Case notes, coal gas and cocaine

Show Navigation

By | The Researcher’s View

Book cover of Dope Girls by Marek KohnCoal gas, carbolic acid and lysol were the familiar poisons of the day, the household substances that extinguished unhappy lives in the haunted years after the First World War. A less familiar but increasingly notorious poison appears a couple of times in the index cards on which the pathologist Bernard Spilsbury recorded his case-notes in 1922: cocaine.

Three years previously, a judge had remarked how strange it was that until quite lately, drugs like cocaine “could be bought by all and sundry like so much grocery”. Possession of cocaine had been banned under emergency wartime legislation in 1916, in the wake of a panic about its use by West End prostitutes, and fears that they might spread the habit to soldiers. The ban was made permanent after the war, but cocaine seemed even more at home in the West End of the early 1920s, jittery with febrile nightclubs.

One of the cards in Spilsbury’s file, now held in the Wellcome Library, summarises his examination of the body of Lilian May Davis. Her room-mate told the inquest that Davis, who was 24 and had been in poor health since her father’s death, would inject cocaine in the daytime and morphine to sleep at night. Her address in the St Giles area north of Covent Garden and her room-mate’s stated occupation of dressmaker place her in the milieu of socially and economical marginal women in the West End – garment-workers, servants, prostitutes, stage performers – through which the cocaine subculture had first taken shape during the war.
Drawing of Bernard Spilsbury
Two other cards record details of another young woman’s death, that helped define the distinctive interplay of fears that found expression in alarm about drug use in those years. Freda Kempton was 21 when she died in March 1922, and had been working as a nightclub ‘dance instructress’, or ‘dancing mistress’ – that is, she was paid as a dancing partner, largely in tips. As well as medical details, the cards summarise the case history from evidence that Kempton’s friend Rose Heinberg gave in court.

Tragedy turned to scandal as Heinberg described how they had met a Chinese man, Brilliant Chang, who ran a Chinese restaurant in Regent Street. Freda disappeared with him and came back a few minutes later, her mouth twitching: she told Rose she had been drugged. Heinberg added that another time Kempton showed her 13 packets of cocaine –  and that the day before her death, she had asked ‘Billy’ Chang if sniffing cocaine could be fatal. On the way home she threatened to commit suicide by drinking cocaine dissolved in water. The following evening, at her lodgings near Notting Hill, she did.

Chang’s appearance in court set off a barrage of lurid newspaper articles about clubs, ‘Cocaine Girls in the West End’, and Chinese men who held a mysterious allure for “frail white women”. The drug drama now had a sinister “Oriental” villain; the drug panic now attained the most intense expression of its fears, that ‘men of colour’ would use drugs to lure and ruin young white women. With young women dancing to jazz and demanding the vote, conservative sentiment saw the ‘dope girl’ as an awful warning of women’s inherent frailty.

I was familiar with the details of Freda Kempton’s death from the contemporary press reports I read when researching my book Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground, which first appeared twenty years ago. The cards didn’t change my understanding of the tragedy, but they shortened my distance from it a fraction, having been compiled by the hand that conducted the post-mortem. It was surprisingly shaky and attentive – having read Andrew Rose’s biography Lethal Witness, which depicts a professional arrogance that may have resulted in deadly miscarriages of justice, I was expecting supercilious medical illegibility.

Freda Kempton had herself appeared in a coroner’s court a few weeks before she became the subject of an inquest, testifying that her friend Audrey Knowles Harrison had recently started drinking after her young child died. Mrs Harrison had returned home from an evening out and, still in her coat, gassed herself by putting her head in an oven. Domestic gas, which was manufactured from coal and contained lethal fractions of carbon monoxide, was becoming an increasingly prevalent means of suicide. In 1947 Sir Bernard Spilsbury took his own life with it, by opening the gas tap in his laboratory at University College London.

Author: Marek Kohn

Marek Kohn is the author of such titles as Turned out Nice: How the British Isles will Change as the World Heats Up (2010), A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination (2004) and A Guide for the Incurably Curious, a guide to Wellcome Collection (2012).  Here, Marek reflects on the 20th anniversary of the publication of his book Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground (1992), through the papers of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, now held in the Wellcome Library.

For more on Dope Girls see Marek’s blog on the themes raised by the book. The papers of Bernard Spilsbury (PP/SPI) are available for consultation by Wellcome Library users after the completion of a Restricted Access form.

Comments are closed.

Related Blog Posts