The first of my series on Domestic Crime, written for Crime Cymru. The story of Harold Greenwood
“You never know what someone is dealing with behind closed doors. You only know what you see or what you think you see…” Quote from Mackenzie Phillips, daughter of John Phillips, the guitarist for the Mamas & the Papas in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
That nobody knows what happens behind closed doors may be a cliché but there is a whole wealth of truth behind the trite words. Secrets – family secrets– can range from the trivial to the unthinkable; from minor transgressions to … murder. Sometimes the secrets kept within a family are ultimately revealed, sometimes they stay hidden. Sometimes the whole truth is never known.
Take the case of Harold Greenwood, a young solicitor who moved his practice from Yorkshire to Llanelli in 1898 having bought a house in Kidwelly, in Carmarthenshire, with his wife Mabel. Over the years they produced a family of four children but the practice struggled due to some bad decisions on Harold’s part and quite a few dubious clients.
Even so, the Greenwoods presented to the world the picture of a happy family.
But Mabel’s health deteriorated and she suffered from perplexing fainting spells. Her doctor, a T. R. Griffiths, diagnosed a weak heart and, when she was forty-seven and complained of heart and stomach pains, he declared that her problems stemmed from the menopause. He prescribed pills; suitable medication, he said, for her condition.
Mabel was an extremely popular figure and, despite no improvement to her health, she continued to take part in many of the social gatherings in Kidwelly and attended the weekly services of St. Mary’s Church.
But then, in June, 1919, after six months, Mabel’s health grew worse. A servant of the family, Martha Morris, noticed that Mabel looked very ill and, thinking it would do her mistress good, bought a bottle of Burgundy to be served at lunch on Sunday after church. But on that particular day the Greenwoods missed church and, after lunch Mabel complained of stomach pains, stating the cause as the gooseberry pie she’d eaten. When Dr. Griffiths (who lived across the street) arrived at the house he suggested brandy and soda, even though the brandy Harold had given her had made her violently sick. The doctor later sent over medicine containing bismuth, which he had dispensed himself. Later that evening, he again looked in on Mabel and found that she had stopped vomiting and seemed better. But when the local district nurse, Nurse Jones, arrived, Mabel had collapsed. Thinking the medicine by her bedside was that previously given to her by Dr. Griffiths, for a heart condition, she gave Mabel a second dose. It made no difference.
During the night Mabel became much worse. Irene, the eldest daughter of the Greenwoods, sent her father to get Dir. Griffiths from across the street. It took him over an hour to return– without the doctor. He’d stayed to chat to Miss May Griffiths, the doctor’s sister, the doctor himself apparently fast asleep and unable to be roused. During the night the nurse, seeing the deterioration of Mabel Greenwood, went for and returned with the doctor.
But Mabel Greenwood eventually died at about 3.30 on the morning of Monday, June 16th and was interred on Thursday, June 19th, in the churchyard of St. Mary’s Kidwelly.
Before long rumours spread quickly, both about the circumstances of Mabel’s demise and of the state of the Greenwood’s marriage. Harold Greenwood, it was rumoured, was a womaniser; tales that turned into mutterings of murder when in October, 1919 Harold married Gladys Jones, the spinster daughter of a family friend, in Llanelli. Curiously he had also proposed to May Griffiths, the doctor’s sister, almost at the same time. The subsequent public clamour prompted the coroner to order a post-mortem. When the police warned Harold Greenwood of their intention to exhume Mabel’s body and that there would be an inquest. Harold was reported to be “quite agreeable.”
But it was six months before the order was signed and another two months before the inquest in June 1920. The post mortem revealed there was no hint of heart disease. And the body was well preserved – too well preserved. The doctors examining the remains discovered between a quarter and a half a grain of arsenic in the body.
Arsenic that was sold under the brand name of Cooper’s Weedicide and that could have been the same purchased by Harold Greenwood from the Kidwelly chemist. Weed-killer, the prosecution alleged, that Greenwood had placed in the bottle of Burgundy before that Sunday lunch on June 15th, 1919. Weed-killer that, dissolved in the Burgundy, would be unnoticeable by either taste or colour. More than enough to kill his wife.
The result of the deliberations of the jury at the inquest was unanimous; the death of Mabel Greenwood was caused by acute arsenic poisoning as confirmed. And that the murderer was Harold Greenwood. He was arrested and charged but spent four months in jail before the trial began at Carmarthen Guild Hall on November 2nd, 1920; each day being taken in a carriage from the jail to the hall, guarded by mounted police and heckled by outraged crowds.
Yet, ultimately, the case rested on unsure motive because Greenwood stated he had been dependent on Mabel’s money; his own income from his business was uncertain; his wife was a life tenant of her father’s estate which provided an income of between £700 and £800 a year. By her death, he lost that; the revenue passed in equal shares to her children, whose trustees controlled it. It was out of Greenwood’s hands.
But then, as already seen, within months of Mabel’s death, Harold had married Gladys Jones after proposing to May Griffiths. Was he hedging his bets that one of them had money in their own right? Was Gladys Jones found to be the more lucrative of the two?
And, ultimately, was this Greenwood’s downfall?
And what about Miss May Griffiths, the doctor’s sister? At the age of thirty, she could have thought life was passing her by. Was she enamoured by Harold? He apparently often spent time chatting with her and, as it was discovered, he did propose to her. Living in the doctor’s house, did May have access to the medication he dispensed? Did she see Mabel as a deterrent to the future she wanted?
And remember Nurse Jones? Who gave a second dose of what she claimed she thought was for the heart condition? Medicine that was later thrown away, together with the large number of other empty bottles which had contained prescriptions by the doctor. The nurse who had added to the rumours of Harold’s penchant for the ladies and spread such gossip that the police interviewed her twice about what happened on the night of Mrs. Greenwood’s death. But who then retracted her evidence at the inquest. Was it possible she had her own reasons for this, seeing Harold Greenwood as a possibly worthwhile suitor? It was known that since his wife’s death, on the pretext of his attending to some legal business for her, she often visited him.
And who checked the large variety of patent medicines ordered by Mabel Greenwood herself? What were they?
And what about Dr Griffiths who had given Mrs Greenwood bismuth and morphine, both of which could have been a cause of her death separately of any arsenic? He was a poor witness; uncertain and inconsistent with details of the medicines. He couldn’t produce his prescription book and, during the later stages of the trial, stated that he had been confused between morphine and opium and the pills were in fact opium. Hmm? But what motive would he have had? Was he just inexcusably careless; administering the wrong medication? The defence lawyer suggested that Dr. Griffiths had made a fatal error by administering Fowler’s solution of arsenic (a remedy to help to relax tension in the abdominal muscles, allowing for improved breathing), instead of bismuth, to Mabel Greenwood; the bottles containing both mixtures standing side by side in the doctor’s surgery. This accusation of possible criminal negligence was never investigated. Did Dr. Griffiths try to cover up his mistake by declaring the cause of Mabel’s death to be a heart attack?
And why was a second doctor never called out to see Mabel?
And then there was the evidence of the Greenwood’s eldest daughter, Irene, who said she had drunk wine from the same bottle as her mother during the Sunday lunch and that she had drunk two glasses to her mother’s one. Her evidence more or less demolished the prosecution’s case, which was built almost entirely upon the administering of the Burgundy by an alleged poisoner. But did anyone confirm this? Had she drunk any of it? And what was the true relationship between her and her mother? Was she really the devoted daughter… behind closed doors.
All the above are purely my own speculations from the research I have carried, my own thoughts on the case. And, I must admit, a little dramatic licence.
Because, as I wrote at the beginning of this post, sometimes the whole truth of the secrets kept within a family is never known.
As for Harold Greenwood–he moved to the village of Sellack, near Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, with his second wife, changing his name to Pilkington. He lived behind closed doors…an uneventful life until his death in 1929. Or was it?
Note: When Harold Greenwood was acquitted the jury added a proviso to their verdict which was not published at the time: “We are satisfied … that a dangerous dose of arsenic was administered to Mabel Greenwood … but we are not satisfied that this was the immediate cause of death … (nor) how or by whom the arsenic was administered