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Little Glass Bottles of Mary Ann

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Louise Yeoman | 15:42 UK time, Thursday, 13 September 2012

Past Lives, this week, looked at a gruesome murder case in Kirriemuir where the owner of the Newton Hotel, John Webster, was in 1891 accused of murdering his wife Mary Ann Innes by poisoning her with arsenic. Webster was acquitted but many locals have never believed in his innocence. Mark went to the hotel - still there - to meet listener Dave Orr who got in touch about the case and Bob Newton, the current landlord. Meanwhile for our listeners who like a bit of 'True Crime', Louise Yeoman went to delve into the newspaper records and legal papers for the case...

Mark, listener Dave Orr and Bob Newton who is the current landlord of the Newton Hotel

Mark, listener Dave Orr and Bob Newton who is the current landlord of the Newton Hotel

The trial took place at the High Court in Edinburgh and poor Mary Ann was present in the most gruesome way possible - in the shape of glass bottles full of bits of her, which were 'held up to the light for identification in presence of the whole Court ' as they matched them to the list of productions. If they could have spoken they surely had a tale to tell.

To her family's knowledge Mary Ann was a healthy woman. John Webster's initial explanation that she died because she ate a plate of 'new potatoes and fresh vegetables' and thus got 'Scotch cholera' looked like an outrageous lie to them. They suspected murder early on - especially when they saw they saw his callous behaviour after her death and at her funeral. When they realised he'd insured her life for a thousand pounds, a huge sum on those days, they were even more suspicious and so was the insurance company. So poor Mary Ann was exhumed and the drama of a Scottish High Court murder trial began.

Press and public rushed to cram the gallery. Newspapers ran columns and columns of print. The courtroom was stuffed to bulging and finally - a trap was opened and Webster led up through the floor into the dock to face trial. The defence turned on Mary Ann's health and character.

The Webster women formed a clique - John's mother, sisters and Nelly their maidservant worked all along to attack the dead woman and to get him off. They insinuated Mary Ann was in poor health with 'women's problems'. They made out that she was unfaithful and promiscuous, that she was jealous and gave him a miserable life. Webster's sister also implied Mary Ann was trying to get sterilised so she would have no more children - which was utterly scandalous back then and which would be another nail in the coffin of her reputation. But this all came from the Webster side. It's clear from Mary Ann's letters in life that she didn't get on with her in-laws, thinking his mother and sister a 'bad influence on him' and by the time she moved to the Newton Hotel she was not on speaking terms with them. No independent source backs up their attacks on her.

There's also no proof given of her being unfaithful, but as Mary Ann's own sister put it: it was her husband who gave her 'the bad disease' and who wanted rid of her. Webster tried repeatedly to throw her out when they lived in Dundee and he worked in the theatre there. He said he'd pay for a house for his wife, so long as it was somewhere else. Eventually he managed to force her out to live with her parents. He certainly had the opportunity to be unfaithful, and unlike Mary Ann, who had a tragic succession of children born prematurely at seven months who then died in her arms in a matter of hours, (9 hours, 15 hours, 18 hours on the death certificates), he wasn't going to pay that sort of ghastly price for an affair. Poor Mary Ann, forced out of her home, only went back to him because he threatened to take away her two remaining children who survived.

So was he unfaithful? She certainly suspected it, and with some reason. According to cleaner Agnes Scott at the theatre, Webster had sexually harassed her on a regular basis - grabbing at her when she came in to light his fire in the morning. When this got back to Mary Ann, she was distraught. Webster had also 'taken an interest' in Mrs Jackson (Kate Martin) the check taker for the posh theatre boxes. She had been deserted by her husband and was bringing up a child on her own. Webster helped Kate to find a lawyer for her divorce (she used his solicitor) and dealt with the money (he features in the lawyer's itemised costs for her divorce, attending with her and receiving copies of documents). Lizzy, the Webster's ten year old daughter blabbed to her mother that when they were separated that her father had got a 'new album' for photos and that it had two pictures of Mrs Jackson and none of her mother in it. Kate denied any role in things, and said she was getting her divorce to marry someone else - but she then went on to marry John Webster after all! This was in Glasgow after he was acquitted, and only happened the day before they got on a ship to emigrate to Canada. So much for Kate's assurances that he wasn't in the picture!

But what of the poison itself? The case turns on whether Mary Ann could have taken the arsenic herself. Webster's defence tried to claim she took it in a medicine called Fowler's solution, which was sometimes given for gynaecological problems. It seems remarkable now that people could have arsenic prescribed for their health! But it can't be proved that Mary Ann ever possessed or took any Fowler's. The Webster women claimed that she had those unmentionable ailments and needed to take it, but that comes only from them and their servant Nelly (whose employment would be dependent on singing off the Webster hymn sheet). There's no medical evidence about such problems from Mary Ann's own doctors who dealt with her pregnancies and last illness. The medical men and chemists detailed their prescriptions line by line - Fowler's was not prescribed.

The other problem with the Fowler's solution defence is that there was very little arsenic in it. You took it in drops and people took it for years on end and lived. William Roughead, the Edinburgh true crime writer said of it in this case:

The defence contended that the presence of arsenic in Mrs. Webster's body was due to her having taken Fowler's Solution ... it was not proved that she ever took any, and none was found in the house. Taylor, by the way, states that there is only one recorded case (1848) in which Fowler's solution has destroyed life.

She would have needed to take at least two good tablespoonsful of it to get the dose found in her stomach months after death. The defence tried to claim she took those herself to commit suicide. They even dragged her mother's mental health into things, trying to make out that suicidal depression ran in the family, but they also wanted to have it both ways - that she might also have taken the arsenic by accidental overdose of medicine. But they couldn't prove it either way.

It's rather like the famous Madeleine Smith case of 1857 where she got away with poisoning an inconvenient lover with arsenic. Like her, Webster mounted a VERY expensive defence - it would be about £60,000 in today's money, but back then only a few very rich people could afford that. The money was important because your medical expert witnesses didn't come free - and they were needed to cast crucial doubt on the Crown's forensic case - providing alternative explanations that could make the difference between life and the death sentence.

Webster's defence also used the exact same legal argument to the jury as was used in the Madeleine Smith case:

"You must be satisfied by proper evidence that the parties were together when the poison was said to have been administered, satisfied that there was a purpose to administer poison on the occasion referred to when the accused had the poison in his possession, and it was given and administered on that particular occasion " In the prisoner's case that day they had a total absence of one of the essential links in the substantial evidence of poisoning'

This was the key to his acquittal. The Crown never proved that he ever had poison in his possession or administered it to her. They had one promising lead - the vet Webster used for his prize Border's collies bought arsenic and prescribed it in medicine for dogs and horses - but they couldn't make that trail lead to the accused. They failed to prove their case, but the defence didn't prove their contention either. There was no smoking gun of a bottle of Fowler's solution nor any medical proof that Mary Ann was prescribed it, nor any proof that anyone sold her any and she clearly didn't have a disease that would warrant it.

There are quibbles on the medical evidence, but in many ways it comes down to character- could you believe this upstanding temperate provident chap poisoned his wife or was she the sort of vile, unstable hussy, off her head with women's problems, who'd poison herself to death in a ghastly way?

The mystery of where the arsenic came from was never solved. Intriguingly though, in evidence never led in court, the prosecution found that because Fowler's solution contained only 1% arsenic that it was easy to buy over the counter and chemists often didn't put it in the poison book. They actually put this to the test and found that if you looked respectable enough, chemists would sell it to you, no questions asked - so perhaps Mary Ann could have been poisoned by Fowler's solution after all, bought without leaving traces and craftily administered in large enough doses by someone who had the motive to do so. Did John Webster really hit on the perfect crime? We'll never know.


  • Comment number 1.

    Did John Webster really hit on the perfect crime?
    Yours was a great contibution to our knowledge of the life of the amazing Jock Webster which was broadcast two weeks ago.
    I have already given one talk and have been been asked to do another talk in the town as a result of local interest in the programme and I wondered if you could give me a copy of your legal research notes, newspaper extracts etc., so that add to the detail told in the programme.
    Yours aye,

    [Personal details removed by Moderator]


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