Murder by Medicine

Dr George Elliott Cranstoun (1877-1922) was a much liked and well respected local doctor with a thriving practice in the middle class Melbourne bayside suburb of Hampton. But he lived with a dark secret that very few knew about nor could have imagined the tragedy that was to unfold – he was addicted to morphia. A native of Castlemaine in country Victoria, Cranstoun was the sixth of eight children to Ebenezer Cranstoun and Margaret née Campbell and was educated at the local grammar school before studying in Bendigo. In 1899 he passed the final examination at the Pharmacy College and worked in Castlemaine until graduating at Melbourne University as a doctor of medicine (MBCh.B, 1914). He then practiced for three years at Bruthen (1916-19) in Gippsland followed by Yackandandah before moving to 5 Station Crescent, Hampton. His wife Jessie née Haig, whom he married at Castlemaine in 1905, took a leading part in social life in the area and was well connected with charitable organisations; they had five adorable children – John (Jack) Haig aged fifteen; Margaret Annie (Meg) aged thirteen (d 1972, Springvale Botanical Cemetery), Robert (Bob) Stirling aged ten, Colin Campbell aged eight and the youngest, Belle aged six-years old; a sixth died at childbirth in 1910.

(above) Monumental headstone to Gladys Baylis

At 8:30pm on the night of Sunday 13 August 1922, Cranstoun called his wife into his office. He had mixed a new antidote for influenza and wanted to experiment with her; she consented and the injection was administered. “While I’m about it, I might as well do the lot” said the Doctor, and he called in their servant, 28 year old Gladys Victoria Baylis (1893-1922) followed by Meg and Jack. He then went upstairs to treat young Belle, Colin and Bob in their beds but not before telling Belle – “I am giving this for your cold”. The following morning at 11:00am the full picture of the previous night’s events were stumbled upon by a patient Mrs M Breaden and the local butcher Alexander Dick who were passing by; the Doctor was found in his pyjamas on the floor in the hall with a hypodermic needle; his wife lay fully dressed in a distressed state in the bedroom groaning “Oh George, oh George!”; in the attic Bob and Colin were found dead in bed facing each other while Belle and Meg were found half conscious in a back room; the servant Gladys was found in her room fully dressed having died just a few moments before the house was entered; but the biggest shock that caused outrage in the city was evidence of a fierce and violent struggle between the doctor and Jack in the front room – books were strewn about the room, chairs disarranged and a vase broken.

In what The Argus described as “the worst domestic tragedy in the history of Victoria”, Cranstoun was rushed to the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital where he died at 4:30pm having briefly regained consciousness; luckily his wife and two daughters survived the devilish outrage. Described as a big man with thick dark hair, bright and cheery with a comforting word for everyone, Cranstoun was a keen racegoer having attended a meeting at Caulfield racetrack on Saturday. Police found a number of race books and an addressed unstamped envelope in his desk indicating a financial debt: “It may make it easier for you if I formally acknowledge that I owe you 110 pounds for money lent to me and interest. I have felt for some time that I should have given you a P.N. [promissory note] for the amount, and if you think the same we can fix it up next time we meet”. On 12 September, the Coroner, Dr Robert Cole, found that Cranstoun, his three sons and Gladys Baylis all died from narcotic poisoning administered by ‘Dr Death’ who suffered from “brain disease while mentally unsound”; a post mortem on the victims revealed multiple injections. Bright, well liked and musically inclined, Baylis was born at Omeo, Victoria the daughter of William Baylis and Mary née Angus and had been in the employ of the family since 1917 and was much loved; it was reported that her fiancé was killed in the Great War as were her two brothers, Vere Neville (Bmdr, 7th Bde Aust. Field Artillery, d 22 Oct 1918) and William Osmond (Pte, 38th Battalion, d 11 Aug 1916). She was buried nearby (CofE*ZA*2656) in a private service officiated by Rev Perry Martin. For young Bob, he was buried on his eleventh birthday. 

Postscript: On 12 April 1955, Dr Cranstoun’s wife Jessie was cremated at Springvale Botanical Cemetery and her ashes were later interred with her husband and three boys on 27 May (Pres*Q*201).

Main, J., “Murder in the First Degree. True Australian Cases” (1992).
The Argus 15, 16, 17, 19 August 1922 & 8, 13 September 1922.
The Herald 14, 15 August 1922 & 12 September 1922.
The Age 15 & 16 August 1922.
Adams, J., “The Tambo Shire Centenary History” (1981).