Hospital food still gets a bad rap, but honestly it’s not too bad. However, back in the 1920’s food from home was greatly appreciated by patients such as WWI veteran Francis Wooldridge..
Wooldridge was a married man with six children when he went off to war in 1915.
The children were aged from 12 down to an infant, quite a handful for his wife Elizabeth.
Sadly, like so many men Private Wooldridge came home in 1918 much changed. While fighting in France in the previous year he was wounded by an exploding shell. His injures included a compound fracture of the clavicle and permanent damage to his arms and legs.
In October 1919 Francis was admitted to Sydney’s Prince Alfred Hospital with vomiting and peripheral neuropathy (numbness and pain in the hands and feet) . By now the family had moved from Daceyville to Kogarah.
By May he was still unwell. In fact his condition was deteriorating. One of the medical men, Dr Blackburn, was so puzzled that he began to pay particular attention to everything Wooldridge was ingesting.
The doctor noticed that his patient’s wife was in the habit of bringing in two very popular invalid dishes; milk pudding and soup. It appeared that after these visits Mr Wooldridge’s vomiting increased. A decision was made that nurses would surreptitiously replace the suspect meals with hospital food. The samples of the pudding and soup were passed to Detective Truskett who submitted them to the Government Analyst, Dr Cooksaw.
It was discovered that both samples contained just under half a gram of arsenic and lead. Dear me, what a lethal mixture! When Elizabeth Wooldridge was informed she said it could not be possible as she had made the food herself and had never had poison of any kind in her possession.
A police inspection of the Wooldridge home (now at Kogarah) was arranged and in the bedroom a bottle containing arsenic was found on top of the wardrobe. This was of particular concern because although the wardrobe top was dusty and dirty, the bottle itself was clean, suggesting recent use. Mrs Wooldridge now claimed that her husband was aware of the arsenic, which they had used as a garden spray. A spray bottle was subsequently found, but detectives described it as being very dusty and unlikely to have been used for a very long time.
There was enough evidence for Elizabeth to be charged with attempted murder. However, more damning evidence provided a possible motive. Francis had a step-brother who was living at the Wooldridge home. His suit was hanging in Elizabeth’s bedroom and in what sounds like a line from a ‘penny dreadful’, his boots were under her bed. The infamous Truth newspaper went further, reporting that ‘certain items’ (contraceptives) were discovered in a drawer.
One can only imagine the effect of the charge on Elizabeth’s young family and on her invalid husband. He was discharged from hospital soon afterwards, and presumably returned home. Whether he supported his wife was not reported, but it seems likely that he did. The idea that the mother of his children was trying to kill him may simply have been impossible for the poor fellow to contemplate. Elizabeth was released on bail of £300. That was a lot of money for someone in her circumstance to come up with.
The trial was set down for September 28. The alleged victim, Francis Wooldridge, was not required to give evidence.
Crown prosecutor Mr William Coyle told the jury that Mrs Wooldrige had tried to disguise the addition of arsenic in the soup by adding burnt sugar. In summing up he said;
‘If this is anything at all, it is a case of slow poisoning, where, bit by bit, and bit by bit, the constitution of the victim is worn away, until finally the poor body is so weakened that the powers of resistance disappear, and the last small dose proves fatal.
At the conclusion of the Crown case the defendant’s counsel Mr J. Young declared there was no case to go before the jury. That arsenic was found in the food was incontestable, but how did it get there? My Young called one of the nurses as a witness, who said;
‘…it was a common thing on visiting days for patients to share what had been brought in by relations and friends. The patient Wooldridge during April and May might have eaten other food than that supplied by his wife. The witness added that there was nothing to prevent anyone tampering with the soup and the pudding after this food had been put in the locker near the bedside.‘ (Sydney Morning Herald Sept. 30 1920)
This was hardly convincing, but he went on to say that there was more than one hypothesis of how the arsenic came to be in the food. He argued that Francis Wooldridge’s step-brother, who had since disappeared, could have placed it there. It was an extraordinary twist. From providing a motive for Elizabeth’s crime, the un-named step-brother with his boots under her bed was now her prospective saviour.
Presiding over the case was NSW Chief Justice Sir William Cullen.
Judge Cullen held that there was a case to go before the jury. However, the foreman of the jury immediately stood up and announced that the jury had decided to acquit the defendant.
What, straight away…without any deliberation? It seems so.
A verdict of not guilty was then entered and Elizbeth was discharged. No attempt appears to have been made to track down the step-brother so that was the end of the case. How very odd.
What happened to the couple in the years following this drama I have no idea, but Francis lived on for another seven years. His children grew up and two sons went off to fight in the next World War. They were absent with the A.I.F. when Elizabeth died in 1941. She was only in her 50s. It is important to note that she is described in the death notice as ‘beloved wife’ of Francis.
William Coyle went on to become a judge. When he died in 1951 his long term friend Mr R. Windeyer K.C. described him as having been ‘…a very brilliant and formidable Crown Prosecutor.’ In the Wooldridge case he had the advantage of being able to argue that there was not only motive and opportunity, but scientific evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt.’ However, in the end it seems the jury accepted that vital aspect of our judicial system, ‘ reasonable doubt’. And who are we to argue?
FOR THE SYMPTOMS OF ARSENIC POISONING, CLICK HERE.