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Toxic Tales from Sandhurst


While our minds immediately go to sugar and fruit flavourings when thinking of confectionery and chocolate, some ingredients were less appealing…​

A Bitter End

The sweet flavour of almonds, key in the unique taste of marzipan but also many varieties of hard confectionery, fudges and chocolate liquid centres, has been popular across centuries, particularly in Europe and the Middle East. Sandhurst confectioner, Alexander Henderson, used it to make ratafia, a macaroon-like confection flavoured with the essence.


To this day, confectioners use an essence of bitter almonds in their craft but unlike their domesticated counterpart, the amara variety of the almond prunus dulcis plant produces the toxic amygdalin – hydrogen cyanide, or prussic acid – even when the kernel is crushed and distilled. The oil remaining from the cold press and distilling process is generally resuspended in a substance like ethyl alcohol but some of the acid remains and even contemporarily, it’s estimated that as little as 7.5mL of almond oil can be lethal.


A small amount of the toxic essence can lead to difficulty in breathing, dizziness and kidney failure. In the case of Grace Henderson, 41, of Hargreaves Street Bendigo, it was the shock of ingesting a full tablespoon – 14mL – which caused her death on Monday 21 August in 1876.

Alexander and Grace Henderson, a Scottish couple, had first established a confectionery store in Hargreaves Street in 1873; the site is now the vicinity of The Reject Shop and Council multi storey carpark next to Chancery Lane[i]. In 1874 a large sink hole opened up in the footpaths outside the shop, with Alexander writing to the council to describe the ‘perfect man and woman trap’ and asking that the ‘newly-elected mayor or any of his brother councillors’ remedy the dangerous problem, as if he filled it himself, he would be ‘transgressing municipal bye-laws’[ii].

As well as the confectionery shop, Alex and Grace operated a restaurant in the two shops next door and employed a sizable staff. On Christmas Day in 1875, they gave a picnic for their employees and a group of friends, and in return, on New Year’s Day, Alex was presented with a pair of field glasses, and Grace, a diamond ring[iii].


While 1876 started in a positive and collegial manner, by August it had come to light that Grace appeared to have a drinking problem, and was experiencing regular bouts of ‘low spirits’ and despondency[iv]. Indeed on one occasion, she told cab driver, Robert Newbold, who operated next door to the shop in Hargreaves Street, that she would ‘do away with herself’:


“Some four or five weeks ago, as I was locking the door, she was standing there; she seemed the worse for liquor and I said, ‘What’s the matter, Mrs Henderson?’ and she asked me if I saw Mr Henderson. I said ‘No,’ and she replied that he was next door and she wished for me to get him. I said that I had not time as he was going to the 11:15AM train. She then said, ‘I will do away with myself,’, and I replied ‘Don’t be so foolish’, and went into my place to get my horse and cab. [v]


On a Monday afternoon, she asked one of their staff, James Anderson, to fetch for her a bottle of almond oil while he was in the storeroom. He indicated that there was none, but she replied, “There is some in the corner”. Despite having no label, Anderson located the bottle and took it up to her, which she then tasted from, remarking, “How it burns”[vi]. They spoke for fifteen minutes before he left, locking up the shop and leaving the keys in their usual place. Annie Lovelace, a waitress in the dining room part of the business, arrived at 4PM and was asked by Grace to bring up the keys to the storeroom. She left soon after, just as Grace was about to enter the pantry.


At 4:45PM, Alexander went upstairs to their parlour and found Grace on the floor by the sofa, breathing heavily and near insensible. He asked one of his shop girls if she had given his wife anything to drink and she said that she had not. Alexander explained to the jury that they did not sell spirits in either shop, but a couple of Grace’s friends would bring her drink. He had even mentioned to one that Grace may be in need of a stay at Yarra Bend (asylum).


Grace had been sick, and upon tasting the remnants, Alexander determined that his wife had taken either ratafia (an almond-flavoured liqueur) or bitter almond essence oil, and immediately called for Dr Penfold. When he arrived less than ten minutes later, Grace had been moved to a bedroom and was, according to the doctor, ‘in the act of death’[vii].


Alexander had found a uncorked bottle of almond essence on the edge of a bench in the storeroom, away from where it normally stood, with an estimated tablespoon, or ‘half an inch’, of the contents missing[viii]. By this time, Dr Penfold could not find Grace’s pulse, her face ‘florid but natural looking’ and her pupils dilated and fixed. He applied cold water and CPR while waiting for a stomach pump to be brought in[ix].


Bendigo Advertiser, 14 November 1874, p4

Almond prunus dulcis


He injected a drachm (approx. 3g) of a strong ammonia solution into her arm in an attempt to stimulate the heart but finding no improvement, and she was declared deceased. The liquid flushed from her stomach at the house was Alexander showed the bottle to Dr Penfold, who found the culinary essence to contain four times as much pure prussic acid as the preparation that was used in medical preparations.


Dr Penfold also conducted the examination on Grace’s body for the inquest which was held on the following day at the Crown Hotel (still 238 Hargreaves Street) – after the jury had viewed her body, still in the bedroom of their house just a few doors up from the Hotel. In his deposition to the jury, he described finding ‘half a pint of dark green grumous fluid, also smelling of the same oil’, and significant crystallisation of her major organs[x]. In his summary to the foreman, he noted that her liver was ‘of a yellow colour, hard and gristly… drawn and puckered in many places’.


Dr Penfold was of the opinion that the state of her liver suggested she ‘must have largely indulged in spirit and other stimulants for some time’[xi]. Alexander had recognised that his wife had been very despondent in recent times but thought that her actions were through a need to drink rather than to ‘destroy herself’, and denied a suggestion that she had thrown herself into the creek on the Christmas Day of their grand picnic[xii].


The jury, which included the Henderson’s neighbour, draper Robert Whiteside, unable to determine if the act was one of suicide or accidentally drinking too much essence for the effect of the stimulant, returned a verdict ‘that the deceased met her death by taking a large dose of the essential oil of bitter almonds'.

Excerpt from inquest deposition of Alexander Henderson,

Public Record Office Victoria, VA2807 State Coroner's Office, VPRS 24 Inquest Deposition Files, P0 Unit 352, Item 1876/238, Grace Henderson

Excerpt from Dunn's report to council,

Public Record Office Victoria, VA 4862 City of Sandhurst, VPRS 16936 Inward Correspondence, P1 Unit 44, Item 17-30 September 1896

An Inspector Calls

Frederic Dunn had been an analyst for Victorian municipalities since the 1870s, tasked with reviewing the ingredients of a wide variety of foodstuffs, from tea to cheese, milk to flour, butter to meat, and of course confectionery. Locally made and imported lollies, chocolates and liquorices were examined regularly for additives – often used to enhance colour – which included lead, chromate of lead, clay, gypsum, sulphate of baryta, double silicate of alumina and soda, and sulphuret of sodium. The constitution of products was also reviewed – in 1876, several Melbourne liquorice manufacturers submitted samples to Dunn who found that only one third were actually liquorice – other samples were primarily potato starch with a little cane sugar, mineral ash and liquorice extract[iii].


In 1896, Patrick Fahey was the City of Bendigo’s Health Inspector; a former sergeant of police at Maryborough, Fahey had been appointed to the role in 1883 as well as holding the positions of Cab Inspector and Inspector of Nuisances. Under the Public Health Act (1890), foodstuffs were required to meet very particular standards, and the role of the Public Health Board was to approve which analysts municipal Health Inspectors were permitted to use.


So it was that Fahey engaged Dunn to undertake a number of examinations in the Spring of that year, focusing on bread and flour but also including confectionery, two brands of which were locally made. Dunn’s report to Council indicated that of the three varieties he examined  (hokey pokey lollies, rainbow lollies and raspberry drops) all were free of mineral poisons and colouring matter, but did contain small percentages of ‘mineral matter’[iv].

The following year, his analysis of Bendigo distributors found all confectionery samples were free from minerals, colours or adulterants. In 1898, Fahey tendered his resignation from the role and John Reid was appointed as municipal health inspector. Reid engaged Dunn to a series of ‘raids’ on lolly shops, after having investigated milk sellers in the district and by November, the analyst had a report for Council. It showed that that the samples were again all free from ‘mineral adulterations or metallic impurity’[v].


At the sitting of council that month, Councillor Harry Marks suggested that the Turkey lolly (fairy floss) vendors should be his next target, having known ‘children to be ill after eating the stuff’. Past Mayor, MLA and hotelier, Councillor Alfred Bailes ‘quietly hinted’ that perhaps Cr Marks’ opinion may have been coloured by an over indulgence in his younger days[vi].

Dunn was based in Melbourne, working for various companies including the Industrial & Technological Museum, and this caused some consternation to councillors from the 1890s and right through to war time in the 20th century.

Several times across the late 19th and early 20th century, various councillors proposed that Dunn’s contract be terminated in favour of a local analyst through the School of Mines, and additionally offer those services to neighbouring municipalities. Ballaarat had been successful in decentralising analyst services and councillors thought this reflected poorly on Bendigo. 


In 1904 Councillor Semmens proposed to terminate the agreement and appoint Boydell of the School of Mines, seconded by Councillor Carolin though Abbott felt that their laboratory’s facilities were not sufficient for the job, nor would the cost difference be favourable. The motion was carried regardless but not carried through. The discussion arose again the following year, with the Council going as far as notifying Dunn that his engagement would be terminated in December. This did not occur and Dunn continued as the City’s analyst but again in 1916, the Council were again keen to dispense of his services, citing his distance making inspections and testimonials difficult and expensive. Dunn disputed this but by March, James Anderson, director of the School of Mines had been approved by the Public Health Department to be appointed to the role of City Analyst.


[i] Public Record Office of Victoria, VA 4862 City of Sandhurst, VPRS 16267 Rate Books, P0 Unit 22 Year 1878, p89

[ii] 'A man trap', Bendigo Advertiser, 18 Nov 1874, p2

[iii] 'A presentation', Bendigo Advertiser, 5 Jan 1876, p2

[iv] 'Suicide by poison', Bendigo Advertiser, 23 Aug 1876, p2

[v] Public Record Office of Victoria, VA 2807 State Coroner’s Office, VPRS 24 Inquest Deposition Files, P0 Unit 352, item 1876/238 Grace Henderson

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Ibid

[ix] Ibid

[x] Ibid

[xi] Ibid

[xii] Ibid

[xiii] 'Confectionery analysis', The Argus, 8 Jul 1876, p9

[xiv] Public Record Office of Victoria, VA 4862 City of Sandhurst, VPRS 16936 Inward Correspondence, P01 Unit 44, Item 17-30 September 1896, Council Report

[xv] 'Raid on lolly shops', Bendigo Independent, 19 Nov 1898, p2

[xvi] 'Raid on lolly shops', Bendigo Independent, 19 Nov 1898, p2

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