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Boyton, Ada Jane (1882–1903)

by David Roth

The Boyton affair has all the elements of a Victorian melodrama: confinement in an asylum, poisoning, the ‘wicked stepmother’ who was accused of delaying treatment, a lost inheritance, and the suicide of a grieving father. Around 5 pm on 2 October 1903, 21-year-old Ada Jane Boyton was taken to a doctor in Wagga Wagga in western New South Wales. He insisted that she should immediately be taken to the District Hospital, where she died shortly before midnight. The doctors believed that she had shown all the symptoms of phosphorus poisoning. It was evident that there had been a considerable delay between the first symptoms of Ada’s illness and the parents’ seeking of medical advice. William requested a death certificate, but this was refused due to the suspicious circumstances, and an inquest was called. Ada’s internal organs were sent away for analysis. 

Ada had had a troubled life. Her father William Boyton, a farmer at Big Springs near Wagga, gave evidence at the inquest that Ada's mother had died when she was six. If correctly reported, this statement was incorrect, since her father re-married in 1887. It appears that Ada was not acceptable to her new stepmother, Katherine, as she was sent to Sydney eighteen months after the marriage to be brought up by an aunt. In her teenage years Ada became a ‘lady-help’. At the age of twenty, she began to show symptoms of mental illness and was admitted to the Darlinghurst Reception House for assessment. At the House she was observed to be noisy and excited, and carried on loud conversations with imaginary persons. She wanted to see Jesus. Having been certified under the Lunacy Act, Ada was then admitted to Callan Park Hospital for the Insane in March 1902. 

Ada’s mental and physical examinations at admission were perfunctory, typical of the casual diagnosis and record-keeping practices at Callan Park around that time. Her heart and lungs were apparently not assessed. Instead, her eye and hair colour, her height, and her ‘rather long nose’ were documented, apparently for purposes of identification in case she should escape. Ada’s mental examination was also scant. She was found to be ‘erratic in manner, untidy’, was sometimes noisy and she refused to wear stockings. She was diagnosed with ‘mania acute’. After an initial ‘troublesome’ period, Ada’s condition improved a great deal and she was discharged in September.

She did not resume her previous life in Sydney, returning to her father’s farm near Wagga. 

Evidence at the Coroner’s inquest from Ada's father and her eleven-year-old stepsister, Kate, revealed that Ada often quarrelled with her stepmother Katherine, although no actual violence was observed. Ada was on good terms with her father. According to William, she was quite sane and cheerful, and helpful around the house. But there often violent quarrels between William and Katherine. Kate observed that her mother had two black eyes on one occasion. Other evidence from Ada’s older brothers and William suggests that Katherine could also be aggressive. William said he had to leave the house on several occasions. He complained that Katherine kept control of the finances and would tell him to ‘mind his own business’ when questioned about them. 

In September, Ada received an inheritance of over £160 from her grandmother. This was a substantial sum, being about a year’s salary for a senior asylum attendant. According to William, Ada handed over the money to Katherine voluntarily. Katherine deposited most of it in her own bank accounts but sent £10 to the Master in Lunacy to pay for Ada’s maintenance at Callan Park, and she also bought a sulky requested by Ada for £10. Katherine told the inquest that £172 had subsequently been spent on sheep, but her books did not record whose money was used. 

On the Sunday before her death, Ada had a cup of senna tea, a strong laxative, with her stepmother and stepsister. Shortly afterwards, Ada vomited and became unwell, taking to her bed the next morning. After dinner that day she told William that there was nothing the matter with her. But Ada remained in bed until Wednesday, when she developed a large bruise on her leg and had an unquenchable thirst. By Thursday she could not walk. According to Katherine’s testimony, Ada asked her to be taken to Wagga that day, but she replied that she could not hold Ada in the sulky, as the roads were very rough. Ada vomited blood that night and could only with great difficulty be loaded into the trap by her brother and father on the Friday. This evidence was at odds with William’s testimony. He said that Ada had asked to be taken to town on the Tuesday, but Katherine would not listen to the idea and insisted that Ada would not be admitted to the hospital. 

The Wagga doctors, on learning of Ada’s medical history, suspected self-poisoning. But there was no evidence of any depression. William said he had kept the phosphorus, a potent poison used for baiting rabbits, well-hidden in a tin near the creek. Kate told the Coroner she knew of this hiding place and assumed that Ada did also. The police found a tin of wheat meal mixed with phosphorus in the house, a typical poisoning mixture. 

After the inquest was adjourned to the following Friday, more tragedy was to come. Ada’s parents stayed at a hotel in Wagga and argued so violently that the police had to be called. Returning home in a separate buggy, William committed suicide in a ‘most determined manner’, whether from guilt or grief we will never know. On resumption of the inquest, the jury found that Ada had died from an irritant poison from an unknown hand. They rebuked Katherine for her ‘great negligence’ in not seeking medical attention earlier. It is likely that she was also judged harshly by her neighbours — she sold the farm in 1906 and moved to Sydney.

Original Publication

  • People Australia, 27 May 2020

Additional Resources

Citation details

David Roth, 'Boyton, Ada Jane (1882–1903)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/boyton-ada-jane-30371/text37670, accessed 11 August 2020.

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