October 18, 1930: The Case of the Salmon Sandwiches Oct 18, 2013 21:06:36 GMT -5
Post by Graveyardbride on Oct 18, 2013 21:06:36 GMT -5
The Case of the Salmon Sandwiches
On Saturday, October 18, 1930, three friends embarked on a seaside outing and the salmon sandwiches they ate that day became the subject of a murder case that remains unsolved to this day.
Cecil Powell, an architect in the Devonshire city of Torquay, was delighted with his new cook-housekeeper, Mrs. Faithful. His office shirts were now vividly white and crisply starched, just the way he liked them, and Mrs. Faithful’s Sunday roasts and puddings were beyond compare. But, one January morning over one of her splendid breakfast fry-ups, the front-page story in his morning paper caused Powell to gag on his pork sausage. The newly published photograph in the Daily Mail of Mrs. Sarah “Annie” Hearn, Britain’s most wanted woman at the time, was the spitting image of his own wonderful “Mrs. Faithful!”
Everything about Annie Hearn suggested spinsterhood. Plain, dowdy and middle-aged, she had spent much of her life nursing various ailing relatives in the north of England. In 1919, she claimed to have married a Dr. Leonard Hearn in London, but there were no documents to substantiate this union nor her claim that she was widowed within a week of the wedding. In the early 1920s, Annie Hearn was living in the Cornish village of Lewannick, caring for her older, invalid sister, Lydia “Minnie” Everard, and their elderly aunt, Mary Everard. The three women, along with an old Cornish woman, Mrs. Aunger, occupied Trenhorne House just outside Lewannick, a hundred yards or so up the road from Trenhorne Farm, owned by William and Alice Thomas. Despite the salubrious Cornish climate, both the older and younger woman were plagued by ill health. Aunt Mary died in 1926, at age 72, and Minnie, who had heart problems and suffered from severe gastric pains, died July 21, 1930, at the age of 52. Following their deaths, the cigarette-smoking, jazz-loving Annie supported herself doing what she did best, baking cakes and pastries which she sold to the villagers.
Following the death of Annie’s sister, she became even more friendly with the owners of Trenhorne Farm. Alice was a kindly woman who often showered her bereaved neighbor with gifts of Cornish desserts and clotted cream, and William, a successful farmer, loaned her small sums of money. To Mr. and Mrs. Thomas, Annie was a lonely lady from up north and before long, she was like part of the family. But following a summer of blue skies, dark clouds began to gather.
Saturday, October 18, started out well enough with Mr. and Mrs. Thomas and their friend Annie setting out in the motor car on a 20-mile outing to Bude, a small seaside resort in northern Cornwall. They stopped at Littlejohn’s Café where they ordered tea and as soon as they were seated, Annie unwrapped some sandwiches, which she had prepared from tinned salmon and her own special salad dressing on crusty bread she had baked herself. They ate most of the sandwiches, after which the two women went for a stroll while William walked about the village. He stopped at the Grove Hotel where he drank two whiskies, claiming he felt queasy and thought the alcohol would settle his stomach. When he rejoined his companions, Alice complained of a “sticky taste” in her mouth, asked if they could buy some fruit and her husband purchased a few bananas. The trio started for home around 6:45 that evening. During the trip, Alice became violently ill and William had to keep stopping the car for his wife to get out and vomit. When they arrived home, Dr. Graham Saunders was called. He got to the house around 9:30 p.m., decided Mrs. Thomas’s vomiting and diarrhea were the result of food poisoning and recommended a diet of whitebait and water.
Alice’s condition continued to deteriorate and Annie moved in with Mr. and Mrs. Thomas to cook and care for her ailing friend. Oddly, it was 11 days before Alice’s mother, Mrs. Parsons, heard about her daughter’s illness, though she lived only five miles away. Apparently, Alice did not want to alarm her mother, but once she learned of the situation, Mrs. Parsons came over to nurse her daughter while Annie continued to cook and do the household chores. Two weeks later on Sunday, November 2, Mrs. Thomas was well enough to come downstairs and partake of one of Annie’s wonderful roasts. But later that afternoon, she once again complained of the odd “sticky taste” in her mouth. During the night, Alice became ill again and the following morning, William sent for the doctor, who was so shocked by the change in his patient that he called in a consultant. Alice was now delirious and her legs were partially paralyzed. The consulting physician and Dr. Saunders agreed the lady was likely suffering from arsenical poisoning and she was admitted to Plymouth City Hospital just before midnight Monday, November 3. By 9:45 the following morning, Alice Thomas was dead. Because poisoning was suspected, a postmortem was ordered and it was discovered Alice’s organs contained 0.85 grains (56 mg.) of arsenic. Somehow, William Thomas learned of these findings before they were officially released and warned Annie Hearn: “They will put the blame on us, but the blame will fall heavier on you than me.”
In and around Lewannick, the rumors spread and festered in the retelling and by the time Alice was buried Saturday, November 8, the atmosphere was highly charged. Annie Hearn was the subject of stares and whispers and as she stood in the kitchen preparing sandwiches for the wake, Percy Parson, Alice’s brother, confronted her: “We haven’t met,” he said, “but I’ve heard about you and them tinned sandwiches you was responsible for. What d’you put in them? That’s what I’d like to know. Something wrong from all accounts. This needs clearing up, ’tis not the end of it, no way.” Distressed, Annie confided to her neighbor, a Mrs. Spears, who lived in the other wing of Trenhorne House, “They seem to think I have poisoned Mrs. Thomas with the sandwiches. They think down there all tinned food is poisoned!”
Meanwhile, the behavior of William Thomas struck some as mighty peculiar. Far from accusing Annie of killing his wife, he asked her to remain at the farm, but demanded some form of receipt for £38 she had borrowed two years earlier. Distraught, she refused to sit down and eat with him and burst out, “I’ll never forget that horrid man Parsons and the things he said. I’ve lost my appetite ... life isn’t worth living,” she shouted as she ran from the house. Three days later, on November 11, Williams received a poignant letter from Annie, posted the previous afternoon from nearby Congdon’s Corner, in which she insisted she was innocent, but clearly threatened suicide:
Dear Mr Thomas,
Goodbye. I am going out if I can. I cannot forget that awful man and the things he said. I am innocent, innocent. She is dead and it was my lunch she ate. I cannot bear it. When I am dead they will be sure I am guilty, and you at least will be clear. May your dear wife’s presence guard and comfort you still.
My life is not a great thing anyhow, now dear Minnie’s gone. I should be glad if you send my love to Bessie and tell her not to worry about me. I will be all right. My conscience is clear, so I am not afraid of the afterwards. I am giving instructions to Webb about selling the things, and hope you will be paid in full. It is all I can do now.
The “awful man” was Percy Parsons, the dead woman’s brother.
William immediately fetched a police officer and together they broke into Trenhorne House to find it empty. Annie Hearn had disappeared. It was soon discovered that Mrs. Hearn had hired a man to drive her the 20 miles to Looe on the southern coast of Cornwall, where a checked coat was found near the edge of the cliff. The conclusion was obvious: Annie Hearn had taken her own life.
On November 24, little more than a month since that memorable outing to Bude, the inquest into the death of Alice Thomas began in Plymouth. A chemist in Launceston testified he had supplied weed killer for Mrs. Hearn’s garden four years earlier and the powder, he said, was practically “all arsenic.” On November 26, the verdict was published: “Murder by arsenical poisoning by some person or persons unknown.” Now the authorities began to wonder if Annie Hearn had faked her own death and issued the following description, together with a photograph:
Mrs Hearn is aged forty-five, 5ft 2ins or 3ins in height, with grey eyes, brown shingled hair, of sallow complexion, and medium build. There is a noticeable defect in one of the front teeth. She walks briskly, carries her head slightly to the left, and when in conversation she has the habit of looking away from the person she is addressing. She is well-spoken but has a north country accent. She is of rather reserved disposition.
At this point, the police began to take an interest in the deaths of Lydia and Mary Everard, as well. Now people remembered that old Mary Everard had left everything she possessed to her “dear niece Sarah Ann Hearn, except my mother’s picture.” Their deaths had seemed natural at the time, but now, the Home Office announced its intention to exhume the bodies because the symptoms of their illnesses were also consistent with arsenical poisoning.
Though it has been more than 80 years, people in Lewannick still speak of the macabre exhumation of the bodies of Lydia and Mary Everard, which took place Tuesday, December 9, 1939, on a cold, dark, dismal day as snow and sleet covered the churchyard (pictured above). Mrs. White, who was a girl at the time and still lives in Lewannick, remembered that policemen erected tarpaulin screens to shield the proceedings from onlookers at the gate, but apparently forgot there were houses on the other side of the graveyard. “We could see all their pots and a box on the grave,” she recalls. “They had the coffins taken up and we could see them with their tongs dropping things into jars.” These “things” were forwarded to Dr. Roche Lynch, the Home Office analyst who discovered “distinct quantities of arsenic” in the remains of both women. On the same day the exhumations took place, the Daily Mail brought the sensational case to a head with the spectacular offer of a reward of £500 – a huge sum in those days – “for the discovery of Mrs. Annie Hearn, the missing witness.”
Now Annie Hearn had been revealed as the possible killer of three women. What had happened to her? The answer was that she had indeed faked her suicide. A little more than a month following the exhumations, Cecil Powell, who read his newspaper faithfully every morning at breakfast, recognized his priceless cook-housekeeper was, in actuality, Annie Hearn. On January 12, 1931, “Mrs. Faithful” was arrested and charged with the murder of Alice Maude Thomas. Powell was paid £500 for his assistance in apprehending Mrs. Hearn. A few months later, however, he began to have second thoughts about betraying his cook and used the reward money to hire Norman Birkett, the most brilliant barrister of his time, to defend Mrs. Hearn.
On Monday, June 15, 1931, Annie Hearn went on trial for the murder not only of Alice Thomas, but also of her sister, Lydia “Minnie” Everard. Birkett quickly extracted the admission from witnesses that Miss Everard’s death could have been from natural causes. Furthermore, he did not deny there were traces of arsenic in Minnie’s corpse, but insisted that because she was buried in Cornwall, famous for its tin mines – and tin contains a high degree of arsenic – the soil in which the lady was interred contained arsenic and could account for the trace amounts found in her muscles, hair and nails. After having cast doubt in the minds of the jurors that Mrs. Hearn had murdered her sister, Birkett turned his attention to the death of Alice Thomas. An expert hired by Birkett had conducted an interesting experiment. He told the jury he had prepared some salmon sandwiches, exactly as Annie Hearn had done, but mixed in enough weed-killer to contain 10 grains (600 mg) of arsenic with the tinned salmon. Half an hour later, the sandwiches were stained heavily with the bluish-purple dye used in the weed-killer, which would have been obvious to Mrs. Thomas and anyone else eating the sandwiches. The jury had to contend not only with reasonable doubt, but with the question of why Annie Hearn would have wanted to kill Alice Thomas in the first place. There were rumors of an affair between Annie and William Thomas, but there were also rumors that William wanted to rid himself of his wife because he was interested in a woman other than Mrs. Hearn. In the end, the 12 men had no choice but to return a verdict of not guilty.
Following her acquittal, Annie Hearn disappeared – this time for good. It is assumed she left Cornwall for the north of England, where she changed her name and likely worked as a cook-housekeeper until her retirement and death. William Thomas left Lewannick after the trial to live on a remote farm at Broadoak, Cornwall, until his death December 14, 1949. So far as is known, he never spoke of his wife’s death or Annie Hearn.
Sources: Murder by Poison: A Casebook of Historic British Murders by Nicola Sly; Daniel Farson; Roger Wilkes, The Telegraph, October 10, 2001; and MSN News, February 19, 2010.