Review of Michael Sheridan’s, Murder at Shandy Hall: The Coachford Poisoning Case

By Lisa Marie Griffith

In Murder at Shandy Hall Michael Sheridan (journalist and author of Death in December and Frozen Blood: Serial Killers in Ireland) pieces together a murder which took place in 1887 of a wife, Mary Laura Cross, and the subsequent trial of her arsenic poisoner husband Dr Philip Cross. The nineteenth century was a golden time for poisoners. Arsenic, which has no smell or taste is incredibly difficult to detect in food and drink, was the poison of choice. I am a big fan of Kate Summerscale’s historic crime investigation The Suspicions of Mr Whicher so I jumped at the chance to review this and learn a bit more about Irish criminal cases in the nineteenth century.

A quick summary of the case is this: In the early morning of 2nd of June 1887 Mary Laura Cross died after several months of illness. While Mary Laura had been quite a sickly woman, perhaps even suffering from epilepsy, during her final days she suffered through extreme vomiting and gastric illness while remaining weak and confined to bed. This illness abated for short periods, long enough for her to travel abroad, and then returned. Her husband buried her the morning after her death with very few witnesses and just over three weeks later he installed a new mistress at their home of Dropsey Hall. The new Mrs Cross was a former governor who had been in the service of the family but who had been excused just a couple of months previous to Mary Laura’s illness.

The story seems somewhat typical of poisoning cases of its time. There is a clear motivation, the evidence is apparent from the beginning and the murderer’s actions point to his guilt. The fact that the poisoner was a doctor who would have known what he was doing and who controlled most of the food that entered his wife’s bedchamber further consolidated his guilt. It is difficult to build suspense as the guilt of the accused is so obvious but there are further layers to the case which I have omitted for anyone who plans to read the book.

The account of the crime often remains so intriguing because Sheridan adds to it an excellent  account of poisoning in the nineteenth century, the effects of poison and how they could be detected. He also includes a list of trials for similar cases as well as murder trials in the Cross’s own locality to put it into context with other murder crimes which the public of Cork were familar with. He also introduces the reader to prominent figures from the medical, judicial and penal world of the nineteenth century and examines their careers.

One such intriguing figure is the hangman James Berry who carried out 130 executions (including 5 women) throughout Britain and Ireland (he oversaw 300 separate executions during his time as a hangman’s apprentice) and who wrote two memoirs of his time as an executioner. While Berry actively pursued training and a post in his chosen profession for many years, just eight years after he took up that post he resigned believing those he had hanged were pursuing him. Close to suicide he found god and became an evangelical preacher. Berry went one to be an outspoken critic of capital punishment.

The downfall of this book is that while the story is interesting, Sheridan relies heavily on news paper accounts of the proceedings. This is perhaps because some of the original police files on the case have since been destroyed.  In order to present the account as contemporaries would have read it, large sections of the original speeches as printed in the newspaper and pamphlet accounts are reproduced. There is also extensive use of genealogy of those involved as well as long contemporary descriptions of Cross’s locality. There is often a lot of unnecessary detail and repetition of details about the case which have already been established. If these accounts were broken up and contextualised they would have been a more effective part of the narrative.

Michael Sheridan’s Murder at Shandy Hall: The Coachford Poisoning Case is published by Poolbeg and is available online for €12.99 paperback or in store throughout Ireland.

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9 Responses to “Review of Michael Sheridan’s, Murder at Shandy Hall: The Coachford Poisoning Case”

  1. patrick maume Says:

    I notice that the publishers have designed a cover which strongly resembles that of THE SUSPICIONS OF MR WHICHER. That’s not really a good parallel (because there is still a fair bit of mystery surrounding the Constance Kent case). This nineteenth century doctor and wife poisoner might be a better example.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_William_Pritchard
    The writings of William Roughead, the late C19/early C20 Scottish lawyer who wrote the standard account of the Prichard case, still repay reading. He wrote on quite a few historic and contemporary murder cases, some of them Irish or with Irish connections (he wrote an essay on the Yelverton case, for example, and on the Ireland’s Eye murder, on which he took the minority view that William Blake Kirwan was guilty of murdering his wife). He has a nasty fascination with the gallows and there is an unpleasant air of the gentleman collector about some of his comments, but he provides some interesting insights into Victorian society (especially in Scotland).

  2. puesoccurrences Says:

    The cover is very similar indeed! They are also making a clear attempt to sensationalise the story behind the murder more than I think is perhaps accurate. While there is an extra-marital affair, no details about a sexual relationship emerge during the case or in the press so I think it is a bit of a stretch to call it a ‘nineteenth century sex scandal’. Thanks for the tip on Roughead and Pritchard. I will keep an eye out for both.
    Best,
    Lisa

  3. Martin Says:

    The cover is a complete rip off of “The Suspicions of Mr Whicher”. And a very, very poor imitation at that. Lazy. As a graphic designer this really irritates me. Grrrrr!

  4. Gabrielle Redford Says:

    I searched for details of the Shandy Hall murder at my cousin’s request.
    My grandmother was in service of the doctor at the time and told my mother and aunts the story.
    The governess(not govenor by the way) taught French to the family’s children.
    The servants were well aware of the sexual content of the relationship between the two. When my grandmother was confined to bed in her last years, she wrote down details of the events for her GP who looked up the case in the medical register when Dr Cross was struck off. She recalled how often servants entered rooms where the two were in flagrante and poor Mrs Cross suffering in bed.
    After the death of the first Mrs Cross the Doctor left for France where he lived for 2 years.
    Had he not returned with his new wife, he would have escaped the noose.

    • Dawn Pillans Says:

      Alas Dr Cross left for London (not France) where he married the 2nd Mrs Cross, Effie Skinner, about 2 weeks after the death of Mary Laura Cross. It was the hasty re-marriage (because Effie was pregnant) and their return to Shandy Hall which led to suspicion, and the exhumation of Mary’s body for a belated autopsy. Had he taken Effie to France for 2 years, we would not be debating whether this was a huge miscarriage of Justice as many appear to believe.

  5. nigga Says:

    Not very well written book

  6. Dawn Pillans Says:

    A poor book with VERY lazy research and irritating style.

    I actually came across the story of Dr Cross when he ‘dropped’ into a family tree I prepared for a friend. He was a distant relative of someone who married into the family. I wouldn’t really have noticed Dr Cross but for an old photo I found which pointed me to his Crimean War service.

    My heart sunk, and I realised how poor the research was when Mr Sheridan said that “There have been no records unearthed for the three eldest children following the murder of their mother and execution of their father.”
    I had no problem tracing the children of Dr Cross in a few hours on ancestry.co.uk.
    The two eldest daughters were sent away for schooling. In 1891, Elizabeth and Henrietta Cross were living with a Private Tutor, John Davies and his wife, in Bodmin, Cornwall. Henrietta’s death was registered in Plympton St Mary, Devon in 1892. A check of the Death Certificate may have shown Mr Sheridan if her death was due to epilepsy.
    By 1901 Elizabeth was in the Earlswood Mental Asylum (where 2 of our present Queen’s Cousins were cared for) where she was living in 1911 and at the time of her death in 1921. This may have been due to epilepsy.

    If such basic and easily available research was ignored, I fear the rest of Mr Sheridan’s so called ‘research’ has been taken from whatever documents he could easily lay his hands on with little effort. I also fear that he only chose to use the research which
    supported his strong feelings of dislike for Dr Cross. An impartial
    story-teller Mr Sheridan is NOT!

    Unless Mr Sheridan was using the services of a Medium, his description of the last moments of Mary Laura Cross are a figment of his imagination and poorly written tosh. “…She realised with a rising panic that there was nothing going to be done for her. Throughout her illness she had never experienced anything like this. She was terrified and again gripped by suffocation….she moved her head slightly. He was standing in the corner, just standing, doing nothing, saying nothing. Watching. Her head seemed to be fixed and paralysed, incapable of movement, she could feel the fearful thumping of her ribs, her breath rattling from her mouth……”

    Mr Sheridan may have researched the symptoms of poisoning, and read the testimony of witnesses freely available in another book and newspaper archives, but if he wants to portray this book as a “true life murder mystery” he should leave such ‘imaginations’ to P.D James who does it a million times better, concentrate on putting forward the full facts and try to hide his own feelings.

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