taken her own life whilst in an unsound state of mind. This finding was often used to shield the dead person and their family from the stigma of suicide.
The full moon has long been associated with derangement of the mind, and abnormal behaviour. In St Leonards, the old myth would gain more credence when residents discovered that as Mary Roberts plunged to her death, another drama was being played out just a few streets away.
On December 19, 37 year old Emily Marsden, had taken the train from her home in Bournemouth to spend Christmas with her two younger sisters; Rosa ( 34) and Alice (32). All three were unmarried. They were the estranged daughters of a wealthy ‘water-cure” doctor by the name of James Loftus Marsden . Many years earlier, two of Dr Marsden’s daughters had died in suspicious circumstances while at school in Paris. Their governess stood trial, accused of manslaughter.
Rosa and Alice had moved to St Leonards nine months earlier, for a restorative change of air. However, when Emily arrived at their lodgings that evening she found her sisters preoccupied with their aches and pains. In the attic bedroom Emily was to share with Rosa, the dressing table was cluttered with medicine bottles.
Rosa was the first to retire after dinner that evening. Some fifteen minutes later Emily and Alice heard their sister crying out in distress. Emily rushed upstairs to find Rosa standing in the doorway of the bedroom, ashen faced and clutching a medicine bottle. She had difficulty speaking, but managed to explain that a preparation she had taken to ease her indigestion had made her ill. She began to vomit, which Emily interpreted as a good sign; whatever was causing the problem would be expelled from her system. When the retching stopped an exhausted Rosa was helped to bed. It was hoped the crisis was over, but within a few minutes her condition worsened and her whole body began to contort. Alarmed, Emily sent for the nearest physician, Dr Heath.
By the time he arrived at about ten thirty, the doctor could find no pulse at Rosa’s wrist, although she was fully conscious. Her pupils were wildly dilated and her extremities were cold. Although she was writhing on the bed she told the Doctor she was in no pain. One of her sisters (probably Emily), explained that Rosa had taken indigestion medicine that was old and had ‘gone bad’. However, to Dr Heath, her symptoms suggested something quite different and he asked to see the bottle. It was clearly labelled; The Mixture; a sixth part to be taken every four hours, if necessary. Miss R Marsden. No.12,377. J.F. Andrews (Late Flint and Andrews), dispensing chemist , 36 and 37 Pevensey Road, Eastbourne . Shake the bottle.
However, the moment Dr Heath smelled and tasted the contents he knew his suspicions were correct; Miss Marsden had swallowed deadly belladonna liniment. He was shocked that the poison had found its way into a medicine bottle, but there was no time to think about how such a thing could have occurred; his immediate concern was trying to save his patient’s life.
As a liniment, belladonna was considered to be beneficial in relieving joint pain, and what Rosa had taken was Alice’s rubbing liniment, a popular preparation sold under the brand name of ABC Liniment, due to its three main ingredients of aconite, belladonna and chloroform.
Rose told him she had swallowed a double dose, equating to two fluid ounces. She was administered the usual remedies, including an emetic, in case there were still traces of poison in her stomach.
Rosa began to improve, but Emily maintained an all-night vigil. Dr Heath stayed until 4 am, by which time the patient’s breathing was regular and she had a perceptible pulse. When he returned at 9 am it seemed his patient was miraculously free of the poison. Everyone breathed a sigh a relief, but unfortunately their optimism was misplaced. The sinister belladonna began a second offensive, attacking Rosa’s nervous system. Her lungs began to fail and at 10 pm Dr Heath warned Emily and Alice that he did not think their sister could last much longer. She died at 11.30 p.m., essentially due to respiratory paralysis.
The doctor left St Margaret’s Terrace feeling there was something untoward about the whole tragic business. Earlier in the day, when his patient had appeared to be recovering, he had questioned all three Marsden sisters as to how the liniment came to be in Miss Rosa’s medicine bottle. He was not at all satisfied with their responses.
An inquest was held at the local Norman Hotel, where Alice Marsden in particular would have difficult questions to answer.
After an exhaustive inquiry no real answers were found, and no-one was held to account.
‘Deceased came to her death by taking a quantity of Belladonna and Aconite liniment in mistake for medicine, which was placed in a medicine bottle, but how the liniment came to be so placed there is no evidence to show.’
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