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.