On the morning of February 15 1939, George Francis Dowler, a 60-year-old farmer from Derrygiff in County Fermanagh, died suddenly after drinking a cup of tea prepared by his wife, Lillian. After examining the body, the Dowler's family doctor cited the sudden cause of death as heart failure but five months later, George's body was exhumed. A post-mortem examination found that George's heart was perfectly healthy and that the cause of death was, in fact, poisoning by strychnine.
The finger of suspicion quickly fell on George's young wife, Lillian, and farm hand called James Willoughby. The investigation which followed not only showed that a "strong affection" had developed between Lillian and James, prompting speculation over the motive, but also confirmed the presence of strychnine in the cup which Lillian had given to her husband on that fateful morning.
The pair were arrested and tried at the Belfast Assizes on December 12 1939. A guilty verdict seemed almost inevitable once the prosecution called its star witness, Jane McPherson, a servant employed by the Dowlers. Jane testified that after George's death, his wife, Lillian and the farm hand, James, began sleeping in the same bedroom and even claimed to be married. Around the same time, Jane stopped sleeping upstairs and instead occupied a bedroom next door to the sitting room. But then, in a strange twist, Jane began talking about ghosts:
Prosecution: You were afraid down there? Didn't you say that you had seen a ghost?
Jane: I heard a foot going upstairs and I think that one night I did see Dowler's ghost.
P: Did he (the ghost) not tell you that James Willoughby had tried to drive a horse and cart over him?
J: That always whispering in my mind.
P: Was it the ghost that told you Willoughby slept in the room with Mrs Dowler?
After Jane's creepy testimony, the prosecution went on to prove that Lillian Dowler had purchased strychnine from a chemist in Enniskillen. In a mysterious twist, however, neither Lillian Dowler nor James Willoughby was found guilty of the murder. Both were freed and the death of George Francis Dowler remained unsolved. As for Jane McPherson, she did not return to the farm in County Fermanagh.
Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, December 14 1939
Leicester Daily Mercury, December 14 1939.
The Body on the Moor: Neil Dovestone, A Modern Case of Strychnine Poisoning
This week, the BBC Magazine is running a series of reports on the case of Neil Dovestone. This isn't his real name: Neil Dovestone is a John Doe, his identity remains unknown to the police, despite months of police investigation and media coverage.
If you're not familiar with Neil's case, here are the details. On the morning of December 11 2015, Neil Dovestone, an elderly man of between 65 and 75 years old, took the 10 am train from London's Euston Station to Manchester Piccadilly. Arriving just after midday, Neil spent 53 minutes perusing the shops at the station before travelling to Saddleworth Moor in Oldham. Here, Neil went into the Clarence pub and asked the landlord for directions to "the mountains" - though he did not specify a particular place. The landlord then took him to the door of the pub and directed him towards the Dovestone Reservoir (hence the name of this John Doe). Neil then left the pub, heading in that direction, and was not seen again until just after 3 pm. According to the witness, he was halfway up the Indian's Head, a 1500 ft peak. This the last confirmed sighting of Neil.
At 10:50 am the next morning, a cyclist was riding up the Indian's Head when he spotted Neil's body and called the emergency services. Neil was lying on his back with his arms by his side, prompting the cyclist to think that he had died of a heart attack. When the emergency services arrived, they found the following things on Neil's person:
Neil had no identification on his person, not even a wallet.
After the discovery of the body, a toxicology report showed that natural causes were not responsible for Neil's death: he had, in fact, died after taking a lethal dose of strychnine which readers of this blog will know is one of the deadliest substances known to man and was banned in the UK in 2006. Traces of the poison were also found on the empty bottle of thyroxine sodium in Neil's coat.
This case is both tragic and fascinating. It is so sad that nobody has come forward and identified Neil and that nobody can explain why he travelled over 200 miles to Saddleworth Moor to take his own life, a place synonymous with the crimes of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. All of the police enquiries and public appeals have (thus far) drawn a blank. That being said, nobody can say definitively that Neil wasn't murdered. There is not enough evidence to say either way. Knowing what I know about strychnine, I find it hard to accept that anybody would willingly use it to commit suicide. Anybody of sound mind, anyway. Death by strychnine is an agonising process, as I learned through my research into Christiana Edmunds, and it is an extremely uncommon cause of death in the 21st century.
Here's an artist's sketch of Neil because someone out there might recognise him. You just never know.
Image courtesy of The Independent. Follow the case using #bodyonthemoor