Women dying of arsenic poisoning were a popular subject for the press – this later example is from the Illustrated Police News
It was January 1888. By the end of the year, Jack the Ripper would have grabbed the public and press attention with a series of brutal murders of women in the East End of London. The Met Police commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, would have resigned, condemned by public opinion after failing to find the killer (although he would agree to continue in his role until a successor was found the following year).
The Whitechapel murders may have occupied the press and public from then on, but they were not the only murders in the UK and Ireland in that year – not by any stretch. In addition, as the year started, it heralded the end of one man’s devious and shocking murderousness – and deeds that had seen his wife betrayed in the worst way possible.
Shandy Hall, home to Philip Eustace Cross (image from Cork Past and Present)
Philip Henry Eustace Cross was born at Shandy Hall, a large house in Dripsey, County Cork. He was an educated, middle-class man who had been surgeon-major with the 53rd Regiment, and who had served during the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. His military career had seen him awarded medals for action in both of these campaigns. In 1888, he was now over 60 years old, a man who should have been looking forward to a pleasant, and more peaceable, retirement.
But Philip was not the kind of man to be happy with genteel retirement, despite appearing to be in a happy, secure family. On 17 August 1869, he had married Mary Laura Marriott. Mary was English, being from Essex and from a good social position, with the prospect of a healthy inheritance – her father was listed in the 1851 census as ‘gentleman and landed proprietor’.
They married at St James’s Church in Piccadilly, Philip leaving the church with the kudos of a younger wife on his arm – at the time, Mary was 28 to her husband’s ‘over 40’ years. Five children duly came along before, in 1874, Mary’s father, Richard, died. No marriage settlement had been given five years earlier, and now, Philip Eustace Cross got his father-in-law’s fortune of £5,000.
Despite now having plenty of money, the marriage was not happy – or at least, Philip ensured it wasn’t. He made clear his desire to end his relationship with Mary, but she stayed with her husband, believing that her marriage was for life and instead tolerating his irritation and bad behaviour towards her in a way that surprised even the most conservative of newspapers.
By the start of 1887, Dr Cross had decided to kill poor Mary. It was no coincidence that the year before, he had met a Scotswoman named Evelyn Forbes Skinner. At that time, aged around 22, she was working as a governess for the Caulfield family, who lived two miles from his own Shandy Hall. In October 1886, Miss Skinner left Mrs Caulfield’s house and became the Cross family governess at Shandy Hall. After three years, in January 1887, she moved to Carlow to become a governess there.
By this time, Miss Skinner was having an affair with Dr Cross. On 28 March, he travelled over to her, and booked them a hotel together. They spent the night together, and the following morning disappeared together. Dr Cross was not seen again until nearly a month later, when, on 22 April, he returned to Shandy Hall, failing to explain to his long-suffering wife where he had been.
A week later, an old school friend of Mary’s, a Miss Jefferson, arrived to see her old friend. She knew that Mary was usually in very good health, but on seeing her, recognised that she was poorly. She was also rather despondent, being very aware of her husband’s adultery.
Yet it was later commented that she ‘appeared to be an uncomplaining creature, not given to insisting on her rights’, and that she ‘preferred to brood over the wrong done her and pine away beneath her load of sorrow.’ So when she became increasingly unwell over the course of May 1887, others believed she was simply responding to her husband’s bad behaviour.
The symptoms of poisoning were present, despite the desire of others to see her illness as psychological. She had heart spasms, cramps, vomiting, and diarrhoea. She had to call on servants during the night to come and help ease her suffering. She was in pain.
Through her month of illness, her callous husband continued to sleep in the same bedroom as her. On at least one occasion, a servant was called by Mrs Cross to their bedroom, only to find Philip fast asleep in the neighbouring bed, oblivious to his wife’s struggles. He appeared not to care, and paid her no attention. On the last night of her life, Philip and Mary Cross were together in their bedroom. He poured both of them a glass of brandy – but added a little something to Mary’s. During the night, the servants heard screaming coming from the room, but as Philip hadn’t summoned them, they stayed in their own rooms. It was only at six o’clock the next morning, when they were already up and working, that Philip came to them and said:
“Get up, ye girls, the mistress is gone [dead] since half-past one last night.”
At six o’clock the next morning, not much over 24 hours since she had died, Mary Laura Cross was buried in a private funeral (you can see images of her grave at Findagrave here).
The marriage allegation for the very recently widowed Philip, and his lover Evelyn (from Ancestry; original document at London Metropolitan Archives)
This was not the end of the grubby story. 15 days after his wife’s untimely death, the impatient Philip Eustace Cross married Evelyn Skinner – in the same church in London where he had married Mary 18 years earlier.
At the end of June, they returned to Shandy Hall – a bad decision, as by this time, the Irish authorities had become suspicious, and ordered the exhumation of Mary’s body. This was done on 21 July 1887, and unsurprisingly, the subsequent examination found symptoms of arsenic poisoning.
On 28 July, Dr Cross was arrested for the murder of his first wife. His comment exposed his ego and his belief that a man of his stature should be above suspicion.
“My God, my God! To think that a man in my time of life should commit murder. There is a God above who will see the villainy of this.”
Despite this arrogance, the law prevailed. On 14 December, Dr Cross – perceived as ‘cool, self-possessed, indifferent’ throughout – went on trial at the Cork Assizes. There was plenty of evidence against him now, and the defence case was widely regarded as weak. The jury took just an hour to find Cross guilty of murder.
The verdict was a shock to Cross, who had been convinced that he would be acquitted. The day before the verdict was given, he had invited friends to come and dine with him at Shandy Hall in two days time; he had also arranged for his horse and trap to be ready to take him home from the court of the day of the verdict. Subsequently, he tried to get the case reopened, but the judge commented that he was ‘an obnoxious landlord and had been boycotted’, and that, bizarrely, was seen as a valid reason why he did not deserve another chance to prove his innocence.
At 8am on 10 January 1888, Dr Philip Eustace Cross, a bad husband and undoubtedly a selfish, unfeeling individual, was hanged at Cork, the press commenting that although there were such criminals who merited discussion of the abolition of capital punishment, Cross was not one of them.
Philip Cross’s will left his property to his brother Edward, in trust to two of his children by Mary – Sophia Mary and Henry Eustace. He also asked that the property be bequeathed to his son Philip Richard and financial payments be made to two more daughters – Elizabeth Laura Marriott and Henrietta Emeline. In addition, he asked that £400 be set apart for the use of ‘the male child born of my wife on or about the 23rd December 1887. He is not yet baptised. I desire him to be called John.’ (Waterford Standard, 18 February 1888).
Philip and Evelyn’s son, John, married in 1909, and in recording his father’s details, failed to mention that he was deceased.
Given that Philip only married Evelyn Skinner in June 1887, she must have been pregnant by him at the time of Mary’s murder. Perhaps Evelyn’s pregnancy had made his desire to get rid of his first wife more imperative, in his warped mind.
After Philip was hanged, Evelyn Forbes Skinner moved to England. In 1891, she was living in Hampshire with her three-year-old son, who she had baptised according to his father’s wishes, John Eustace (when John married, in 1909, he gave his father’s name and occupation, without stating that he was deceased, recording rather proudly that Philip was a major; conversely, when his half-sister Sophia had married six years earlier, she had ensured that the fact that her father was dead was recorded).
Philip had left Evelyn a legacy of £60 a year, to be paid in six-monthly instalments. However, the payments would only be paid as long as she remained a widow – if she married again, the money would stop. Philip made it clear that the money was to go towards caring for their son – so if she remarried before he was 21, the money would then go directly to him until he reached that age.
Evelyn did remarry – in 1898, a decade after Philip’s execution. Her new husband, who she wed in London, was a fellow Scot, Patrick James Robertson (BMDs, St Giles, vol 1b, page 1171). Although the 1911 census for Paignton, Devon, records her as being married still, at this time there was no sign of Patrick Robertson. Instead, Evelyn was living with her elderly mother, as well as her and Patrick’s nine-year-old daughter – who was, ironically given the name of Philip Cross’s first wife, called Mary.
Evelyn died in Westgate-on-Sea, Kent, on 30 July 1937, aged 72, with probate being granted to her now married daughter, Mary May. Philip Cross had inherited £500 from his first wife in the 1870s; by the time of her own death, Evelyn’s effects were worth only £93.