The Poisonous Solicitor
by Stephen Bates
A classic 1920s murder mystery.
It’s straight out of an Agatha Christie thriller: a meek-mannered country solicitor poisons his domineering wife, then sets about dosing a rival solicitor over a cream tea with a scone laced with arsenic. The man subsequently falls ill with symptoms similar to the dead wife and tongues begin to wag. The solicitor is found with packets of arsenic in his pockets and more in his desk – bought, he claimed, from a local chemist to poison the dandelions in his lawn. Such is the true tale of Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong, tried for the murder of his wife and executed in 1922 - the only solicitor ever to be hanged in Britain.
Armstrong lived and practised at Hay-on-Wye, now best-known for its annual international literary festival, but then a quiet country village. The office where he practised and was arrested is still a local law firm, as is the office of his rival Oswald Martin, just across the road. Both men were involved in a legal wrangle over the sale of a local estate, with Armstrong unable to hand over the costs because he had probably embezzled the money. Armstrong’s wife Kitty, who had died eight months earlier without any suspicions being aroused, was a harridan, known to humiliate her husband in public. He had found another companion: the mysterious Madame X as she was referred to at the trial: another motive for a poisoning. Kitty’s body was dug up by the police at dead of night so as not to arouse Armstrong’s suspicion and found to be riddled with poison. The case seemed open and shut. But did he do it, or was he framed? Armstrong seemed a devoted husband and no one saw him administering anything to his wife. The Armstrong case intrigued writers in the golden age of detective novels - Dorothy Sayers incorporated elements of the Armstrong case in two of her books and Georgette Heyer is said to have based a character on the diminutive solicitor. The case - a classic 1920s murder mystery set in 'Midsomer Murders' territory – remains a whodunit with a twist – that it really happened.