Date: 7 Jan 1940
Maria May Davey died from strychnine poisoning.
She was a schoolgirl at Bathealton. She died at her home on Sunday 7 January 1940 following a fit of coughing.
She fell from her chair in front of the fire at 8.10pm and her younger sister then called for their father and a district nurse and a doctor were sent for.
However, she died at 10.55pm.
Her inquest took place six months later in July 1940 where it was found that certain organs contained strychnine, but that there was no evidence to say how it had entered her body.
Maria Davey's father said that on Sunday 7 January, Maria Davey had been in the kitchen at about 8pm getting her school books ready for the next morning whilst the rest of the family were in the sitting room. He said that a few minutes later a younger daughter ran in and said, 'May is on the floor', and said that when he went into the kitchen, he saw Maria Davey lying on the floor. He said that he thought that she had fainted and phoned for a doctor and nurse. He said that the nurse arrived first and attended to Maria Davey.
The father said that he could not remember what Maria Davey had had to eat during the day but said that at 5pm Maria Davey had had Christmas pudding, cream and a cup of tea. He said that before the nurse arrived, Maria Davey said, 'I feel better mummy'.
The father said that shortly before Maria Davey fell ill, she had been listening to the wireless and had joined in the singing and had seemed quite happy.
The nurse said that she had arrived at the house at 8.35pm and found Maria Davey's parents outside with Maria Davey on her father's knee. She said that she then had her removed indoors and placed on a table, noting that Maria Davey had been rigid and said that she tried to make her warm. She said that Maria Davey's face was pale, her lips and ears blue and that she was unconscious.
The nurse said that she had seen Maria Davey earlier in the day around midday and said that she had been bright and cheerful then.
She said that she suspected tetanus and examined Maria Davey for bruises or cuts. She said that Maria Davey came round at about 9.40pm and complained of feeling very bad and saying that she had pains in her stomach, back and legs, and that she felt frightened.
The nurse said that when the doctor arrived, he stayed for about ten or fifteen minutes, and said that he said nothing about any poisoning. She said that the first time that strychnine poisoning was mentioned was at the inquest on 10 January 1940.
The doctor said that when he arrived, he saw Maria Davey lying on the table sweating profusely. He said that she had a temperature of over 103 and was in a state of continuous convulsion and that he formed the opinion that she was suffering from acute tetanus but said that he could find no bruises or cuts. He said that he then advised her immediate removal to hospital and noted that he did not given her any injections.
However, the doctor said that the following morning, after he had given further consideration of the symptoms, he thought that if Maria Davey had not died from tetanus then it must have been strychnine poisoning. The doctor said that when he then heard that Maria Davey had died, he immediately reported to the police that he could not give a death certificate and made a statement at the police station which he signed. However, he had not mentioned the tetanus or strychnine. When asked why he had not mentioned the tetanus or strychnine he said that he thought that it would come out in the post-mortem. He said that he could not understand why he had not mentioned the it in his report.
When the doctor was cross-examined at the inquest in July, a policeman asked him if he had mentioned meningitis to another doctor in a phone message, and the doctor replied that he might have done. The policeman then said, 'I suggest you did not mention tetanus at all'.
When the doctor was further cross-examined, he reiterated that he had told the policeman at the station that Maria Davey's cause of death was tetanus.
However, the pathologist said that when he met the doctor at the first inquest, the doctor had said to him, 'This child has died of strychnine poisoning'.
The pathologist said that he carried out the post-mortem examination on Maria Davey at Wellington but noted that he had not received the doctors report. He said that Maria Davey had been well nourished and that her body showed no signs of injury. He said that he found some food at the back of her mouth that had been drawn to the air passages and had caused some obstruction. He said that her stomach was very large owing to an unmasticated piece of pudding, However, he said that in the first instance he was not definitely satisfied about the cause of her death but said that there was evidence of convulsions that might have been the cause.
The pathologist said that he came to the first inquest with an open mind but said that just before the opening he saw the doctor that had attended Maria Davey and said that the doctor asked him what he thought that cause of death was. He said that he told the doctor that all he had found so far was food in the air passages. However, he said that the doctor then told him that he thought that she had died from strychnine poisoning.
When the pathologist was cross-examined, he said that if he had read the doctors report before the post-mortem, it would not have conveyed any idea of strychnine poisoning.
He added that strychnine did not leave any signs in the body by which it could be detected except by analysis.
The pathologist said that if he had received the doctors report detailing convulsions and temperature that it might have led him to think about strychnine and he would have asked for an analysis.
After the County Analyst in Taunton was given certain organs for analysis, he said that he discovered traces of strychnine amounting to 5mg. He said that 8mg would have been sufficient to have killed a 13-year-old child. He noted that what he had found had not been absorbed and that the probability was that Maria Davey had taken more than he found.
The County Analyst said that in his view, death was due to strychnine poisoning.
The police said that after they were informed of the County Analysts conclusion, they carried out exhaustive inquiries to trace the origin of the poison but had had no success.
Articles from the farm were taken away by the police for analysis, but no traces of strychnine could be found in any of them.
The police said that they thought that Maria Davey had taken the strychnine between 7.45pm and 8.10pm.
When the Coroner summed up he said that it was evident that Maria Davey's cause of death was strychnine poisoning but said that there was not sufficient evidence to show how it had been administered.
The Coroner added that the case came to the attention of the police as an ordinary case of illness and added that it was the duty of the doctor that if he had any knowledge of symptoms that he had observed to put it in writing to the police. The Coroner added that it was only fair to say that the doctor was convinced that he had communicated his suspicions to the policeman when he reported Maria Davey's death, but stated that it would have been better if his opinion had been contained in his signed statement. The Coroner then added that as a result of that, the pathologist had not had any assistance and that it was not until the first inquest on 10 January 1940 that any mention of strychnine was made.
An open verdict was returned.
see Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser - Saturday 06 July 1940, p8
see Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser - Saturday 13 January 1940, p3