Killer custard in Limerick convent was no trifling affair

Limerick historian and author Sharon Slater. Photo: Don Moloney.

THE community at Laurel Hill Convent and boarding school, about eighty people in all, sat down to dinner on the evening of July 3, 1895. It was a Wednesday.

The meal had been prepared as usual by the convent cook, Mrs Bridget Fitzgerald. The dinner took place over two sittings to accommodate all the occupants, as they were unable to be seated at one time.

They ate a soup of beef and mutton flavoured with young green-leaved celery. The soup had been strained, and the meat was served separately. Cabbage boiled in water with a tablespoon of bread soda had also been prepared. For dessert, there was a choice of strawberries or stewed gooseberries from their own garden, served with custard.

The preparation of the custard had begun the night before when the cook took four quarts of skimmed milk leftover from the previous Monday night and boiled it, adding about half a loaf of sugar and two tablespoons of cornflour. She boiled it once more and then let the mixture cool.

After that, 10 egg yolks were beaten, all of which were fresh except for one, which had a reddish-brown colour but no offensive odour. Another egg from the same batch, which was completely stale, was thrown in the fire. Mrs Fitzgerald then poured the eggs into the milk, which she heated slightly to the temperature of warm tea. The mixture was then poured into an earthenware bowl and put in a cold cupboard for the night.

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That Wednesday morning, the cook noticed that the custard had become quite thin, almost to the consistency of cream, but she continued to serve it over the strawberries and gooseberries. Then she whipped the egg whites, which remained after the custard preparation, with 1lb of sifted sugar and spread this on top of the fruit and custard.

Prior to serving, she ate a bowl of the dessert herself. All except two of the nuns and boarders partook in this meal. The two who did not eat it were the Reverend Mother, who was an invalid and had separate meals made for her, and her attendant, Sister Anastasia.

Towards nightfall, a number of the nuns, including 28-year-old Sister Margaret Caffrey, who ate very little of her dinner as she usually did not have a large appetite, complained of feeling ill. During the night, each nun (bar the two) and the entire number of boarders grew sick.

Sister Xavier, the Assistant Superioress, waited until morning before dispatching a note for Dr Malone, the physician to the institution, as she had hoped the symptoms would abate during the night. The doctor arrived very shortly after receiving the news, finding all the patients in a prostrate condition and suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea. He diagnosed as best he could the cause of the malady but was unable to arrive at any other conclusion than that the previous day’s food must have contained some form of irritant poison.

The condition of a few of the sisters was extremely serious, and nearly every member of the medical faculty in the city was requisitioned to deal with the extraordinary state of affairs prevailing at the convent.

Doctors Holmes, Graham, Humphries, Shanahan, and Haron were in constant attendance on the patients. The Bishop of Limerick, Reverend Dr Edward O’Dwyer, and the local clergy were also diligent in their attendance and sympathy towards the sufferers.

By Thursday, the majority of the patients were in a much better condition, although some acute cases lingered on. Sister Margaret Caffrey, of the small appetite, warranted special attention but nothing could aid her. Her symptoms grew increasingly worse, and she passed away on the Friday evening.

The following Monday morning at 6.30am, news broke of the death of another sister, Mother Mary (Maria Billot).

The inquest that had begun on Saturday to investigate the first death was postponed to include the second.

Samples of the meal were sent for analysis to Dr Charles Cameron, Professor of Chemistry and Hygiene at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin.

That Friday he received a portion of the cornflour, bread soda, and sugar, which were the only items of the meal remaining. He also received samples of vomit and faeces from one of the infected patients. None of the items examined contained any form of poison.

On hearing of the circumstances surrounding the preparation of the custard, he seemed somewhat surprised that its consistency remained thin.

Dr Cameron had a custard made in a manner similar to the method described and found that his batch also remained thin, due, as he supposed, to the albumen of the egg not having coagulated by heat. When he heated a second batch near to boiling point (as was the norm), he found that, on cooling, it became quite thick.

It was his opinion that one of the eggs used in the preparation had been contaminated, and with the custard also being undercooked and left overnight in the warmth, bacteria formed in the custard, causing the entirety of the convent to become infected with ptomaine poisoning, or food poisoning.

Dr Cameron went on to report this case of food poisoning in the British Medical Journal at the end of July that same year.

13 days after the meal, a third patient, 18-year-old Josephine O’Flynn, succumbed to the effects of the poison.

A boarding student from Cork, O’Flynn had at first recovered slightly but then suffered a severe relapse, which became so serious that her father travelled up from Cork the day before her death to be with her.

The fourth and final victim of this terrible episode was 43-year-old Sister Mary Claire.

The inquest into all four fatalities concurred with Dr Cameron’s theory and recorded accidental poisoning as the cause of death for each of the victims. No one was deemed responsible, and no prosecutions were made.

All three of the sisters were buried in the grounds of Laurel Hill, while the student Josephine O’Flynn was removed to Cork. The Bishop of Limerick and Mayor of Limerick both attended her funeral.

Not everyone agreed with Dr Charles Cameron’s diagnosis of food poisoning, though.

Mr David Clohesy had his own opinion on the cause of the ailment at Laurel Hill Convent and had a lengthy letter published in the Limerick Leader on 2 August 1895.

He explained that he believed the illness in the vast majority of the convent’s community had more to do with the idea that the women may have been poisoned than that a toxin had in fact been taken, thus inducing them to imitate the physical symptoms of the illness.

He was quoted as writing: “Suppose that a sensitive person – a lady – while she is eating strawberries or a similar pleasant dessert is told that she has taken a worm into her stomach, she will instantly stop eating, and in a minute she vomits freely. How is this still the case when she has swallowed no worm? The answer is that a mental impression caused it, or in other words, that the vomiting principle was in the brain.”

Thus, he implies that almost all the women in the convent and school were of a delicate nature and their symptoms were self-induced. How his occupation as a stone cutter gave him the ability to comment on a medical issue is another story.

This was one of the first cases of food poisoning causing death where the culprit was deemed to be a stale egg to be reported in the British Medical Journal.