THE CASE OF HERBERT ROWSE ARMSTRONG

By Tim Lambert

Herbert Rowse Armstrong was a British solicitor. He was born in Plymouth in 1869. Armstrong studied law at Cambridge and he graduated in 1891. His first job was in Liverpool. Later he worked in Newton Abbot, Devon but in 1906 Armstrong moved to Haye-on-Wye in Breconshire. Then in 1907 married a woman named Katherine Friend. But Armstrong became a henpecked husband. By all accounts he was dominated by his wife. However with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Armstrong joined the army and he rose to the rank of major. But after the war he had to return to his stifling life in Hay-on-Wye. He decided to poison his wife, Katherine. She became mentally ill in August 1920 and she was sent to a private mental hospital near Gloucester. Katherine was released in January 1921 but she became physically ill. She died on 22 February 1921. At first her death was thought to be natural.

Armstrong then attempted to murder a rival solicitor named Oswald Martin. On 26 October 1921 Armstrong invited Martin to tea. Afterwards Martin fell very ill. He suffered from vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pains. However his father-in-law, Fred Davies was a pharmacist. He suspected Martin had been poisoned. He remembered that Armstrong had bought arsenic from his shop. Oswald Martin remembered that recently somebody had sent a box of chocolates to his home without a note. Fortunately Martin and his wife were not fond of chocolates and only ate one or two. However Martin's sister-in-law had eaten one and she became very ill. Davies told his suspicions to a Dr Hincks who was treating Martin. Dr Hincks sent the remaining chocolates and samples of Martin's urine for testing. Arsenic was found in the urine and two of the chocolates had been tampered with. Someone had drilled holes in them then added arsenic.

On 31 December 1921 Herbert Rowse Armstrong was arrested for the attempted murder of Oswald Martin. (When he was arrested the police found a packet of arsenic in his pocket). The police now suspected that Armstrong had killed his wife Katharine and so her body was exhumed. The pathologist found arsenic in her body and Armstrong was charged with her murder.

Armstrong went on trial on 3 April 1922. The pathologist Bernard Spilsbury testified that Katharine Armstrong had been given large doses of arsenic in the last week of her life culminating in a large dose 24 hours before her death. Armstong went on trial for murder on 3 April 1921. The defense argued that Katherine might have committed suicide. But she was showing signs of poisoning long before her death, which suggested she was slowly poisoned. Furthermore shortly before her death she asked a nurse 'Nurse, I'm not going to die am I? Because I have everything to live for, my children and my husband'. Hardly the sort of question a suicidal person was ask. When asked why he had a packet of arsenic in his pocket when he was arrested Armstrong claimed he used arsenic to kill dandelions in his garden. He said he put arsenic in small packets then made holes besides the dandelions and poured the arsenic in. He could not explain why he didn't simply pour in a small amount of arsenic straight from the packet. On 13 April 1921 Herbert Rowse Armstrong was found guilty of murder and he was sentenced to death. He was hanged in Gloucester prison on 31 May 1922.

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