We love sugar. As addictive as any white powder, most of us have sugar in our diet somewhere. It’s been around in a refined form for over 2500 years and is one of the world’s biggest crops.
If it was poisoned, imagine how many it might reach.
So when that is exactly what happened in New Zealand 1869, it’s no wonder it created sensational headlines.
Forty bags of sugar came from Melbourne on the SS Rangitoto in December 1869 and people began displaying signs of poisoning.
Henry Yates - who had a grocer’s shop in Molesworth St, Wellington - had not only sold some of it, his family was poisoned too.
And it wasn’t just Wellington, reports began coming in from Dunedin and Oamaru, with whole families sick.
Some had gone to the Sisters of Mercy convent and there were reports of illness there too.
After prominent Wellington doctor, Morgan Grace, treated several people he discovered that the sugar was the cause and he tracked that to Yates’ store.
The sugar was immediately handed to police.
A sample was sent to the Government Laboratories to be tested and efforts were made to trace where all the sugar from the shipment had gone.
The shipment was, at two or three tonnes, considered a small one.
Fears were heightened when it was initially reported that a small child in Dunedin had died from the poisoning. It turned out the child had died of natural causes.
The tests came back showing the poison was arsenic. But the packets found showed no signs of tampering. How did arsenic get into this everyday ingredient? And was it deliberate?
By now, the sick people were starting to recover.
The Victorian Sugar Company where it had come from said they did not use arsenic in any part of their manufacturing and began an investigation.
They sent Richard Wardill to find out what happened.
He discovered that some of the sugar had arrived discoloured with a yellow substance. It turned out the Rangitoto was also carrying 20 cases of Carbolic Sheep dip. He found they showed signs of leakage, the tin it was in not strong enough to keep it from eating through. It was found to contain arsenic.
Wardill himself later ended up drowning himself in the Yarra River after it was discovered he had embezzled £7000 from his employer.
Henry Yates, whose shop had been at the centre of the case, had been born in Staffordshire, England. He married Agnes Bell Haigh in 1856.
He died in January 872 aged 38, in Masterton and is buried in the Archer St Cemetery in Masterton. Oddly, he is also listed as being in the Bolton St Cemetery.
Photo by Mae Mu
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