Prussic acid deaths, was it a murder or suicide?

A tragic suicide pact gripped the nation in 1890 when a doctor’s wife and a male family friend were found poisoned at her home. MIKE GUILFOYLE described how the New Cross Tragedy came about.

South London’s local historians have been trying to locate the grave of a doctor’s wife called Emma Marie Louise Townsend – nee Reeve – whose untimely death from poisoning by prussic acid aged 33 years in August 1890 was sensationally covered in the press of the day as The New Cross Tragedy.

What made the tragic incident such a feverishly compelling read was that a certain Mr William de la Motte, described as an “intimate friend” of the lady was also found dead from poisoning, lying in the same bedroom in circumstances strongly suggestive of a simultaneous suicide.

They were found at 14 Amersham Park Road, Deptford.

Her husband, Dr Knowlson Townsend had run a medical practice for some years in New Cross and the couple had three young children.

But three months prior to the tragedy, he had resolved to sell his general practice, then based at 168 Lewisham High Road, with a view to retiring to join his brother, living in Virginia, USA.

Matters took a fateful turn on the point of the family’s departure for America, with Emma agreeing to follow on with the couple’s three children and baggage.

Mr de la Motte, described as a medical assistant of French extraction, was on good terms with the family.

He had been lodging at the time in New Cross – it was noted in press reports that he was engaged to a well known authoress and song writer.

When Dr Townsend left to make final arrangements, William found himself alone with Mrs Townsend.

It was a short while later when two car men came to collect the baggage ahead of the transatlantic journey that they discovered the deceased.

Emma Townsend was lying fully clothed reclining on the bed and Mr. De la Motte, lying partly underneath the head of the bedstead.

It was recounted later that a very strong odour of prussic acid pervaded the room.

On hearing of the terrible news, Dr. Townsend was described as ‘being completely paralysed” by it.

The jury inquest into the sudden deaths, was opened by Mr C. J. Carttar, the coroner for West Kent, and was held in a small but crowded room at the Brown Bear Inn in Deptford.

An Inspector Day watched the proceedings on behalf of the police.

Emma Marie Louise Townsend’s recently discovered grave in Brockley cemetery

The first witness called was Dr. Townsend, who could think of no good reason why his wife would take her life.

A house servant, though, appeared to highlight in her evidence that Emma Townsend had shown a great aversion to going abroad.

Another witness noted that on the day, a bottle of whisky purchased on behalf of Mrs Townsend for £10 had been found empty.

The brother of William De la Motte, Dr. Peter William De la Motte, identified his 28 year old brother’s body.

The inquest was then adjourned to allow for a post-mortem, while the police directed their energies to trying to find out the source of the prussic acid.

The air was rife with prurient speculation as to what had really motivated the couple to undertake what many believed was a suicide pact, maybe after a final lovers tryst.

Or did the tragedy have a more sinister edge to it, possibly a murder/suicide?

The jury came to the conclusion that both had died from prussic acid poisoning, but they were unable to determine how the couple came to administer the poison.

Emma Townsend was interred in Deptford – now Brockley cemetery – on August 5, 1890.

William de la Motte was buried in a public grave in Nunhead cemetery the following day.

What became of the grieving widower Dr. Knowlson Townsend? His first wife had died in Cannes, France in 1874.

He married again an “indecently” short while later. But this time it was to a doctor’s daughter called Mary Jane Coutts and the wedding was held in Liverpool.

He died soon afterwards in Seaforth in 1891.

Of the couples three children , Mrs. Inez Le Couteur Townsend – aka Inez Tribit – having moved to America became a well known writer, musician, singer, songwriter, illustrator and cartoonist.

In 1917 she co-wrote the song Way Back Home in 1917 with Hallie M. Swartz, dedicated to the soldiers at the front.

She died in Los Angeles in 1960.

A son with his father’s name, Mr. Knowlson Townsend, become an American citizen and enrolled in the US Navy Auxiliary Reserve in 1917.

He died in San Francisco in 1937. According to some reports it was by his own hand.

The recently discovered whereabouts of Emma Townsend’s final resting place are located in an open glade close to the entrance to Brockley Cemetery.

But will the reasons for this tragic Victorian love pact of August 1890 ever be truly solved?




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