Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Companions in Death - A Curious Tragedy

In October 1896, the circumstances surrounding the suspicious deaths of two men - Edgar Martin, and William Henry Kirton - stunned the Townsville community.

Library caption: Edgar Martin and William Henry Kirton, clowning around with a saw, Townsville, 1896.
Photo: CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

A Townsville Tragedy

(Townsville Star, October 22.)

An intense and most painful sensation was created in Flinders-street about 10.30 this morning by the rumour, which in a few minutes spread to all parts of the city, that Mr. W. H. Kirton, the well-known chemist, and Mr Edgar Martin, the manager of the local branch of the United Insurance Company Ltd., had committed suicide, and that their bodies were lying in the shop of the former. In a few minutes a large crowd gathered in the vicinity of Mr. Kirton's shop, and it was speedily learnt that the terrible report was, to a certain extent, at any rate, only too true. The police had been communicated with and Senior-Sergeant Taylor and Sergeant O'Sullivan took charge of the premises. Dr. Lawes and Dr. Row were summoned, and with the police authorities conducted an investigation into the sad affair.

When a representative of the Star arrived at the scene of the shocking occurrence the view that met the eye was one that will not easily fade from his memory. In Mr Kirton's bedroom on the upper floor of the building, lay the body of Mr Martin on a stretcher bed, dressed in pyjamas. The body was in an easy attitude, lying on the right side and with the hands clasped in front. At the first glance the beholder would have naturally assumed that the figure was that of a man peacefully sleeping. On the floor near the other bed was the body of Mr. Kirton, also dressed in pyjamas but lying on its back with a pillow under the head. Both were lifeless, but while Mr Martin's body was cold and appeared to have been so for some hours, that of Mr Kirton was quite warm.  

The statements made by C. Carnes, Mr. Kirton's messenger, were to the effect that about 8.20 a.m. today his employer instructed him to go down to the Imperial Hotel, according to custom, and bring up his breakfast. This Carnes did. On his return Mr Kirton sent this man to Mr Clayton with an order for some drug, which proved to be prussic acid. So far Carnes had seen nothing of Mr Martin. Some time after Carnes had returned from Mr Clayton's he went upstairs and found Mr Kirton lying helpless on the floor, but outside the bedroom, and thinking he was ill carried him into the bedroom and endeavored to lift him on to the vacant bed. Finding this not possible he laid him on the rug with a pillow under his head. At that period there was nothing in Mr Kirton's appearance to suggest that the had poisoned himself. Carnes then noticed that Mr Martin, was on the other bed, but there being nothing extraordinary to this circumstance, he merely thought he had camped there the previous night, and was still asleep. In a short time, however, Carnes became seriously alarmed, and on looking again at both bodies, was convinced they were lifeless. He then ran for aid, and the police and the medical men before mentioned were immediately on the scene.

The result of the investigation by the authorities concluded the finding of a bottle of prussic acid in the coat of Mr Martin, which, with his other clothes, lay near the bed. The bottle had evidently been, recently opened, and enough had been taken to kill several men.

So far it cannot be ascertained at what time Mr Martin took what appears to be a fatal dose, but Mr Kirton probably took poison immediately after Carnes' return from Mr Clayton's.

Conflicting reports have, as is usual in such cases, been made in town regarding the two unfortunate men, and it would be idle to repeat any of them here. But the following are facts, which all who were intimate with Messrs Kirton and Martin are acquainted with. Both were pleasant, sociable, and good-hearted young men, and bosom friends. There was, apparently, nothing which might have inclined them to put an end to their lives. They were unmarried and in good business positions, and we do not hear that either was in any financial embarrassment, Carnes says that Mr Kirton's appearance that morning when he spoke to him was suggestive of a rather too jovial time overnight, and no doubt Mr Martin had been in his friend's company during the evening. Several friends of both men inform us that they were both in good spirits yesterday, Mr Kirton especially so.

The opinion most generally entertained by those best acquainted with Messrs Kirton and Martin, is that Mr Kirton late last night or early this morning, gave his friend an opiate of some kind, and that finding about 8.30 this morning that his friend was lifeless, in the mental agony caused by the horror of the discovery, Mr Kirton put an end to his own life. We can the more easily accept this theory as a reasonable one from a personal knowledge of the two men, and the great regard they entertained for one another. Mr Kirton, especially, was of a most warm-hearted, liberal and kindly disposition, as hundreds of Townsville people have good reason to know; while Mr Martin, though not a resident of so long a standing, had made hosts of friends here. We most sincerely sympathise with the friends and relatives of both of the deceased, and take this opportunity of assuring them of the widespread regret which is felt in this city at their untimely end.  


Nothing further of any moment has come to light with reference to the death of Messrs. Kirton and Martin.

The general belief is that after a convivial evening they came home, and that both took opiates, Martin received an overdose, and that when Kirton awoke and found his friend dead he determined to commit suicide rather than face the ordeal of trouble which awaited him.
A disturbing factor in this conclusion however is the finding of the bottle of prussic acid in Martin's coat; how did it come there? Did he intend to commit suicide? If the contents of his stomach show prussic acid it would almost seem that he did the deed without Kirton's knowledge, and that when the latter awoke he thought he had poisoned Martin, and in any case decided to escape impending trouble. If Kirton knew of the prussic acid in Martin's pocket, he would hardly have sent to Clayton's for a further quantity, and it is known he took the poison from the bottle he obtained at Clayton's.

There is no absolute evidence that Kirton slept at all, or it might have been intended for a double suicide, and Kirton may have recovered from the dose or his courage may have failed him until the pains of debauch and the dread of public enquiry impelled him to take the step he did.

Mr. Kirton came to Townsville six years ago, and his career was marked with a libel action against a paper which accused him of freedom with female customers, and in which he succeeded in obtaining damages. It is understood the business is Elliott Bros. and that two policies of £500 each, one in the A.M.P., and the other in the National Mutual are assigned
to the firm.

Mr. Martin, the manager of the United Insurance Co. was quite a young man, and was here last week in connection with the Towers agency of his company, which has been giving him trouble. It is to be feared that his tastes - like those of Mr. Kirton - were rather Bohemian.

Taken from the North Queensland Register, Wednesday, 28 October 1896.

Townsville November 27

The magisterial inquiry into the cause of death of William Henry Kirton and Edgar Martin, who were found dead at Kirton's chemists' rooms on October 22, was concluded to-day. The analysis of the contents of the stomachs showed morphine in that of Martin, and a large quantity of prussic acid in Kirton’s. The finding of the Police Magistrate is that Martin died from the effects of morphine administered accidentally, and that Kirton died from the effects of prussic acid administered by his own hand.

Taken from The Week (Brisbane), Friday 4 Decemer 1896.

Note: Prussic Acid is a solution of hydrogen cyanide in water.

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