Caroline Grills was short and rather dumpy, with thick-rimmed glasses and a love of baking for her family.
Affectionately known as Aunty Carrie, the great-grandmother would make steaming pots of tea to serve with her homemade cakes and biscuits.
And when she went to her relatives’ houses she’d be laden with her famous delicious treats and bustle about in the kitchen.
‘Let me help,’ she’d offer.
So when her stepmother, Christina, fell ill, kindly Aunty Carrie was on hand to care for her. It was no use though, and soon after, Christina passed away, aged 87. There was more upsetting news for the family when Angelina, a relation of Aunt Carrie’s husband, died aged 84. Then her husband’s brother-in-law John also became sick and died. A year later, Aunt Carrie’s sister-in-law Mary Anne, passed away too, aged 60.
Aunt Carrie would visit John’s widow Eveline and make her endless cups of tea. But then Eveline fell ill too. She lost her hair and her speech and started to go blind. The more tea she drank, the worse she felt. Eveline’s daughter Christine and son-in law John, who lived with her, also began to suffer the same symptoms. But when Aunty Carrie didn’t visit, they seemed to improve.
One day in 1952, John was reading the local newspaper when he came across a story about poisonings.
At the time, Sydney was in the middle of a housing crisis. Whole families were jammed into tiny rooms and, along with the people, came an infestation of large rats. There were horrific stories of rodents biting the faces of sleeping children, and the advice was to be liberal with highly toxic rat poison – the most common was Thall-rat.
Available to buy over-the-counter, thallium salts were colourless, flavourless, odourless – and fatal. Undetectable, the poison became the murder weapon of choice. It worked by attacking several different systems at once – causing loss of hair and speech, sickness... then death. Reading the article, John grew suspicious. When Aunt Carrie came round, he watched her closely.
And one day, as she was carrying a cuppa to Eveline, he spied her taking something from her pocket and dropping it into the tea. Under the pretence of topping it up, he slipped into the kitchen and poured the tea into a jar.
Then he took it to the police for testing. Shockingly, it contained a lethal dose of thallium.
Was Aunty Carrie a serial killer on a poisoning spree? Officers found traces of thallium in the pocket of the dress she’d been wearing.
And when investigators exhumed several bodies, they found traces of thallium in two. When Detective Sergeant Don Fergusson broke the news, cool Aunty Carrie replied, ‘Fancy that!’
Other potential victims had been cremated and could not be tested for poison. But at an inquest, witnesses recalled Aunty Carrie bringing them drinks, and how eager she was to help prepare food and tea. The coroner found Aunty Carrie responsible for several deaths. In May 1953, she was arrested and charged with four counts of murder and three of attempted murder.
But while police believed a strong circumstantial case existed to convict her, they only proceeded with the charge of attempting to murder Eveline Lundberg. That October, Caroline Grills, 63, appeared at the Central Criminal Court and pleaded not guilty.
Crown Prosecutor Mick Rooney, QC, alleged she was ‘a killer who poisoned for sport, for fun, for the kicks she got out of it, for the hell of it, for the thrill that she and she alone in the world knew the cause of the victims’ suffering.’
Maintaining her innocence throughout, Aunty Carrie claimed detectives pressured her relations to convict her. During the trial she smiled constantly, even bursting into fits of laughter.
The behaviour earned her the reputation of being heartless and malevolent. And once all the evidence had been heard, the jury took just 12 minutes to nd her guilty.
‘I helped to live, not to kill,’ she declared.
The judge handed down the death sentence and said, ‘under the guise of friendship and loving kindness, but with apparent motiveless malignity, you administered poison to Mrs Lundberg, condemning her to at least a life of blindness and possibly death.’
Caroline’s husband Richard supported her throughout the trial.
‘Carrie!’ he yelled, as she was being led away.
Soon afterwards thallium was banned from sale. On appeal, her death sentence was later commuted to life in prison. In Long Bay jail she acted as a maternal figure to the other inmates. There, Aunty Carrie became known as Aunt Thally, after the type of poison she’d used. In 1960, she was rushed to hospital and died of a ruptured ulcer – taking her motive to her grave. To this day, no-one really knows why the great-grandmother used her treats for murder.
Read the full story in this week's issue of that's life!