BITTER PILLS; THE MURDER OF VERA WATT

In the 1940s and 50s   A.P.C pills and  powders were one of the most popular ‘over the counter ‘ drugs in Australia. They were sold under the brand names of Vincent’s or Bex. The  highly successful advertising slogan for Bex was ‘ Stressed? All you need is a cup of tea, a Bex, and a good lie down.’   The slogan remains part of the Aussie lexicon to this day.

A.P.C. referred to  the product’s  powerful combination  of  Aspirin, Phenocetin and Caffeine.  It was an addictive cocktail, often dubbed ‘mother’s little helper ‘, and  used to alleviate  everything from muscle pain,  colds and headaches to anxiety and depression. An entire generation of frustrated,  pre  women’s liberation housewives came to rely on the pills and powders, at great cost to their health. They were later found to cause serious kidney disease.

 

Bex powders

Bex, tea. and a good lie down.

Vincent's Powders

Mother’s little helpers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One  woman  who regularly used Bex powders was 36 year old Mrs Vera  Doris Watt, from No. 10 Kent Street, Collaroy, on Sydney’s  Northern Beaches. Her husband bought her a packet of twelve every week.

On December 1 1941, Mrs Watt was planning to take her 10 year old daughter Jill to the pictures at Manly. Before leaving, young Jill  checked the letter box and found several free samples of A.P.C. powders.  Her mother was delighted , and took one or two  ‘in case she developed a headache’. The powder tasted very bitter and she joked that it must be poison. She even tried to vomit, but was unsuccessful.  ‘I suppose it will be alright’, she commented.

The pair then left  to catch the bus, 300 yards away. The trip took about 25 minutes, and on the way Mrs Watt became ill, with nausea and leg cramps. She was noticeably pregnant, and fellow passengers assumed this was causing the problems. When the bus reached Manly Wharf she had to be helped into a chemist shop by the conductor, where her condition worsened.  She suffered a seizure and her legs became paralysed.  Doctor  Bernard Stiles attended her and arranged for her immediate transfer to Manly District  Hospital.

 

Manly Hospital 1940s

Manly Hospital in the 1940s

After   rallying   briefly, Mrs Watt died with little Jill sitting by her bed. Her  soldier husband Daniel was in  a garrison battalion, based in Sydney. He was contacted, but did not make it the hospital in time. When  a post mortem was conducted, the deadly poison strychnine was found to have been the cause of death. Someone had ‘doctored’ the Bex powders.

WHO WAS VERA WATT?

Vera  Watt had first married a seaman called James Knox, when she was 22. He had been killed in a horrific  accident in July 1935.  He fell into the hold of the steamer Iron Prince, breaking his skull and both arms.

Before her marriage Vera had been friendly with a man by the name of Conald Pagett. They reconnected  in Newcastle after she was widowed.  Vera was living in the  Newcastle suburb of Mayfield,  as was Pagett;  a telephone linesman with the PMG. When he was transferred to Tumut, Vera Knox and her two young children, Jill and David (known as Billy) followed.

Ostensibly Vera Knox  was  Pagett’s housekeeper at Tumat, but in reality she was his de-facto wife. He  always called her Doris, or Donnie.   There was a huge obstacle to their union being legitimized.  Conald Pagett had been married  since 1919.  His wife  and family,  had remained in Mayfield.

Vera was not treated particularly well by Pagett, and when she discovered she was pregnant in 1941 she found herself in a difficult situation. According to a friend, Pagett refused to give her the money for an abortion.  If she left she would be unable to support herself and her children, especially  with a newborn.

For this reason she made the pragmatic decision to find a husband via a marriage agency, and  thus met Daniel Watt, a lifelong bachelor. Watt was unemployed at the time, but joined the army  with a view to providing for his ready made family.  Vera left Tumut  in July. She and Watt  first  planned to marry in December,  but when Vera confessed  she was pregnant the wedding was brought forward to September.  Watt was well aware of his wife’s previous association with Conald Pagett.  He may well have suspected the baby was not his, but was prepared to raise the child as his own.

 

Daniel Watt

Daniel Watt

Conald Pagett was furious when Vera moved out and began to harass her, even after she married Daniel Watt. He discovered where she was living, first in Narrabeen and then in Collaroy.  He wrote  a number of letters to his ex-lover, which clearly upset her.  In October 1941 he made vexation allegations about the Watt couple to the police.

After Vera Watt left Tumut, Pagett and his wife Muriel  got back together and  moved to the Sydney suburb of Epping. Their adult children were very resentful about their father’s long-term affair, and not at all confident that it was finally over..

Several  other homes along Kent Street had received the Bex samples as well, but they did not contain strychnine.  It was clearly a targeted attack. Due to his relationship with the victim,  47 year old Paget quickly became  the chief suspect. On December 4th he was charged with murder and remanded in custody  at Long Bay until the coronial inquest began.

CONTINUED HERE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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