In Australia in the early 1950s there was a notable
spate of cases of murder or attempted murder by thallium poisoning. At
this time, due to the chronic rat infestation problems in overcrowded
inner-city suburbs (notably in Sydney), and thallium's effectiveness
as a rat poison, it was still readily available over the counter in
New South Wales, where thallium sulphate was marketed as a commercial
rat bait, under the brand "Thall-rat".
In September 1952 Yvonne Gladys Fletcher, a
housewife and mother of two from the inner Sydney suburb of Newtown,
was charged and tried for the murders of both her first husband,
Desmond Butler (who died in 1948) and her abusive second husband,
Bertrand "Bluey" Fletcher, a rat bait layer, from whom Yvonne had
obtained the thallium poison that she used to kill him earlier that
Suspicions were raised after it became obvious to
friends and neighbours that Bluey Fletcher was suffering from the same
fatal illness that had killed Yvonne's first husband. A police
investigation led to the exhumation and testing of Desmond Butler's
remains, which showed clear evidence of thallium, and this led to
Yvonne being convicted of Butler's murder. She was sentenced to death,
but this was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment after the NSW
Government abolished the death penalty; she was eventually released in
At the time of the trial, it was reported
that this was the first known case in Australia of a person being
convicted of murder by administering thallium. The Fletcher case is
also notable for the fact that one of the arresting officers was
Sydney detective Fred Krahe, who later became notorious for his
suspected close involvement with elements of Sydney's organised crime
scene and his alleged involvement in the disappearance of social
activist Juanita Nielsen.
Woman Sentenced To Death
The Sydney Morning Herald
September 24, 1952
Mrs. Yvonne Gladys Fletcher, 30, collapsed in the
dock last night when she was sentenced to death for the murder of her
first husband, Desmond George Butler, 30, by administering thallium
A Central Criminal Court jury had returned a
verdict of guilty after an absence of four hours.
Mrs. Fletcher, who wore a grey costume, blue
jumper, and white hat, seemed self-composed when the jury returned to
She showed no emotion when the foreman announced
Asked if she had anything to say before the Court
passed sentence, she said, "No, your Honor." in a clear voice.
Mr. Justice Kinsella said: "You have had a fair
trial and a patient and careful consideration of the evi- dence by the
"If the conviction had been in respect of your
second husband, possibly some palliation of your crime might have been
found, for the evidence showed you suffered greatly at his hands. In
respect of your first husband, there is no evidence at all of that
"The crime of murder is a terrible one, and when
the killing is by means of an insidious poison, secretly administered
within the family circle to an unsuspecting victim, which destroyed
him mentally and physically, while permitting him to linger for months
in wretched agony, then the crime is a horrible one."
Mrs. Fletcher constantly opened and closed her eyes
as the Judge addressed her.
When he passed the death sentence, she collapsed in
the dock, dropping a prayer-book which she had carried during the
Three policewomen and a constable rushed to her
aid. They gave her a glass of water.
Just before Mrs. Fletcher reached the door leading
to the cells, she burst into a fit of weeping.
Ban Sale: Jury
Mr. Justice Kinsella referred to a recommenda tion
from the jury that, in view of the scientific evidence, the sale of
thallium poison in any form to the public should be prohibited.
He said he would pass on the recommendation to the
Mrs. Fletcher has two small children by her first
A gaol authority said that Mrs. Fletcher would be
placed in an observation cell at Long Bay until the sentence was
carried out or commuted to a term of imprisonment.
He said that, if the sentence was commuted to
imprisonment for life, Mrs. Fletcher would be able to petition for
release after serving about 20 years.
Mrs. Fletcher would remain at Long Bay.
A legal authority said last night that this was the
first case known in Australia of a person having been convicted at
murder by administering thallium poison. There had been several cases
of suicide in which the poison was used.
Woman Sentenced To Death For Poisoning
The Canberra Times
September 24, 1952
Mrs. Yvonne Gladys Fletcher, 30, was to-night
sentenced to death at the Central Criminal Court, for the murder of
her first husband.
The jury returned the verdict of guilty after
deliberating for 37 hours.
As Mr. Justice Kinsella sentenced her to death,
Mrs. Fletcher went white, swayed and then collapsed in the dock.
She was led sobbing from the court by two
Mrs. Fletcher was found guilty of the murder of
Desmond George Butler in 1948.
The Crown alleged Mrs. Fletcher poisoned Butler
with thallium poison.
Atfer delivering the verdict of guilty, the foreman
of the jury recommended that the sale, of thallium to the public be
The death sentence will probably be commuted to
Addressing Mrs Fletcher, his Honour said the
evidence had shown she had suffered greatly at the hands of her second
"But there is no evidence to say you were
mistreated by your first husband," he said.
"The crime of murder is a terrible one, but when
the killing was by means of poison secretly administered which
destroyed him mentally and physically, it is an atrocious thing."
"For the crime of murder, the law of this State has
one sentence Death".
"I, therefore, sentence you, Yvonne Gladys Fletcher
to death," His Honour said.
After Mrs Fletcher had left the court, Mr Justice
Kinsella complimented the jury on their "splendid service to the
He told the jury men there was ample evidence to
bring in the verdict of guilty.
His Honour added if the jurymen desired, they could
be excused from jury work for three years.
The Crown Prosecutor, Mr Rooney, Q.C., in. his
opening address, said Mrs. Fletcher began administering thallium to
her husband in 1947. Butler had sensations of pins and needles in his
feet early in 1948.
In March this year, police began inquiries, and
Butler's body was exumed on April 17.
Three days after the trial started, Mr. Justice
Kinsella decided to admit evidence on the death of Mrs. Fletcher's
The crown also alleged that Bertram Henry Fletcher
(30) had died as the result of thallium poisoning.
The jury retired this afternoon at 5.30 and
returned to the court at 9.10 p.m.
Woman Charged With Murder Of Two Husbands
Sydney Morning Herald
May 20, 1952
Mrs. Yvonne Fletcher, 30, a domestic, of Ferndale
Street, Newtown, was charged at Central Court of Petty Sessions
yesterday with murdering two men to whom she had been married.
The police allege that she poisoned them. Unkempt
and red-eyed from crying, Mrs. Fletcher was remanded in custody until
She wept while the charges were read in court.
The charges said that –
• On March 23 last, Mrs. Fletcher murdered Bertram
Henry Fletcher, 30.
• On July 29, 1948, she murdered Desmond George
The Allegation: “Poisoning”
Asked for some details of the allegations, Sergeant
Bush said: –
The allegation is that the first man died in 1948
as a result of poisoning. The defendant was his wife.
”We say the second man died in a similar manner in
March this year when the defendant was his wife.”
The Magistrate, Mr. C. F. Denton, S. M., asked Mrs.
Fletcher if she wanted to make an application for bail.
She did not seem to understand what he meant and a
policeman explained to her.
Then she replied: “No, I don’t want bail.”
Sergeant Bush said the police were opposing bail.
He asked that if an application for bail was made
later, the officer in charge of the inquiry. Detective Fergusson,
should be communicated with.
The magistrate said he would have the police
objection to bail and the request noted.
Mrs. Fletcher was arrested at her home early
The Background Science Aids Police
The charges against Mrs. Fletcher mark the climax
of two months’ intensive investigation by Detectives D. Fergusson and
Superintendent J. Wiley ordered the investigation
when doctors at Royal Prince Allred Hospital refused to sign a death
certificate for Fletcher on March 23 this year. The next day the
Government Medical Officer, Dr. Percy, and Dr. Stratford Sheldon held
The detectives were present, but the examination
did not reveal the cause of Fletcher’s death.
The contents of the stomach and certain organs were
then analysed by Mr. T. A. McDonald, at the request of the Government
Analyst, Dr. Taylor.
On April 21, the detectives applied for and were
granted permission by the City Coroner, Mr. Forrest, to exhume the
body of Butler.
This was done at Rookwood Cemetery in drizzling
rain at dusk on the same day.
Later, at the City Morgue, Dr. Percy and Dr.
Sheldon examined the remains.
Samples of flesh tissue were also forwarded to the
Government Analyst, Dr. Taylor, Detectives Fergusson and Krahe now
spread their investigations further afield, interviewing many people
in Sydney, Melbourne and Broken Hill.
They also inquired into Butler’s death at Broughton
Hall psychiatric clinic.