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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 7, Issue 2, 2010

Rough On Rats: An Unsolved Mystery

page 36
Advertisements for Rough On Rats.

Advertisements for Rough On Rats.

Left: Nelson Evening Mail, July 2, 1883.

Right. An early Rough On Rats promotion.

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Rough On Rats:
An Unsolved Mystery in Examiner St, 1889

“Unfortunately,people started using it to take their own lives, especially those from the lower echelons of colonial society”. Don’t die in the house. – “Rough on Rats” clears out rats, mice, beetles, roaches, bed-bugs, flies, ants, insects, moles, jackrabbits, gophers, 7d. Moses, Moss & Co., Sydney, General Agents.

So ran an advertisement in the Nelson Evening Mail ofJuly 2, 1883.

Rough on Rats was a poison composed of arsenic, with a little coal added for colouring, was used to kill vermin. Advertisements for its sale began appearing in the 1880s and it became a household name.

It was easily obtainable from chemists. Unfortunately, people started using it to take their own lives, especially those from the lower echelons of colonial society.

In the Nelson area alone the following died from ingesting this poison:
Mrs Edward Dee December 24, 1885
Mrs Joseph Best May 7, 1886
Mr Frank Brown July 23, 1886
Mr John Jessop February 4, 1887
Tim Simmons February 19, 1887
Mr William Hay October 11, 1895
Miss Letitia Stoney June 18, 1898
Mr William Le Foe September 3, 1898
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Of the above, the most interesting case is that of Miss Letitia Stoney, because it was not solved. The inquest lasted five days and the verdict of the jury was that ‘Miss Stoney was wilfully poisoned, the evidence not being sufficient to say by whom’.1

The family involved lived in Examiner Street, on the northern side somewhere opposite Nelson College for Girls Hostel, as the house had access from both Examiner Street and South Street. It was next door to Mrs Sarah Jackson’s house. The exact location was not able to be determined as the relevant Rating Rolls are not available.

The household consisted of Mrs Catherine (Kate) Bristow, the widow of Arthur Laurenson (Lawrence) Bristow, former manager of the National Bank, Greymouth, Miss Dorothy Bristow, Kate Bristow’s niece, aged 14, whose father lived in Victoria, Australia, and Miss Letitia Stoney, Mrs Bristow’s elder sister, aged 67. Miss Stoney was a teacher who took in private pupils.

Mr and Mrs Bristow had formerly lived in Waimea (Rutherford) Street after shifting to Nelson from Greymouth in the hope of an improvement to Arthur’s health. Miss Stoney and Dorothy lived with them. Arthur Bristow’s death was reported in the Colonist of April 20, 1891. Mrs Bristow, who was the sole beneficiary under his will, bought the house in Examiner Street soon after probate.

According to Mrs Catherine Totton, a friend of the family and a witness at the inquest, they were all on good terms with each other and Dorothy had a kind disposition.

Letitia Stoney had a happy temperament, was religious and inclined to be quiet. She had recently lost most of her pupils due to a Nelson school opening, and that had deprived her of her income. Mrs Bristow, she said, had an excitable nature and was talkative.

On Saturday June 18, 1898 Dorothy Bristow made the porridge, as she usually did, and took a bowl of it, along with a container of two day old milk, to Miss Stoney in her room. She did not take Mrs Bristow’s porridge to her, as she was still asleep. After eating her porridge and milk, Miss Stoney became violently ill and called out to Mrs Bristow not to eat the porridge. Dorothy had by this time eaten her own helping and taken Mrs Bristow’s to her. She tasted a mouthful and declared that it tasted awful.

Dorothy then made Mrs Bristow a cup of tea using some of the same milk and she was ill after drinking it. Dorothy by this time was vomiting too.

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A neighbour was asked to summon medical help. Doctors Mackie, Andrew and Roberts attended during the course of the day, and the Rev. J. P. Kempthorne and his wife Mary and Mrs Sarah Jackson, a neighbour, were also involved, along with Constable Bird. Despite their efforts, Miss Stoney died that afternoon at about 4pm. Mrs Bristow and Dorothy were ill throughout the day but recovered.

When the contents of the three women’s stomachs were analysed, they were found to contain arsenic. Traces of arsenic were also found in the oatmeal and the old milk, but not in the salt, the sugar or the fresh milk. Miss Stoney had a weak heart and the coroner ruled that her death was due to heart failure brought on by the effects of the poison.

Mrs Bristow knew that there was poison in the house, having bought Rough on Rats several years previously, and some of it still remained. She had offered the partly used box to her friend, Catherine Totton, the week previous to the poisonings, to deal with a vermin problem. Mrs Totton had forgotten to take it with her, and the box had been left on the high mantelpiece in the kitchen.

A few days before the poisoning, Mrs Bristow had had workmen at her property. In the evening a woodshed at the rear of the house had caught fire. In those days it was common for people to steal wood. In her evidence she said she suspected that she had been poisoned by whoever had attempted to fire the premises, in this case one of the young workmen, to avoid being found out. The relevant workman was questioned but no conclusion was drawn.

So how did the poison get into the porridge and the milk? That question remains unanswered.

Miss Stoney was buried at Wakapuaka Cemetery on June 22, 1898.

Mrs Bristow, along with Dorothy, appears to have left the district quite soon after the poisonings, as she is not listed in the Stone’s Directory of 1899.

The Inquest can be read in the Colonist beginning on July 5, 1898 and subsequent issues. There was not sufficient evidence for the case to go to trial.1

Some time prior to 1901 Rough on Rats was included within the Sale of PoisonsAct, making it less easily obtainable, and the suicide epidemic slowed.

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11. Conclusion of the inquest, Nelson Evening Mail, July 8, 1898.




Grey River Argus

Nelson Evening Mail


New Zealand Post Office Directory 1887-88

New Zealand Post Office Directory 1890-91

Wise’s Nelson, Westland, Marlborough Directory 1894-95

Stones Nelson and Suburban Street Directory 1899

Electoral Rolls

Nelson 1893