Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Poisoning Death Unsolved

When two sisters died of poisoning just before Christmas in 1856 their mother was found not guilty after the defence failed to prove she had ever had poison or administered it. 

On the afternoon of 20th December that year six year old Margaret Cochrane bought some buttermilk from a shop in St Martin Street. She then went back to the lodging house in the same street where she, her four year old sister Catherine, mother Bridget and father Michael lived. 

Margaret and her sister Catherine each had a cup of buttermilk and some boiled potatoes at about 630pm and were then put to bed by their mother who had spent the day hawking herring. Two hours later a lady who lodged in the room below became alarmed when the ceiling began to fall in and she heard the crackling of fire. As she got up to raise the alarm Bridget was running down the stairs screaming that her children were dead. 

A policeman managed to put out the flames before they spread to any other floor but questioning of Bridget and her labourer husband Michael aroused some suspicions. They gave differing accounts of whether they used candles in the rooms and also couldn't agree on how many children they had. At the inquest on 23rd December lodging house owner Mrs Kelly said that Bridget was screaming that her children were dead even though she didn't appear to have been in their room since the fire started. 

The coroner Mr P F Curry was not satisfied with the evidence and ordered that post mortems be carried out on the bodies of the children. With the inquest being adjourned until after Christmas, Bridget and Michael absconded separately. Two surgeons, one of them from Birkenhead, analysed the stomach contents and found fatal levels of oxalic acid, an irritant vegetable poison.

At the resumed inquest on 5th January the surgeons explained the results of the stomach analysis, saying they had no doubt that poison was the cause of death. Another lodger Mrs Rowlands told how she had not seen Bridget since Christmas Day and Michael since Christmas Eve. The shopkeeper who sold the buttermilk said she had sold a candle as well and that nobody else had complained of the milk making them sick.

Bridget's whereabouts remained unknown but detectives said they had made enquiries at previous places she had inhabited without success. They were able to say that she was well known in Woolton for felony and former neighbours in Stockport had told how she regularly beat and starved the children. Attempts to find out where the poison had been bought though were unsuccessful, oxalic acid being common enough that no druggist would have thought it exceptional to have sold any. 

Mr Curry pointed out to the jury that there seemed no doubt that poison had been administered and caused death, and the setting fire to the room was a 'cloak' to try and conceal the reason for it. There was no proof that Bridget had bought any poison but coincidentally, an earlier child of hers had died in a fire when she lived in Edge Hill and Michael was away in America. A verdict of wilful murder was returned against Bridget and then search for her and her husband continued. 

It was not until early April that the couple were apprehended in the town of Boyle in County Roscommon, Ireland. They were both brought over to Liverpool, but only Bridget was committed to the assizes on a coroner's warrant as Michael had not actually been there when the fire occurred or the girls had tea.

St Martin Street (www.liverpoolpicturebook.com)
On 21st August Bridget appeared before Mr Baron Watson with a baby which she had given birth to in Kirkdale gaol a few days earlier. She was asked if she would like her trial postponed to the next assizes but replied that it would be preferable to have it over and done with there and then. The prosecution case was that she had poisoned the children and then put them to bed before setting fire to it. The motive suggested was that Bridget and Michael wanted to go to America and it would be easier to do this without the children.

Witnesses from the lodging house were called, as were the two surgeons and the shopkeeper. Although there was a lot of circumstantial evidence, the prosecution were still unable to prove that Bridget had ever been in possession of poison, or had the opportunity to mix any into the buttermilk. Under cross examination a surgeon admitted that death could occur anywhere between ten minutes and three weeks after taking this type of poison. The judge then directed the jury to return a verdict of not guilty and 30 year old Bridget was discharged.

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