Fifty years ago a woman intent on suicide inadvertently poisoned and killed a young Auckland boy, the son of the late Sir Ronald Davison and younger brother of High Court judge Paul Davison. Jane Phare looks at the tragic case that gripped New Zealand and became a major police investigation.

It was never supposed to happen this way. In Marjorie Ellingham's tortured, depressed state she reasoned that she alone would die. Her loved ones, including her husband and son, would assume she had died from food poisoning; the other adults who had eaten her arsenic-laced food would also fall sick but she knew they would recover, just like the other times. This way, her family would be spared the distress and shame, in those days, of a suicide. Any friends she poisoned along the way would recover, thanks to meticulous planning and experimenting over several years - lacing food she served to guests with small amounts of arsenic to test the result.

But a child? No, that was never the plan. Young David wasn't even at the luncheon that day - Sunday, April 10, 1966. What Marjorie hadn't factored into her warped plan was human nature - a loving mother taking a plate of the delicious party food home to her youngest son in a nearby Taupo bach. That simple act of motherly caring would inadvertently, and tragically, lead to the death of 11-year-old David Davison, the son of Sir Ronald, then a barrister, and his wife Jacqueline.

What became known as the Easter poisonings left two families, who had socialised together regularly, torn apart, a mother without her son and a son without his mother; two families living under the shadow of unspeakable horror and sadness.

The Ellinghams were a sociable couple, often entertaining at their Wellington home or Taupo lakeside cottage. Marjorie Ellingham, the 54-year-old wife of Wellington lawyer, Lloyd, was by all accounts a gracious hostess and a good cook, well used to catering for friends and family at various functions. But the Easter weekend gathering at the Ellinghams' Taupo home was different for two reasons.

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The first was that by Easter Sunday the cottage and its grounds was brimming with legal royalty after a New Zealand Law Society conference in Dunedin had drawn together the country's top lawyers and visiting overseas dignitaries.

Enjoying the Ellinghams' hospitality were Britain's Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning and his wife Lady Denning, Sir Victor Windeyer, an Australian High Court judge, and Lady Windeyer, and Hazen Hansard, the immediate past-president of the Canadian Bar Association.

The grave of David Charles Davison who died in 1966 aged 11 located in the Purewa Cemetery. Photo / Dean Purcell
The grave of David Charles Davison who died in 1966 aged 11 located in the Purewa Cemetery. Photo / Dean Purcell

The second was that Marjorie planned to kill herself - taking large amounts of arsenic to bring an end to her misery, and adding just enough to food served to a handful of guests so they too would become ill with suspected food poisoning.

That Sunday morning Marjorie insisted on preparing all the food herself, refusing repeated offers of help from her sister-in-law Jean Kronfeld. She shooed her husband, brother and his wife out the door, urging them to join Lady Windeyer who planned to visit local hot pools. Alone in the kitchen, Marjorie was free to lace food with arsenic - food that, 11 days later, police would search for in a stinking Taupo tip.

Three adults fell ill that day - Marjorie, Jean, and David's mother Jacqueline. When their son started vomiting at their Taupo bach, the Davisons, knowing David had eaten some of the food from the party, assumed he too had food poisoning. Jean's husband (Marjorie's brother) was a doctor and he administered medicine from a Taupo pharmacy. While Ellingham remained ill, Kronfeld and Jacqueline Davison recovered after a few days. At first, it seemed David would too.

On the fifth day after the fateful Sunday luncheon, he was well enough to make a trip into Taupo. But later that day, frighteningly, he began to vomit blood and was admitted to Rotorua Hospital.

Marjorie was admitted the next day and became hysterical when she witnessed preparations to transfer David to Auckland as his condition deteriorated. At one stage she needed to be tranquilised.

Nursing staff said she seemed confused and talked about the food she had prepared, mentioning chicken stuffing and celery. She asked if David would live and told one nurse: "If anything should happen to him it will be my fault. I am to blame."

By now seriously ill, Marjorie too was transferred to Auckland Hospital where she lay slowly dying of arsenic poisoning, undoubtedly tormented by what she had done to David. Mystified by what had caused the woman and boy to become so ill, DSIR analysts and Health Department staff worked overtime trying to identify the source.

Sir Ronald Davison. Photo / File
Sir Ronald Davison. Photo / File

It took eight days for David Davison's small body to succumb. He died on April 18 and was buried at Purewa Cemetery two days later, leaving behind his distraught parents, older sister Verity and brother Paul. It was not until after David's death that the police were called in, launching what was to become one of the country's most extensive investigations. Autopsy results showed David had died of liver failure due to arsenic poisoning and traces had been found on the critically ill Marjorie But just how it was administered, and by whom, would take nearly 50 police and detectives tens of thousands of hours to establish.

Three days after David's death, police were called in by the Auckland medical officer of health after learning "a chemical poison was a major factor in the boy's death". Police searched the Ellinghams' Roseneath home in Wellington and began systematically visiting chemists in Wellington and Taupo to check the poison registers. They zeroed in on a person who, over the previous four years, had bought arsenic 12 times from four different outlets, each time giving slightly different addresses in Roseneath and Khandallah.

It would be another 11 days after David's death that the tormented Marjorie finally got her wish - death by suicide. On the morning of April 29, Lloyd visited his seriously ill wife, with their son Adrian, in hospital. She died at 4.15pm that day, the evening paper the Auckland Star describing her as another "victim" of Taupo's mysterious Easter poisonings.

Jean Kronfeld was to later say that Adrian, learning of his mother's death, "broke down completely and sobbed helplessly, and my brother's grief was the saddest thing I have ever known". Marjorie's autopsy showed she had died of acute arsenic poisoning; the Auckland coroner would later hear evidence that she had administered 10 times the amount of arsenic to herself as she had to her unsuspecting guests.

By the time Marjorie died, rumours had begun circulating, with newspapers covering updates almost daily. The investigation was not helped by the delay in identifying the arsenic - 11 days after the April 10 luncheon - by which time evidence such as food scraps had disappeared. Police interviewed more than 1400 people in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Britain. Many were tested for traces of arsenic, including Lord and Lady Denning in England. More than 1000 exhibits were collected and analysed, the Taupo tip was searched, houses - including the Ellinghams' and Davisons' Taupo homes - examined, septic tanks, drains and rubbish bins analysed. Traces of arsenic were found in both the Ellingham homes and a jar "suspected" of containing the poison was found in their Wellington home. Traces of arsenic were found in the room David used at his family's Taupo holiday home.

If anything should happen to him it will be my fault. I am to blame.

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Gradually police would build up a picture of a middle-aged woman, a seemingly perfect wife and mother, who was intent on committing suicide, following in the footsteps of her mother and an uncle who took their lives. What became apparent to investigators was that Marjorie had been planning her death for years. She set about experimenting, using her friends and guests as unsuspecting guinea pigs. Her aim, it appears, was to figure out how much arsenic would make an adult just sick enough to have symptoms resembling food poisoning.

Inviting her friends to luncheons and bridge parties, either at their Oriental Parade home or the Taupo cottage, she laced their food with arsenic on various occasions causing them to feel ill and vomit. None of the guests connected the dots. They just assumed they had eaten something bad at lunch. They recovered and life moved on.

And who would have suspected? At the inquest seven months later, Jean Kronfeld described her brother's family as devoted to one another, describing Marjorie as a woman who loved to please her husband and son. "She kept a spotless home. She was a very good cook, a perfect hostess and entertainer, charming, efficient, hospitable and generous." Kind words from a sister-in-law who, weeks after that fateful Easter luncheon, realised that she too had been deliberately poisoned.

Paul Davison. Photo / Dean Purcell
Paul Davison. Photo / Dean Purcell

But behind Marjorie's serene face and neatly-pinned hair was a tormented woman who confided in her doctor about bouts of depression, and an unhappy upbringing at the hands of a controlling mother and "neurotic" father. Her parents, she had said, were unhappy and ill-suited. When English-born Marjorie left for New Zealand, her mother had been admitted to a mental home and had undergone shock treatment.

Marjorie's doctor, Dr Guy Hallwright, told the inquest: " It was clear that these breakdowns (of her mother) were intended to influence Mrs Ellingham to give up a particular course of action."

He described her mother as "a tyrannical person who interfered in a ruthlessly selfish way and tried to deviate the life of her daughter".

After Marjorie's mother took her own life, at the age of 74, a letter arrived from her brother describing their mother's suicide in detail.

Feeling guilty over her mother's suicide, Marjorie became depressed and, Hallwright theorised, this had caused her to want to end her life. She was referred to a psychiatrist to help with the depression and seemed to improve.

Hallwright told the inquest that she was a gentle woman who "I feel sure never intended by her actions to cause the death of others".

But none of this was apparent when Jean and her husband arrived at the Taupo cottage on Good Friday. She was not to know that her sister-in-law would, in two days time, serve her and Jacqueline Davison plates of food laced with arsenic, or that Davison would unwittingly give some of the poisoned food to her young son.

She was a gentle woman who 'I feel sure never intended by her actions to cause the death of others'.

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The Sunday luncheon was a great success and later that evening the Davisons invited their friends the Ellinghams for pre-dinner drinks at their neighbouring Taupo home. Jean remembers feeling slightly unwell and having a headache but assumed she was over-tired. Back at the Ellinghams, she and her husband joined her brother and his wife for an asparagus omelette and went to bed.

But late that night, Jean began vomiting from what she and her husband thought was food poisoning. The next day she couldn't keep down medicine administered by her husband, a doctor, but recovered well enough in the following days to be able to care for Marjorie, who was also ill.

Jean later said she could not think of any reason why her sister-in-law would want to poison her. "I thought she was fond of me and trusted me," she said.

Trusting too was David's mother, Jacqueline, who visited Marjorie in Rotorua Hospital while she was visiting David, asking if there was anything she could do for her.

One of the saddest details of the case comes at the end of a long report on the inquest verdict, published in the New Zealand Herald on December 1, 1966.

The detective superintendent in charge of the case, after saying there was no evidence that Marjorie's husband or son were involved in the poisonings, said it was apparent that arsenic had been administered to Adrian, Ellingham's son, for a considerable time, probably since August or September the year before.

"A perusal of the results of an examination of his hair for arsenic would tend to show that he should have been extremely ill, if not dead," he said.

Questions linger on

The awful story of what happened to young David Davison has echoed around our household for years. My husband, Byron, was 11 when his friend and cricketing buddy didn't come back to school after the Easter holidays.

The details, drawn from muddled childhood memory, were that a "madwoman" had poisoned cookies and David, and other guests at a party, had eaten them. Every so often he'd talk about David, what a special boy he was -- bright, sporting, and well-liked.

Byron's father and Jacqueline Davison used to share the school run from Kohimarama when the boys first started school. The two boys were mad on cricket, both earning places in the school first 1st XI at the beginning of 1966.

The full horror of what happened to David did not become apparent until I started reading newspaper microfiche files and the inquest reports at the Auckland Public Library. The police investigation and inquest left as many questions unanswered as those it answered, including why the Ellinghams' son Adrian had enough arsenic in his body to kill him. Was he deliberately poisoned or had he, like David, innocently eaten leftover food prepared by his mother without her knowledge?

But by then, there was no one to question, no one to give explanations, no one to charge with a crime.

'Truly a scholar and a sportsman'

The Davison family endowed a scholarship and an annual cricket prize in David's memory and were forced to carry on with their lives.

But 50 years later the hurt and grief has not lessened.

Paul Davison says that many people and families experience tragedies and find that they are suddenly forced to find their own ways of coping with the loss of loved ones. He does not expect anyone to understand the "immense" effect the circumstances of David's death had on him, his parents, and his sister. "You have no option other than getting on with life and forging ahead, but the sense of loss remains ever-present, with an indelible sadness for what might have been," he says.

Older sister Verity Baines and her husband Barry are renovating their Paparoa property and on the phone her voice is bright, energetic, punctuated by the background noise of hammering. But after a few minutes of talking about David her voice breaks; Baines is well aware the anniversary of David's death is next weekend. The effect on her parents, the family, was immeasurable, she says. "It was a very difficult time for everyone. My parents never got over it. None of us ever got over it."

Paul and Verity possibly escaped the fate of their little brother. They were away staying with friends over Easter; David was the only sibling at Taupo that day.

David's former schoolmate Peter Hillary can empathise with their loss. In 1975 his mother, Louise, and younger sister, Belinda, 16, died in a plane crash in Nepal. The accident left his late father, Sir Edmund Hillary, Peter and his sister Sarah without the "glue" that held the family together.

Peter Hillary. Photo / Dianne Manson
Peter Hillary. Photo / Dianne Manson

Hillary remembers David as an "extremely nice guy" who would undoubtedly have had a "pretty impressive career. He was able and a very decent boy".

Auckland writer and former King's boarder, Dwight Whitney, sang in the school choir with David. He remembers the school flag flying at half-mast as day boys arrived and heard the news.

"The one my heart went out to at the time was David's best friend Michael Caughey. Some teachers were waiting for him to break the news."

Caughey, an orthopaedic surgeon, says he was supposed to be at the Davisons' Taupo bach that Easter but for reasons he can't remember, he didn't go. He describes David as a very special friend. "I, along with classmates, was devastated by his untimely death. His death was an absolute tragedy."

Caughey still has the last letter David wrote to him, wishing him "a happy 1966".

At the end, he challenges Caughey to a game of golf, a game they had just started playing. Whitney and Caughey sang at David's funeral, arriving early at St Mark's in Remuera to change into their robes. "Right there in the coffin in front of us was David, our friend, now dead. It was my first experience with death," Whitney says.

Had David lived he, as a 61-year-old, might have joined Caughey and 11 other schoolmates in a trip to Nepal last year, led by Peter Hillary, to trek to Everest's base camp.

Had he lived, he would have seen his father, Sir Ronald Davison, become chief justice and earn a knighthood, presiding over many prominent cases including the Rainbow Warrior trial and the Winebox inquiry.

And he would have seen his older brother Paul become a QC and, late last year, a High Court judge, again involved in many high-profile cases including Dotcom, Scott Watson, and the Erebus inquiry.

John Procter, now assistant head of Dilworth School's junior campus, arrived at King's School as a boarder - "a barefoot boy from the [New Hebrides] islands" - at the beginning of 1966.

Not only was life in Auckland "a bit of a culture shock" but he was the new boy in a group that had already been at school together for several years.

"David was particularly friendly and good at making a new boy welcome, part of the group, and not so intimidated ... and within a couple of months of my arrival he was gone."

By all accounts David Davison was destined for great things.

He was head boy material, his headmaster Richard Pengelly told the family, friends and schoolboys gathered for his funeral.

Later that year, in the King's 1966 yearbook, Pengelly described David as "truly a scholar and sportsman", a boy who "possessed the attributes of good manners, diligence and tolerance" and a delightful sense of humour.

"With David's passing," Pengelly wrote, "the school has lost a fine citizen and friend, a boy who had much to contribute and a willingness to do so."