OUTLOOK - The suspicious circumstances surrounding a death that took place in Outlook 100 years ago led to an inquest to try and determine by whose hand a strychnine poisoning might have happened.
Thomas Alexander Fraser was a well-known merchant who began a hardware business with his brother James in Outlook in 1908, having moved into the community from Ontario. He was spoken of highly by his friends.
The 57-year old’s death occurred unexpectedly on Sunday, February 13, 1921. The day before his burial, an inquest was held into the events surrounding his sudden death. Throughout hours of testimony, the town hall was crowded with spectators who were anxious to hear the evidence to sort out “rumor upon rumor” (The Outlook, March 3, 1921).
At the time of Fraser’s passing, the attending physician was unable to name a cause of death. Since reports were circulating widely through the community that his death was suspicious in nature, members of the provincial police arrived to investigate the matter. The district coroner was to be a material witness in the case, so Henry Dumpthy, a provincial coroner, took charge of the inquest.
Six men were chosen for the jury and after they were sworn in the coroner called on Mrs. Mollie Fraser, wife of the deceased, to testify.
Mrs. Fraser “gave in detail everything which had transpired” including Tom’s heavy drinking for the four days prior to his death. She said she saw him leave the house at 8:00 that Sunday morning, returning further intoxicated and when she asked him to stop drinking he got upset. She testified that he lunged at her, “foaming at the mouth and gritting his teeth.” She had a poker in her hand so she “shoved him on the head,” told him to go away and take something to “take the liquor out of his system.” Shortly after he again left the house.
Mollie Fraser said she called over to his brother’s house to see if he’d gone there and later went over to see for herself. She then called an acquaintance, A.J. Young, and requested he try to locate Tom.
Mr. Young found him and brought him back to the house and mentioned that Tom said he’d been hit over the head, something Mrs. Fraser denied, saying she had shoved him away. Mr. Young left the house, as did Tom Fraser once again.
Mrs. Fraser got a phone call from A.J. Young’s wife calling to check in on her and inviting her to supper. Mrs. Fraser accepted the invitation and then accompanied the couple to church, getting back home at 8:15 that evening. Upon arriving home, she asked the Young couple to enter the house with her, which they did. Mr. Fraser was sitting at the table with his head resting on his arms. Mrs. Young touched Mr. Fraser’s arm and commented on it being cold. Mr. Fraser then went upstairs to the bedroom. A door closed “violently”, but Mrs. Fraser testified she didn’t know if he had slammed it or if he had fallen against it. The Youngs prepared to leave, telling Mollie Fraser to be sure to call if she needed them.
Mrs. Fraser testified she went up to check on her husband and they had a conversation where he expressed his love for her. She turned on the light in the bedroom and noticed a dipper on the dresser and two glasses on a chair beside the bed.
Victim called out
She headed back downstairs and started writing a letter when she heard him call out to her. She immediately went upstairs and found him gasping for breath. She called his name but got no reply so she hurried downstairs to call Mr. Young and ask him to come as quickly as he could. She then ran to Dr. Redden’s house and urged him to return with her. When he got there the doctor asked for some hot water and since there was none in the house, she ran to get some from a neighbor. Upon her return with the water the doctor administered a hypodermic and told Mollie he would look after things. She accepted an invitation to spend the night at the home of the Young’s. Her husband died shortly thereafter.
The next witness to testify was Dr. Redden who said when he arrived at the Fraser house Thomas appeared to be dead. He checked for a pulse and looked for eye activity without result. He gave the deceased a hypo of 1-30th of a grain of strychnine and was sure it would not be absorbed by the body as the man was dead. He looked around the room for medication but could not find any. He could not recall seeing a dipper or water glasses on a chair. He had been told about Mr. Fraser receiving a blow to the head and in looking for evidence of that found a slight bump on the top of the head. He described marks on the face but no external signs to justify calling an inquest. However, on account of the persistent rumors regarding the sudden death and being unable to give a cause, he filled out the certificate to say “died suddenly; cannot ascertain cause of death.”
He had called on another medical professional, Dr. Drinnan, to conduct the postmortem and had the stomach sent to the provincial lab for examination, along with a bottle of whiskey that had been found behind the door at the Fraser home. The report of the analyst was that Thomas Fraser’s stomach contained more than sufficient strychnine to cause death; but there was no poison in the whiskey.
Other witnesses at the inquest included A.J. Young who testified to the events of the day including being asked to look for Tom and finding him at the hardware store. He also testified to a conversation he’d heard concerning a change to Thomas Fraser’s will giving his daughter (from his first marriage) some land in Alberta and Saskatchewan. He said he heard Mrs. Fraser say she “could not stand the disgrace any longer” and declared intent to leave her husband on account of his actions.
Mrs. Young testified that Mollie Fraser said her husband bumped his nose on the Victrola and that she had pushed him away with the stove iron.
A friend, George Gray, had been asked by A.J. Young to help with the search for Mr. Fraser on that fateful Sunday. Gray testified that he had seen Fraser in the hardware store a couple of different times and he had been drinking. Gray said he saw a bottle of whiskey on the counter and hid it away beside the desk in the office. Later, Gray met Fraser downtown and told him about having hid the whiskey. The two went to the store to retrieve it, but it was gone. Fraser told Gray he had a disagreement with his wife and that she had struck him with a stove iron and asked Gray to feel the lump. Gray testified he was wearing mitts and could not feel it.
James Fraser had been informed of his brother’s death while at a bonspiel in Moose Jaw and when he arrived home was given more details. Questioned if strychnine was sold in their store James Fraser said it was but that he did not think his brother would administer poison to himself. James’s wife then testified as to the deceased telling her about quarrels between himself and his wife.
Other witnesses were called upon but none could add information that would lead to determining the cause of death.
Strychnine was easy to obtain
Strychnine is a white, odorless powder that can be taken by mouth, inhaled or injected intravenously. It is a strong poison that can cause serious adverse effects, even leading to death. Strychnine prevents chemicals that control nerve signals from operating properly, causing the body to suffer severe, painful spasms. Eventually the muscles tire and the individual can’t breathe. In the 1920’s strychnine was very easy to get a hold of and could be purchased over the counter.
On February 25, 1921, following testimony of the final witness in the Fraser inquest, Coroner Dumpthy summed up the evidence and instructed the jury in its duties.
The jury retired and “in a few minutes” returned stating that they studied all the evidence and “give verdict that the late Thomas A. Fraser came to his death on Sunday, February 13 by strychnine poison but cannot find sufficient evidence to satisfy us clearly as to whether such poison was self-administered or otherwise.”
In the decades since his death and the inconclusive inquest, little has come to light to help the family understand what happened that day. Thomas had been married prior to his marriage to Mollie and from that union one child survived to adulthood. Fraser was a widower when he remarried and there were no children from the second marriage. There are five family members alive today and none have any further knowledge of Thomas Fraser’s cause of death.
The provincial coroner’s office is in the process of sorting through old inquest records received from the court houses where they were originally filed, but have not found documents for the Thomas Fraser case. If those files are found and reviewed, perhaps the family will have some answers, 100 years after the fact.