Mrs Margaret Roche was a hard working, shrewd business woman. She rose from the lowly position of barmaid to become the owner of considerable property. Included were two hotels in Queensland; the Telegraph Hotel at Charleville and the property she lived in, the Claren Hotel, in the small rural town of Augathella.
In 1928, 27 year old , Edwin ‘Ted’ Helton took over a general store across the street from The Claren. In 1923 Helton had married Agnes Crow, a woman 14years his senior. The couple had a daughter, but the marriage was not a success. Apparently this was not due to age difference, because soon after the move to Augathella, Helton began a relationship with Margaret Roche, then in her forties. Not surprisingly it led to the break-up of the Roche marriage. When John Roche left, Helton moved into the hotel and over the next few years he received generous gifts of cash from Mrs Roche.
In 1935 Mr Roche died. By this time Edwin Helton exerted considerable influence over his mistress. It was said he bullied her into not attending her estranged husband’s funeral. Increasingly, there were strains on the relationship and arguments over money and property. One witness testified to the dead woman’s irritation when Helton suggested they play cards for The Telegraph Hotel, and when he brought up the subject of her will. Despite this, she did make a will leaving the bulk of her estate to him.
In the late afternoon of September 10 1937 Mrs Roche, now 50, suddenly took ill. She was taken to hospital, but died soon afterwards. She and Helton had lunched together on salmon earlier that day. It seemed unlikely, but could food poisoning have been the cause?
Despite Helton’s protests, a post-mortem was carried out and traces of the poison strychnine were found. He was subsequently charged with murder and found guilty, but this was overturned on appeal. At a second trial he was found not guilty of murder or of manslaughter. The will was tied up in litigation and it was the accused’s mother who helped finance the protracted defence of her son. Meanwhile, Margaret Roche had been buried in the Charleville cemetery.
The evidence against Helton was largely circumstantial. He told the court that his beloved Margie had been unwell, physically and mentally, and that her relatives had worsened her depression by opposing their relationship. He claimed that if she had ingested poison, it was by her own hand, and said he was heartbroken over her death. Further, he argued that the deceased had given him a substantial sum of cash shortly before her death; evidence of her continuing affection for him.
At one point during the retrial, defence lawyer Arnold Bennet shocked the court by taking a sip of strychnine infused water and offering it to the jury. His point was that it was far too bitter for someone to drink unless deliberately. He was trying to prove that Mrs Roche may have taken her own life using a large number of tablets found at the hotel. Each contained a trace of the poison.
Mrs Isabella Allen, Margaret Roche’s eighty five year old mother, refused to give up. She was incensed that Helton stood to inherit the bulk of her daughter’s estate, worth over seven thousand pounds. She pursued the matter through a civil court action at Charleville, where a jury found that Helton had unlawfully killed Margaret Roche and thus was not able to act as executor of the will, or to benefit from it. The dead woman was declared intestate, her estate to be distributed to her mother and siblings.
Helston began a drawn out series of appeals. Litigation over the next few years involved ten Queensland judges, six high court judges, eight barristers, and seven solicitors. However, no doubt to Mrs Allen’s relief, the judgement stood.
It is important to remember that Edwin Helton, except in the civil action relating to the will, was judged not guilty of murder. In 1942 he was pronounced bankrupt. His own mother lashed out in defence of her ‘wronged’ son.
Cases such as this are devastating for friends and family members. Here we have two elderly mothers who each supported their child as well as they could. They both sought what they perceived as justice for their loved one, to the bitter end.
Edwin Helton died on October 17 1973. His determined adversary, Mrs Allen, survived into her nineties. She died in 1951.