Poison: the strange death of ‘James Fuller’

On his cluttered workbench there was an upset beaker and, beside it, an identical container of water.

Talk about an uncanny coincidence: that the son of one of the most infamous poisoners of all time would, years later and half a world away, die from ingesting a deadly potion. Was it murder, suicide or an accident?

Lucretia Borgia probably tops the poll as history’s best-known practitioner of lethal potions; but Florence Maybrick, convicted of murdering her husband by repeatedly dosing him with arsenic, must be a close second.

Today, however, we’re talking about her son, James, who was only six years old at the time of his father’s death and his mother’s trial.

So let’s fast-forward to April 1911 when the Vancouver press reported that James C. Fuller, aged 28 and working in Rossland as an analytical chemist, had died while eating a sandwich at his bench in the laboratory of the Le Roi Mine.

Death had come within seconds from cyanide, a deadly chemical with which he did his assays. According investigators, there were two beakers on his bench; one containing water, the other cyanide. The logical inference was that, intent upon his work, he’d reached for the wrong "glass" amongst the clutter of beakers and retorts, and that he’d died, not quite instantly, but having just enough time to phone the foreman’s office and blurt, "Oh, Peters-." Then silence.

Recognizing Fuller’s voice, and that something was amiss, Fred Peters raced to the lab, to find Fuller just outside the door, having staggered that far before falling, face-down. As Peters turned him over, he could just detect the scent of almonds – the tell-tale sign of cyanide.

The young chemist was still wearing an asbestos glove. On his cluttered workbench there was an upset beaker and, beside it, an identical container of water. Case closed.

It remained for retired deputy commissioner of the B.C. Provincial Police, Cecil Clark, to announce the link between James Fuller and James Maybrick, in 1961, in one of the many true crime articles he wrote in the Colonist. The name Fuller, he believed, came from a close family friend, Dr. Charles C. Fuller.

"James Fuller’s" death was the final and unlikely act in a drama that had rocked Victorian England in 1899 when his mother Florence was tried for murdering James’s father, with arsenic. Twenty-four years younger than her husband, she’d been married for eight years and was the mother of James, six, and Gladys. Although well known to be a hypochondriac who selfmedicated with weird potions including arsenic, Maybrick’s death in May 1889 aroused suspicion and medical examinations confirmed that he’d died of arsenical poisoning.

Particularly damning for Florence were the traces of arsenic which had been detected in a pocket of her dressing gown and on a lace handkerchief that she’d used to dab his parched lips as he lay dying. And the arsenic in the beef tea that she’d been feeding him. Where’d she get arsenic? By soaking strips of fly paper that she’d purchased, it was alleged.

For motive, she’d gone deeply in debt and had had to be bailed out by James, and there was her extra-marital affair which he’d discovered and for which he’d blackened her eye.

In Victorian England, the surest and shortest road to the gallows for a woman charged with murder was adultery. So it was for Florence Maybrick. After a sensational trial and conviction she was sentenced to hang but later commuted to life and she served 15 years. Alabama-born, it’s thought that she returned to the U.S. and died in obscurity.

Son James, if we believe Clark, came to Canada in 1904 to work in the assay lab of the Le Roi Mine. Where, suddenly, accidentally, tragically, he died from a dose of cyanide. For true storytellers, it’s too bad that it wasn’t arsenic!