Monday, September 10, 2012

The surgeon-major and the Coachford poisoning case

After the untimely death of his first wife, the hasty remarriage of Dr Philip Cross to his pretty young governess raised eyebrows in 19th-century Cork. The subsequent exhumation of the late Mrs Cross revealed evidence of poisoning that led to the death sentence for the doctor, writes Eimear Vize 

Famed Victorian hangman James Berry executed more than 130 criminals, but the figure that returned to haunt his dreams most often was Dr Philip Henry Eustace Cross. The Cork doctor, who had slowly murdered his wife so he could wed the pretty young governess, was one of the bravest men he ever executed, he said.
“When you read of a man walking firmly to the scaffold, it is nonsense. Some walk, some are carried. Of all the men I hanged Dr Cross was the only one who walked firmly,” Berry recalled.
“He told his attendances that he did not fear death, for he had met it face to face more than once on the battlefield. He died unmoved, without a word,” the hangman wrote in his 1892 autobiography, My Experiences as an Executioner.
However stoical a figure Dr Cross cut as he strode to the noose, he was nevertheless a murderer. He was tried and found guilty of poisoning his wife by slow, excruciating degrees, and has the dubious celebrity of being the last person executed in Cork County Gaol.
It was a deliberate, cruel and cowardly act of betrayal. The mother of his six children was the only obstacle between him and his 20-year-old lover, Miss Effie Skinner – a former governess at their home, Shandy Hall, in Dripsey, County Cork. And Dr Cross, a highly regarded retired British army doctor 63 years of age, plotted his wife’s demise and watched for weeks, under the guise of her carer, as she was gradually poisoned by arsenic. He was the only person with her when she died. He would later tell a friend, “she died screaming.” The case was described by the prosecuting counsel at Dr Cross’s trial as “the most cruel and bloodthirsty of the century”.
Victorian court reporter William Roughead recounted the scandalous case in his book, The Murderer’s Companion. The chapter on Dr Cross is aptly titled ‘The Shadow on Shandy Hall – What love cost an old man’. In it Roughead expresses surprise at how this “qualified slayer bungled this homicide”. The incompetence of a skilled practitioner such as Dr Cross really passes belief, he said. “The inexpertness of the expert is inexplicable.”
But then Philip Cross was often described as “very reckless” and, as a lad preparing for his profession, many stories were told of his pranks at the paternal abode, Shandy Hall. A sketch of the house shows an unpretentious dwelling of two storeys, standing amid trees in the garden, the front railings of which bordered the road to Coachford.
As Surgeon-Major Cross, he was for many years attached to the 53rd regiment, and served in the Crimea, Canada and other foreign stations. He does not appear to have been popular in the army, although it is recorded that his courage was indomitable, and that with fearless bravery he repeatedly saved the lives of others at the peril of his own.
In 1869, at the age of 45, Dr Cross wooed and won, despite the opposition of her parents, a well-born and attractive young English lady, Miss Mary Laura Marriott, who was 18 years his junior. The couple married in London on August 17 at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, and after a term of service overseas, the doctor retired and they began their life partnership at Shandy Hall some two miles from Cork.

Shandy Hall, Dripsey

When Mrs Cross’s father died in the 1870s, Dr Cross succeeded to her fortune of £5,000, which allowed him to comfortably occupy his time as a gentleman farmer. He was also an avid hunter. This led to trouble with the neighbouring farmers and the doctor suffered the current local penalty of popular disapproval: boycotting. But he was not a man to take things lying down, as Roughead recalled: “attacked with stones by roughs at a coursing meeting, he made such a good use of his riding whip – without which he seldom appeared in public – that his assailants were soon glad to beat a retreat.” Some may not have liked him but, in general, Dr Cross was highly regarded as an intelligent and well-bred gentleman who could claim friendships in the grandest social circles.
Life for the doctor and his wife was relatively uneventful, punctuated every year or so with the birth of another of their six children. That was, until the arrival of the bewitching young governess, Miss Effie Skinner. Dr Cross had never been a ladies’ man, and often expressed his aversion to what he termed ‘chattering females’. So for a time, everything went on smoothly in the doctor’s house. But it was the calm that preceded the storm.
Dr Leonard Parry observed in his 1928 book, Some Famous Medical Trials, which details the ‘Coachford Poisoning Case’, that Dr Cross had gradually become aware of Miss Skinner’s “many favourable points”. It was the summer of 1886, shortly after she had started work at Shandy Hall.
Dr Parry wrote: “He recognised her beauty, her good nature, her capability in the management of the home and the children, her cheerfulness and good temper; all these completely overwhelmed him, and an ardent desire for possession took hold of him. His infatuation became noticeable to his wife, who spoke to him on the subject, but, needless to say, unavailingly. One day he startled the governess, who had never given him the slightest encouragement, by suddenly seizing her in his arms and passionately kissing her on the lips.”
Miss Skinner fled from him but apparently never mentioned the incident to Mrs Cross. “And from this fact the doctor drew quite erroneous conclusions,” said Dr Parry.
But Mrs Cross could not fail to perceive the change in her husband’s behaviour and challenged him on the subject. He resented her interference and denied that his interest in the girl was other than paternal. For three months the wife’s suspicions continued to grow stronger, until finally she insisted that the governess should be dismissed, which, despite the doctor’s vigorous protests, was done. The subject remained a sore one and the domestic atmosphere was thundery.
According to Dr Perry, Dr Cross convinced Miss Skinner that she had to leave the house due to the “ridiculous and unreasonable jealousy” of his wife. The governess believed him. She went to live in Dublin and a correspondence began between them. Dr Cross paid frequent visits to the capital, and it was not long before they were staying nights together in a Dublin hotel under assumed names. “But this did not satisfy Dr Cross. He wanted Miss Skinner for his real wife. His dislike for his lawful partner grew intense but he was anxious to maintain his good name and position, and he determined to devise some means of getting rid of her without arousing any suspicion or scandal. The method he adopted was so silly and clumsy that it is difficult to imagine that an educated and clever man could have been so foolish. Detection was inevitable,” remarked Dr Perry.
The court case, as reported in the British Medical Journal of December 24, 1887, heard that Dr Cross had bought a pound of arsenic in 1886 “for sheep dipping”. It was from this supply, it is believed, that he began to dispense tiny quantities into his wife’s food. One of the prosecution’s witnesses, Miss Jefferson, an old school friend of Mrs Cross, visited her frequently at Shandy Hall. An avid diarist, her detailed accounts of Mrs Cross’s dramatically diminishing health proved invaluable in the case against her murdering husband.

In her diary she had recorded the whole story of Mrs Cross’s illness, with all the symptoms of slow poisoning by arsenic. “While Miss Jefferson was there Mrs Cross had an attack of ‘spasms of the heart’, with vomiting, cramps and diarrhoea,” the court was told. “This began on May 10 and it continued until her death. Her eyes were inflamed and irritated. Dr Cross was the only person to attend his wife. He said she was suffering from some form of bilious fever, and he hinted at typhoid.”
To save appearance, Dr Cross called in a medical cousin, who obligingly concurred with the doctor’s diagnosis: a bilious attack. To others, Dr Cross represented her case as heart disease.
Early in the morning of Thursday, June 2, Mrs Cross died in agony with only her husband present. One of the maids was awakened by her mistress’s “terrible cries”. Dr Cross remained alone with the dead body throughout the night. In the morning he announced to the maids, with callous levity, his loss: “Get up girls: the Missus is gone since past one last night.” He gave no explanation of the four minutes of screaming in the night.
Dr Cross certified the death typhoid fever and buried his wife with “indecent haste” at 6am on Saturday, June 4. He gave her a paltry five-guinea funeral, and in attendance by her graveside was a publican, the driver of the hearse and the devious widower Dr Cross.
Less than a fortnight later he married Miss Skinner. Perhaps he would have gotten away with murder were it not for the suspicious speed with which he replaced his recently deceased wife.
He was reunited with his lover in London less than a week after the funeral – the court heard that a hotel bill for two people was found on Dr Cross covering dates from June 10-13 – and they were married on June 17 at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, the very church in which his first marriage was celebrated. After a short and somewhat superfluous honeymoon, Dr Cross brought his blushing bride home to Shandy Hall, and installed her as the new mistress. Their homecoming proved to be the last straw.
“Suspicions being aroused, the body of the late Mrs Cross was exhumed on July 23, and a post-mortem examination having been held, arsenic was found, and the prisoner was arrested,” the BMJ court reporter stated.
William Roughead said the trial of Dr Cross for the alleged murder of his wife by poison began before Mr Justice Murphy, presiding judge at the Munster winter assizes, on Wednesday, December 14, 1887. “Immense interest was taken in the proceedings; admission to the court was by ticket, and for such there were several thousand applications,” he said. “Throughout the four days’ hearing every available inch of space was occupied, a great number of ‘ladies’, so called, having secured seats.”
The BMJ account of the court proceedings identified Dr Charles Yelverton Pearson, professor of materia medica in Queen’s College, Cork, as the man who made the post-mortem examination. In his evidence, Dr Pearson confirmed that there was no sign of putrefaction in the intestines and that the heart and lungs were healthy. There was no sign of typhoid fever.
However, he found white particles in the gullet, which were arsenic. In the liver he found 1.28 grams of arsenic. He also found arsenic in the spleen and kidneys. The quantity of arsenic present was quite sufficient to cause death, he noted. He also found traces of strychnine. It appeared that the unfortunate lady had been slowly and regularly poisoned with arsenic, and the finishing stroke given with strychnine – which doubtless caused the characteristic screams heard at midnight by the maid. In these circumstances, Dr Cross, protesting his innocence, was found guilty and sentenced to death.
The final resting place of Mary Laura Cross, aged 46
Once the verdict of guilty had been returned, the prisoner addressed the court, which he did for half an hour. “He protested his absolute innocence. The arsenic he purchased had all been used for the dipping of his sheep. None had been found in the house,” said the BMJ report. “He was 63 years of age. Did they think that, having regard to his age and to his poor children, he was likely to do such a thing! He never did it. Why should he? He had stood to lose £40 a year by her death, and other money that was likely to come from her brother.”
He produced two prescriptions from a doctor to show that arsenic and strychnine had been prescribed for his wife, and he said his wife had talked to Miss Skinner about the effects of arsenic on the complexion. Finally, he claimed that he had married Miss Skinner because he had “done her a wrong” and because he wanted her to look after his children. Judge Murphy sentenced him to be hanged on January 10, 1888.
By the time it came for his execution Dr Cross’ hair had turned white. The hangman was James Berry. The execution was not one of Berry’s most successful ones because of a problem regarding the proud criminal involved.
For most of his life Dr Cross had been a well-born gentleman, and his friends in the area of Cork were from the aristocracy and upper classes. In fact the governor of the prison did not attend the execution because of his feelings about Cross (he sent a deputy instead).
Berry found that these friends were at the execution to give the condemned man some emotional support. Dr Cross, grateful for their attendance, wanted to stand at attention with respect to them, facing as he died. Berry, however, traditionally faced his subjects at executions towards the wall. But each time Berry turned Dr Cross to the wall, the doctor would turn around again.
For all the notice that the man he was going to kill took of him, Berry might not have been there.
Finally, an official ordered Berry to stop this silliness and allow the doctor to die facing his friends, reminding him that Dr Cross was a respected soldier. Berry did as he was told, and Dr Cross died without a word.

The reluctant hangman

James Berry
James Berry was Britain’s hangman during the latter half of Queen Victoria’s reign. A man of strange contradictions – capable of cold, callous detachment but so affected by his job that he was often unable to speak before an execution – Berry was the last hangman able to write freely about his work.
Berry was an ex-policeman who took a genuine interest in his ‘victims’ – even creating his own ‘black museum’. Aiming to be both efficient and merciful he worked to a table of drops of his own creation. Unfortunately, this did not prevent a few horrific incidents. The most notable was the execution of Robert Goodale who was decapitated by the force of the drop. In contrast, in the famous case of John Lee – “the man they couldn’t hang” – Berry was unable to open the gallows trap. After three attempts – during which the gallows trap worked perfectly when Lee was removed – Lee was reprieved.
During his eight years as hangman, Berry executed over 130 men and women – and even claimed to have hanged Jack the Ripper. He enjoyed publicity and toured the country talking of his experiences and showing lantern slides of grim prison scenes and executions. Yet in later life this contradictory character suffered from depression and became almost suicidal.
He was haunted by nightmares of the people he’d killed and eventually became a preacher and ardent campaigner against capital punishment


  1. Wow, great post! I love every thing about the court room process. The first time I had jury duty I just fell in love. I am actually starting court reporting services in Melbourne FL on Monday. I am so nervous but excited. Thanks for sharing!

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