By Martin Johnston

When William Kinniard entered a young couple's Christchurch hotel bedroom in the early hours of the morning with a bottle of chloroform and a dirty handkerchief, he had no plans to commit a crime - or so he told a jury.

He was simply very drunk.

As Kiwis were fighting in World War I in August 1917, Kinniard, 30, and Robert Erwin Meaclem, 24, were sentenced in the Supreme Court to three years' jail for causing the couple to be affected by chloroform, with intent to commit a crime.

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An anaesthetic drug, stolen papers, a handgun found in a lavatory - the story had the right mix for the Truth newspaper, which reported on the "sensational happenings at the Clarendon Hotel on the night of July 5".

The story, with varying spellings of the defendants' names, was widely reported and earned the them the title of "Two dangerous characters" in the Herald.

The victims, Andrew Rollo Guild and his wife Enid "awoke to find a dirty chloroformed handkerchief on their pillow", Truth said.

Woken by the fumes, they disturbed one or more intruders, who left the room unseen, other papers reported.

Meaclem - who later admitted stealing the Colt automatic revolver - had a bottle of chloroform in his coat pocket when he and Kinniard went on an evening drinking binge. They polished off most of a bottle of whisky.

At Kinniard's request, Meaclem had handed over the chloroform.

"When I went up to my room Meaclem went to bed and I went out to the lavatory. I met the boy [perhaps a hotel worker] and he pointed out this room where, he said, was a girl who could be approached," Kinniard, who had no lawyer, told the court.

"I thought that she would be awake and that I could have a talk with her. I did not have the chloroform with me then.

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"In the room pointed out to me I found somebody else and so went back to my room. I always have a smoke before I go to bed, and so putting my hand in my pocket I found the bottle.

"Then I thought I would see if it was genuine chloroform, so I sniffed it, but was in doubt. Then I was foolish enough to go back to that bedroom to see if it was really chloroform. I saw a lady in bed, and I thought what a bad construction would be placed on my being there if I was discovered, so I went back to bed."

"I realise I need some punishment for my foolish action in throwing the handkerchief there, but should I be punished for something I never intended?"

"I never intended to commit a crime ... I did not go over to rob these people. I did not have the intention of taking their money or valuables.

"Mr Guild cannot say that the papers found on us were in his room. I found them in the pocket of an overcoat which I tried to find the owner of."

Kinniard said he had planned to use the chloroform to remove ink - "to fake up some seaman's papers so that I could ship to the old country.

Chloroform is a solvent and can be used for cleaning. Meaclem told the court he had it when "sorting up" a leather bag.

Surgery, deaths and crime
Soon after chloroform was first used as a human anaesthetic, in a dental procedure in the 1840s, a patient died. Aged 15, she was given the drug so she could have an infected toenail removed.

Chloroform was in wide use in the later 1800s and early 1900s but was found to be associated with a higher death rate than ether. Numerous reports of patients dying from chloroform - and some from ether - during surgery were published in New Zealand newspapers. The use of both later declined after safer and more effective drugs were developed.

"In Australia and New Zealand, chloroform use had largely disappeared by the 1940s," said Australian anaesthetic historian and retired anaesthetist Dr Rod Westhorpe.

The drug's career has been more enduring in crime fiction and film. However, the ability of a criminal to successfully stupefy a vigorously struggling victim with a chloroform-soaked rag was questioned early on by the medical establishment, because of the time needed for the drug to induce unconsciousness.

Westhorpe said: "I would suggest that induction of anaesthesia with chloroform could be achieved in three to five minutes in the best of circumstances, i.e. in a calm patient who tolerated a mask or gauze covering both the nose and mouth continually during the period of induction.

"It is quite likely that additional chloroform would also need to be added to the inhalation device during this period. Thus, without some prior means of reducing sensibility in the patient - or victim - such as by drug or physical injury, it is very difficult to imagine how chloroform could be used in committing a crime."