THE early 1920s was a dodgy time to be the wife of a solicitor in the picturesque Welsh border town of Hay on Wye, because two such ladies died from being poisoned. 

In both cases their husbands stood trial for murder, but while a jury acquitted Harold Greenwood, 12 months later Herbert Rowse Armstrong was found guilty of killing his overbearing spouse Kitty and became the first, and so far only, lawyer in Britain to be hanged. 

The Armstrong case attracted nationwide publicity with crime writers descending on Hereford Assizes in April 1922 from far and wide.

But 70 years on the verdict received a considerably jolt. In a remarkable twist of fate, author Martin Beales, himself a lawyer, bought Armstrong’s grand old house and after researching its former owners, produced a book arguing, quite convincingly, that Major Herbert didn’t do it.

Dead Not Buried, which won the Crime Writers' Association Golden Dagger award for non-fiction, was one of the hits of Hay Literary Festival in 1995. 

Armstrong was born in Plymouth in 1869 and after gaining a law degree at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, practised in Liverpool and Newton Abbott before arriving in Hay in Wye in 1906. The following year he married West Country girl Katharine Mary Friend and purchased an imposing family home called Mayfield in the village of Cusop Dingle, not far from Hay, where he ran his law firm Cheese & Armstrong.

Soon establishing himself in Hay society, the popular young solicitor became a leading Freemason and was appointed clerk to the justices.

During the First World War he served with the Royal Engineers Territorial Force, rising to the rank of major and thereafter was usually known as Major Armstrong.

The Armstrongs had three children, but their marriage was complex. On the one hand the domineering Kitty would regularly abuse and humiliate her husband in public, while on the other both expressed apparently genuine concern when apart: she during his time at war and he during her spells in hospital.

Whatever the truth, service in the First World War opened up new experiences for the Major and he had several affairs. He also went to dances in Hay where he made passes at local girls.

On the day of his wife’s death, the servants closed all the curtains as a mark of respect. The first thing Armstrong did on returning home from the office was to open them again.

Katharine Mary Armstrong died on February 22, 1921. She had fallen ill nearly two years before, but recovered and it was not until August, 1920, her health, both physical and mental, began to go rapidly downhill. Local physician Dr Thomas Hincks found she was showing signs of mental collapse and believed it was connected to her illness.

She was admitted to Barnwood, a private mental asylum near Gloucester with pyrexia, vomiting, heart murmurs, and albumen in the urine. There was also partial paralysis in the hands and feet and loss of muscle tone. She was also delusional.

Mrs Armstrong's condition began to improve at Barnwood and she was discharged home on January 22, 1921.

However, shortly after her return to Mayfield her condition mysteriously deteriorated again and she died exactly a month later.

Hincks was puzzled by Mrs Armstrong's symptoms, but nevertheless stated on the death certificate she had died of gastritis, aggravated by heart disease and nephritis. Outwardly, her husband had shown nothing but concern, sitting at his wife’s bedside reading to her in the evenings and leaving the office early whenever possible to be with her. It appeared Kitty Armstrong’s demise had been mysterious, but just about explainable.

And so things might have remained, had it not been for a bizarre event eight months later. Armstrong and Oswald Martin were by then the only solicitors in Hay and rivals in a local property deal. In October, 1921, the pair met at Armstrong’s house for tea and scones, after which Martin became violently ill.

Martin's father-in-law John Davies ran Hay pharmacy and knew he had made several sales of arsenic to Armstrong, supposedly to kill dandelions, despite it being autumn and there were only twenty of the weeds in the large garden at Mayfield.

The chemist became suspicious of his son-in-law’s sudden illness and when Martin told him he had been to tea at Mayfield, Davies was even more so.

Meanwhile Dr Hincks was also struck by how similar Martin's symptoms were to those of Katharine Armstrong. Hincks, Martin, and Davies discussed the situation and it then transpired a few weeks before the tea party, a box of chocolates had been anonymously sent to the Martins.

Mrs Martin's sister-in-law had eaten some and become violently ill. Fortunately, some chocolates remained and when examined were found to have a small nozzle-like hole in the base. At this point Dr Hincks contacted the Home Office. Samples of the chocolates and Martin's urine were examined and found to contain arsenic. The Home Office then called in  Scotland Yard.

On December 31, 1921, in what must have caused quite a stir in the small market town, Scotland Yard detectives arrived in Hay to arrest Major Armstrong for the attempted murder of Oswald Martin. He maintained he was innocent, but police found a packet of arsenic in his pocket and many more in his house.

Mrs Armstrong's body was then exhumed and examined by the eminent Home Office pathologist Dr Bernard Spilsbury. It was riddled with arsenic ten months after death and on January 19, 1922 Armstrong was charged with the murder of his wife.

His trial at Hereford began with many Hay people thinking he may be acquitted. After all, the same had happened to Harold Greenwood not long before. But the prosecution had a strong case.

Armstrong undoubtedly possessed considerable quantities of arsenic, his wife had died from arsenic poisoning and the last, fatal, substantial dose had been taken shortly before she died, when she was bedbound and physically unable to go downstairs, find the weed killer and take it herself.

However, what the prosecution did not have was cast iron proof the Major had given her the poison. He had always denied it and never been anything less than caring for his wife during her protracted illness. The evidence against him was only circumstantial.

Also, a point seized on by Martin Beales in his book, Kitty Armstrong received numerous visitors at Mayfield during her last months and had apparently  talked of suicide to end her torment.

Someone else, possibly on her instructions, could have fetched the arsenic and administered it. Small town gossip and jealous rivals had then condemned Armstrong.

Ultimately the jury accepted the prosecution’s version and Mr Justice Darling sentenced Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong to death. He said he agreed with the jury's view and it was absurd and unsupported by any evidence Mrs Armstrong had committed suicide.

After the Court of Appeal upheld the verdict, Major Armstrong was hanged by John Ellis at Gloucester Prison on May 31,1922. It was said before the trap opened on the gallows he called out: "Kitty I'm coomin to ye!"