To establish the cause of death of Mrs Violet Sidney, Croydon coroner, Dr Henry Beecher Jackson ordered a post-mortem. Dr Robert Bronte, who had conducted the autopsy on Edmund Duff the year before, carried it out. Removing major organs he sent them to a laboratory for analysis.
The following day the police became involved. Detectives Fred Hedges and Reg Morrish of Croydon CID called at 29 Birdhurst Rise, along with an official of the coroner’s office. Tom Sidney was on hand as they conducted a thorough search of the house and removed several bottles.
Two days later the inquest on Mrs Sidney opened. After brief formalities but with no medical evidence yet available it was adjourned until the 4th April. On 11th March, Violet Sidney was buried alongside her daughter Vera, at Queen’s Road Cemetery, Croydon.
As police investigations intensified press speculation grew that all was not as it seemed in the tragic deaths of Edmund Duff, Vera and Violet Sidney. On Tuesday, 19 March the police visited the Sidney graves. By Thursday the science experts had carried out their own investigation with conclusive results. Significant amounts of arsenic had been discovered both in the residue of Violet Sidney’s medicine bottle and also in her organs.
That evening police returned to Queen’s Road, Cemetery in the company of two grave diggers. In their possession was the authorisation to exhume the bodies of Violet and Vera. Seven weeks later a further body was exhumed, that of Grace’s husband, Edmund Duff.
Tom Sidney made himself available again to provide formal identification when the digging commenced. Also present was Dr Binning, and chief Home Office analysts Dr Gerald Roche and Sir Bernard Spilsbury. Spilsbury began by examining the grave, noting the condition and smell of the soil, which he took samples of. The coffin was then taken by horse-drawn carriage to Mayday Hospital Mortuary, where Edmund’s remains were subjected to a second post-mortem. Edmund was reburied later that same day.
Grace Duff, the grieving widow was quoted in the Daily Express: ‘It was dreadful for me to have the body of my husband exhumed. It seemed such a desecration: worse than the first burial. But I am glad they did it if it will help discover the truth. We were such splendid friends.’ But despite Grace’s depiction of the perfect loving family the second post-mortem on Edmund yielded enough evidence to warrant a second inquest.
Press speculation had now reached fever-pitch. The People ran a front page story under the banner: ‘New Turn in Arsenic Drama’ while the Sunday Express screamed: ‘New Exhumation Sensation.’ As Edmund’s inquest opened on the 5th July, 1929, Vera’s and Violet’s were concluding. Each one was given a different jury. Star witnesses, Grace Duff and brother Tom, were required to give evidence several times.
In Violet’s inquest, Home Office Analyst, Dr Henry Ryffel’s opinion was that cause of death was acute arsenical poisoning. Analysis of the organs and tissue had indicated the presence of a considerable amount of arsenic in her body. He believed that Mrs Sidney had taken the fatal dose within twelve hours of her death. He stated that he had also found arsenic in both the residue of Violet’s bottle of Metatone and in the wine glass from which she drank it. Tom, Grace and Grace’s gardener were questioned closely but ‘inconclusively’ about tins of weedkiller found on Grace’s property. During the summing up the coroner set four propositions before the jury: ‘That Violet had committed suicide; that a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into her medicine bottle by accident; that the arsenic got there through the criminal neglect of someone else, which would merit a charge of manslaughter; that she was murdered.’ Coroner Dr Henry Beecher Jackson concentrated on the last as being most likely. When asking the jury to consider who might have committed the murder he said: ‘There is nothing to show that Mrs Duff had any ill-feeling towards her mother. All evidence points the other way. She appears to be, although perhaps emotional, a truthful witness…’ He was less sympathetic towards Tom, whom he felt had often been facetious during the proceedings and less than truthful. But, this he pointed out did not mean he was capable of murder. When Tom objected to the comments, Jackson told him to, ‘shut up’.
The jury retired for 30 minutes. When they returned their verdict was that Violet had died by arsenic poisoning but through lack of evidence it was not clear if Violet had died by her own hand or had been murdered. Hearing the verdict, Grace broke down and cried.
Vera’s inquest followed a similar pattern. Sir Bernard Spilsbury’s opinion was that cause of death was also due to arsenical poisoning. ‘The fact that both Mrs Noakes and the cat were sick after taking soup on the Monday, points to the presence of arsenic in the soup.’ In his summing up the coroner again did his best to exonerate Grace. ‘What are the terms on which she and her sister were?’ he asked. ‘The one outstanding fact of the Sidney family is the mutual affection of the various members.’ As for Tom, Dr Jackson said, ‘He was on intimate terms with the family and there is nothing to show he had ill-feelings against Vera.’ When the jury returned the verdict that, ‘Vera Sidney was murdered by arsenic, wilfully administered by some person or persons unknown,’ it was the only possible conclusion they could draw.
The second inquest on Edmund Duff amounted to a public humiliation for Dr Bronte, for although he denied it, it seemed he had mixed up Edmunds organs with those of another on whom he was conducting an autopsy. But now he said he believed that Edmund had also died of acute arsenical poisoning. When asked what had changed his mind he replied, ‘The reports of Dr Roche Lynch and Sir Bernard Spilsbury.’ Lynch had found arsenic in every tissue he had examined and believed that Edmund, ‘Had taken a large amount of it.’ Grace had voiced the opinion the poison must have been in the hip flask Edmund had taken with him on his fishing trip, but Sir Bernard Spilsbury’s opinion was that it was more likely to have been in the beer he drank when he returned home.
Summing up the coroner concluded by saying, ‘No evidence singles out any one member of the family as the poisoner.’ The jury did not feel able to be any more specific either and attributed Edmund Duff’s death to; ‘Some person, or persons unknown.’
Tom Sidney (38) made a poor impression in court. A pianist and entertainer by profession he was more outgoing and temperamental than his reserved sister Grace and was often admonished for his irritable outbursts during proceedings. A successful career and the £5,000 inheritance from his father meant that despite being married with two small children to support, he was in a better financial situation than his sister Grace. He and wife Mary had settled at number 6 South Park Hill Road, just a few doors from Grace and her family who were then living at number 16… Birdhurst Rise was only a five minute walk away and Tom visited his mother and sister most days. He would often call on Grace too and give an impromptu performance of some latest composition on the piano. During the exact period that Vera fell ill, Tom was himself unwell with flu and confined to bed for a week. Unable to visit the Sidney’s his opportunity to poison Vera was nil.
Financial gain was a motive carefully considered during the course of the three inquests. Under the terms of Vera’s will, Tom received £1,000 while Grace received £2,000. Violet Sidney left £9,500 which was equally divided between Tom and Grace. Edmund left nothing after his funeral expenses were paid and his debts discharged.
Suspicion naturally fell upon the Sidney’s housekeeper, Kathleen Noakes during investigations as her daily duties included the preparation and cooking of meals. Far from being a loyal and trusted old retainer, she had only joined the Sidney household six months previously to her mistresses’ deaths and had in fact been intending to give notice. The house, although spacious and well furnished, she found gloomy and Mrs Sidney was a reserved woman who remained distant from her servants. Vera however was warmer and more informal and had it not been for her fondness for Vera, Kathleen would have left sooner. With no financial gain to be made and considering the negative impact their demise from poisoning might have on her future position as a housekeeper, Noakes was soon discounted.
Detective Inspector Hedges’ first impressions of Grace Duff were that she was a ‘courteous, honest and trustworthy woman.’ Two months later, after having observed her closely in the coroner’s court, his opinion changed. She was too good to be true, he decided. Opening wide her striking blue eyes and slumping in an attitude of helpless misery was an act. Not content with dressing demurely and speaking with a tragic inflection, whenever opportunity arose to enhance her role of grieving widow, she grasped it with the skill of a consummate actress. After enduring three hours of questioning, Grace was offered a pot of tea. Turning to the women sitting behind her, she offered them some too stating it was unfair that she be given refreshment while they went without. Little touches like these endeared her to the jury. Occasionally Grace’s mask slipped though. Her young and clever barrister, Fearnley-Whittingstall noted that during a break in proceedings some minor incident took place which induced a ‘terrible rage’ in Grace and the composed, pitiable expression was replaced by a look of such ‘murderous hatred’ that he became convinced he was defending a guilty woman. Grace had lost two of her children whilst they were very small and Fearnley-Whittingstall’s theory became that these tragic deaths may have unhinged her.
Dr Binning, who had attended Edmund, claimed that shortly after the inquests he was summoned by Grace to attend her youngest child Alastair who was sick. He administered to the child and was about to leave when Grace, wearing only a negligee, invited him into the living room. With a smile she offered him a whisky, saying, ‘I promise not to put any arsenic in it!’ Dr Binning declined the offer and left immediately. But it was actually Dr Elwell who incited rumours at the time. That he and Grace were having an affair was considered a strong likelihood by many. Tom Sidney had informed Inspector Hedges that he felt Dr Elwell might well have murdered Edmund and that the doctor and Grace had enjoyed a close friendship for many years in which time Elwell had not charged Grace any medical fees. From Dr Elwell, Hedges learnt that on one occasion the doctor had seen bruises on Grace’s shoulders and that Grace had complained to him that Edmund had been ‘a little rough.’
During her marriage to a man 17 years her senior, Grace may have begun to see Edmund as a threat to her well-being. His small pension and low earnings as a clerk, together with his extravagance with money rendered the family financially vulnerable. With Edmund out of the way, Grace was sure to be favoured in her mother’s will and with Vera dead she could be assured of another inheritance. Barrister Fearnley-Whittingstall came to believe that Grace was the Birdhurst Rise Poisoner and that her motives were purely financial. He speculated that Violet’s death may have followed Vera’s so quickly because Violet had begun to suspect Grace. Why else would old Mrs Sidney be so utterly convinced she had been poisoned?
After Inspector Hedges meeting with Tom Sidney he interviewed Dr Elwell but was soon convinced of his innocence. There was no hard evidence against him and Elwell had refused to issue a death certificate for Edmund although it had been within his power to do so.
Whether or not Grace killed her mother, sister and husband, evidence suggests she was the kind of person who might have. Dr Binning had no doubts. He had been with Grace when the three victims died and offered a damming footnote. ‘Here was a very handsome woman, a brunette with beautiful eyes and they were never lovelier than when they hovered over the three death-beds.’
Thirty years after the events author Richard Wittington-Egan wrote a definitive study of the case. His meticulous account included revealing interviews with several of the principal characters still alive in the 1960’s, including Drs Elwell and Binning, Kathleen Noakes, Tom Sidney and his sister Grace. Tom, who no longer had any contact with his sister, told Whittington-Egan that he strongly believed Grace was the murderer. ‘I think Grace poisoned Duff because she had grown to hate him. I think she killed Vera and mother for their money.’
Mr Whittington-Egan’s own conclusion was defamatory of Grace Duff and because of this The Riddle of the Birdhurst Rise was not published until after her death in 1973. Coming face to face with Grace at her home on the south coast the author confronted the plump white-haired old woman and told her he knew who had committed the murders, ‘But don’t worry,’ he said, ‘I shall publish nothing until…’
‘Until I’m dead?’ she interrupted him. ‘Don’t be too sure that you won’t die first.’