In early 1921 Katherine Armstrong, the wife of solicitor Major Herbert Armstrong, fell ill with vomiting, pains and muscular spasms but seemed to rally. On 16 February she was ill again after lunch and took to her bed, never to leave it. Two days later her arms and legs became paralysed. On the morning of 22 February she said to her nurse Eva Allen, “I’m not going to die, am I? Because I have everything to live for — my children and my husband.” At 8am the major was summoned to his wife’s bedside and was joined by family doctor Tom Hincks. Realizing that nothing could be done, the doctor drove the major into town and 15 minutes later Mrs Armstrong died.
The burial took place on 25 February 1921. Dr Hincks continued to be puzzled by Mrs Armstrong’s conflicting symptoms and wrote on her death certificate that she had died of heart disease arising from nephritis and gastritis.
No more was thought of the case until 26 October, when Armstrong invited rival solicitor Oswald Martin to tea and handed him a buttered scone with the words, “Scuse fingers.” When he got home Martin was violently sick for five days, much to the puzzlement of Dr Hincks. Martin’s father-in-law was the town’s chief chemist and he told the doctor that Armstrong had been buying large quantities of arsenic from his shop.
They had a sample of Martin’s urine analyzed and it was found to contain arsenic. On 31 December Armstrong was arrested for the attempted murder of Oswald Martin. When he was searched he was found to have a packet of arsenic in his pocket and another packet in his desk drawer. When his wife’s body was exhumed and found to contain the poison the charge was changed to one of murder.
Mayfield, Cusop, Hay-on-Wye, Wales
9.10am Wednesday 22 February 1922
Pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury was the expert witness at Armstrong’s trial, which opened on 3 April 1922. Armstrong claimed that he had bought the arsenic to kill dandelions. The jury did not believe him and he was sentenced to death, going to the gallows on 31 May 1922.
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
On 9 November 1920 – 109 days before Katherine Armstrong died Harold Greenwood, another Welsh solicitor, had been acquitted of poisoning his wife. Coincidence or inspiration?