Australia’s “Thallium Craze”

TW: Domestic violence, suicide, unspecified mental illness

With the current mice plague that is happening in Australia, it is worth remembering the last one — and the “Thallium Craze” that swept the Sydney suburbs post World War II. In total over 100 people were poisoned. Yet, there are three particular cases that were played out in the papers, these were the cases of Yvonne Fletcher, Caroline Grills and Veronica Monty.

Promo shot from Jumping Dog Productions

Yvonne Fletcher

In 1948, Yvonne was a young mother of 25 years of age, who had 2 children. Although she lived in what was known as ‘the slums’ of Newtown — you would not have known. She liked to go out dancing and was known around town for her always having her make-up done. She would also wear nice dresses and her platinum blonde hair was always set nice.

It should be noted that also at this time, in Australia, there was a food and electricity shortage to add onto the poor housing conditions.

Her first husband was named Desmond Butler. He was known around town as a drinker and particularly jealous drunk. There had been many occasions when he accused Yvonne of sleeping around. Des went to bed after one of these fights, and soon after this he started to get sick. Though the doctors were called, a source couldn’t be found and Yvonne said that he was a hypochondriac.

Des’s health continued to deteriorate and was sent to the hospital. Upon arrival they diagnosed him as suffering from a mental breakdown. He was sent to a psychiatric hospital where, after 6 months he was well enough to return home.

Yet, within days he was getting sick again, this time the symptoms worsened. Within a week, he passed away. Desmond Butler’s death was ruled as natural causes.

Yvonne than went on to marry a man called Bluey Fletcher, three years later. He was known around town as a ladies man. Like Des, he was also a heavy drinker and though not confirmed — there may have been domestic violence within the home.

Yvonne went to the police, 2 months into her marriage, after being seen around town with bruises. She tried to report it to the police, but because of the taboos against divorce and other factors, the police said there was nothing they could do.

It wasn’t long after that, Bluey started to loose weight and hair. A few weeks passed and Bluey called the neighbours for help. At the hospital — like Desmond — was diagnosed with having nerves. The one difference is that Bluey had managed to confide in his sister that he believed his wife was trying to kill him. This could be considered a deathbed confession as 2 weeks later, he was dead.

With this information, Bluey’s family went to the police to report their suspicions — Detectives Ferguson and Detective Krahe were assigned to the case. Ferguson was the senior of the two, he was very self-centred and confident; Krahe on the other hand was known for his perfect memory and was also tenacious.

It was a local doctor who suggested to the detectives that they test for thallium. The rat plague had reached to over a million rats in Sydney. To assist in wiping out the population a popular rat poison was marketed, one of it’s key ingredients was thallium. At the time it was sold over the counters at department stores and corner shops in either; 1, 2 or 3 ounces.

Taking the doctor’s advice, they test Bluey and discover that in fact, thallium was present in his system. With this confirmation, they exhume the body of Desmond Butler and test it. Like Bluey, Desmond’s body was also positive for thallium.

Police arrest Yvonne with double murder.

As part of the coverage by the newspapers — the dosages and symptoms were spelled out in their entirety. It was this that caused cases to rise by people ‘testing’ the instructions; however, for a man in Redfern by the name of John Downey, the realisation that he had been in the presence of thallium poisoning. To add to this, he also had an idea who was responsible.

Caroline Grills

When you think of grandmother’s the image of Caroline would probably come to mind. She was a short, stout and was seen by society as a charming old dear. She was known for her cooked cakes and singing to herself while she made them. Though her husband worked in real estate, she wasn’t satisfied with the life she had.

John Downey became suspicious about Caroline after attending the weekly card games that he partook in with his mother-in-law, Evelynn Lumberg, and his wife. At these weekly parties, Caroline would bake cakes and serve tea. The reason he became suspicious is because it wasn’t long after these parties that Evelynn began to fall ill.

He decided to go to the detectives and give them a bit of Caroline’s history and reason for suspecting it was thallium. As well as being a cook, John told the detective that recently Caroline’s 87 year old step-mother was also sick. Caroline was her caregiver and despite this, her mother’s health declined. Her hair fell out and legs became paralysed, it was a slow death. It was ruled as natural causes and Caroline had inherited the step-mothers house. Two months later another elderly relative dies in the same manner. Despite Caroline’s care, they passed away. Caroline also inherited her second house. After this two more family members die in the same way, though there is no motive.

Detective Ferguson explains that he needs evidence to proceed. This would be through samples of the cakes that can be tested. The food samples that were collected came back negative. Undeterred, John continues to watch until one night he notices Caroline slip something into the cup of tea being made. The tea, once tested, came back positive for thallium. After this, Caroline’s 2 family members that hadn’t been cremated were exhumed. They too, both tested positive for the poison.

On May 11, 1953, Caroline Grills was arrested for a total of 4 murders and 3 attempted murders.

At this point, people thought it would be a good idea to DIY poisoning with thallium in a number of copycat cases. In total, 10 people died and 36 where admitted to hospital. A lot of people would ring in and dob in their neighbour or spouse, including the next woman.

Veronica Monty

It was a tip to police that informed them that Veronica’s husband was trying to poison Bobby Ludlam, who was a famous rugby player at the time.

Police attend to Bobby, after seeing he was suffering from symptoms, they send him to the hospital. A few days later they return to the house as a ransom note is found. It is here that they also find Veronica Monty, Bobby’s mother-in-law, living with her daughter, Judith and Bobby after the breakdown of her marriage.

Veronica is questioned about the thallium found in her possession. She said she was going to poison herself in a cup of hot milo one night. Fortunately for her, Booby and Judith had woken up and also requested milo, so she abandoned the plan.

It is only when the detectives go and talk to Bobby, still recovering in hospital, that the truth finally comes to light.

He divulges that since his mother-in-law had moved in, that they had started a sexual relationship. He explains that they have had sex a total of three times. However, it was her that instigated it, grooming him, and describing her as a predator.

With this information, the detectives bring Veronica in for further questioning. She comes clean and detectives discover that it was in fact her that poisoned Bobby and made the call to police. She was hoping to shift the blame.

Veronica Monty is sent to Longbay Prison. It is here that she meets both Yvonne, who is currently on trial, and Caroline, whose trial will start soon after.

The Trials

Yvonne Fletcher

This was a case of trial by media, as the press spilled every salacious detail of the crime and the woman herself, in the tabloids.

Yvonne pleads not guilty. She denies having any knowledge of buying or handling the poison. It was reported by the newspapers that she presented herself in a feminine manner, someone who fed into the stereotype that someone like her could never do these crimes.

Unfortunately, where today the stories of Bluey’s beatings would come into play in understanding her actions, back in 1952 they had no impact on the jury.

Along with witnesses that were found by detectives to attack her character, she was found guilty after a 7 day trial. On September 23, she was sentenced to death by hanging.

Caroline Grills

It was Caroline’s trial where public interest swelled to new levels, with record crowds packing the courthouse. This was due to her bizarre behaviour on and off the stand.

During the evidence she would sit quietly, occasionally throwing a smile at her husband. From time to time, she would had a word with her counsel. It was a packet of throat lozenges, that she sucked on continuously, that satured the damp smell that was already there.

At one point during the trial, her response to the suggestions that she either soaked or injected the ginger treats she had given to Evelyn Lundberg in thallium, was to burst out laughing.

It was one day she came out of the courtroom, in front of a pack of media and declared that, ‘It’s the fun of the world.’ Her husband used to tell media that his wife did not understand the enormity of what she had done.

It was reported in the papers that during the 8 day trial, she had her own cell in the remand section. Here she spent her evenings and weekends knitting, reading magazines or chatting to wardresses.

It took the jury only 12 minutes to convict her and be sentenced to death.

Veronica Monty

It was only when Veronica was charged and brought to the remand centre that she was introduced to the other women there, particular two by the name of Veronica and Caroline. The two women where the ones mentioned in this story, who were being held there while they appealed their death sentences.

It was Bobby’s evidence that could send his mother-in-law away; however, since being charged he had changed his tune slightly. During evidence, he expressed that Veronica could of accidently fed him the poison by mistake. It was because this that she was aquitted.

Judith divorced Bobby in 1955.

The Aftermath

Yvonne’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. She was released in 1965 and died in 2009.

Caroline Grills sentence was also commuted to life imprisonment. In Long Bay jail she is known as Aunt Thally, where she dies there in 1960.

Veronica Monty commits suicide by thallium poisoning in a hotel room in 1965.

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