Thus sang the 60s psychedelic band “Jefferson Airplane” in their famous hit “White Rabbit” in 1967.
They were, of course equating the events narrated in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” stories with contemporary drug culture particularly, in the case of the quote I’ve used above, various hallucinogenic fungi known generically as “magic mushrooms”.
Relax! I’m not planning on discussing THAT aspect of mushrooms any further so let’s turn instead to a spot of family history!
I think I’d better explain!
A while ago I mentioned the existence of a folder copied from one of my old hard drives that contained sound files for a 1960s radio show. In the same general area I have just rediscovered a similar folder that I haven’t looked at for years. This one contains a series of scanned images which my late father made of some typed transcripts of newspaper reports from the East Anglian Daily Times dating from September 1907.
Readers of my previous forays into family history will remember my paternal Grandfather “Jack the Milkman” and HIS father who I named “Biggest Alfie” in order to tell him apart from others of that name. Oh all right, since you insist, here are the links!
Well, this story is connected to the previously unmentioned wife of “Biggest Alfie”, Jack’s mother, my Great-Grandmother, a lady named Maria.
Specifically it is connected to Maria’s sister, Laura, and her family who were living, at the time of the news story, at 22 Tovells Road in Ipswich. This was a fairly small terraced place and she lived there with her husband Samuel and their children:
Charles (aged 17)
I have looked at that house on Google Street View and how they all fitted in it I’ll never know!
Anyway, my Great-great Aunt Laura was, on Friday 13th September 1907, also being visited by her married and pregnant 22 year old daughter Ruth (who, with hindsight, should definitely have stayed at home). Laura herself was pregnant yet again – a fact which may have been relevant in considering the reasons for what happened next.
By all accounts they were an impoverished family, Samuel and Charles were almost continuously out of work and as there were no State Benefits to keep them alive they were dependent upon the small earnings of the
two oldest girls, the charity of other parts of the family and what could be grown or picked themselves.
On the aforementioned Friday 13th September Samuel and his son Charles walked out of town to Kesgrave to pick blackberries which they would then sell for a small sum to a local greengrocer. They picked some for sale and I imagine it would have had to have been a LOT to be worthwhile but they also came upon some mushrooms in a wood by the main road which Samuel gathered for consumption at home.
Son Charles apparently questioned his father as to whether these were edible as they did not resemble the ones that were normally brought home and cooked by his mother. Samuel angrily objected to the suggestion that there was anything amiss and Charles stopped arguing with him.
On arriving home most of the mushrooms were duly stewed and served up for dinner (with what other food the reports do not say) and were eaten by most of the family – Charles had none because he had always seriously
disliked them while Ernest, Beatrice and the visiting Ruth had a small amount.
Apparently there were no immediate ill effects but 24 hours later on the evening of Saturday 14th September the mother and father (Samuel and Laura Senior) along with Laura junior, Mabel, Willie and Alfred all became very, very unwell indeed!
At around midnight a doctor was called (remember there was no NHS so he would have to be paid and thus would only be summoned for dire emergencies) and he records that all six were exhibiting violent symptoms of
diarrhoea and vomiting that continued all night and into the next morning.
By noon on the Sunday this proved too much for 3 year old Alfie and he passed away followed a couple of hours later by 5 year old Willie. We do not know if their mother was in any state to be aware of this but she
also succumbed at around 5pm having first given birth to a premature and stillborn baby. At about 7pm 13 year old Mabel died too.
This left Samuel, the father, and his daughter Laura fighting for their lives while the surviving children were put up by relatives. And a good job too! Just picturing that small house awash with vomit and excrement and with dead bodies of close family in some of the rooms causes even my powerful imagination to give up and quiver in horror! I cannot even begin to think of what it would have been like to spend the night there!
On the Monday, while an inquest on the four dead from the previous day was convened, Beatrice (9) and her brother Ernest (11) also showed some signs of the poisoning and the former became quite unwell. Ernest,
however, had been with some other children (probably my grandfather Jack, then aged nearly 4, and his siblings) and had eaten an excessive number of Plums, the laxative effects of which seem to have shifted the poison through his system before it could damage his internal organs! I wonder if “scrumping” saved his life!
Beatrice must also have received a comparatively minor dose and recovered eventually.
The married daughter, Ruth, also suffered from a mild version of the symptoms but in her case the doctor was more concerned for her imminent child. The baby was, however, born on that very day with no particular
More horror was to come, however, as Samuel and daughter Laura both suffered more and more pain during the night (presumably as their organs began to fail) and after some hours of thrashing about in agony Samuel
died at 4.30 on the Tuesday morning followed by Laura some six hours later.
So, six out of a family of nine (not counting babies or people “living out”) died very hard and nasty deaths and it fell to the coroner and his jury to try to find out how and why they died. That is where it emerged that Samuel had become quite short-tempered with his son Charles following the latter stating that there was something “not right” about the colour and smell of the “mushrooms” he had picked.
Experts in fungi and toxicology confirmed from fragments of the “mushrooms” found in the kitchen that these were, as suspected, a highly poisonous and deadly strain looking and smelling nothing like the common edible
type. It was felt that both the father and mother of the household should have realised this.
Testimony was also given by the greengrocer who usually purchased the fruit gathered by Samuel to the effect that Samuel had remarked the previous April that he “would rather see my lot stiff than put up with another winter like the last” Despite this there was no other evidence that this was anything other than a stupid and fatal mistake by a man who should have known better.
Consequently six verdicts of “Death by misadventure” were recorded. I leave you to your own conclusions as to whether that was right.
The funerals of the six were provided free by Mr Singleton, a local undertaker (who certainly got his money back in free advertising in the EADT reports!), and the case was such a sensation in Ipswich that a crowd
estimated by the police to have numbered around 7000 attended it.
The surviving children went to stay with various other parts of the family and Ernest actually shared a room for some years with my grandfather, Jack. When Ernest grew up he married his cousin, Jack’s sister
Mabel, and they had two boys who my father knew very well. Both of them are now dead (the elder passed away in Canada only a couple of years ago) but three great-grandsons of Samuel still survive for which reason I have not mentioned the surname concerned.
I have, you will be pleased to know, no snappy ending for this piece but dedicate it to those distant cousins who died 104 years ago this week and also to the memory of my own father who died 5 years ago on 15th
September. He would have made a much better job of writing this up than I have.
My father, incidentally, loved mushrooms; as do I.