Date: 5 Mar 1929
Place: 26 Birdhurst Rise, Croydon
Edmund Creighton Duff, Vera Sydney and Violet Emelia Sidney died from arsenic poisoning.
The main suspects according to police documents were the wife of Edmund Duff and her brother who were suspected of conspiring together, however, towards the end the police accounts seem to favour only the wife of being the main suspect. The police reports infer with some strength that the wife was probably responsible for all three deaths. However, no one was ever charged or convicted for the murders. The brother went off to America after whilst the wife went to live on the South Coast.
They had all lived around the corner from each other.
Edmund Duff died at 16 South Park Hill Road whilst Violet Sidney and Vera Sydney died at 29 Birdhurst Rise.
When Edmund Duff first died on 27 April 1928, food poisoning was suspected. He had formerly been the High Commissioner for Nigeria. He died shortly after returning from a fishing trip in Hampshire. It was thought that fatal doses must have been taken within a day or so of his death and that it had been put in his beer.
He had gone fishing in Fordingbridge and when he returned his wife went to meet him. He was said to have been very well during his fishing trip. His wife said that when he returned he looked very well, saying that he was brown and rosy looking but she said that he told her that it was not wellness but fever and that he would not kiss the baby because he had thought that it might have been something infectious.
His wife said that she could not remember what they had had for supper, except chicken, beer and potatoes. She said that he had poured his own beer, which was in a stoppered bottle and said that she could not remember if the seal was intact at the time.
She said that she sat with Edmund Duff all evening and didn't think that he was seriously ill but said that when they went up to bed he came over all queer and his face flushed and turned green. She said that he told her that he felt very sick and told her that he felt the same as when he had been inoculated for bubonic plague when he was out in India many years before.
She said that he wandered about the house in the night and was sick and didn't know what he was doing. She said that the next day he complained about pain in his feet at about 3pm and said that he could not get warm. She said that he had finished a flask of whisky in the night and with the doctor’s permission had bought another one.
When the doctor first called he had put it down to a liver complaint and had rather 'pooh poohed' it. Later Edmund Duff could not speak or breath and the doctor came back and as he was giving him some tea he died. He died on 27 April 1928.
Later on 16 February 1929 Vera Sydney died two days after feeling ill after eating lunch. Both her mother, the cook and the cat also became ill after sharing the same lunch but only Vera Sydney died.
Soon after on 5 March 1929 Violet Sidney fell ill after lunch and died soon after. She had just taken some medicine and it was later found that both the medicine bottle and the wine glass that she had drunk it from had both contained arsenic.
On 22 March 1929 the bodies of Vera Sydney and Violet Sidney were exhumed and then later on 15 May 1929 the body of Edmund Duff was also exhumed.
Vera Sydney's death was stated to have been due to arsenic taken during her lunch and that it was probably taken in liquid form. The pathologist said that it was probably in the soup noting that both her mother, the cook and the cat had also all had the soup.
Violet Sidney’s death was stated to have been due to arsenic poisoning administered in her medicine.
When the police went to 26 Birdhurst Rise they found weed killer and a cardboard box containing rat poison. On 26 March 1929 a Home Office Analyst was sent a tin of Nobles Liquid Weed Killer, a tin of Eureka Weed Killer and an old rusty tin of Eureka Weed Killer. He said that when he examined the Nobles Liquid Weed Killer he found that it contained sodium arsenite in solution with purple or reddish colouring matter. He said that a sample of it was precipitated as arsenious sulphide which he weighed yielding 140 grains of arsenious oxide per fluid ounce. He said that the Eureka Weed Killer contained sodium arsenite in powder form with come colouring matter which when weighed as arsenious sulphide corresponded to 291 grains of arsenious oxide per ounce. He said that he found nothing in the old rusty tin of Eureka Weed Killer. He was also given 28 bottles to examine but found nothing.
It was noted that the weed killer was said to have been purchased by one of the son but he had been unable to explain where he had purchased it from. The police papers also state that a maid had said that she had seen him in the scullery with a tin identical to the tins of poison but that he had denied that. The police papers state that the son had been a constant visitor to the house whilst Edmund Duff was dying and it was considered that he and his sister might have conspired against him after Edmund Duff’s wife had told her brother of Edmund Duff’s violence to her. The police report also states that they might have conspired to kill Edmund Duff so that she could marry the doctor who she was said to have been in love with and who was younger.
Edmund Duff’s wife said that she remembered having a tin of weed killer at 16 South Park Hill Road but when she moved to 59 Birdhurst Rise she had given it to the gardener. She said that she didn’t know that her brother had also had a tin of weed killer. She also denied having taken any of the weed killer out of the tin at any time.
One of the servants that had also eaten the soup at 26 Birdhurst Rise on 11 February 1929 that had killed Vera Duff said that she often made soup on Sundays and that as far as she knew no weed killer was used in the garden or on the premises and that she had never seen any and that after being shown the tin of weed killer said that she had never seen it before.
She said that she had made the soup that had made everyone ill and said that she had made it with carrots. Onions, turnips and Symington’s soup powder and water. She said that she usually put the water into the soup direct from the tap but could not remember if she had put in any bones, but said that she didn’t think so. She said that the carrots, onions and turnips were brought in fresh every week and kept in the pantry in a bowl or strawberry basket. She said that nothing else was kept in the bowls.
She said that she was not sick until she had the soup. She said that she had only had the soup as she was already not feeling very well and had a cold. She said that it was the only time that she had ever taken the soup while in service there and noted that she had not been sick for some considerable time before that.
The cook said that she was later told to throw the soup away. She said that she poured it down the drain but said that at the time she had no idea that it had poison in it saying that she thought that the illness’s in the household were due to the use of old saucepans.
The cook said that when Vera Duff came home on 13 February 1929 before lunch she had looked very ill and had said to her ‘I feel so cold, I feel I shall never be warm again’. She said that after lunch that day Vera Duff and her party retired from the dining room to the drawing room and that while she was clearing away the lunch Vera Duff and another woman who had also eaten the soup were rushing for the lavatory and that she soon after heard Vera Duff vomiting.
She said that when the Edmund Duff’s wife came home she asked her what was the matter and the cook said that she had said that Vera Sydney and her friend had been vomiting and then said that she thought it was the veal noting that she thought veal was apt to disagree with people and that the veal had been in the house a long time.
She said that the other women went off and that Edmund Duff’s wife then fetched three bottles, on with caster oil, one with brandy and one other bottle which she didn’t know what had contained.
She said that she went out on the 14 February 1929 for her half day out and that when she returned she was told that Vera Sydney was very ill and that a specialist had been down. She said that she was told that Vera Sydney was suffering from gastric flu and pneumonia.
Vera Sydney died in the night at 12.20am on Friday 14 February 1929.
Vera Sydney’s post-mortem, which was carried out in March 1929 showed that there was a total weight of 1.48 grains in her organs.
The cook said that at the time she had handed her notice in some months before and was just waiting for her replacement to be found. She was asked how she was feeling and said that she was still ill and said that if she didn’t get better should would have to take some days off. After Vera Sydney died the cook handed in her notice saying that she was going to leave on 14 March 1929 citing the fact that she was not feeling well.
After the deaths of Vera Duff and Edmund Duff, the cause of death was still not known and it was thought that this led the murderer to feel that it was safe to commit a third murder.
The police files regarding the death of Violet Sidney note that the one of the suspected relatives had been seen in the house that day although he denied being there. It was thought that he had been to the house at the right time to put the poison in the medicine bottle or that he had been working in conspiracy with Edmund Duff’s wife who had put the poison in the bottle and that he had simply been there to find out whether the poison had worked and as to what state of health Violet Sidney was in.
When the doctor was called to attend to Violet Sidney he said that he saw the medicine bottle and said that Violet Sidney told him that she thought she had been poisoned and told him that she had drunk her medicine and said that it had tasted peculiar and that after taking it she had felt sick. The doctor said that he called up the chemist and asked him what the medicine contained and was told that it was metatone which was a preparation of Parke Davis & Co. and that the only poisonous substance contained in it was a 1/96 grain dose of strychnine.
At Violet Sidney’s port-mortem the amount of arsenic found to be in her organs was 3.48 grain.
Edmund Duff’s wife had said that she had gone to see her mother on the day she died on 5 March 1929. She said that she walked around and saw her brother leaving with his child. She said that when she went in to see her mother she was I the dining room and seemed better. She said that she didn’t stay long because she was busy. She said that Violet Sidney told her that the curate and the plumber had been to see her. She said that they talked about her cook who had given in her notice on the day that Vera Sidney had died and was leaving on 14 March 1929.
On 6 March 1929 the police went to 29 Birdhurst Rise in the evening and took a number of other bottles. They also went to the doctor’s who gave them the medicine bottle, a jar of vomit, a bottle of vomit, and a glass containing a stool. The police returned the next day on 7 March 1929 and took the wine glass that Violet Sidney had used to drink her medicine.
On 8 March the police went to the chemist’s shop on Selsdon Road in Croydon and looked at the register and saw and entry for 24 September 1927 for a 1 gallon container of Hobbs weed killer which had been sold to EC Duff of 16 South Park Hill Road as well as another 1 gallon container of Hobbs weed killer bought on 15 October 1927, again sold to EC Duff.
When the police went to Edmund Duff’s wife’s brothers house at 6 South Park Hill they found a tin of weed killer and a packet of rat poison.
The police reports state that no weed killer or anything like it was found at 29 Birdhurst Rise other than an old rusty tin that clearly hadn’t been used in years other than to store seeds.
The police reports state that if they had arrested Edmund Duff’s wife that she would have denied everything whilst if they had arrested her brother he would have tried to protect his sister.
The police report states that Edmund Duff’s wife was able to have a hand in all three of the murders. It stated that in the case of Edmund Duff, there was only his wife and the maid and in the cases of Vera Sydney and Violet Sydney there was only Edmund Duff’s wife, her brother and the cook. The report stated that in the case of Edmund Duff the maid could be ruled out as in the cases of Vera Sydney and Violet Sydney where the cook could be ruled out. The police said that the possibility of Violet Sydney having murdered her daughter Vera Sydney was so wildly improbable that it was ruled out.
It was noted that in nearly all three cases the poison was taken in a form that only the victim would have been effected. Edmund Duff was the only person to have drunk the beer. Vera Sydney was the only person to have taken the soup other than her aunt who was visiting and the cook who took it because she was ill and the cat because it was given some. Violet Sydney was the only person to have taken her medicine.
The police report criticises the Coroner who it states was very weak having taken only 40 minutes to sum up in the case of Edmund Duff, 40 minutes in the case of Vera Sydney, and 50 minutes in the case of Voilet Sydney. It stated that in all the cases the Coroner had told the jury that it was difficult from the evidence to bring about a charge against any single person. However, the report states that the pathologist had said that Edmund Duff had been poisoned by his beer and that if the Coroner had pointed out that only the servant, Edmund Duff, his wife and two children were in the house at the time and having been pointed out to them that the servant was a truthful and reliable person then they would have been able to return a verdict of murder against Edmund Duff’s wife.
The matter was passed to the Director of Public Prosecutions but there was no further action taking in making any charges or prosecutions and the matter remained unsolved.
In later correspondence with the Metropolitan Police they name Edmund Duff’s wife as the main suspect. An example, a letter written on 14 August 1993 states that the Edmund Duff’s wife ‘was, and still is, very strongly suspected of being responsible for all three deaths.’. Another family member who survived one of the poisonings and who had throughout the inquest insisted that other people were responsible for the murders said at the end of the inquest that they also believed that Edmund Duff’s wife was the murderer. The sample letter continues stating that although the circumstantial evidence was strong against Edmund Duff’s wife, it was not considered by the then Director of Public Prosecutions to have been strong enough to have brought about a charge.
Further correspondence stated that the investigators were of the opinion that Edmund Duff’s wife was secretly in love with the doctor. It states that Edmund Duff was 59 years old and 20 years older than her whilst Edmund Duff was in the prime of his life. It also states that Edmund Duff used to drink beer and it was thought that the arsenic was administered to him in his beer just before he returned from his holiday.
The author Richard Whittington-Egan who wrote a book on the case called The Riddle of Birdhurst Rise: the Croydon Poisoning Mystery, went to see the main suspect in the 1960’s to inform her noting that he was writing the book in which he would reveal the identity of the murder but told the person that they need not worry as he could publish nothing until… and the person interrupted him and completed his sentence saying ‘Until I am dead’. It was said that the person then said ‘Don’t be too sure that you won’t die first’ and then slammed the door in his face. The main suspect died on 24 June 1973.
see Murder UK
see National Archives - MEPO 3/861
see Western Daily Press - Thursday 03 May 1928
see Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer - Wednesday 17 July 1929
see Derby Daily Telegraph - Friday 12 April 1929
see Gloucestershire Echo - Saturday 22 June 1929
see Aberdeen Press and Journal - Wednesday 17 July 1929
see Real-Life Crimes magazine, 103, p2262-2269
see Murder Case-Book magazine 53, p1875-1885
see The Riddle of Birdhurst Rise: the Croydon Poisoning Mystery, Richard Whittington-Egan