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.