Sitting down to breakfast at her home in Tregonissey, Cornwall, on October 30th, 1921, Mrs. Annie Black, 55, complained of feeling ill and then went to bed. The next day she told her doctor she’d had a severe attack of vomiting and diarrhoea although she had eaten nothing different from her usual diet.
On the following day she complained of a burning sensation in her throat. Her husband Edward Black, an insurance agent, seemed distressed by her illness but failed to comply with the doctor’s request to keep samples of his wife’s urine.
Her condition improved after a woman neighbour was called in to nurse her, and by November 8th Mrs. Black seemed to be recovering. That evening Black went off on his bicycle, saying he was going to fetch cigarettes to restock his wife’s tobacconist’s shop. “I shan’t be long,” he said, but that was the last she saw of him.
Two days later Mrs. Black told her doctor, “My throat and stomach are burning something terrible, and I don’t know what to do.”
When she died the next day, NOVEMBER 11th, the doctor refused to issue a death certificate and traces of arsenic were found in her body. Although they were insufficient to prove she had been poisoned, murder was suspected and a search was launched for her missing husband.
The police learned that he had recently bought arsenic from a local chemist, saying he wanted it to poison rats at his home. He was also wanted on a charge of false pretences, and a few days later he was traced to a Liverpool hotel after the proprietor saw his photo in a newspaper and called the police. When Black refused to admit officers to his room, they forced the door and found he had gashed his throat with a penknife.
Arrested and taken back to Cornwall, he was charged with his wife’s murder and with obtaining money by false pretences by the fraudulent sale of non-existent insurance policies.
At his wife’s inquest his pretty 17-year-old stepdaughter testified that the family’s home had not been troubled by rats. She also said that Black had persuaded her mother to withdraw money and invest it in gas shares.
“Are there any gas shares?” she was asked.
“Has Black ever made any improper suggestions to you?”
“Yes,” she replied in little more than a whisper.
The coroner’s court heard that Mrs. Black had complained of the bitter taste of the medicine her husband had given her, saying, “My tongue is awfully burnt and swollen.” But she had not complained of the medicine when it was administered by the neighbour nursing her.
Black denied purchasing arsenic and asked, “Why should I want to do my wife any injury whatsoever? It is no gain to me. I was the man who called the doctor in. I did my best for her, as anyone can see.”
But the inquest jury unanimously decided that Mrs. Black had died from arsenic poison administered by her husband, and Black was committed for trial.
At his trial his defence counsel pointed out that the signature for the purchase of arsenic in the chemist’s poisons register did not match Black’s normal signature. He asked the jury
“Are you going to believe that a man who was going to poison his wife would go to the local chemist, where he is well known, to purchase arsenic, and two days later commence to administer it to his wife? Would he not have obtained the arsenic furtively in a place where he was not known?”
Summing-up, Mr. Justice Rowlatt pointed out that there was no evidence of motive. “But the evidence with regard to the buying of the arsenic is certainly of a most serious character,” he added.
The trial ended with Black’s conviction and he was sentenced to death, but many people expressed reservations about the case. Black had fled nearly three days before his wife died. The pending false pretences investigation might have been the motive for his flight, and the court had not explored the possibility of his stepdaughter’s involvement.
None of these doubts, however, was sufficient to save Edward Black from the gallows, and he was hanged at Exeter Prison on March 24th, 1922.