On February 16 1901, the S.S. Talune was moored at the wharf in the New Zealand city of Wellington. It was ready to leave for Sydney. A young woman who had crossed with the vessel from Lyttleton, in the South Island, approached chief steward James Fletcher with a plea. She told him that a £50 draft she had wired to Wellington had gone on to Australia in error. She said she was now a pound short in her fare to Sydney, but asked if she could pay it when they arrived, using her luggage as security,
The steward thought she looked quite respectable, so he agreed. The fact that she asked to be in saloon class rather than steerage only added to his impression of her as a person of ‘gentility’. The woman, Mrs Jane Smith, later gave the steward a strange account of why she was making the trip. She said that she had once saved a small boy from drowning, and that in gratitude, the parents had insured the child’s life in her favour. The boy was now dying of consumption and she was travelling to Sydney to claim the money when he died! To others she repeated the story about her heroic act, but said that the grateful couple, Mr and Mrs Smart, were going to take her on a world tour as their companion. She showed a medal to various people (including steward Fletcher) , inscribed; Presented to Mrs Percy Smith for bravery. F.A. Smart.
On February 19 there was an impromptu concert aboard the ship. Afterwards, at approximately 8.00pm, a steerage passenger, Patrick Conway, was found in a state of great distress on deck. He was thrashing about and moaning as if in a fit. Despite all efforts to save him, Conway died in agony about an hour and a half later.
The expectation was that the body would be buried at sea, but since they were nearing Sydney it was decided to wait, and bury Conway on land. There was a cursory post-mortem in Sydney, and the Government pathologist duly wrote a certificate stating that the man had died from suffocation during an epileptic fit. He was interred at historic Rookwood Cemetery.
Conway, aged 34, had been a comfortably off butcher from Dunedin. He was single, and lived with his sister and brother. His siblings were shocked when notified of the death, as their brother had no history of epileptic fits. They also queried whether the considerable sum of money he’d had with him was intact. It was enough for the authorities to start asking questions.
One of the people Conway had associated with at sea was Jane Smith. As first she said she had only met him when he helped her aboard with her luggage. After his death her story changed; she told a fellow passenger that she had known his brother and sister, in Dunedin.
It was soon discovered that her relationship with the dead man was much closer. She and her husband had recently borrowed money from Conway. In January, Mrs Smith and Patrick Conway had spent time together at The Oxford Hotel in Christchurch, where Conway had been staying for several weeks before embarking on the Talune.
On February 7 the pair visited Sumner Beach, near Christchurch. When Jane Smith complained of being cold, Conway bought some brandy and port wine. Mrs Smith said that Conway was getting a bit tipsy, so she suggested he put his valuables and a £50 promissory note (for money owed by Jane Smith) in her handbag.
Hours later Conway woke up alone in the hotel stables at a Sumner hotel. The publican had found him at the beach and suspected he had met with foul play. Conway felt terrible, and even worse after discovering he had been robbed. When he caught up with Jane Smith next day she said, (surprise, surprise!) that she too had been drugged. Her handbag with the promissory note had vanished. Conway seemed to accept her story and she promised to pay back the £50.
It was never clear whether there was a romantic relationship between the pair or whether Jane Smith was simply stringing Conway along with evil intent.
POISONED AT SEA!
In Sydney, it was decided that the dead man’s body should be exhumed for testing. Fortunately, the pathologist had also kept part of the stomach and its contents in a jar. The deadly poison strychnine was found in Conway’s vital organs.
A bit more digging in New Zealand revealed that Jane Smith had purchased strychnine in February. She told the Christchurch chemist it was for country relatives, who wanted to poison rats and rabbits.
When more people who had been on board the Talune were questioned, things began to look very bad indeed for Smith. She had been spotted by a number of people carrying something on a plate to Patrick Conway shortly before he died; a covered bottle, they thought.
Questioned by police at The Royal George Hotel, where she was staying in Sydney, the woman protested her innocence. She insisted the plate held only plums and biscuits. However, she was arrested and charged with murder.