Mysterious Case of the Michelago Poisoner

An Historic Investigation

Qbn Court HouseQueanbeyan Court House, 1862

It was the depths of winter, 1929, and the frail woman garbed in black quivered visibly as she stood in the dock of the Queanbeyan Coroner’s Court.

At the reading of the charge, the crowded gallery craned forward as one, watching on as the prisoner swooned heavily to the floor.

The “physically delicate” 45-year-old Ada Bunfield, quickly removed to the nearby Queanbeyan Hospital under police guard, had recently lost her husband in a most harrowing manner. Now her own life was in peril, accused as she was of occasioning his death – through poisoning.

The sensational series of events, which saw an entire region gossiping, appeared in the headlines as the “Mystery of Michelago”.

After Sunday lunch on August 4, Alicki Bunfield, the school master in the NSW hamlet for almost a decade, was found in the throes of an agonising end, his eyes bulging unnaturally, his limbs spasming and his body convulsing wildly. His condition had progressively worsened over a period of four hours, until finally, according to the later Coroner’s report, “in the act of attempting to vomit, he appeared to cease breathing”.

Michelago School

Michelago School, est. 1868 (photo credit: Peter Engstrom)

Medical assistance had been summoned earlier, the 30-odd mile trip from Queanbeyan made by Dr Moya Blackall. Eldest daughter of the town’s long-serving physician, Dr Patrick Blackall, despite Emma Stone having been the first woman registered to practice medicine in Australia in 1890, the 25-year-old Dr Blackall junior was still a pioneer. And regardless of her personal proficiency – just the previous year having successfully revived a local worker after electrocution – Bunfield was well beyond the point of no return on her arrival at his bedside.

 

 

Dr Moya Blackall in 1962 (left) & her father

The funeral arrangements proceeded without delay and by the following afternoon, the teacher’s coffin was led on by most of his fellow residents, including his students, to what would prove not quite his final resting place, in the tiny cemetery just off the Cooma road.

At almost the same time, an inquiry into the unusual circumstances of the otherwise healthy 52-year-old’s sudden demise was opened, and before the day was through, the Criminal Investigation Branch (CIB) in Sydney would be called upon to delve further into the unfolding drama.

As Government Medical Officer (GMO), Dr Patrick Blackall had that very morning conducted the post-mortem, concurring with his daughter that death was a result of asphyxiation caused by convulsions. What had brought the fits on, remained unexplained. Witnesses to the ordeal suggested “ptomaine”, or food poisoning, following Bunfield’s midday consumption of some tinned peaches that he’d declared to have “a bitter taste”. However, both Ada and their 15-year-old son, Harry, had also eaten the fruit and avoided a similar fate. The potential of this as the cause was also rejected by Dr Blackall Jnr.

The arrival of two city detective-sergeants, Kennedy and James, hot-on-the-heels of working a recent Sydney murder involving poisoningii, led to the questioning of a number of locals and some suspicious discoveries, deepening the mystery further. Subsequently, at the end of the week, Bunfield was rudely disturbed from his eternal slumber, his body exhumed for an analysis of his organs.

The result? Traces of the highly toxic poison strychnine, normally used to kill vermin such as rats, enough that according to Dr Blackall Snr, conducting a second examination in the presence of two other doctors, “a large quantity of the drug must have been consumed”. And the finding would be verified by the Government Analyst in Sydney.

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Strychnine

Strychnine in the 1920s, along with its use as a pesticide, was quite commonly known as mystery novelist Agatha Christie’s murder weapon of choice in her first whodunit, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Whether that was in the thoughts of any of the 13 witnesses called during the official inquest in Queanbeyan when it opened on Wednesday, August 28, before Presiding Magistrate, Mr J.W.T. Forrest, would not be explicitly addressed.

“An hysterical and neurotic person” was the manner in which Bunfield was said to have described his wife to one, grazier William Kelly. When the other man responded: “You don’t know what women like that might do”, Bunfield replied: “No, too right you don’t”, also noting that most of his money went to medical expenses for Ada’s ongoing, though undiagnosed, medical issues.

Perhaps due to her condition, or that she was acutely aware of the heightened attention, Ada had arrived at Court “in a motor car, with the side curtains up, but she did not venture from it.” Instead, her solicitor, Mr Felix Mitchell of Cooma, provided a doctor’s certificate alluding to her precarious health, a widely-known state of affairs which would be attested to by a number of parties.

This included the couple’s 18-year-old daughter, Mavis, who, in a tremulous voice, confirmed her mother regularly suffered “fits and seizures” and had herself been confined to bed on the same afternoon her father had fallen ill, Ada suggesting she felt “queer”. In fact, it was a result of this that Ada would not actually learn of her husband’s death until she had been widowed for almost 24 hours.

Mavis, herself heavily clothed in mourning attire, also revealed that on that fateful day she had thought Bunfield’s behaviour “strange” from as early as breakfast, when he refused food and a cup of tea, was “unusually quiet” and complained of a headache. The young woman further commented that he had been staying up much later than was his usual routine.

Close family friend, 24-year-old Tom O’Connor, a Queanbeyan carpenter and local sporting prodigy (boxing, tennis, rugby league, cricket and later, golf), agreed he’d also noticed a change in the normally circumspect man’s personality, but for at least the last week or so. Other statements similarly seemed to indicate changes in Bunfield’s appearance as much as a fortnight prior to his death.

The evidential weight seemingly continued to mount against the new widow and the Coroner brought a brief halt to proceedings, urging Mr Mitchell to have Ada attend. Finally, “in a weakened state”, she did.

Thereafter, it would come to light that while no poison had previously been kept within the household, Ada had not only received a package containing “an ounce of strychnine” – twice as much as required to kill a human – from the chemist in Cooma the day before her husband’s unfortunate demise, the preceding month she had taken receipt of another such delivery from Queanbeyaniii. She’d variously declared to the investigating detectives, and Tom O’Connor, who had collected the most recent parcel from the railway station on her behalf, that her husband had requested it, intending to use it to deal with rabbits, later changing that detail to mice.

On confirming these were the only instances of her ordering the poison, a letter from mid-July was produced indicating Ada had written to the Ladies College of Health in Sydney asking for a dose to be supplied to her. This organisation provided “treatments and remedies” for the improvement of women’s health, particularly ailments such as “anxiety”. Whether they had access to the drug or not, the College didn’t provide any to Ada , and a call was then said to have been made to another chemist who was unable to fulfil the order. At her failure to recollect these details, Ada justified it as a result of her fits, which she said impaired her memory.

Ladies College of Health.jpg

The testimony of local store-keeper, William Wyatt, was potentially even more damaging. He claimed that when that when he visited Bunfield, with whom he was “intimately acquainted”, on the Sunday afternoon, the dying man said to him, “I think I am poisoned, I think it might be strychnine”. Wyatt also suggested he had searched both the house and the school looking for the strychnine, but located nothing.

And yet, when station hand Timothy Ryan had, after lunch, asked him what was wrong, Bunfield answered that he didn’t know, instead stating “but I think there is a lot wrong”. He said again that the peaches had been “mighty bitter”. Ryan then questioned how something might have “got into the peaches”, to which Bunfield was said to have replied: “well it didn’t get there itself”.

Truth, 1929.jpg

Truth, Sydney, Sept 1, 1929

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Born in Gunning, NSW in 1877, Alick was the second son of Henry Bunfield, a free English immigrant and Methodist minister (d.1923, somewhat coincidentally, from “blood-poisoning” following a knee injury), and his Yass-born wife, Phoebe (d. 1927, also on a Sunday afternoon as had her younger son). Alick and Ada Turner, a Cooma girl (born on October 31, Halloween, no less), had married 19 years earlier in her hometown. That the family was to all appearances a happy one, was agreed upon by all.

According to Mavis, the couple never quarrelled, and son, Harry, declared that his father was devoted to his mother, also at pains to point out that she always made the orders from the chemist. Even William Kelly would qualify his earlier statements that Bunfield’s comments to him about Ada’s health problems came from concern for her rather than anything untoward.

As to the likelihood of another party with malicious intent, Ada had informed the detectives that her husband “had no enemies and was well-liked by everyone”. She also confirmed that he “looked after us and treated us well”.

What then, as to the potential for suicide?

Everyone involved was similarly adamant that Bunfield had never talked of, nor intimated, an intention to take his own life. Given strychnine poisoning is a tortuous way to die – as the muscles become paralysed, suffocating the victim, they not only remain conscious, but perception is heightened, making them only too aware of their fate – one might think other methods might have been better employed if it was a case of self-administration. And yet, it most certainly wasn’t unheard of: in the UK, between 1949 and 1979, one death a year was attributed to the notorious substance, and in all but one of the 30, it was deliberately taken by the victim.i

The final blow would be dealt Ada on the revelation that police had located a discarded and empty tin of strychnine in the rubbish and which had the appearance of the label having been scratched off. It was said this had not been there when earlier searches were conducted, both by storekeeper Wyatt, and local Constable Francis Fyfe. Responsible for policing in the town for the last year, the Constable indicated he had earlier seen Harry loitering near where the tin was found, presumably suggesting a possibility the boy may have tried to get rid of the evidence.

The Constable also said he had never heard Bunfield talk of taking his own life, although described him as a “secretive man” who did not “discuss his affairs with anyone”.

The Coroner then called Ada forward, asking if she wished to testify. He also made it clear that she “need not give any evidence if it tended to incriminate her in any way”.

When the distressed woman declined, Mr Forrest delivered the damning verdict that the deceased had “come to his death by strychnine poisoning, wilfully administered by Ada Mary Bunfield”, committing her to trial at the Central Criminal Court in Sydney three months hence, with no opportunity for bail. Upon the news, Ada promptly collapsed.

The ruling on bail would be overturned the next day due to Ada’s failing health and the expressed concern that she could not be left alone (whether because of her physical or mental health is unclear). The 1,000 pound bond and surety – a huge amount for the time, equivalent to more than $76,000 in modern termsv – was stumped up by her two brothers, the accompanying conditions that she report to police and the GMO regularly.

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Ada would have been duly traumatised for good reason. The middle-aged mother of two potentially faced a sentence of death. The last woman hanged in NSW, Louisa Collins, had been controversially subjected to the fate in 1889 when convicted of poisoning her second husband (suspected of having killed her first in the same manner). Much of the case against her was reliant on the testimony of her 10-year-old daughter.

Louisa Collins

Last woman hanged in NSW, Lousia Collins

Historically, poison is viewed as a “particularly female modus operandi”; it doesn’t require strength, and can be relatively easily obtained and concealed. Indeed, some of Australia’s most notorious female murderers did poison their victims. This included Caroline “Aunt Thally” Grills, who it was speculated killed, or attempted to kill, as many as eight of her extended family and friends by administering it in their tea and biscuitsvi. Women who committed such acts were also very poorly perceived by the public, as Louisa Collins was to tragically learn.

At the opening of Ada’s trial on November 26, with her again initially absent, an affidavit was delivered on her behalf declaring she was “innocent of the charge of having administered poison to her husband”.

Senior Prosecutor for the Crown, Mr L.J. McKean, KC, expounded it was “a case of murder, or nothing”.

At 44, McKean was a year younger than the accused. Six years later he would earn considerable attention with the now legendary “Shark Arm Case”, when a captured tiger shark disgorged a human arm and it was determined it had been swallowed after being hacked from a body. The amputation was eventually identified – employing cutting-edge forensics of the day – as belonging to a missing small-time Sydney criminal, Jim Smith, but it proved impossible to see anyone charged with the murdervii.

In relation to the death of Alick Bunfield, it was, apparently, a case of “nothing”. The trial would last less than the day. Justice Halse Rogers, promoted to the Supreme Court just the year before and known for his instinctive grasp of complex judicial matters, was perhaps loathe to see the situation of Collins repeated. He discharged the jury, citing that while cause of death was beyond doubt, as was evidence of opportunity for foul play, regardless of some suggestions Bunfield had been in “comfortable financial circumstances”, there was no motive. In his esteemed opinion, “it would be quite unsafe to convict on the evidence”, which, in his view, “was just as consistent with accident or suicide as it was with murder”. He also made clear to the 12 men selected to decide upon the matter his position that it was “more important that many people should go free rather than one innocent person should suffer”.

Justice Halse Rogers.jpg

Justice Halse Rogers (left) while Chancellor of the University of Sydney. Image courtesy State Library of NSW

Even the prosecution acknowledged they could not “assign any motive”, although Mr McKean went to lengths to point out, “it is not necessary to prove motive”.

In contrast to her original emotional response, on the positive outcome of Ada’s ordeal, some reports suggest the wife cleared of the murder of her husband remained “unmoved”. As with so many of the details surrounding the somewhat bizarre set of circumstances that had led to that juncture though, the various views seemed far from objective, with others suggesting she was “dabbing a hankerchief at her eyes” as she was assisted from the dock.

It would seem then, the situation was resolved?

Hardly.

No definitive explanation was ever provided as to how Bunfield ingested the poison which killed him.

The tin that was later discovered in the backyard was empty – so where did the crystalline powder go? It was also apparently not the supply that had been received the day before the tragedy, as Ada told Constable Fyfe that had been a jar, while the one prior to that had been “a blue packet”. Neither of these, it seems, were ever located. Had Bunfield been using it on the rabbits – or mice – and in doing so, somehow swallowed some? In another aside, Harry Bunfield also made the observation that a house cat had died suffering convulsions as much as a week before his father’s death.

Strychnine can be inhaled, enter the body through broken skin or even absorbed through the eyes or mouth. Naturally, smaller doses take longer to take full effect, when enough to be fatal, symptoms being displayed up to 24 hours before the onset of death. Yet the Coroner’s report revealed that almost “2 grains” were found in Bunfield’s stomach and organs (as little as a ¼ of a grain has been known to be lethal): too much to have been consumed in any way without it being noticed at the time, or could lesser amounts have entered his system over a lengthier period, eventually producing a cumulative effect?

While colourless and odourless, strychnine is also very bitter-tasting, and hence, when used as a plot device (also in Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo and Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, or for a more modern reference, by Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho), is usually consumed unintentionally or disguised in other strong-tasting concoctions.

It was the tinned peaches he ate at lunch that the dead man declared “bitter” to a number of people, but Bunfield also stated to one witness that his son, Harry, had eaten far more than he and told his father he had not noted anything out of the ordinary. Some of the court reporting however, declared the boy had been vomiting prior to the arrival of Dr Blackall Jnr, but she would note that he did not present to her as symptomatic. Ada too, had eaten the fruit and been taken to bed feeling unwell. Another account in the more local Braidwood Review & District Advocate had both Ada and Harry making themselves sick following Bunfield’s observations after the meal, in order to avoid “serious consequences”. But if they did, why would the teacher not have attempted the same remedy? (Modern treatment suggests vomiting should not be induced in such instances).

Daily Advertiser, Wagga, Aug 29, 1929

Daily Advertiser, Wagga, Aug 30, 1929

During the inquiry, Harry would also suggest he thought the culprit may instead have been a rice custard his mother had made, in which “she did not partake”. He made it clear though, that as he assisted prepare the food, he would have known if there were any unexplained additions to the recipe.

Then there’s the anomalies with the timeline of events. From the available information it’s possible to glean that it seems that neither of the Dr Blackalls considered strychnine poisoning an option at the point of Bunfield’s death, or else surely he would not have been permitted to be buried. This, as the cause, did not appear to be raised until after Ada had confirmed with Constable Fyfe on the Wednesday that she had taken delivery of the poison. Raising suspicions, she had also asked him if this information might lead to there being a court case.

Equally, it’s unclear if Timothy Ryan’s claim Bunfield stated it “might be strychnine” was revealed before or after it became more widely known that the substance had since been in the house.

And what of Ada? Despite her ongoing problems, her only diagnosis was one of “neurasthenia”, essentially a cover-all term for a variety of non-specific issues from fatigue to headaches, and primarily related to “emotional disturbance”.

Her symptoms however, were potentially similar to the effects of low-dose strychnine consumption – headaches, vomiting and fitting. Could she, too, have been ingesting the poison previously, either by accident, or even, knowingly? Or, was there a possibility someone had been administering it to her – she had, after all, claimed she’d obtained it on her husband’s request?

Potentially the most eyebrow-raising element was Ada’s ordering of the preparation. Firstly, there was the number of occasions she had purchased, or attempted to purchase strychnine – at least four, two of which she had somewhat mysteriously forgotten. Then there’s the question of why in each she’d attempted to source it from a different location, bearing in mind Michelago was much too small a place to support a chemist and so supplies would come from nearby Cooma or Queanbeyan. Finally though, why would Ada have approached, of all places, the Ladies College of Health in Sydney to buy it – or, does the answer to that lie therein?

It may have been that Ada was so tired of being ill she was looking for an end to it – but not necessarily in the negative way that might be perceived. It’s a little known fact that in the 19th and early 20th century, the poison was actually recommended in small doses as an “invigorator”, the “convulsant effect” believed to be beneficial, particularly as an “athletic performance enhancer”. Even as late as 2016, it was still being detected in sports doping scandalsviii. Might Ada have considered it a tonic for her ailments, but was not prepared to admit this to be the situation?

Of course, all of these questions may well have been answered by way of a thorough trial, but Justice Rogers appeared justified in his decision to dismiss given the circumstantial nature of the evidence.

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In the end, it may be that the answer to the mystery of Alick Bunfield’s death lies in what seems to have been a single report contained in a newspaper far removed from the rural environs of Michelago. Despite the extensive coverage of the ongoing saga, it appears that only the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin (Qld), the day after the conclusion of the trial, made mention that “they ate tinned fish the night before and Mrs Bunfield also became sick” (not withstanding other details, including names and ages, were incorrect)ix.

As it transpires, it is possible for secondary poisonings to occur if a poisoned animal is consumedx. Similarly, there are most certainly instances of strychnine being found in fish (also cyanide), most likely due to human disposal in river systems. It’s no secret canned goods can also be problematic when it comes to the contamination of food, although usually presenting as a form of virulent food poisoning known as botulism (a 1978 outbreak in Canada courtesy of canned salmon)xi.

Presuming this news report was not another transcription error (and this seemingly wasn’t the case as it specifically referenced the activities of the previous evening), nowhere was it revealed if all family members partook in the meal, or if Bunfield had more than the others. If both Ada and Harry had a lesser portion, it could potentially account for their illness on the Sunday, and if they did enforce vomiting after lunch, perhaps they rid their systems of the toxin. It might also explain why Bunfield was sick from that morning. Mavis was at breakfast, so it can logically be presumed she was at dinner the night before, but it’s impossible to know if she, too, ate it, and the only confirmed point is that she seemed the only one to suffer no ill-effects.

Was the culprit then, the fish?

Confirmed answers it seems, would go to the grave with both the Bunfields. Ada died just 11 years later, exactly two months after her 56th birthday, on December 31, 1940xii. By then living in Queanbeyan, she was not buried alongside her husband back in Michelago, but instead is interred in the Queanbeyan Riverside Cemetery.

And so, for all eternity it seems, a Michelago mystery it remains.

michelago railway station3.jpg

Michelago Railway Station

  • The Michelago School will celebrate its 150th anniversary on March 24th this year.

 

 

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