Between April 1928 and March 1929 three people from the same wealthy London family died in mysterious circumstances. The first to die was Edmund Duff, who complained of nausea and leg cramps after eating his dinner. Ten months later, his sister-in-law, Vera Sidney, died in similar circumstances. Just a month later, Vera’s mother Violet Sydney, fell ill, again after a meal, and died a few hours later. An inquest ruled that at least two of the victims had been poisoned with arsenic, but their deaths remain a mystery to this day. My name’s…
Life is tough for the researchers who live and work in Antarctica. First there’s the extreme isolation. Most workers are stuck there for months at a time with precious little to do. Supply plans can only come in when the weather allows, which can mean months at a stretch without resupply. The research centers have limited medical facilities. They can handle routine problems, but if you have an emergency, help is a long way away. Staff are at the mercy of months of darkness and extreme cold. The lowest reliably-measured air temperature recorded on Antarctica was -128.6°F/-89.2 °C. Life in the Antarctic got especially hard for 32 yr old Australian astrophysicist Rodney Marks. Marks was stationed at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, one of the most remote places on Earth. On May 11, 2000, Marks began to get sick, with a fever, stomach pains and nausea. He went to the doctor multiple times that day, frantic at how bad he felt and how little the doctor was able to help him. Little more than a day later, he was dead.
May is winter in the southern hemisphere, which meant that Marks’ body couldn’t be moved back to the mainland base camp. Instead, his body had to be kept in a freezer at the observatory for six months until it could be flown back to Christchurch, New Zealand, for an autopsy. Bonus fact: according to my sailor husband, when someone died on his aircraft carrier, the crew would be served ice cream…because they had to make room in the freezer. … That’s what the man said.
The other researchers at Amundsen-Scott station expected the autopsy results to say something like aortic dissection or cardiac arrest, or perhaps something related to his love of the drink. So it came as a shock to them when the results came back that Marks was in very good health but had died from ingesting approx 150ml/5oz of methanol. [methanol definition and symptoms] The discovery of the poison set off an investigation that to this day is still ongoing. Every clue seemed to contradict the last clue or just refuse to fit in with everything else. Marks had needle marks on his arms… but no illegal drugs were found in his system. I also have to question taking a six-month supply of a needle drug to your job at the south pole.
Some investigators suggested that Marks, driven by alcohol and the loneliness and desolation of the Antarctic tundra, could have ingested the methanol on purpose, in an attempt to commit suicide. However, Marks’ colleagues agreed that Marks’ panic upon becoming sick was likely not feigned. If he were panicking in regret of his choice of suicide, he would have told the doctor what he’d taken, if nothing else.
One investigator brought up the theory that Rodney Marks could have accidentally ingested the methanol, during the process of distilling his own liquor. The very first hooch that comes out of a still is methanol and should be discarded and never drunk. Maybe that guy watched too much MASH and assumed people with degrees working far from home would make “gin” in their quarters. However, the theory was ultimately shot down, as the base had a well-stocked bar that was almost constantly open. Additionally, Marks was an experienced scientist, and the likelihood that he or any of the other experienced scientists around him would risk drinking a homemade spirit was extremely low.
The experience of the scientists also ruled out the accidental ingestion of methanol. The only presence of methanol at the camp was as a diluted form in cleaning supplies, and no one can *definitively rule out the possibility that industrial methanol got into Marks’ recreational ethanol…somehow… but you can’t prove a negative, so we’ll ride right past that.
There is one wrinkle that could breathe new life into one of those theories, and that’s the effect of isolation on the human psyche. It’s not easy being far from home, in difficult conditions, trapped in a building, unable to get away from the same few people. Imagine the worst you felt about covid lockdown and increase is by an order of magnitude. In 2018, a Russian researcher who was feeling that strain acutely stabbed another man for spoiling the ending of the book he was reading. They later reconciled.
If you’ve ruled out accident and suicide, that only leaves one cause of death – homicide. Someone must have knowingly and with malice of forethought slipped Rodney Marks a lethal dose of methanol. With only 49 other people snowed in in isolation on the base at the time –like a game of Clue set in the movie The Thing– it would be easy to narrow down the suspect pool. At least it would have been, if not for the US government. The land underneath the Amundsen-Scott Station has long since been a source of controversy between the U.S. and New Zealand. Yep, we even got beef with NZ. USA! Though it is a U.S. base, and most of the people who work there are Americans, the land on which it sits is claimed by New Zealand. The arrangement had caused strife before, but especially during the investigation.
The official investigation was headed up by a man named Grant Wormald, with the New Zealand Police Department. When he reached out to the Americans on the base for interviews, only 13 of the 49 cooperated. Furthermore, when he asked the U.S. for information on the scientists they had stationed at the base, the U.S. declined to comment, or aid Wormald’s investigation at all. Instead, the US conducted an investigation of their own, which they didn’t share with Wormald, or make public to him. To this day, no one knows how far the investigation went, or how much the U.S. was able to find out.
There was one man curiously missing from both the official investigation and any subsequent research, and that’s because he’s really missing. As far as random a-holes of the general public such as myself can tell, there hasn’t been any sign of the base’s doctor, Robert Thompon, who fell off the radar in 2006.
The mystery of Rodney Marks’ death is still ongoing, as Wormald’s investigation was never closed. However, the likelihood of finding any new information from one of the most remote and mysterious places on Earth is low. For now, the death of Rodney Marks remains the South Pole’s only murder, unsolved or otherwise.
You can’t be in the US talking about unsolved poisonings without talking about the mother of modern murders.On September 29, 1982, seven people in the Chicago area had to be rushed to the hospital and died soon thereafter. They ranged in age from 12 to 35. Most were unknown to each other, but three belonged to the same family. And they died on the same day. All 7 victims had taken Extra Strength Tylenol shortly before they became ill. The fact that all three of the deaths occured in one household would help investigators connect the dots. Cook County investigator Nick Pishos compared the Tylenol bottle in that family’s house to the bottle from another victim; both were labelled with the same control number: MC2880. Further, both bottles had a subtle but strange smell, like bitter almonds. If you’ve watched as much Forensic Files as I have, and I sort of hope you haven’t, you’ll know that can mean cyanide, which causes seizures, cardiac arrest, and respiratory failure. Blood test results would show that the victims had taken a dose that was 100 or even 1,000 times the lethal amount.
Getting the cyanide into the Tylenol was not all that difficult a process. This was not only in the days before ‘do not use if seal is broken’ shrinkwrap, but back then a fair number of pill were plain capsules –like the kind they sell empty by the bag at the health food store– which were easy enough to pull apart, shake out, refill and put back together. Police theorized that the perpetrator bought, poisoned and returned the pills around September 28. It had to have been the day before the deaths, as the cyanide would have eaten through the gelatin of the capsules and the people about to take them would notice something was amiss.
The deputy medical examiner conferred with reps from Johnson & Johnson, Tylenol’s manufacturer, and authorities were quickly certain the Tylenol hadn’t been contaminated in the factory in any way, but had been intentionally poisoned with potassium cyanide. It’s estimated that US newspapers ran over 100,000 separate articles about the incident. A nationwide panic ensued. People who believed they might have been poisoned overwhelmed hospitals and poison control call centers. The company ordered a recall. Over 31 million bottles of Tylenol were pulled from shelves and consumers who’d already purchased one could exchange it for a new one. J&J also offered a $100,000 reward for anybody with information about the person who had done this. These precautions were estimated to have cost the company roughly $100 million. Because people can be just the absolute worst, there were a slew of copycat product tamperings, pill and otherwise. According to the FDA, as many as 270 just in the *month after the Tylenol murders.
One fact that baffled police initially was that all of the victims bought their Tylenol from different stores, and those stores got their Tylenol from different production plants. Labs were set up in capsules began to come through for testing. Over 10 million recalled pills were tested. In total, 50 capsules were found to contain cyanide across eight bottles, five of these bottles belong to the victims. Two of these bottles were sent back in the recall and chillingly, one bottle was found sitting on a shelf, still unsold.
No fingerprints or other physical evidence were found on the bottles. There was also no evidence clearly showing the killer’s in the stores, as surveillance cameras were not as common then and the clarity was near-pointless. So investigators had to cast not only a wide net, but several of them. They looked into every disgruntled employee who worked, or had worked where the tainted Tylenol was made, stored, or sold. Investigators even explored the possibility of this being a white-collar crime syndicate, intent on tanking Johnson & Johnson stock. If that had been the case, it worked a treat. Tylenol’s share of the non-prescription pain reliever market plummeted from 35% to 8% after the murders. Woebetide you if you’d been caught shoplifting in any of the targeted stores around that time, because you’d be under a heap of scrutiny. Police also interrogated people who had recently been released from prison or psychiatric hospitals around Chicago. Hopefully that’s just the people with a history or propensity for violence, but this was the early 80’s, still not an enlightened time in mental health care and stigma. The police publicized the victims’ funerals, hoping the killer would show up at one of them.
There were many theories, but a few suspects stick out these forty years later. The first one that caught my eye was Theodore Kazincski. Wait, why is that name familiar? You might recognize him by his more sinister sobriquet, the Unabomber. The once brilliant mathematician is currently serving life in prison for killing three people and wounding 23 others with bombs sent through the mail between 1978 and 1995. He saw harming random people without warning as a means to an end. Kaczynski lived in Chicago for a time, but big whoop, so do a lot of people. However there is one poisoning death believed to be from tainted Tylenol that did not occur with the others, but came two months later in Sheridan, Wyoming. Sheridan is on the way to Kaczynski’s cabin in Montana, where he lived at the time of the killings. To call that tenuous is being over-kind, but the FBI requested a voluntary DNA sample from Kaczynski. Kaczynski wrote that he was willing to provide the sample on one condition, that the courts not allow the United States Marshal Service to auction off his belongings. This wasn’t simply because he wanted to stop them from getting rid of his stuff — there may have been something of exculpatory value to clear him in the poisoning case. Regardless, the auction went forward his planned and Kaczynski declined to give his DNA voluntarily.
Next up in the lineup was dock worker Roger Arnold, who said some suspicious things about the Tylenol murders at a bar one night. The police questioned him and searched his home, and they turned up several interesting connections. Arnold worked for the father of one of the victims, and the store where Arnold’s wife’s psychiatric ward was (my source did not say if the wife was a patient or an employee). Another victim had purchased his Tylenol from a convenience store owned by that company. “How-to” crime manuals were found in Arnold’s home; remember, this is well before that weird goth kid in study hall came in bragging about how he’d downloaded the Anarchist cookbook from a usenet group. Police also found beakers, a bag of potassium carbonate, and other evidence of chemistry in Arnold’s home. He refused to take a polygraph test –which is always the right thing to do because they’re about as scientific as a newspaper horoscope– but it doesn’t look good. The following summer, Arnold shot a man outside of a bar, believing the victim had turned Arnold into the police for suspicious things he’s been saying inside. Arnold was sentenced to 30 years but got out early on parole.
Saving the best for last, the third and prime suspect was tax accountant James Lewis. One week after the first deaths, Johnson and Johnson received a photocopy of a handwritten, unsigned letter, on which the FBI would find the fingerprints of James Lewis. Pretty damning, not gonna lie. The letter reads: “Johnson & Johnson, parent of McNeil Laboratories. Gentlemen: as you can see it is easy to play cyanide both potassium and sodium into capsules sitting on store shelves. And since the cyanide is inside the gelatin, it is easy to get buyers to swallow the bitter pill. Another beauty is that cyanide operates quickly. It takes so very little, and there will be no time to take countermeasures. If you don’t mind the publicity of these little capsules, then do nothing. So far, I’ve spent less than 50 dollars and it takes me less than 10 minutes per bottle. If you want to stop the killing then wire $1,000,000 to bank account number #84-49-597 at Continental Illinois Bank, Chicago, Illinois. Don’t attempt to involve the FBI or local Chicago authorities with this letter. A couple of phone calls by me will undo anything you can possibly do.” A warrant for his arrest was issued, and the ensuing manhunt would end on December 13, after Lewis was spotted at a New York public library.
Lewis’s past didn’t help him shake suspicion. He allegedly chased his mother with an axe when he was 19. He was committed to a mental hospital after taking 36 aspirins, where he was diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia. Later, he tried to explain that both of these events were attempts to avoid the Vietnam draft. Points for creative problem-solving? Later in his life, Lewis was charged and acquitted for the murder of a man found dismembered in his own home in the summer of 1978. After that, Lewis and his wife launched a short-lived business venture attempting to import pill making machines made in India. In 1981, Lewis was suspected of a combo mail and credit card fraud, and a search of his home turned up plenty of evidence to arrest Lewis. Lewis and his wife fled to, guess where, Chicago, where they lived under assumed names for almost a year, bringing us to the timeline of the Tylenol murders. Buuuut, Lewis’s bought Amtrak tickets from Chicago to New York City on September 4, 1982, which was 25 days before the Tylenol death began. The cyanide would have to have been planted close to the consumption date, and 25 days was too long. Some investigators believed it would have been possible for the perpetrator to fly into O’Hare Airport, rent a car, plant the poison, and leave Chicago. Surveillance video from one of the drugstores did show a bearded man, who some thought looked a lot like Lewis, but there was no positive ID, and nobody could place Lewis in Chicago at the right time.
Ultimately, authorities never even had enough to prosecute Lewis, let alone convict. However, the handwritten letter did lead to him being convicted of extortion. Lewis was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but served a little less than 13. Strangely, the bank account number listed in Lewis’s letter did not belong to Lewis, but instead belonged to a man named Frederick Miller McCahey, a man who Lewis believed had stiffed his wife LeAnn out of $511 in change. Basically, Lewis only included McCahey’s his bank account number in hopes that it would expose this $511 theft, and ultimately had nothing to do with the murders, and was as petty as it was idiotic.
In 2010, James Lewis published a book titled “Poison! The Doctor’s Dilemma,” which he insists has nothing to do with the Tylenol murders, and also stated that he regretted sending the police the ransom note. Lots of OJ Simpon’s “If I Did It” energy coming off this situation. He went on public access television in January 2010 to promote his book. He ended up giving a 48 minute interview, in which many of the questions were directed at his role in the 1982 Tylenol murders. Lewis referred everyone to his lawyer, and refused to comment further.
Johnson & Johnson received positive coverage for its handling of the crisis. In addition to issuing the recall, the company established relationships with the Chicago Police Department, the FBI, and the Food and Drug Administration. Their markets share rebounded in less than a year, a move credited to the company’s prompt and aggressive reaction. Two months after the murders, J&J reintroduced capsules but in a new, triple-sealed package. The Chicago Tylenol murders directly influenced the pharmaceutical, food, and consumer product industries to develop tamper-resistant packaging, and product tampering was made a federal crime.
The state of Maine is known for a few things — maple syrup, Steven King, having a greater population of black bears than black people — but when I think of Maine, I immediately picture quaint small towns. New Sweden, ME fit the bill almost two well. Settled in 1870 by Swedish immigrants, New Sweden has maintained many Swedish traditions, like St. Lucia Day and “Midsommar.” No, not that Midsommar….I hope, I didn’t really check. You can sometimes still hear the oldest residents speak a bit of Swedish. The hamlet’s population is just large enough to sustain its two churches, with around 600 people. For comparison, if you’ve ever watched Letterkenny –and you should. It’s my favorite thing in the world this week And then let’s get together and talk about it.– for comparison, the titular small town has 5k people.
Nothing happens in a small town. Every day like the one before. Quiet town full of little people, waking up to say, “My legs hurt and I’m having trouble walking. Also, I can’t feel my hands.” At least that’s what former railroad worker Dale Anderson of New Sweden, ME said, in 2003. He experienced strange, worrying, and sometimes debilitating symptoms – leg pain that ranged from a dull ache to leaving him unable to walk, a numbness in his hands so complete that he wouldn’t notice if he cut himself. This went on for years, and Anderson wasn’t the only one. 14 others were left violently ill from the incident; one man died. Unlike many medical mysteries, the source of the suffering had been sussed out, the cause of the cases confidently conclusive.
It was coffee. Specifically, coffee served to parishioners of the Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church. Those were two important traditions settlers from Sweden brought with them: the Lutheran Church and a love of coffee. There was always a big urn of coffee in the fellowship hall after Sunday service. Some people complained that it tasted funny, but most drank it anyway. It’s a behavior in coffee-drinkers I often ponder on. I take mine milky and sweet, but the hubs like his coffee how he likes his Sabbath, black. And I have watched him, and other devout coffee-quaffers punish themselves by finishing bad coffee simply because it’s coffee. I can’t think of another beverage that people so routinely force themselves to power through. This is one time when folks would have been better served by pouring it out and opting for tea.
By early afternoon that day in April 2003, the emergency room at the tiny 65-bed Cary Medical Center in nearby Caribou was full, with many of the cases critical. Nurses described every available surface covered with vomit-filled basins, buckets and garbage cans. It could not have been an easy day for anyone involved. By dawn the next day, 78 year old Walter Reid Morrill was dead; several other victims, including Anderson, had been transferred to the much larger and better equipped Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. There, doctors were able to determine that they were dealing with heavy metal poisoning. Laboratory tests confirmed it was arsenic.
Arsenic is extremely poisonous to humans. While arsenic is naturally occurring, it also comes in inorganic (or “man-made”) formulas. These are used in agriculture, mining, and manufacturing. Arsenic poisoning tends to occur most often in areas of industrialization, whether you work or live there. Groundwater contamination is the most common cause of arsenic poisoning, and that is most likely to happen in India, China, Mexico and the US. It’s never good when we’re on a list, I’ve noticed. Urine tests are used to check for acute arsenic poisoning, while doctors might look for evidence of long-term exposure in the hair and nails. If you have white lines on your fingernails running left to right, that were not caused by trauma, please get with your GP. Long-term exposure brings the risk of a host of cancers as well as neurological problems. Acute exposure brings on symptoms like red or swollen skin, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle cramps, and abnormal heart rhythm. Arsenic poisoning can be treated by chelation therapy, in which IV drugs bind to the metals so they can’t interact with the body tissue. It sounds simple, but it is extremely painful. Anderson had to be kept in a medically induced coma for 12 days, so he wouldn’t thrash and tear out his IV.
While the residents in hospital were fighting for their lives in Caribou and Bangor, back in New Sweden, there was another death. Daniel Bondesson, age 53, was found in his home with a mortal gunshot wound that appeared to be self-inflicted. He would die later that day at Cary Medical Center. What does this have to do with the church coffee poisoning? A bloodstained note was found with Bondeson’s body. In it, he took responsibility for poisoning his fellow worshipers. Police refused to release the note on grounds of confidentiality, but it became public record in connection with a warrant application to search the home of Bondeson’s sister, Norma, who had also experienced a mystery illness. The Portland Press Herald reported that the note read: “I acted alone. I acted alone. One dumb poor judgement ruins life but I did wrong.” The first “I acted alone” was underlined. The note said Bondeson did not know that he had spiked the coffee with contained arsenic. “I thought it was something? I had no intent to hurt this way. Just to upset stomach, like the church goers did me,” the note read. Investigators also said Bondeson sought to retaliate against church members for something he felt they had done to him and that it was unclear whether his reference to his own “upset stomach” was literal or figurative.
Despite the suicide note, police said early in the investigation that they believed that the poisonings sprang from an internal dispute within the church and that Bondeson had at least one accomplice. “I’m not prepared to say that he acted alone or that he was the person who introduced [the arsenic] into the coffee,” Lt. Dennis Appleton of the state police said at a news conference. “We never discuss suspects. We just feel we shouldn’t stop [with Bondeson],” Appleton said. State police detectives kept the case open for three years, working under the assumption that there could have been additional conspirators. Bad gas travels fast in a small town, and rumors and suspicious glances [ ].
The police could find no evidence of other bad actors. Eventually, after three years with no advance in the case, law enforcement officials closed the investigation. Many people in town, however, are not satisfied with the lack of definitive answers and the police’s coming on from the case. Anderson says the case should have been kept open. putting it all behind him is not so easy. “It’s hard to put it behind you when someone tried to kill you,” he said.
And that’s… In the years after 1928 the Croydon, London murders, the finger of suspicion went around like a game board spinner. Was it Edmund’s wife, Grace, perhaps because she was having an affair, or it could have been Dr. Ewell, her supposed beau? Or maybe it was Tom Sidney, Violet’s son, a professional entertainer, who was chronically short of money. Or maybe the three died of natural causes but had arsenic in their systems, health and safety not always being a big deal. Frustratingly, we’ll never know.