The Lancaster Castle Poisonings

by John Strivens


In the summer of 1919, I was trying to make a living as a writer and freelance journalist in my home town of Lancaster. I had returned from France the previous year and everything still seemed alien and inconsequential after the horrors I had experienced there. In the hope of finding a story that would fire my jaded imagination I had begun to frequent the courts in the old castle, but the endless catalogue of petty thefts, property disputes and domestic quarrels only served to deepen my mood of depression. The day on which these events occurred had been particularly unproductive and I was glad to escape to the Royal Hotel for a beefsteak and a glass of porter. The dining room was crowded and I was forced to share a table with a small, neat man in a shabby black suit, whom I half-recognised as one of the clerks from the court. As I ordered my dinner, he looked up from his plate and gave me a slight smile that seemed to combine humour with a rather unnerving malevolence. “Beefsteak eh?” he said. “If you like I can tell you a tale about a beefsteak.”

“Go on,” I replied, since I had no great desire to return to the stifling air of the Shire Hall, and so he began the following tale.

“It all began on August 15 1911. James Henry Bingham had been a court keeper, guide and caretaker at Lancaster Castle for many years and members of his family also had jobs around the court and castle. He had worked with his father, who had died suddenly in January that year, and his sister Edith Agnes Bingham, was an attendant in the ladies’ gallery. It was said by a number of people that Edith was not mentally robust. On August 12 James fell ill after eating a beefsteak cooked for him by Edith, and he died three days later. An autopsy carried out on his body established that he had died of arsenic poisoning and Edith was arrested.

It soon became clear that Edith’s father, William Hodgson Bingham, was not the only member of the family to have died suddenly. Edith’s sister, Annie Gertrude Bingham had died in November 1910 at the age of 30 and her half-sister, Margaret Bingham, had died earlier in the year on July 22 at the age of 48. In view of Edith’s arrest the Home Office ordered the exhumation of their bodies and this took place on 12 September.”

“What had caused their deaths?” I asked.

“William Bingham’s death certificate gave old age and gastric catarrh as the cause of his death,” he replied. “Annie was said to have died of hysteria, cerebral congestion and pyrexia and Margaret of cerebral growth. Mr Roberts, the assistant county analyst, and four other doctors took organs away for examination.

On 14 September, the inquest on James Bingham was held at Lancaster Castle. The court was told that Edith had complained to another sister, Nellie Bingham, in a letter that she was treated unkindly and that she needed to be taken away before she did something to herself. Nellie lived in Manchester and she also said that Edith caused trouble to her brother by untruthfulness and neglect of her household duties. Edith’s solicitor claimed that the unkindness referred to by Edith in the letter was not her brother’s doing but someone outside the family. Then there was evidence given by a young man named Charles Emerson. He was a cinematograph operator in Morecambe whom Edith had got to know in June. Edith had apparently told Charles Emerson that her father had left her well-off and that James was going to leave her a large sum of money in his will. Mr Emerson gave the impression that Edith was a fantasist, but said that he had no reason to think she had murdered her brother.”

“Good of him,” I interjected. “What other evidence was there against Edith?”

“There was Mr Roberts, an analyst from Liverpool,” he continued. “He had analysed a tin of Acme weed killer similar to two empty tins found in the castle. This weed killer had been supplied to James Bingham and his father and contained 97 grains of arsenic to the fluid ounce. Mr Roberts stated that ten drops of the weed killer would constitute a fatal dose and that this would not be detected if placed on a beefsteak. However, perhaps most damning of all was a statement by Inspector Whitfield, who had arrested Edith Bingham. Inspector Whitfield stated that, when arrested, Edith had denied the charge and said that the weed killer was used by William and James in the castle grounds. Inspector Whitfield had not mentioned weed killer to her.” Having delivered this last observation with obvious relish my strange little companion resumed his story, accepting from me the offer of another glass of sherry.

“On 29 September, it was reported that Edith Bingham was also to be charged with the murders of William, Annie and Margaret Bingham because arsenic had been found in their organs. Edith Bingham was remanded pending a complete analyst’s report.

When the hearing resumed, Mr Seward Pearce representing the crown said that he would concentrate on the murder of James Bingham, in order to substantiate the other charges. He reminded the court that there had been bad feeling between Edith and her father over unpaid bills and said that Edith resented Margaret’s presence in the household. Her father had invited Margaret back to Lancaster from her job as a prison matron in Hull in order to be his housekeeper. She fell ill the day after she arrived in Lancaster and died a few days later. He stated again that James Bingham had fallen ill after eating a steak cooked by Edith, that his vomit was found to contain arsenic and that it could not have been self-administered. He referred to the letter to Nellie, in which he said Edith alleged ‘bitter spirit’ towards her amongst the family and claimed that Edith hoped to gain financially by James’ death.

Speaking for the defence, Mr Wingate-Saul insisted that there was no motive for the alleged crime because Edith would lose her home by James’ death. He claimed that Edith was, in fact, on good terms with members of the family and that her father and sisters had been ill for some time before they died. Finally he stated that William had left £3000 but that, because Margaret and James had died intestate, the only person to gain financially by their deaths was William Bingham, Edith’s surviving brother. The jury returned a verdict of wilful murder and Edith was committed for trial at the next Assizes.

The trial began on 27 October in Lancaster Castle. In truth, there was very little evidence presented that had not been foreshadowed during the inquest but the tone was very different. The prosecution was undertaken by a King’s Counsel, a Mr Langdon. He called Charles Emerson, who painted Edith in a very bad light. He claimed that, although he was generally assumed to be Edith’s fiancée, this was far from the truth and that Edith’s friends had put this story about. He said that Edith had told him that she owned three houses in Morecambe, that her father had left her a large sum of money and that her half-sister Margaret was 9 years old and had also left her money. She had also said that James was only her half-brother. None of this turned out to be true, but Mr Langdon claimed it as a motive for the alleged crime because Emerson had threatened to break off his relationship with Edith when he found out that she was not really wealthy.”

“With friends like that she had little need of enemies,” I observed.

“Too true,” replied my companion, “but worse was to come when Edith’s brother William was called. He stated that there was bad feeling between Edith and her father because Edith was a poor housekeeper and was apt to go about, as he put it, ‘in an expensive way’ at her father’s expense. He also explained to the court that James had declared his intention of sharing the money he inherited from his father with the rest of the family but died before he could draw up his will. Since he died intestate, all the money came to him.

Nellie Bingham was called next and questioned about the letter she had received from Edith. As the letter was read out in court Edith collapsed and the court was adjourned for an hour. Once the hearing was resumed the court heard medical evidence from Dr McIntosh who attended James Bingham during his fatal illness, and Mr Roberts, the Assistant County Analyst. Little was added to evidence already heard at the inquest but the court heard that the wallpaper and distemper in the Bingham house had been tested for arsenic, as had the water supply; nothing was found.

The last witness to be called was a cleaner who stated that she had seen Edith cook the beefsteak that was said to have killed James. Asked whether Edith usually ate with her brother she said that she had often seen them eat meat together but could give no reason why Edith did not share this meal.”

“Things looked bad for Edith,” I said. “What on earth could the defence say in answer to such accusations as these.”

“They said nothing,” returned my strange companion. “The defence offered no evidence at all on behalf of Edith Bingham. However, her defence counsel, Mr Wingate-Saul, had a trick up his sleeve. He claimed that it was not up to the defence to prove that Edith had not administered the arsenic to James Bingham; it was up to the prosecution to prove that the arsenic had been wilfully administered by the defendant. In spite of all the circumstantial evidence given by the witnesses there was no concrete evidence that Edith had placed poison in James’ food, and she stood to gain nothing by James’ death. Perhaps the fatal arsenic had been ingested accidentally by the unfortunate victims. The judge, Mr Justice Avery agreed. He directed the jury that, unless they were sure that Edith had given arsenic deliberately and with malice to James Bingham they could not find her guilty. He also said that it was difficult to see how Edith could have poisoned Margaret Bingham without affecting other members of the household who ate breakfast that day and that there was no evidence whatever that she had administered arsenic to her father.”

“So what was the outcome? “I demanded.

“The jury was out for only twenty minutes,” he replied. “They returned a verdict of Not Guilty.”

I saw the waiter approaching with my order. “So, what happened to Edith Bingham?” I asked. My companion rose from the table and, once again, gave his malicious smile. “I’m not entirely sure,” he replied. “Some people say she found a job as a cook in a local hotel. Enjoy your beefsteak.” And with that he straightened his jacket, took his hat and walked quickly out of the dining room.

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