Unsolved Murders

Nicholas John Benjafield

Age: 3

Sex: male

Date: 21 Mar 1943

Place: Fulney Land Settlement, Spalding

Florence Mary Needham and her grandson Nicholas John Benjafield died at the same time at their home.

The coroners jury returned an open verdict in the case of Nicholas Benjafield, who died from nicotine poisoning, and stated that Florence Needham died from natural causes, shock, accelerated by cardiac weakness.

They were both found dead in the kitchen of their home, No. 17 Holding on the Fulney Land Settlement in Spalding on the morning of 21 March 1943.

It was first thought that they had died from electrocution. However, after their organs were analysed, Nicholas Benjafield was found to have had a quantity of nicotine in his system but that Florence Needham had none.

It was noted that both Florence Needham and Nicholas Benjafield had both, a few minutes before their deaths, appeared quite well.

When the house was examined, no nicotine could be found or any vessel that might have contained it.

Nicholas Benjafield's 7-year-old sister said that when she got up, she went downstairs and saw 'nan-nan', Florence Needham, who gave her some porridge. She said that Florence Needham said that Nicholas Benjafield was to lie in bed a little time after which he could come down, which she said he did.

Nicholas Benjafield's 7-year-old sister said that she then went out to fetch the milk and that when she returned, whilst she could get in the outer door, she could not open the scullery door. She said that she then saw Nicholas Benjafield and Florence Needham on the floor.

The sister later said that she didn't think that Nicholas Benjafield had had anything to drink and also said that she didn't think that he had had any porridge as it was still in the pot.

The police said that when they questioned Nicholas Benjafield's 7-year-old sister, she told them that on the Saturday she had been playing with Nicholas Benjafield up the field and that they had found a bottle with some white stuff in it and that he had drunk out of it. She said that Nicholas Benjafield had found the bottle the previous week and had brought it back home but said that Nicholas Benjafield's 'daddy' had made him take it back.

Nicholas Benjafield's mother said that she last saw her mother, Florence Needham and her son alive at about midnight, noting that they were both alright at the time.

She said that the following morning she heard her daughter shouting from underneath her bedroom window, saying that she could not get in and that she could see Nicholas Benjafield in the kitchen asleep on the floor without his shoes or socks on. Nicholas Benjafield's mother said that she then went downstairs and found Nicholas Benjafield lying on the floor with his serviette lying beneath him and Florence Needham lying half against the copper, just touching Nicholas Benjafield with a flue brush in her hand.

At the inquest, Nicholas Benjafield's mother said that she used to give Nicholas Benjafield orange juice and cod-liver oil every morning, but said that she didn't know whether he had had any that morning. When the orange juice bottle was examined, it was empty.

A doctor that examined Nicholas Benjafield said that Nicholas Benjafield had not been sick and said that he would not expect him to be from nicotine poisoning which he said had a very quick action. He added that he found no signs of violence and said that he was certain that no outside person was concerned with his death.

A doctor that carried out Florence Needham's post-mortem said that she was not by any means healthy. He said that she had degeneration of the heart as well as long standing chronic bronchitis. He also said that she had a condition of the lower bowel that might have caused her death by obstruction in 12 months time. He added that there was no sign of violence having been used against her and nothing to show any poisoning. He said that her heart was in such a state that death might have been caused suddenly. He also said that there were no signs of electrocution and that an analysis of her stomach contents was negative. He concluded that Florence Needham died from natural causes through cardiac failure, adding that her death could undoubtedly have been caused by any shock or fright or by exertion, such as lifting Nicholas Benjafield when he was dead. He added that the case was just such a case where he might expect such a thing to happen.

When the doctor examined Nicholas Benjafield he said that he was a well-nourished and healthy child and that there was no natural cause of death. He said that an examination of his stomach revealed that he had recently had a meal and that there were signs of an irritant poisoning. He said that it appeared that his death had taken place very quickly and that he could find no outward trace of asphyxiation or electrocution.

The doctor said that nicotine was one of the most powerful poisons known to toxicologists and that death from it was very quick. He said that a few drops would kill and that a child was more susceptible than an adult. The doctor added that there were no signs of burning to Nicholas Benjafield's throat that might have indicated that he had been forced to take it and said that it had obviously been taken in a form that did not cause irritation to the mouth. The doctor added that having regard to what had been said of the form of nicotine found on such estates, that the poison was not taken in shreds. He said that two forms were possible, either liquid or crystals with the pure alkaloid itself. He noted that the third possibility of it being taken in capsule form was thought could be eliminated from the enquiry as no such capsules were found.

The doctor concluded that Nicholas Benjafield no doubt died from nicotine poisoning and that Florence Needham had died from natural causes accelerated by shock.

When the doctor was questioned, he said that he didn't think that the nicotine could have been taken the previous night and that he was certain that it took only a few minutes to kill Nicholas Benjafield.

A doctor from the Forensic Laboratory in Nottingham said that he found a number of grains of crude nicotine in Nicholas Benjafield's organs, which he said was enough to have killed several people. He further noted that there was no trace of nicotine in Florence Needham's system. The doctor said that if Nicholas Benjafield had taken the nicotine in capsule form then the capsule would have dissolved. He further stated that it was not possible to buy nicotine without signing the poison register. He also said that he had examined certain crockery, including the porridge pot, and found no traces of nicotine.

An estate manager with the Land Settlement Association in Low Fulney, said that nicotine was kept in flakes and liquid in locked cupboards in their stores and that no fumigating had been carried out at No. 17 holding in the previous 12 months. He said that only a sufficient quantity of nicotine was ever issued to tenants and that it was unlikely that there would have been any surplus quantity left about in the glasshouses. He said that very little nicotine was ever used and that in the previous twelve months only about four ounces had been issued. The man added that Nicholas Benjafield's father would not have required nicotine as he had no glasshouses on his premises.

It was further noted that only the storekeeper would have had access to the nicotine and that the keys for the store were kept at the office and handed out by the estate clerk.

A tomato grower employed by the estate that lived in Albert Street in Spalding said that the last issue of nicotine to him had been about twelve months ago and said that it had been in flake form. He said that he had taken the nicotine flakes to a glasshouse and then set fire to them and closed the door. He added that he had had no liquid form nicotine issued to him for the glasshouse in three years.

When an electricity engineer with the Spalding Urban Council made tests at the house with a view to determining the possibility of an electrocution, he said that the only place where an electrocution might have been caused was at a light switch. He said that he wetted his hands and touched the switch but said that there was no effect. He said that there was similarly no effect when he touched the water pipes. He said that he then made a thorough examination but could find no defects. He said that he then took the switch off and tested it, passing 16,5000 volts through it with no result and said that it took 19,5000 volts to break it down. He said that when he then replaced it in the scullery and passed 230 volts through it, it was perfectly clear. He said that when he inspected the wiring of the house, he found the workmanship was good and that the switches used were of good quality.

When the coroner summed up he said that he thought that they could rule out electrocution as the cause of death and suggested that Nicholas Benjafield had died from nicotine poisoning and that Florence Needham had died from natural causes, with the only question being as to how the nicotine got into the child.

The jury then, without retiring, returned an open verdict on Nicholas Benjafield and a verdict of death by natural causes on Florence Needham.

*map pointers are rough estimates based on known location details as per Place field above.

see www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

see Lincolnshire Standard and Boston Guardian - Saturday 17 April 1943