By Turtle Bunbury
The diggers grimly hauled the coffin to the surface, the clay still bone dry after the hottest Irish summer on record. It was 20th July 1887 and the coffin belonged to the wife of the local doctor. She had been buried nearly seven weeks earlier, having apparently succumbed to typhoid fever at her home in Coachford, Co. Cork. As the oakwood coffin was loaded onto a waiting cart for its transit to the post mortem, District Inspector Henry Tyacke once again ruminated upon the facts.
The murder of Laura Cross of Shandy Hall was the talk of all Britain and Ireland when the story hit the press in the summer of 1887. A new book by Michael Sheridan, entitled ‘Murder at Shandy Hall – The Coachford Poisoning Case’, reexamines the extraordinary circumstances which ultimately led to the execution of Laura’s husband, Dr. Philip Cross.
Born in 1840, Laura Cross was the daughter of Richard Marriott, an English gentleman from Essex. She had been a treasured child, not least because three of her siblings had succumbed to disease shortly before her birth. But marriage eluded her until 1869 when the 29-year-old caught the eye of a senior British Army surgeon from Co. Cork.
Her father disapproved of the match, perhaps because the surgeon was fifteen years her senior or perhaps because he simply did not trust the man. The couple were nonetheless married at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, London. Just days later they sailed for Canada so that the surgeon could rejoin his regiment. By the time Laura returned to England five years later, her father was dead.
Laura’s husband was Dr. Philip Cross, the descendent of an officer who came to Ireland with the Earl of Essex’s army in 1599 and settled at Carrigcrohane outside Cork City. By 1837, the Cross family were firmly ensconced at Shandy Hall outside the post-town of Coachford, Co. Cork. The River Dripsey, a mountain stream, ran through the neighbourhood, flowing beneath a bridge built by the local gentry, including Philip’s grandfather. Indeed, the Cross family were deemed to have been great improvers locally, converting much of their Shandy Hall estate into ‘green crops’.
Philip, the eldest of five children, was born at Shandy Hall in 1823. Little is known of his younger years save that he was reputedly ‘a bit of a wild card’. His father was a dubious character who made a small fortune as a money lender and relief worker during the Great Famine. He was known as Philly Céad Cathach (Philly of a Hundred Battles) on account of his frequent appearance as a litigant in the law courts, to which he arrived driving ‘a tandem composed of a horse and a bullock’.
Philip went to Dublin to study medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons. In 1848, he joined the British Army and over the next ten years he bore witness to some of the most ferocious theatres of war the world had yet known, including the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. After the battle of Sebastapol, for instance, he was amongst those surgeons whom one witness recalled as working day and night ‘in their terrible but merciful duty, their arms covered in blood, the floors strewn with limbs just amputated, and slippery with gore’.[i]
In August 1869, the 46-year-old doctor married Laura Marriott. Her father’s death a year later left Laura with a considerable inheritance of £5,000, equal to STG£357,000 today. She also received a stipend of £50 a year (£3,570) from her eldest brother. This would certainly help the Cross’s pay the school fees.
For the first five years of their marriage, the Cross’s lived in Canada where their eldest three children were born. They returned to London in 1875 where a fourth child was born in Notting Hill. The following year Philip’s father died and he succeeded to Shandy Hall and its 500 acres. He retired from the British Army with the rank of Surgeon Major and moved back to the family home in Coachford where their fifth child was born in November 1877.
Coachford was a somewhat quieter location than Notting Hill, but the six foot hero of Sebastapol threw himself into the spirit of the game, competently running both farm and house. Domestic life was not easy. Two of their daughters suffered from epilepsy which was considered a shameful disease at this time.
Rather more worryingly, Laura had emerged as a woman of exceptionally delicate health, suffering from a sensitive stomach and a nervous disposition. She was almost certainly afflicted with epilepsy. The house servants frequently witnessed her fall to the ground. She also experienced heart palpitations, nausea, hallucinations, giddiness and brief feelings of extreme fear, anxiety and depression.
As such, it is doubtful whether Dr. Cross and Mrs Cross enjoyed a healthy sex life. Instead, the doctor took to hunting. However, when a neighbouring farmer objected to Cross hunting on his land, the doctor struck the man such a blow that his ear came off. The farmer was granted £200 damages. Dr. Cross was subsequently banned from hunting with the Ballincollig Hussars.
The Cross’s only friends in Ireland were John and Theresa Caulfield, a retired army captain and his wife, who lived in a mansion two miles from Shandy Hall. Laura and Theresa became particularly good friends while their husbands played cards and smoked Turkish cigarettes.
In early July 1886, Laura Cross left Ireland on an extended visit to her relations in Essex. Feeling intensely claustrophobic at Shandy Hall, she had been experiencing an increasing number of epileptic attacks.
The standard treatment for fits at that time was potassium bromide, a bitter, white crystalline powder which, dissolved in water, acted as both a sedative and anti-convulsant. On the other hand, it caused considerable side effects – nausea, vomiting, lethargy, rashes and sudden mood swings. It was, notes Sheridan, ‘the perfect vehicle to facilitate the administration of arsenic or strychnine’.
Shortly after Laura’s departure, Dr. Cross called upon the Caulfields. They introduced him to Miss. Effie Skinner, a beautiful and energetic 20-year-old whom Theresa Caulfield had lately engaged as Governess to her children. The doctor appears to have been instantly and fatally smitten.
Effie was the daughter of a Scottish Episcopalian minister. Her great-grandfather had been Dean of Aberdeen and a friend of the poet Robbie Burns. Born in St. Andrew’s, she had spent her teenage years in Germany and Switzerland where her father was minister in Berne and Cologne. She had never been to Ireland before she began work as Governess to the Caulfields on 22nd June.
From Dr. Cross’s perspective, one can understand why the concept of a svelte, educated pencil-thin young mistress might have done so much to ‘brush away the cloying cobwebs of time’, as Sheridan puts it. One wonders what Effie saw in a man old enough to be her grandfather. Perhaps she saw him as a key to social advancement and security. Perhaps she genuinely fell for the heavily mustached war veteran.
In any case, the clergyman’s daughter was quick to acquiesce to the doctor’s advances. Towards the end of October 1886, Effie told Theresa Caulfield that she planned to leave her employ the following January. Theresa responded by dismissing her with one month’s notice.
When that time expired, Effie went straight into the employment of Dr. Cross of Shandy Hall, ostensibly as Governess to the Cross’s epileptic daughters. Laura Cross was by now home from England and inevitably, as the weeks passed, she accosted her husband about his relationship with the Governess. He rather spinelessly disowned his mistress and assured Laura of his loyalty.
But Laura was not convinced and, in January 1887, Effie Skinner was sent packing. Laura was generous enough to pay her train fare to Dublin and may have provided her with a reference as the errant Governess prepared to take up a new post in Co. Carlow.
In the weeks that followed Effie’s dismissal, Dr. Cross entered into a dark and dangerous mood. He was constantly cursing and threatening his wife to whom he now took an active dislike.
He began a secretive correspondence with the Governess, sending an employee to the post office with his letters and collecting the replies in person. He escaped to Dublin for three nights and stayed at the Hibernian Hotel on Dawson Street where he is believed to have rekindled his tryst. The lovers also stayed together at the LNWR Hotel on Dublin’s North Wall, once after a day at the Punchestown races.
During one of these encounters, Effie Skinner became pregnant. Dr. Cross began preparing for his wife’s murder.
By the end of March, Laura’s fainting fits had become so bad that an old school friend from Yorkshire called Mervynia Jefferson came to Shandy Hall to try and stem this perpetual decline.
However, by the middle of May, Laura had taken a serious turn for the worse and was confined to bed. Dr. Cross oversaw her medication, describing the symptoms as vomiting and diarrhoea. When the local dispensary doctor called by, he deduced that Laura was also assailed with a bilious attack. When people came to visit, Dr. Cross explained that his wife was too ill to receive them. By night, the servants noted, he dutifully slept in another bed in the same room.
At the start of June, an intense heatwave exploded across Ireland which would last 34 days and produce the highest temperatures yet known in Ireland. On 1st June, one of the house servants at Shandy Hall heard Laura Cross retching in her bedroom. This was followed by a series of screams and then silence.
The following morning, Dr Cross awoke the household to announce that his wife had died at one o’clock in the morning. He registered the cause of death as typhoid fever.
Laura was buried in Magourney cemetery in Coachford on 4th July. The following day, Dr. Cross went to England to give the dreadful news to his children at their schools and to explain to Miss Jefferson in London the cause of his wife’s death.
He also happened to call by the very same church in Piccadilly where he had married Laura eighteen years earlier. But this wasn’t a sentimental visit. Dr. Cross went to the church in order to marry his mistress, Effie Skinner.
Few in the Coachford neighbourhood could believe the doctor’s gall when he returned to Shandy Hall with a new bride less than four weeks after his wife’s death. Several explanations for Laura’s death were already circulating, as they are wont to do when a doctor’s wife perishes in suspicious circumstances. But the motive was now plain to see.
Inevitably the police were tipped off, most probably by Theresa Caulfield. The case was assigned to Henry Tyacke, a Cornish born District Inspector serving with the Royal Irish Constabulary in Ballincollig.
Inspector Tyacke had to be careful. One didn’t simply accuse an upstanding member of the landed gentry of murder, let alone a veteran of the British Army who had served in the Crimea.
But he had plenty of cause to be chary, not least when the dispensary doctor counseled that there had been no evidence of typhoid in the Coachford locality for many long decades. Tyacke was also puzzled as to why Cross had drawn attention to himself and married Effie so quickly. He duly persuaded the Coroner that there was reasonable grounds to hold an inquest.[ii]
The Coroner gave Tyacke the go ahead to exhume the body. This task was given to Professor Charles Yelverton Pearson, a young medical analyst employed by the Crown and based at Queen’s College, Cork (present day University College Cork).
Professor Pearson was given one week to examine the internal organs and announce his conclusions. Given the hot weather, he had expected to find the body in an advanced state of putrefaction. However, most of the internal organs appeared to be remarkably well preserved. There was no evidence of typhoid fever.
The professor removed the organs, placed them in vessels and transported them to his laboratory at Queen’s College in order to examine them closely with a microscope. He observed a number of white particles, each one smaller than a pin’s head, along the stomach membrane. A chemical test revealed these to be arsenic. Further traces of arsenic were found in the liver, kidney and spleen. He also identified strychnine in the stomach. He quickly notified Tyacke that there was good cause to launch a full-scale murder investigation.
Dr. Cross was arrested on the afternoon of 28th July and lodged in the County Gaol. By the time his trial began at the Cork Winter Assizes on 14th December, Tyacke had worked out why the doctor had been so quick to marry Effie. The young woman was heavily pregnant; their son John Cross was born on 23rd December.
Dr. Cross was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang on 10th January 1888. He maintained his innocence until the end and made no confession. An appeal for clemency sat on the Lord Lieutenant’s desk for three weeks before its ultimate rejection. He ‘firmly’ but silently mounted the scaffold where his legs and shoulders were strapped and a white cap placed over his head. The trap door opened and Dr. Cross passed from this world.
[i] In the absence of any relevant training, amputation was the standard solution to most wounds at the time. When not wielding his curved knife over some luckless amputee-in-waiting, Dr Cross was trying to cure those riddled with disease. Cholera, dysentery and typhoid fever ultimately accounted for the lives of far more English and French soldiers than any battles in that war. From the Crimea, Dr. Cross went to India where the Mutiny of 1857 had resulted in a series of savage massacres across the continent. Once again, the surgeon from Cork was competing against the swarms of flies and the intense heat to save lives. It is suggested that Dr. Cross’s experiences in these grim theatres of war immunized him against the horror of death.
[ii] M.J. Horgan, the Coroner, was a well-known nationalist; Charles Stewart Parnell was best man at his wedding.
'Murder at Shandy Hall - The Coachford Posioning Case' By Michael Sheridan was published by Poolbeg Press Ltd in 2010.