Harding, Alfred

Harding, Alfred            1880 December 4th


An inquest was held at the Council Chamber, on Tuesday afternoon, by Mr George Smith, city coroner, for the purpose of investigating a sad case of poisoning which had occurred (so it was supposed) in the early hours of the morning. The victim was Mr Alfred Stephen Harding, who had been for about 3½ years assistant to Mr Atkins, chemist, of this city, and was very respectably-connected. No apparent reasons exist for the crime – if crime it be – and the sad fact is the more astonishing considering the deceased’s well-known happy temperament. His death is deeply regretted by a large circle of friends, to whom the deceased had endeared himself by his urbanity, geniality and generosity. He was a true-hearted young fellow, ever-ready to do a kind act and one whose friendship was to be esteemed. The particulars of the sad event, so far as the inquisition threw light upon them, will be found in the evidence adduced. Mr F A Blake was chosen foreman of the jury.


The first witness examined was Edward Peck. He said : I am an assistant to Mr Atkins, chemist, of the Blue Boar-row, and, while in that capacity, had been frequently associated with the deceased. I have been with Mr Atkins about 3½ years and the deceased had been there a similar time. I resided on the premises. Last night the deceased appeared perfectly well; and he and I, after we had had supper (he had his before I had mine), remained in our sitting room until about a quarter past twelve, when we went to bed. I wanted to retire about half-an-hour before, but he desired the conversation, which had turned on some subjects which had been ventilated at a debating society, to proceed. As we parted on the stairs – the last time I saw him alive – we, following our custom, shook hands, and he said to me, in his usual manner, “pleasant dreams, sweet repose,” or words to that effect. This morning, about a quarter to nine, I sent the servant to wake him. She knocked two or three times, and, receiving no reply, I ran up-stairs to her. I knocked at the door very loudly five or six times, and then, my fears excited, applied my ear to the key hole to listen for breathing. Not hearing any sounds, I directed the servant to stand at the door while I ran for a large crow-bar or screw-driver. With a screw-driver I burst open the door, and, on entering the room, I found the deceased in bed, lying on his left side facing the door. I slowly moved the clothes, and, on touching him, found him still warm but quite dead. I immediately ran for Dr Gordon who came at once. The deceased was generally bright, rather excitable and occasionally impulsive. I had no idea he was a man likely to make away with himself; in fact, I should have thought him the last man in the world to have committed such an act.


The foreman : Did he seem in his usual spirits that evening? Yes, and conversed freely.


A juror : Was nothing unusual observed with him that evening? Nothing. I should like to add that the deceased was an open-hearted generous man, and ever-ready to do anyone a kind turn.


Witness afterwards said : Mr Supt Mathews after showed me a small phial, and I said I would rather not say what it contained. I saw that it had about ten drops of liquid. Afterwards, however, in a conversation, I said I thought the bottle contained prussic acid.


Dr Gordon, medical practitioner of this city, was next examined. He deposed : This morning, at about nine o’clock, I was called upon to attend the deceased. I found him reposing in bed on his left side, his arms and fingers being very much contracted – a symptom of death by poison and of the particular poison we discovered. On the mantel-piece of the bedroom, I found the bottle now produced; it contained a few drops of some fluid, the cork being out. I could not be certain by smelling or tasting what it contained, but a subsequent process informed me that it was prussic acid. Subsequently I, in conjunction with Dr Blackmore, on the coroner’s authority, made a post mortem examination. We found the lungs and heart and other organs of the body in apparently a healthy condition. The right side of the heart and the large veins were distended with fluid blood. The appearance of the stomach was such as would lead one to suppose death resulted from prussic acid – the state of the blood pointed in that direction; and, on applying the same test to its contents as I applied to the contents of the phial, I discovered the stomach contained that poison. There were no signs of any other cause of death.


The foreman : Can you give us any opinion as to whether the cork had been out of the bottle for only a few hours or a day or two?


Witness : Rather a few hours. In a day or two the contents would have entirely evaporated. I think, indeed, he had been dead for some hours. I discovered no warmth in the body when I arrived.


Dr Blackmore, medical practitioner, also of this city, said : In conjunction with Dr Gordon, I visited the deceased. I found him lying in bed on his left side as described; and there was even then a slight trace of warmth – and this was at twelve o’clock. I should think he must have died at about one o’clock in the morning. I am in a position to corroborate Dr Gordon’s statement as to the healthiness of the organs, and I can further add that the symptoms that were present all indicated poisoning by prussic acid – not one symptom alone indicated it but a series pointed to the conclusion. There was, indeed, a perceptible odour of prussic acid in the room – fact often noticed in cases of this kind, the odour being given off as the body becomes cool. The stomach when analysed plainly showed that prussic acid was contained in it. I may add that I have no doubt the deceased, in a moment of insane impulse, must have taken this poison. In fact, I believe no man in his right senses would ever take such a dose. So effective is its operation that death will take place within ten seconds to ten minutes. He apparently had, after taking it, only time to get into bed and turn round when it worked its full effect. He could not have had time to have called assistance had he wished. The bottle, supposing it were full, contained enough to kill four or five men.


Mr Supt Mathews said : I was sent for at about half past nine this morning to go to Mr Atkins’ place of business. On entering the deceased’s bedroom, I found the bottle on the mantel-piece, the cork being out. I handed the bottle, in the same state in which I found it, to Dr Gordon. The deceased, I have ascertained, is 23 years of age. I got up the evidence for this court, and in the course of my inquiries, I have found that a member of the family – a cousin – is confined in an asylum.


This concluded the evidence and the Coroner then reviewed the most salient points. He expressed the opinion that Mr Peck exhibited great presence of mind, and that credit was due to him for the manner in which he had acted. There could be no doubt, he said, that the deceased died from the effects of prussic acid, having yielded, as they gathered from the evidence, to a sudden insane impulse – a fact that might bear corroboration from the concluding remark of Mr Mathew’s evidence. No earthly reason existed, Mr Smith said, for his committing suicide.


Mr Atkins, who had been present during the inquiry, was then asked by Mr Smith if he would like to say anything to the jury. Mr Atkins, who was evidently affected, in replying, said he doubted whether he could afford any information. Mr Harding, as had been stated, had been with him nearly four years; and he had been, during that time, a true example of punctuality and regularity and a high moral man in every respect – one, indeed, who merited appreciation for his qualities. He was shortly about the leave him to pass his examination, and when he (the deceased) intimated that intention, he (Mr Atkins) could not but express at parting with him – a feeling that was reciprocated by Mr Harding. They always worked on the most cordial relations; and he had never had occasion to complain of him. He was a genial, kindly young fellow, true and careful. And this act was to his utter surprise; he might, indeed, say he was the last man he should have suspected would have committed suicide. That remark he made not only from his knowledge of his happy temperament, but he should never have thought he possessed the courage. He was an exceedingly shy, timid, young fellow; and, if – as the evidence pointed – suicide were committed, it must have been from a sudden insane impulse. Those few words he had said – not, perhaps, that they would afford any information to the jury – but as a testimony of the extreme worth and excellence of the late Mr Harding’s character.


The jury then, after a brief consultation, returned a verdict to the effect that the deceased committed suicide whilst in a state of temporary insanity.


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