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.
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.
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.
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.