By Michelle Gill
A 1920s rabbit plague in the New South Wales Hunter Valley led local chemist Burton Howard-Smith to advertise in The Muswellbrook Chronicle. He thought 5 shillings and 6 pence for an ounce of strychnine a reasonable price for farmers who couldn’t shoot fast enough to cull the 10 billion rabbits digging their way across the country. His advertisement said, ‘The Only Good Rabbit is a Dead One!’ and strychnine ensured death. Cheap and quick, strychnine was the local poison of choice.
All manner of pests were disposed by mixing it with grain or fruit. So hotelier John Fleming’s purchase of 90 grains of strychnine was hardly unusual. “Ants. A problem with ants.”
Howard-Smith opened his book and documented the purchase in his neat copperplate: “22nd July, 1924. John Fleming. Strychnine. Ants”.
Of course, dispensing strychnine had implications. Over the years there had been a number of suicides in the area, documented by the newspapers. The titillating murder-suicide at Hamilton just a few weeks later, in September, would be widely reported.
Mr Taylor had decided he and his ‘friend’, Mrs Hall, should achieve eternal rest with a dose of the poison. Unfortunately, strychnine and death held less interest to the community than the salacious details of the couple’s liaison. Both were married to other people, she was a mother of six children and they had been found together in bed.
The Maitland Weekly Mercury lamented the tragic death of Emma Rootes the previous November. The single woman, 56, had consumed strychnine because she was “sick of life”; a coroner’s declaration of temporary insanity closed the file. A sign of assumptions of the time, some speculated it was brought on by a sad case of spinsterhood.
Strychnine, the alkaloid found in the seeds of the Strychnos nux-vomica tree, appeared to be the lethal poison not just for rabbits, but for jilted lovers, adulterers, returned servicemen, and any others for whom death was preferable.
But the ingestion of strychnine is an agonising way to die.
Within an hour of consumption, the victim’s muscles begin to twitch and, as the nervous system loses all control, their body convulses and writhes helplessly. Opisthotonos occurs, as the stronger muscles in the back contract more violently, causing the body to arch skywards; arms taut, fists clenched, with only heels and head anchoring the torso.
Eyes, always aware, jerk upward. Jaws lock, tongues are sliced and blood trickles from the corner of a mouth stiffened into a sardonic smile. Internal organs contract and harden. A terrifying moan is the only sound released from an agonising internal scream.
A short calm follows — a false sense of finality — before the next period of convulsions begins. A victim may suffer two, five, ten of these horrific bouts, until their breathing is finally halted by the constriction of the muscles in their throat and chest. Throughout, the victim is completely aware, their brain activity heightened and stimulated by the toxin. Those watching can offer no assistance and there is no antidote.
Yet, despite its grisly and well-warranted reputation, John Fleming determined to depart the world on December 2, 1924, through ingesting this lethal toxin.
* * * * * *
Coroner Mr Swaddling had a sense of foreboding the morning of the inquest. There were always deaths before Christmas and less than a month ago he had delivered his findings on the death of Ursula Morgan. The young draper had consumed poison but her death had failed to shock the town too much. There had only been a snippet in the local papers. In Muswellbrook, suicide seemed to be in vogue. The coroner watched as the observers settled themselves in the room. John Fleming’s family had seated themselves to his right, but Eliza Fleming, the deceased’s widow, was not present. The family had preferred the absence of the old lady from the proceedings.
Old was hardly an appropriate way to describe the woman, at only 53, but illness had left her incapacitated and she rarely ventured past the sitting room of the couple’s hotel. Disseminated sclerosis had eroded her nervous system, restricting her mobility and limiting her senses, and she had retreated into herself. Although she had been the only witness to her husband’s death, she was incapable of communicating with her family or the court. Her presence was thought unnecessary.
Dr Raymond Balls took the stand. The Government Medical Officer’s manner was efficient and professional; his evidence delivered in the staccato tone renowned throughout the district.
‘At five past one on the morning of December third, in answer to a telephone call, I proceeded to the Family Hotel, Sydney Street, Muswellbrook. In a room, lying on the bed, I saw a man in an unconscious state. I recognised the man as John Fleming, the licensee of the hotel. Dr Roger believed the man had been suffering from strychnine poisoning. Fleming died a minute or so after my arrival.’
* * * * * *
John Fleming was born in Jamberoo in southern New South Wales. His family had been farmers and he too had farmed, first at Jamberoo and later on the Northern Rivers. Although he was born into farming, it did not come naturally and controversy seemed to follow him.
Although appearing to display the vestiges of a successful farming career for a number of years in northern New South Wales, Fleming was restless again and decided in August 1923 on hotel publican as his next career. It was the same month as his youngest daughter’s marriage when Fleming and his wife abandoned their lives and ties. All their chattels were priced and auctioned.
As the new licensee of the Family Hotel in Muswellbrook, Fleming settled in as landlord. His eldest daughter, Ethel, and her husband, Jim, had followed — Ethel became manageress; Jim a barman and general hand. They were joined by Gordon, Fleming’s only son.
At 20, Gordon was neither useful nor useless. He completed odd jobs, but was too young to provide any real authority or assistance in the hotel. Like all young men in a country town, he played sport and attended the dances, hoping to charm a potential wife.
The family made every effort to ingratiate themselves with the community. Despite their Protestantism, Fleming exercised a sense of civic-mindedness by donating to St James Catholic Church’s extension project. He also supported the annual euchre tournament.
A wireless receiving set was installed in the hotel, sure to endear him to a population becoming more interested in radio. But 14 months was not going to make the Flemings locals. The previous publican, Mrs Simpson, who was sadly farewelled with a social evening of dancing, parlour games and a sit-down supper, was so beloved by the boarders they had presented her with a Xylonite toilet set on her departure.
In the way of country towns, locals still referred to Simpson’s Family Hotel after more than a year of Fleming’s ownership. Despite his best efforts, Fleming remained an outsider, and the hotel Mrs Simpson’s enterprise.
* * * * * *
The lead up to Christmas was an exciting time in Muswellbrook. Like all rural communities, the small town waxed and waned with the success of the farmers. The hamlet, north and south of Muscle Creek, had expanded greatly since the rail line had dissected the town.
But the cohesiveness of the community stayed somewhat intact and the annual Christmas concert was an opportunity for a seasonal get-together. After a successful Friday night performance at the School of Arts, there was to be a reprise of the gala the following Tuesday. The arrival of the youngest of the Fleming sisters, Rita, for a pre-Christmas visit, allowed the sisters to attend the concert together.
The two sisters were very different. Rita, younger and taller, was quiet and musical. She had married the farmer next door the previous year. The lure of motherhood and the neighbour’s proposal, during the drought of eligible young men in the post-war world, was appealing. She married, settled down and taught piano.
Ethel, the older of the two, had a protruding chin and stocky figure. She could never be described as handsome, but her determined attitude and desire for hard work had been recognised by Jim Harder, and they married. The two sisters, despite a testy relationship, had missed each other’s company and looked forward to the concert.
The Strand Theatre was also providing an excellent program that evening. Everyone was assured of ‘high grade entertainment’, including the screening of the new film, The Cyclone Rider.
The temptation of a hero jumping from swaying skyscraper girders and swinging from a severed steel cable into a window, and the arms of the girl he loves, was too much, and Jim, Gordon and young Hedley Harder headed off to the pictures. It was unfortunate this “eminently honest melodrama” would be a prelude to the rest of the evening.
The return, in some ways, was as entertaining as the night’s events. John Fleming, seated at the kitchen table, had been watching the clock. Eleven o’clock passed. The hands of the clock were not yet at their zenith, but his anger had peaked. He welcomed home his family.
“Good concert?” the words belied by his tone. “We’ve had quite a concert here. I found mum outside with a nightgown on her arm.”
Ethel responded, attempting to cover her feelings of guilt with indignation. “Who do you blame for that?”
“You two are out every night. What do I pay you for?”
The assertion was too much for Jim and he interceded on his wife’s behalf. “You don’t pay us the award wage and we could claim it.”
Fleming, unsure of his standing and intimidated by his son-in-law, thought about capitulating, but anger and frustration drove him forward. “I agreed to pay you a wage and told you I would give you a rise when I got on my feet. You can’t claim for any more.”
“We will see, tomorrow.”
Both men stood staring at each other, neither wishing to give any ground. Finally, Fleming turned to leave the room, offering a last piece of advice. “You’ll be sorry!”
The argument had rattled the household. When Gordon arrived home, he heard the animated conversation coming from the parlour.
“I don’t think he’s been drinking. He’s not drunk.”
“You know, he’s never been good with money.”
“That’s not the point. He owes us. I’m seeing someone in the morning.”
Ethel and Jim felt the same about many things. They both desired action and there was no room for sentimentality where money was concerned. Besides, they now had a child of their own to consider.
“It’s fine for you, you don’t live here. And mum is so difficult these days.”
Mrs Fleming had become very difficult. Variously described by her family as “simple-minded” or “mentally deranged”, she required constant care and supervision. But the words had hurt Rita, as her sister knew they would. Ethel always had a way of making her sister feel guilty.
John Fleming had retired to his bedroom. Checking his wife, he turned to the wardrobe and opened the door. Reaching up, he retrieved the suitcase from the shelf inside. Opening it, he found and removed the small brown packet, clearly marked ‘Strychnine’. He held the packet in his hand. A moment of doubt seemed to overwhelm him, but the anger and disillusionment returned as quickly as they had left. Perhaps it was his wife’s breathing which re-alerted him to his mission? Fleming took the packet, walked to the side of the bed and sprinkled some of the crystals into a glass of water.
“You’ll be sorry!” He repeated the mantra.
Despite his anger, he was a responsible grandfather. He walked back to the suitcase, replaced the packet inside and returned the suitcase to the shelf. Strychnine was dangerous and there was a child in the house. Before undressing, he opened the bedroom door, walked down the hall and poked his head through the parlour door.
Fleming turned and returned to his room. The farewell was not lost on the company. There had been something unnerving in their father’s behaviour and dichotomy of emotion — the angry threat followed by the overly pleasant goodnight. But for now, the family conference was over and bed awaited. Tomorrow, the business of running a hotel would continue, legal proceedings or not.
* * * * * *
It was the strange groaning which first awoke the household. An unfamiliar sound. Ethel and Gordon met in the hall, outside their parents’ bedroom. Again. A call barely articulated. On entering, they were confronted with their father’s distress. Undressed and in bed, convulsions were beginning to contort his body as the poison took hold. His eyes looked directly at them. Their mother, prostrate beside her husband, bedclothes dishevelled and half slipping from her body, remained motionless. She had witnessed the scene but was unable to either comprehend or communicate.
Dr Roger was summoned to the hotel. His previous experience had prepared him and, after a brief survey of the patient, he surmised Fleming had ingested strychnine. With the thoroughness and tactfulness required in such a situation, he perused the room for the obvious signs. Beside the bed, on the small, silky oak table, a glass had been neatly placed. Inside, the residue of a solution containing crystals coloured the glass a milky white. A test would confirm the contents.
Further directions were given. Eliza Fleming was ushered from the room with little sympathy given to her lack of understanding or distress. A call was made to Sergeant Harris — the presence of the police officer adding to the melodrama of the situation. The occupants of the hotel, residents and guests alike, gathered at doorways, trying to appear uninterested, looking through partially opened doors and whispering suppositions.
“This would never have happened in Mrs Simpson’s day”, declared one.
* * * * * *
Each member of the family presented their recollections; each methodical and detached in their delivery.
“My father was very angry at the time.”
“I never heard my father say he intended to commit suicide but I am satisfied he did commit suicide.”
“I can give no reason whatever why my father took his life.”
“I could not say if he had been in financial difficulties.”
“I saw Sergeant Graham find a packet, marked strychnine, in my father’s suitcase.”
“I am satisfied my father committed suicide but I cannot assign any reason for his doing so.”
Evidence given, Mr Swaddling contemplated John Fleming’s death. The ingestion of strychnine was an agonising way to die, and yet so many chose it. His many years of experience had told him, however, for those who were determined to die, the means were simply what was available.
The coroner announced his finding. “Death was due to strychnine poisoning, self-administered.”
The coroner watched as the observers resettled themselves in the room. Once again, he looked at the family. It had only been two days since Fleming’s death and he was not sure whether he found their composure admirable or concerning. Fleming’s final words had been, “You’ll be sorry!” He wondered if that really were the case.
* * * * * *
LIFELINE: 13 11 14
This story was produced as part of the ALJ722 Investigative and Narrative Journalism unit at Deakin University.