‘Careless’ storage of arsenic led to Preston death of teenage boy

Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at inquest into the sad demise of a deaf and dumb youth...

Friday, 30th August 2019, 2:41 pm
Mrs Miller visited a druggists shop on Adelphi Street

Unlike in Victorian times Victoria Street in Preston is full of tall buildings belonging to UCLan, they having replaced the rows of terraced dwellings. Amongst the inhabitants in 1861 were the Miller family who on the last weekend of May 1861 were involved in a tragic affair.

A week later an inquest was held by coroner Miles Myres over the body of Thomas James Miller, a deaf and dumb youth, who had died on the previous Saturday. The 18-year-old youth had according to reports died from taking arsenic.

The first witness called was Edwin Lynch, druggist, who kept a shop in Adelphi Street about 200 yards from the Miller’s home. He recalled that on the Friday morning Mrs. Miller came to his shop before 9 o’clock and asked for an emetic, as she thought her stepson had mistakenly taken some arsenic mixed with his porridge. Five hours later she returned in an anxious state asking Mr Lynch to visit her home to see if the youth was labouring under the effect of poison. Her stepson was in a poorly state on the sofa, having vomited a number of times. Mr Lynch tested the vomit and found it contained arsenic. He urged her to call a surgeon, and in the meantime make the lad drank plenty of vinegar and water. During his conversations with Mrs. Miller she had told him the lad was in the habit of hiding sugar and meal and that on a shelf in the pantry there had been for a couple of years some meal mixed with arsenic previously used to tackle vermin.

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Dr. Stavert then testified saying that he had been called at 4 o’clock on the Friday afternoon and found the deceased suffering from sickness and a great prostration of strength. His extremities were cold and having been informed by his mother that he had taken arsenic, he prescribed medication accordingly. He saw him about midday on the Saturday and he was weaker than previously and died within a couple of hours. When he carried out the post-mortem examination he found arsenic in the contents of the stomach, and both stomach and bowels were inflamed. Death was due to the taking of arsenic. He had attended the lad previously and he was generally of weak intellect.

Thomas Miller, dresser, confirmed the deceased was his son and that he was in the habit of taking articles and hiding them. Saying that he often took meal from its container and screwed it up in paper having mixed it with sugar. He only heard later in the day that the lad was sick when he returned from work. He had to be ever watchful of his behaviour and at night his bedroom door was locked for fear of him setting fire.

Police Sergeant Palmer was called and in response to the coroner, said he had been to the various druggists shops in town, but had not ascertained that the step-mother had purchased any poison recently and that she had told him it was 14 years since she bought the arsenic.

Mrs. Miller was then called and she remarked that when she bought the arsenic they had moved into a filthy house and used it to destroy vermin. She then stated that since living in Victoria Street she had made a mixture of arsenic and meal that she put in the fender at night to kill the crickets that plagued their house. And that for the last two years, what was left of the mixture, had been on a high shelf in the pantry.

The coroner then told the jury to consider carefully the evidence, particularly Mrs. Miller’s testimony. They returned from their deliberations within half an hour and delivered a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’ whilst expressing their dismay over the careless manner in which poison had been kept in the home.