Yesterdays / The mysterious case of the Michelago poisoner

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A heading from the front page of “The Canberra Times” in August, 1929.

IT was the depths of winter, 1929, and the frail woman garbed in black quivered visibly as she stood in the dock of the Queanbeyan Coroner’s Court.

At the reading of the charge, the crowded gallery craned forward as one, watching on as the prisoner swooned heavily to the floor.

Nichole-Overall
Nichole Overall.

The “physically delicate” 45-year-old Ada Bunfield had recently lost her husband in a most harrowing manner. Now her own life was in peril, accused as she was of occasioning his death – through poisoning.

The sensational series of events, which saw an entire region gossiping, appeared in the headlines as the “Mystery of Michelago”.

After Sunday lunch on August 4, Alick Bunfield, the school master in the tiny hamlet for almost a decade, was found in the throes of an agonising end, his eyes bulging unnaturally, his limbs spasming and his body convulsing wildly. Finally, “in the act of attempting to vomit, he appeared to cease breathing”.

Just a day later, the teacher’s coffin was led on to what would prove not quite his final resting place, in the tiny cemetery just off the Cooma Road.

At the same time, an inquiry into the otherwise healthy 52-year-old’s sudden demise was opened. Queanbeyan’s Dr Patrick Blackall, conducting the post-mortem, noted death was a result of asphyxiation caused by convulsions. What brought the fits on though, remained unexplained. Witnesses to the ordeal suggested “ptomaine”, or food poisoning, following Bunfield’s midday consumption of some tinned peaches that he’d declared to have “a bitter taste”.

With the mystery deepening, Bunfield was rudely disturbed from his eternal slumber, his body exhumed for further analysis. The result? Traces of the highly toxic poison strychnine, normally used to kill rats, enough that, according to Dr Blackall, “a large quantity of the drug must have been consumed”.

It was, of course, the 1920s and along with its use as a pesticide, strychnine was quite commonly known as mystery novelist Agatha Christie’s murder weapon of choice in her first whodunit, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”. Whether that was in the thoughts of any of the 13 witnesses called during the official inquest in Queanbeyan when it opened on August 28 would not be explicitly addressed.

“An hysterical and neurotic person” was the manner in which Bunfield was said to have described his wife to one, grazier William Kelly. When the other man responded: “You don’t know what women like that might do”, Bunfield replied: “No, too right you don’t”, also noting that most of his money went to medical expenses for Ada’s ongoing, though undiagnosed, medical issues.

The couple’s distressed 18-year-old daughter, Mavis, confirmed her mother regularly suffered “fits and seizures”. She also revealed that on that fateful day she had thought Bunfield’s behaviour “strange” as early as breakfast time, refusing food and complaining of a headache.

The evidential weight seemingly continued to mount against the new widow. While no poison had previously been kept within the household, Ada had not only received a package containing “an ounce of strychnine” – twice as much as required to kill a human – the day before her husband’s death, the preceding month there’d been another such delivery. Her explanation was to variously declare its intended use was to deal with rabbits or mice.

On two points, the witnesses agreed: that the family was apparently a happy one, and there was never any intimation that Bunfield would take his own life.

When Ada declined to testify on her own behalf, the coroner, Mr Forrest, delivered the damning verdict that the deceased had “come to his death by strychnine poisoning, wilfully administered by Ada Mary Bunfield”.

The middle-aged mother potentially faced a sentence of death – the last woman hanged in NSW, Louisa Collins, had been controversially subjected to the fate in 1889 when convicted of poisoning her second husband. For Ada, at the Central Criminal Court in Sydney three months later, senior prosecutor for the Crown, Mr LJ McKean, KC, expounded it was “a case of murder, or nothing”.

Apparently, it was the latter. The trial would last less than the day and Justice Halse Rogers, perhaps loathe to see the situation of Collins repeated, discharged the jury, citing that while cause of death was beyond doubt, as was evidence of opportunity for foul play, there was no motive.

The situation then, was resolved? Hardly. No definitive explanation was provided as to how Bunfield ingested the poison which killed him. And what of his wife? Her symptoms of a non-specific illness were potentially similar to the effects of low-dose strychnine consumption – headaches, vomiting and fitting. Had either of the couple taken the poison knowingly or by accident, or could there even have been a third party involved?

Confirmed answers would, it seems, go to the grave with them both – Ada laid to rest just 11 years later, not alongside her husband, but in the Queanbeyan Riverside Cemetery.

And so, a Michelago mystery it remains.

For more revelations, findings and theories about this essentially unsolved case, see nichole2620.wordpress.com.

The Michelago School will celebrate its 150th anniversary on March 24th this year.

 

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Nichole Overall
Nichole Overall is a Queanbeyan-based journalist, author and social historian.

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