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Tragic error leads to death of Cuckfield infant

Updated: Oct 18, 2020

Sussex Advertiser - Tuesday 27 August 1844


Fatal Occurrence - Child Poisoned by Mistake.

On Friday week, and by adjournment on Tuesday last, an inquest was held at the house of Mr. Jesse Attree, the Ship Inn, on the body of Mary Falkner, aged six months, whose death took place under the circumstances detailed in the following evidence :-

Phoebe : I am the wife of William Falkner of Cuckfield, labourer. The deceased Mary Falkner was my child. She was six months' old. The deceased has been in a delicate state from her birth until about a month ago, when she appeared to rally and get stronger until Sunday night last, the eleventh instant, when she was very restless. I gave her a teaspoon of magnesia on Monday evening, I think about five o'clock, because deceased appeared very feverish. I had been advised to give her the magnesia by Mrs. Last, who keeps a chemist's shop at Cuckfield, and of whom I bought it.

The deceased was asleep in my lap from about half past six in the evening of Monday last, until about eight, when she awoke and screamed violently. I immediately sent for Mr. Byass, a surgeon, at Cuckfield, who came in directly.

William Clutton Byass: l am a surgeon, residing at Cuckfield. Between eight and nine o'clock the evening of Monday, the 12th of August instant, a message was left for me to go to see a child named Mary Falkner; in about ten minutes after I went. I found the mother, a woman named Weller, and several other persons in the kitchen. The child was in her mother's lap. I examined the child. Her body was extremely cold; she breathed twice, and died in my presence. The mother appeared much distressed, and cried out for her poor child. On Friday last I was requested to make a post mortem examination of the body. I did so, and removed the stomach with its contents. I took it to London, and examined it with the assistance of Doctor Gall, of Guy's Hospital, the lecturer on Natural Philosophy there.

The stomach presented appearances of inflammation, there being great injection of the minute vessels; there were two small masses, and one patch of white powder in the mucus which covered the interior of the stomach. We applied three tests to the powder: we took the portions of the white powder, boiled them in water, with a portion of carbonate of potash—made a solution of this and took a portion of the solution, into which we put some bright copper, and a few drops of hydro-chloric acid—upon boiling, the copper became covered with a metallic deposit, which when placed in a small test tube volatilized easily by heat, leaving the copper bright and a ring of arsenic upon the tube. The second test—a portion of the suspected liquor was acidulated with nitric acid, then sulphuretted hydrogen passed into it, when a yellow precipitate was thrown down.

The third test - the suspected solution was then tested Marsh's apparatus, and a metallic crust obtained, this was dissolved in a minute quantity of nitric acid and on the vapour of ammonia being brought near a yellow precipitate was found, which proved it to be arsenic, The state the stomach was caused by arsenic, and that was the cause of death. I have no doubt of this being the case.—

Elisabeth Upton : I am twelve years of age. l am niece to Phoebe Falkner, the mother of Mary Falkner the deceased, and live with her. Between four and five o'clock on Monday week, the mother gave the child something, which I believed to be magnesia, in a tea-spoon, mixed up with a little water, because I had told her it was feverish. She took the magnesia from a blue paper on the shelf. I have seen her take magnesia twice from that paper. She generally kept some magnesia on the plate shelf. Between five and six o'clock the child became sick and vomited— she continued to vomit for nearly or quite two hours. At the end of two hours the child went off to sleep in her mother's lap. The stuff vomited was a yellowish colour. She slept for a quarter of an hour, and then awoke and went in a fit. William Falkner, the father the child, came in just before the child was seized with the fit. He went out for Mrs. Scrase, a neighbour, who returned with him. Mrs. Falkner asked her husband to go for Mrs. Scrase. Mrs. Scrase said it would come out its fit.

A young man named William, who lodges the house, was then sent out by Mr. Falkner for a doctor, and Mr. William Byass came almost directly. Mrs. Falkner brought home the blue paper with the powder about a month ago. She gave her some once before Monday. She said she had got some magnesia for baby. I saw her place it in the shelf. She gave the child some on the same night she brought it home. About a month ago, I was sent by my father, James Upton, who lodges in the same house, to Mr. Pentlow, for a half-pennyworth of arsenic for the mice; it was wrapped up in a whitish paper; I delivered it to my father; he laid it upon the plate shelf; Mrs. Falkner was present. It was placed loose on the shelf; Mrs. Falkner spread it on the bread and butter and put some in the pantry, some up stairs, and some in the kitchen.

The mice ate the greatest part and the remainder was placed in an old plate upon a shelf in the pantry. I saw the plate about two days before the child died in the pantry. Some of the bread and butter was then in it. I threw the bread and butter away on the dunghill. My father spread some bread and butter once and Mrs. Falkner twice; the last time about three weeks ago. My father gave me the paper and I threw it into the fire. After the arsenic had been spread the first time, it was put into a black tea-pot in the paper. The tea-pot has not been used since, it was a broken pot. The arsenic was kept in a cupboard in the kitchen which was sometimes locked.

Mary : I am the wife Thomas Ede, a Farmer at Cuckfield. We live at the house nearest to that of Mr. and Mrs. Falkner. At nearly eight in the evening of Monday, the twelfth of August. I went with my husband to Falkner’s house. I found Mrs. Falkner in the kitchen sitting with the baby in her lap. The baby appeared to me to be in a fit, its little hands were clenched and much changed. The mother was putting its feet in warm water, she seemed much distressed. I stood looking at the child for half an hour, until Mr. Byass came in. I have every reason to believe that the mother was very fond of the child.

Thomas Ede: l am a farmer at Cuckfield. In the evening of Monday week, I went to get some wash from Mrs. Falkner's house. I went into the kitchen and found Mrs. Falkner there with the deceased in her arms. She said. Oh, dear, Master Ede, my little baby's dying, and requested me to get some one to come to come to her; she seemed a good deal distressed. I went to my wife, and accompanied her to Mrs. Falkner.—

James Flanagan: I am Inspector Police at Cuckfield. Having been informed that the child of Mrs. Falkner had died suddenly I went about half-past nine o'clock in the evening of Tuesday last to her house. She was in bed; I called her up. I asked her if a child was lying dead in the house; she said yes. I asked her under what circumstances it died; she stated that she went out to work in the morning, and came home about four o'clock, and as the child was a little feverish she gave it some magnesia; she then gave it the breast, and the child dozed off to sleep. It awoke in a kind of fit and she sent for Mr. Byass. She thought it went off in convulsions. I called again on her on the following day, and asked her where she got the magnesia; she said, from Mrs. Last about three months ago, and bought some rhubarb at the same time. She gave the child a little at a time as it wanted. I apprehended her yesterday on a coroner's warrant, charged with having poisoned her child. She was good deal agitated, and said she was innocent. I took her to the station, and afterwards went to her house, which I searched immediately. In a small tea-caddy, over a mantle shelf in the kitchen, I found the paper containing a white powder, now produced. It is marked “Arsenic, Poison." I took it to Mr. William Byass last night.

William Clutton Byass: I have this morning tested the contents of a paper produced to me by Mr. Flanagan. I have no doubt of the powder being exclusively arsenic. On Monday last I enquired of Mrs. Falkner if she had any of the powder left which she had given the child. She took down a paper from her plate shelf and delivered it me. I examined the contents, and found them to be magnesia.

James Flanagan: I produce a black tea-pot and a tin caddy. The tea-pot was delivered to me last night, by William Falkner, the father of the deceased. I took the tea-caddy from the mantle-shelf in his presence. I asked him if it was his property. He said it was.

Elizabeth Upton: The tea-pot, now produced by Mr. Flanagan, is that in which my father usually kept the arsenic, it was generally kept in the cupboard; children could get at it when the cupboard was unlocked. The caddy now also produced by Mr. Flanagan, belongs to Mrs. Falkner; it was generally kept on a mantle shelf in the kitchen, out of the reach of the children, but I could reach it. I do not know whether the paper now produced by Mr. Flanagan was kept in the caddy. I do not recollect that I ever saw it before. I took the magnesia out of the cupboard, it was in the tea-pot, screwed up in a blueish paper. Mrs Falkner told me to get the magnesia.

I shewed the paper to her and she said it was right. I mixed a teaspoon full with water, and put it into a cup, and held the cup while Mrs. Falkner gave it the child. The magnesia was generally kept on the plate shelf. Mrs. Falkner told me she thought the magnesia was on the shelf, or in the tea-pot, she did not know which. I first looked upon the shelf for it. I told her it was not there. She then said she thought it was in the tea-pot. I was in the room from the time Mrs. Falkner came home from work, until the magnesia was given. I generally nursed the deceased. Mrs. Falkner was kind to the child. I sweetened the magnesia with a little brown sugar. If any thing had been put into the cup by Mrs. Falkner, I must have seen it.

James Upton: I am a labourer at Cuckfield. Mrs. Falkner is my sister-in-law. She lives in my house. About six or seven weeks after last Michaelmas I procured some arsenic to poison mice ; I used some of it, and what I did not use, I put into the tea pot now produced. Mrs. Falkner always appeared to treat her child with kindness.

Stephen Gander: I am foreman to Mr. Joseph Jeffery, of Cuckfield, brick-maker. I lodged with James Upton on Michaelmas last, and left him a little before Christmas. About six or seven weeks after Michaelmas Upton procured some arsenic - spread it and put up what remained in an old black tea-pot. I was to take the remainder of the arsenic away, but did not do so.

The jury returned a verdict, stating that the death of the child had been occasioned by the mother causing it to take arsenic by mistake, when intending to administer magnesia.

Cuckfield museum provides excellent support for local history research


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