The Mysterious Poisoning of Ernest Foster - Crookes. Sheffield May 1896

This report appeared in the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent dated Saturday 30th May 1896 and refers to an Inquest that was held the previous day at Sheffield's Royal Hospital into the death of 16 year old Ernest Foster who lived with his parents at 36 Melbourne Road Crookes Sheffield


The report is detailed and does provide a timeline. It should be noted that Ernest had "always been a healthy lad". On Thursday 21st May he came home at night from work and complained of illness. He was "somewhat better" on Friday and on Saturday evening he went out as usual, and came back at 10 o'clock "seemingly in good health." Prior to going out on Saturday evening, Ernst had gone out himself and bought a tin of lobster which he, together with four children, had for their tea. On Sunday morning 24th May he began "to complain of a pain in his head, between his shoulders and in his bowels".  But he still remained at home. The following day the pain got much  worse and a doctor was summoned who diagnosed "a stoppage of the bowels" and advised that Ernest should go to the hospital. When he eventually arrived at the hospital on Monday night "he was in a comatose state and seemed to suffering from the effects of an irritant poison." Ernest died later that night. Dr G. L. East. the house surgeon stated that Ernest had told him that he had eaten some lobster and a pork pie.   

The Sheffield Daily Telegraph carried a shortened report on the same day. A couple of points were made that did not appear in the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent reort. Firstly the name of the doctor who attended Ernest at home was a surgeon called DR. W. Wavell and that in the days preceding the onset of the condition, Ernest had complained of a sore throat.

The verdict of "Died from ptomain poisoning" was clearly one that should be treated with suspicion. The term is no longer in use but there has been a long standing controversy over this issue. Ernest whilst experiencing some of the symptoms of food poisoning certainly did not exhibit the ones you would expect - sickness, nausea and chronic diarrhea. Dr. Favell, who examined Ernest at home diagnosed a "stoppage of the bowels" which is not what you would expect with food poisoning. Furthermore there is no mention in the reports of nausea and vomiting, the classic signs of food poisoning. In fact the major symptom Ernest experienced was pain - in his head, between his shoulders and in his bowels. But the factor that does mitigate against food poisoning is that none of his four siblings who also ate the tinned lobster on Saturday afternoon showed any ill-effects. This was observed by a juryman who noted that the "lobster was not important." Even the coroner stated that the cause was "probably some food but as to how there is no evidence to show."

The post-mortem stated that all the organs were healthy, but internally there were signs of peritonitis and food-poisoning in the bowels. But surely this would not be sufficient to kill Ernest in such a short time period. I would hazard a guess that by far the more likely cause of Ernest's death would be a form of meningitis, and that the "food poisoning" was merely incidental and not a contributory factor. It was a "most peculiar case" but I would point out that the major symptoms of pains in the head, neck and between the shoulders point towards meningitis rather than ptomain poisoning as being the cause of death.  


Sheffield and Rotherham Independent dated Saturday 30th May 1896

Sheffield Daily Telegraph dated Saturday 30th May 1896

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