Major Armstrong: Greed and Obsession Make Murder

From last week’s New York case, we’re back to Britain this week for the case of Major Armstrong. The major, a solicitor, killed his shrewish wife with arsenic and used it to try to eliminate a rival.

Major Armstrong

Herbert Rowse Armstrong was born in Plymouth in 1869. After obtaining a law degree, he began practice in Liverpool. Then in 1906, joined the firm of an elderly solicitor, Edmund Cheese, in the market town of Hay-on-Wye. With his prospects promising, he married his fiancée, Katherine Friend, the next year. The couple had two daughters and a son. Armstrong was increasingly successful as a solicitor and Cheese made him a partner in Cheese & Armstrong. With continued success, he moved his family into a rather grand house called Mayfield in the village of Cusop Dingle. He was popular and active in the social life of Hay-on-Wye and, among other organizations, joined the Volunteer Force.

Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong
Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong

Armstrong was called up to serve when the First World War broke out in 1914, He achieved the rank of major in the Royal Engineers and served for a time in France. After the war, almost everyone called him “Major Armstrong.”

Mrs. Armstrong’s Unfortunate Death

Katherine was the dominant force in the Armstrong marriage. Her attention to etiquette bordered on obsession. As for her husband, she strictly ordered his life and had a habit of humiliating him in public.

Katherine Armstrong
Katherine Armstrong

Katherine had always been nervous with a tendency toward hypochondria. But in 1919, she began to have health problems that her doctor, Dr. Thomas Hincks, diagnosed as “brachial neuritis.” She appeared to recover from this, but a year later both her physical and mental health deteriorated precipitously. Admitted to a private mental asylum in August, she was delusional and had symptoms that included fever, vomiting, and heart murmurs. She improved at the asylum, but after returning home in January 1921, her symptoms came back with a vengeance. She died on February 22, 1921.

Mayfield in Cusop Dingle
Mayfield in Cusop Dingle

Major Armstrong Tries to Poison a Rival

Before the war, Cheese & Armstrong were the most successful solicitors in Hay-on-Wye. After the war, however, a rival firm solicitor, Robert Griffiths, took on a new partner named Oswald Martin. Martin had a keen knowledge of the arcane British tax laws. He used it to set up trusts and other instruments that helped minimize taxes. This was a field that Cheese & Armstrong were not able to compete in. Furthermore, Martin began to poach some of Armstrong’s other business.

Armstrong and Oswald Martin represented opposing parties in the complicated sale of the Velinewydd estate. The sale had become a drawn-out affair, ostensibly because Armstrong was dragging his feet. Martin was threatening to terminate the contract. On October 26, 1921, Armstrong invited Martin to his house, where he served tea and scones. If Martin expected to discuss the sale, he was disappointed. The two men only discussed ordinary things (although Martin could have brought up the sale if he’d wanted to).

Later that night, Martin became violently ill, which his doctor diagnosed as stomach flu. However, Martin’s father-in-law, John Davies, insisted that this was a case of arsenic poisoning. Davies just happened to be the local chemist (druggist) and had sold arsenic to Armstrong. Martin contacted Scotland Yard, who agreed there was cause for suspicion. They advised caution—Major Armstrong was a prominent man in the community after all—and agreed to investigate.

Ten months after her death, Katherine Armstrong was exhumed. The eminent pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury conducted an autopsy and ruled that she had died of a massive dose of arsenic poisoning. Unsurprisingly, Armstrong found himself in the dock charged with murder and attempted murder.

Major Armstrong on Trial

No direct evidence linked Major Armstrong to either his wife’s death or Martin’s alleged poisoning. But there was considerable circumstantial evidence. Over time, the major had purchased quite a bit of arsenic from the chemist Davies. The major said he used the arsenic to kill dandelions. He divided the powdered arsenic into little packets. Then dissolved a packet in water, put the solution in a squirt gun, and blasted away at the weed’s roots. He had one of the packets in his pocket when police arrested him.

Armstrong at his magistrate's hearing
Armstrong at his magistrate’s hearing

Probably the most damning witness against Major Armstrong was the renowned Spilsbury. Once the great man made up his mind, nothing could move him to change it—or his testimony. Armstrong’s barrister, Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett, K.C. tried on cross-examination to shake the pathologist but only ended up strengthening his testimony. That left the defense up to Major Armstrong himself, who testified on his own behalf.

Armstrong, a lawyer himself acquitted himself well in the witness box. Despite a somewhat lackluster defense, when he stepped down, courtroom observers thought the odds were tilting toward acquittal. Until, that is, the judge called him back.

Mr. Justice Darling
Mr. Justice Darling

Mr. Justice Darling had a few questions of his own and gave the major a very uncomfortable time in the witness box. By the time the interrogation from the bench ended, so had Armstrong’s chances for acquittal. The jury took less than an hour to find him guilty. Mr. Justice Darling, known as a hanging judge, sentenced Armstrong to death. He was hanged on May 31, 1922 at Gloucester Prison, proclaiming his innocence to the end. Armstrong remains the only solicitor to be hanged for murder in England.

Did It Really Happen That Way?

The summary above is the ‘accepted” version of the Hay poisoning case. The major’s guilt was a foregone conclusion for over seventy years. Then in 1995, Martin Beales reexamined the case in Dead Not Buried, later republished as The Hay Poisoner. Beales, a solicitor himself, bought and lived in the Armstrong house, Mayfield. He also worked in the same office at the same desk as the major.

Armstrong's office in Hay-on-Wye at the time Martin Beales worked there (Sam Blacketer)
Armstrong’s office in Hay-on-Wye at the time Martin Beales worked there (Sam Blacketer)

Beales contends the evidence against Major Armstrong was weak and the case largely driven by Oswald Martin’s father-in-law, John Davies. He also cites a weak performance by defense barrister Curtis-Bennett and Mr. Justice Darling’s obvious prejudice. And he reminds his readers that it was common in 1920s Britain for people to use arsenic around the house. Furthermore, he disputes the idea that Martin was taking business from Armstrong and contends it was the reverse.

Beales died of cancer in 2010.

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2 Replies to “Major Armstrong: Greed and Obsession Make Murder”

  1. He wasn’t hanged at “Hereford Shire Hall Gloucester”. He was tried in Hereford Shirehall in April and hanged at Gloucester Prison on 31st May 1922.

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