On Christmas Day 1891 Pahiatua couple Annie Naylor and William Sedcole celebrated their wedding. Within a week of the celebrations two of their guests were dead and about 25 suffering acute symptoms of poisoning … but who was the poisoner?
The guests first ate together after the wedding at what was then described as the ‘wedding breakfast’ - what we would now call the reception after the event. Following the meal many guests went on to the bride’s parents’ the Naylors’ house for a dance which continued till the early hours of Boxing Day. The night of the dance Mrs Naylor tidied up after the meal and cut several slices of leftover roast lamb, put them on a plate and left the plate in the scullery in their house covering the meat with a cloth. Later that night she saw a man near the scullery door and when she called out to him he walked away towards the road and left the property. She checked the scullery and found the cloth covering the meat had been turned back, but thought one of the dance guests must have helped themselves.
The following day, the wedding guests were invited back to the Naylors’ house for refreshments. The refreshments included leftovers from the Wedding Breakfast, including the cold roast lamb, potatoes, French beans and plum pudding.
All went well until Sunday morning when almost all of the guests from Saturday awoke with frightful vomiting, abdominal cramps, intense diarrhea and a peculiar taste in the mouth. The local chemist was sent for and he diagnosed “biliousness” resulting from overindulging the previous day and prescribed accordingly. Mrs Naylor later told an inquest that on that Sunday morning she had thrown the leftover lamb from the night before to the cat and dog, both of whom became sick.
Despite the treatment from the chemist, the condition of the guests continued to deteriorate and police were informed. Dr Davenport, from the nearby town of Woodville was called in, and he diagnosed arsenic poisoning. The doctor gave the stricken guests medicines to induce vomiting. A number of the patients were also by then suffering from rigidity in the jaws.
On Tuesday morning Dr Hosking, from Masterton, was also called to Pahiatua to help. He first visited Peter Dickson, a resident of Masterton, who was unconscious and died withing a few minutes of the doctor’s arrival. Dr Hosking then went to call on Joseph Moore, who was also reported to be in a precarious condition, but upon arrival found he had died 30 minutes earlier. The remaining 23 patients’ conditions gradually improved and they all eventually, but slowly, recovered.
All of the guests who attended the Saturday refreshments, except the bride who ate nothing, became ill. Those guests who ate only at Friday’s Wedding Breakfast remained well.
At the inquest into Mr Dixon’s death, the Government analyst Mr Skey testified that he had found arsenic in the deceased’s stomach and liver and in his vomit. Skey said he had also tested a number of items of food taken from the Naylors’ house, but had found no traces of arsenic.
Among the items found at the Naylors’ was a packet of rat poison called Rough on Rats, a product that was almost purely arsenic. The possibility that the sliced lamb had been poisoned with arsenic was raised at the inquest. Skey said he had tried rubbing arsenic into sliced lamb and it gave no visible appearance and, as arsenic had no taste, it could easily have been eaten without anyone knowing it contained the lethal poison.
Among the prime suspects was James P Clark who ran a drapery store in the town. It was reported that there had been conflict between the Clarks and victim Peter Dickson and his wife. At the inquest, evidence was given that three weeks before the wedding Mr Clark’s sister Maggie had said about Mrs Dickson if she had a chance she “would poison the old bitch”. The Clarks and Maggie had been invited to the wedding, but had not attended. Mr Clark later took a defamation case against Mr Naylor for implicating him in the poisoning and won. He was awarded 100 pounds in damages. Peter Dickson is buried in Masterton Cemetery and Joseph Moore in Mangatainoka Cemetery.
The perpetrator of this 130 year-old tragedy remains a mystery to this day.