Cause of death

Elspeth Kerr was a popular nurse. She was also fond of poison.

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On Tuesday, 1 September 1992, a building crew were in the early stages of digging the foundations of 2 Matai Road. This was a prime section at Cheltenham, a Devonport beach resplendent with old pōhutukawa and Victorian villas. Andy Cardano had dug knee-deep when his spade hit something—a human skull. He had found a skeleton.

Scientists determined the bones were those of a woman buried around 70 years earlier. Locals told police stories of a private hospital run by a mad nurse who bumped off her patients and left the country with a younger lover.

The truth was not as scandalous—but still sensational.  Elspeth Kerr was a Scottish nurse who opened a private nursing home in Devonport during the 1920s. For families in the Depression era, it was a cheaper option than a proper licensed hospital. Kerr also dispensed medical advice to people in the community for less than the cost of a doctor. She delivered babies and likely performed abortions for unwed women. She was popular.

In 1931, she shifted her nursing home from Matai Road to 20 Queens Parade overlooking Waitematā Harbour. The following year, her eight-year-old foster daughter, Betty was admitted to Auckland Hospital. She was seriously ill. As doctors tried to figure out what was wrong, the girl quickly recovered, with no sign of any illness. Several weeks later, Betty was readmitted, comatose. Doctors suspected appendicitis and prepared to operate. But again, the girl quickly recovered.

One afternoon, Kerr popped in for a visit and gave the girl a butterscotch sweet. Within an hour, Betty had lapsed into unconsciousness.

A bright young doctor named John Stallworthy suspected something sinister and requested blood and urine samples. Tests confirmed a potentially fatal dose of veronal in the girl’s system.

Veronal was the first over-the-counter barbiturate on the market. Often prescribed for inducing sleep, it was embraced by the bohemian set, including Katherine Mansfield, Robin Hyde and Virginia Woolf—and by this time, it was becoming notorious for killing people through both overdoses and poisoning.

Detectives arrested Kerr and exhumed the bodies of her husband, Charles, and an elderly resident of Kerr’s nursing home. They had both died that same year—Charles, suddenly. Both deaths had been recorded as being due to natural causes, but the bodies were found to contain high traces of Veronal.

After three public trials, Kerr was found guilty of administering the drug with intent to injure. She was sentenced to six years imprisonment. In contrast to her trials, her release in 1938 went unreported. She changed her name and worked as a nurse aide at Kingseat Hospital at Karaka, south of Auckland, for many years, and died in 1969.

Her motivation is still not known. Was she simply trying to ease pain, and accidentally administered too-high doses? Kerr was addicted to the drug herself—did that play any part in the deaths? It was only after her own death that the form of child abuse popularly known as Munchausen by Proxy was described in the psychiatric literature: those afflicted work to make their children appear ill, sometimes to gain attention.

Of course, the discovery of the Cheltenham skeleton posed an even bigger question: had Elspeth Kerr more victims? New evidence suggests she had a hand in further deaths. If proven, this would make her one of New Zealand’s earliest serial killers.

Scott Bainbridge’s book about this case, The Trials of Nurse Kerr: The anatomy of a secret poisoner is published by Bateman Books and will be released in early May.