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  • Writer's pictureA K Edwards

Arsenic in a Teacup: The Suicide of my Great-Aunt, Hobart, Tasmania 1886

I recently discovered two interesting articles describing the alleged suicide of my 4 x great-Aunt, Frances Elizabeth Claxon (nee Head).


Frances Elizabeth Head, who went by Elizabeth, was born in Hobart, Tasmania on the 3rd of August 1826 to parents John Head (32 years old) and Frances Verdon (37 years old). Her father had arrived in Tasmania on 27 July 1821 after being arrested for housebreaking. He was originally sentenced to death, but that was commuted to transportation for life. He left his wife, Frances, back in England with 4 very young children. There was a scheme in place at the time for convicts who had good behavior on their record to request for their spouses and children to join them. So Frances and the children boarded a female convict ship to Australia and found John. They would go on to have six more children in Tasmania, including Frances Elizabeth.

Life wouldn't have been easy for young Frances, her father would have been completing his sentence. Financial support would have been completely up to her mother. Frances Sr. does make an application for a Land Grant in 1824, but I'm yet to find the actual document. John was finally released into his wife's care in 1830.

Frances married Samuel Claxon on the 12th of July 1865 in Hobart when she was 39 years old. There is little information about her spouse, but I plan to do a deeper dive into him in the future. In the article about Frances' death, it is mentioned that he's a recently licensed victualler. This was a person who was licensed to sell alcohol and from my research, likely meant that he was running a public house.

His name sometimes appears as Claxson or Cloxon.

The Incident

The suicide of my great-Aunt, Elizabeth Head, can be pieced together from several newspaper articles that reported on the incident and the inquest into her death. It appears she was mentally unwell for some years before completing suicide and had indeed made several attempts in recent years to take her life.

Samuel Claxon had arrived home at 21 Barrack St, Hobart Town, on the 10th of October 1886 around noon, to find his wife in a drunken state. This is nothing new, and she had been drinking heavily for several days. He notices her drinks something out of a teacup and that she is holding a blue envelope or folded piece of paper, he immediately becomes suspicious.

Samuel heads next door to his neighbor, a widow named Mrs. Margaret Rose, for help. Also in attendance was Mrs. Sarah Haywood, wife of a shoemaker & Mr. Nicholas Ray, a butcher. Margaret had seen Frances Elizabeth earlier that day and could tell from her appearance that she'd been drinking excessively.

Margaret in her sworn testimony corroborates that when she entered the premises, Frances Elizabeth had a cup in one hand and a folded piece of paper in the other.

"She's taken poison," Samuel tells Margaret concerned.

"You needn't fear that she has taken poison" Margeret responds reassuringly. This is when Frances Elizabeth chimes in.

"You will see by and by whether I have not taken it." Frances Elizabeth tells them, ominously. Mr. Claxton picks up the blue paper seeing it contains white powder.

"Here it is!" he exclaims "she has been taking it again."

"I have!" Frances Elizabeth exclaims, then she makes a snatch at the paper. Margaret then gives it to Mr. Ray who promptly disposes of it in the fire. Upon returning she finds Frances Elizabeth vomiting profusely. She makes a mixture of warm water and mustard to induce further vomiting.

Frances Elizabeth became gravely ill and succumbed to the self-ingested poison the following day. A post-mortem was carried out on the body and Dr.Carns came to the conclusion that she had injected approximately half an ounce of arsenic. She had purchased the poison 12 months earlier from a chemist to kill rats.

Her life was cut short by her own doing, and even though she felt so despaired she had a family that loved and cared about her. This was printed in the newspaper following her death:

"At her residence, No. 21 Barrack-street, on Thursday, the 11th October, Elizabeth Claxton, after a short illness, in the 39th year of her age. Friends are respectfully invited to attend her funeral, which will move from her late residence, on Sunday morning next, at half-past 8 o'clock precisely."

Rest in peace, Frances. I hope you finally found tranquility after the difficulty you faced in life.

All newspaper clippings from Trove

Other documents found on Ancestry

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