Cusop Dingle: a quiet spot in the timeless village which is "Kilvert Country". Photo copyright Garth Lawson.
“Excuse Fingers” has a particular resonance in the Hay-on-Wye area.
Herbert Rowse Armstrong, the only solicitor to have been hanged in England, was to all intents and purposes, a pillar of the community. Having gained his law degree at Cambridge, he practised in Liverpool and Newton Abbot before taking up residence and a position on the Welsh border. He was a hard-working man, a leading member of the Freemasons, and Clerk to the Justices.
St Mary's, Cusop, where Herbert Rowse Armstrong strode past the grave of his wife to read the lesson. Photo copyright Garth Lawson.
Originally a captain in the Volunteers, he was called up in the First World War and gained the rank of Major in the Royal Engineers Territorial Force. He lived with his wife Katharine, two girls and a boy, in an imposing family home called Mayfield in Cusop, just half a mile from the law firm of Cheese & Armstrong in Hay.
The dapper Major Armstrong was also rector’s warden and a regular reader of the lesson in St Mary Church.
In May 1919, wife “kitty” Armstrong’s health began to weaken, displaying symptoms which the local physician, Dr Thomas Hincks, diagnosed as a case of brachial neuritis. She appeared to recover, however, and didn’t need the services of a doctor for more than a year. But in August 1920, Mrs Armstrong’s health, both physical and mental, took a turn for the worse again. Major Armstrong kept in close contact with Dr Hincks, and showed great concern as well as consulting relatives and friends.
Hincks found that Mrs Armstrong was showing signs of mental collapse and came to the conclusion that it was connected to her illness. At the end of August, Mrs Armstrong was admitted to a private mental asylum near Gloucester. On admission she had pyrexia, vomiting, heart murmurs and albumen in the urine.
Along with partial collapse in the hands and feet and loss of muscle tone, she also became delusional.
Eventually, Mrs Armstrong was able to go back home but again her condition worsened unexpectedly and she died exactly a month later on 22nd February, 1921. Dr Hincks was puzzled by Mrs Armstrong’s symptoms, but nevertheless stated on her death certificate that she had died of gastritis, aggravated by nephritis and heart disease. All along, Armstrong had shown nothing but concern for his wife, sitting at her bedside reading to her in the evenings, and leaving the office early at every opportunity to be with her.
In Hay, a man called Oswald Martin was Armstrong’s only rival solicitor. On 26th October, Armstrong invited him to Mayfield. He spoke of being lonely after the death of his wife, and during a tea of cakes and buttered scones, Armstrong handed Martin a scone, saying “Excuse Fingers” as he did so; when he got back home, just up the road towards the church in Cusop, Martin became violently ill.
It was also subsequently discovered that a few weeks before the tea party, the Martins had received a box of Fuller chocolates from an anonymous sender in the post.
Some of these chocolates were still in the house and, when they were examined, some were found to have a small nozzle-like hole in the base. Dr Hincks contacted the Home Office and voiced misgivings about Mrs Armstrong’s death. Samples of the chocolates and Martin’s urine were examined and found to contain arsenic, and so the Home Office now passed the case over to Scotland Yard.
Major Armstrong, solicitor and Clerk to the Justices in the Magistrates Court dock
Major Armstrong was arrested on 31st December, 1921, and he was charged with the attempted murder of Oswald Martin. He maintained that he was innocent, but when he was arrested, the police found a packet of arsenic in his pocket and more in his house. Mrs Armstrong’s body was exhumed and examined by the eminent Home Office pathologist, Sir Bernard Spilsbury.
The body was found to be riddled with arsenic some ten months after her death, and on 19th January, 1922, Armstrong was charged with the wilful murder of his wife.
At his trial, Armstrong readily admitted keeping arsenic in his study, explaining that he would regularly use it to get rid of the dandelions on the lawn at Mayfield. “I repeat what I said before. I am absolutely innocent”, he said.
After a verdict of guilty was returned, Armstrong was executed on c.
As his powerful executioner Ellis later observed, it was a good job he was on his mettle that fateful day. As he tightened the noose around the condemned man’s neck, he let out an utterance and began to crumple. If he (Ellis) had not been so quick on the gallows lever with his giant hands, Armstrong might well have “nose-dived and hurt himself”, he said.