The Husband Poisoner by Tanya Bretherton

‘Her recipe for murder was simple.’ … ‘Your Bonox, dear.’

In this book, Ms Bretherton writes about several different women, who used rat poison to end the lives of husbands and other inconvenient family members. They used thallium (a colourless, odourless, tasteless poison used to kill rats) in drinks such as Bonox.

Ms Bretherton writes of the social changes after World War II, how some of the freedom women experienced during the war came to an end when employment opportunities changed as men returned to try to take up their pre-war lives. Yvonne Fletcher killed two husbands, Caroline Grills killed her stepmother, a family friend, her brother, and his wife. Each of these deaths was initially attributed to natural causes, despite the suffering endured by many of the victims.

Nearly every household in Sydney (and elsewhere) would have had some type of rat poison on hand, and I wondered just how many ‘natural deaths’ were really the result of poisoning. In this book, Ms Bretherton writes about the cases of Yvonne Fletcher and Caroline Grills, and mentions other cases but I wonder how many more escaped detection?

Between March 1952 and April 1953, ten deaths and forty-six hospital admissions were attributed to thallium. Fortunately, the Poisons Act was amended in 1953, regulating the sale of thallium.

Using thallium may have been comparatively easy for the murderer, but it inflicted agony on their victims. The details are harrowing and heartbreaking. They include severe pain and blindness. One poor victim was accused of malingering, was determined to be insane and committed to the Callan Park Hospital for the Insane.

Ms Bretherton includes various recipes of the period in this book: the perfect vehicle for delivering the poison and a reminder that poisoning is usually a domestic crime. Shudder.

If you are interested in true crime, then you may find this book interesting. And unsettling.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



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