The Death Of Phar Lap

More than 8 decades later, the mystery behind Phar Lap’s actual cause of death is still one of debate. Was it deliberate or accidental, was it arsenic, or pathological?

In his book” Phar Lap”, the story of the big horse by  I.R. Carter, (Lansdowne, 1965) Carter reveals in great detail  the events as they unfolded on the day of Phar Lap’s death, as well as the subsequent autopsy performed by the attending vets, William Nielsen and Caesar Masoero.

In his own words, Carter writes, “we have now come to the most puzzling and mysterious chapter in the whole Phar Lap drama. There are so many missing links, so many question marks, such conflicting evidence and opinions”.

The autopsy was performed as a matter of expediency, for Phar Lap’s illness and sudden death had taken only a matter of hours on that morning of Tuesday April 5 1932. To understand the facts behind the horse’s death, and why so much of the subsequent information related to the events of that day may have been distorted, it is important to review that historical day.

Tommy Woodcock, Phar Lap’s devoted stable handler, was first to stir that morning at his usual rising hour of 4.30 am. It was soon apparent to Tommy that all was not well with Phar Lap. An un characteristic lethargic behavior had beset Phar Lap, he would not take his early morning treat of sugar piece that Tommy routinely offered and his head was drooping. All was not well with the big red.

Concerned at his sickly condition, Woodcock summoned William Nielsen at 5 am, who took the big horses temperature and found it slightly above normal at 100 degrees. His pulse was “wirery” and Woodcock and Nielsen considered he was suffering from the onset of colic- a griping abdominal pain.

Jack Martin, the training jockey  soon arrived on the scene for the early morning exercise ride dressed in boots and jodhpurs. With Phar Laps rug off, he noticed that the belly was distended.

By 11 am Phar Laps condition had worsened, his temperature had risen to 102. He had become distressed, wanting to lay down in his stalls. To prevent Phar Lap from rubbing off skin on the boards of the stable, Woodcock led him out onto the training track where he and Martin took turns to walk him around. The big red was trying to retch, his stomach distended further, and he appeared to be in great pain despite the morphia dose given to him earlier by Nielsen. Nielsen had now become seriously alarmed about Phar Lap’s condition, which he now believed might be one of acute poisoning. Woodcock too realized that this was no colic attack. Neilsen though the rapid sickness had gone beyond ordinary measures of treatment that he could perform and decided to urgently seek help from the Tanforan racecourse vet, Carlo Masoero.

Out on the training track Phar Lap seemed to be on the verge of death, staggering around and groaning in great pain. Woodcock and Martin led the big horse back to his loose box, where he collapsed striking his head on the door edge. He was now breathing heavily, the great liquid eyes misting over with agony with the approaching imminent death.

It was just after midday when Phar Lap gave a deep whinnying sigh and tried feebly to rise. Life’s blood then gushed out in a hot red tide, staining the clothes of his beloved master.

The big horse was dead.

The initial post mortem examination of Phar Lap conducted by Masoero and Nielsen only a few hours after the last pulse of life had beat through the horses body, was watched by Woodcock. Elliot and Martin, those most trusted and of the Phar Lap stable.

The autopsy revealed intestines that where red and raw, to which Woodcock remarked, “this isn’t colic.”

In his report Nielsen recorded that he found the stomach and intestines were severely inflamed by some unknown toxic substance, the lining of the stomach being badly perforated as if from an irritant poison. Masoero furnished a similar report to David Davis, the owner adding that he believed the horse died through some poison substance in the stomach.

Concerned at the repercussions this whole tragedy may have on the reputation of the US racing industry and the how Australia would react in light of rumors that it had been mobster activities, (after all he had been under armed guard during his stay at the Agua Caliente racetrack in Mexico) David Davis of the Phar Lap ownership publicly announced,“he had never heard of a horse dying from colic in just such a way as Phar Lap did, and I believe I owe it to every racing man to make a thorough investigation. There is a chance Phar Lap was poisoned accidentally. If that was so, we want to know about it”.

Mr F.N. Chisoholm who had been dispatched by the US Department of Agriculture, Food Drug and Insecticide Administration arrived at the ranch to conduct a separate investigation on behalf of his department  and the possible link to his pet interest, arsenic poisoning.

Previous to this event, the department had had numerous reports of horses and cattle dying in orchards in regions where trees had been sprayed with the poison arsenic trioxide for the treatment of insects. Drifting sprays associated with the activities had poisoned grazing pastures. Despite the evidence that Chisoholm was able to compile that arsenic trioxide residues were found  present in the pasture that Phar lap, ( as well as  other horses) had grazed, presumably from the spraying of grubs in trees adjacent to the paddock. The amounts were regarded as almost negligible, in levels ranging around half a milligram or less per pound.  Of the amount that would be required to kill an animal of Phar Laps body weight, it would need to be 15 – 20 milligrams per pound body weight but it was evidence enough that the administration seized upon as support of their arsenic poisoning theory.

Subsequent samples tested by the same department of bodily organs and contents reported traces of arsenic trioxide but again were so minute, it could have also been regarded as more likely to benefit a racehorse than kill it. Racehorses were frequently given arsenic preparations to improve their coats.

Professor Frank T Green a toxicologist present at the pathological examination at Professor Meyers pathological examination made an independent chemical survey for David Davis of samples of liver, lung, spleen, stomach and kidney as well as small intestine, lower bowel and colon. 

These were the results reported to Davis;

  • Common volatile poisons: Negative.
  • Alkaloidal poisons: Negative.
  • Arsenic and Mercury: Negative.

There it was, the US Food and Drug chemist reported grasses and bodily organs riddled with arsenic trioxide,whilst the experienced San Francisco toxicologists reported no arsenic in bodily organs.

Professor Meyers prepared statement concluded that some profound disturbance in the large intestines or stomach, (unfortunately not available for examination) caused the death of the horse. He went on to state that in all probability Phar Lap suffered from a non-feverish colicky affection and died from the condition that followed it. Further in his statement he went on to say that the factors responsible for the acute inflammation have not been determined, and probably will never be determined, on account of the incompleteness of the clinical data and post –mortem findings.

To date, lead arsenate which was found in very small quantities in the body of the horse and in the feed, may  have be responsible for the irritation of the intestinal tract. The mention in this joint statement, of lead arsenate in the body referred to the Food and Drug Administration finding. Professor Green, one of the post-mortem team signing the statement had already reported negative poison findings. The team would, therefore by implication, have disowned the Food and Drug report. Yet Professor Green signed a statement apparently accepting findings completely contradicting his own.

In the publication The Jonas Story (1983) a special chapter is devoted to the mounting of Phar Lap entitled Jonas Brothers in New York Chapter 10. Because Phar Lap had become one of the most publicized assignments of the Jonas firm and is credited to the skills of Louis it is interesting to note that it is mentioned that an autopsy revealed stomach ulcers.

From Carters accounts, Meyers report in 1932 that the prospects of a thorough examination “utterly inadequate” due to the absence of the large colon and most of the stomach for examination.

There are schools of thought today still wedded to the theory that Phar Lap was poisoned.

I recall a day in the early 1990s when an breakfast morning radio announcer to 3AW announced to the listeners that the mystery behind Phar Laps death would be rekindled through the examination for arsenic residues in the horses mounted hide at the museum. It was new technology that would at last either prove or disprove the theory of arsenic poisoning by testing for arsenic residues.

 I could not contain myself to hear of such nonsense, and personally called the radio station concerned to advise them that most probably this investigation would find arsenic residuals, as it was a common additive in earlier times for tanning formulas to have  arsenic as a preventative measure against  moth and beetle attacks on taxidermy mounts.Nothing further was mentioned of this venture, and most likely it laid idle, but not extinguished, as time would show.  As late as the 1980 s I had met a part-time taxidermist ,Mr Colin Pain of Dapto NSW who told me that back in the 70’s, (before everyone became fully aware of the consequences of “absorbing arsenic”,) he would routinely mix a recipe dip solution for his deer capes comprising of 1 pound of arsenic per bucket of water for bug proofing! 

Needless to say I did not hear any further of this proposed examination, and when I raised this conversation with the then curator of birds Rory Obrien at Museum Victoria, he too was skeptical of any findings that would not detect arsenic residues since it was a common poison used in taxidermy hide preparations of that era. In fact the museum had a health and safety policy about examination of old skins and mounts , in particular birds, because of the arsenic soaps and pastes used to preserve the skins and bug infestations

In 2006 the arsenic-and-old-race urgers also got a shot in the arm when scientists used hide from Phar Lap's skin in the Melbourne Museum for an experiment with an American synchrotron and concluded the horse had ingested a large dose of arsenic about 35 hours before his death on April 5, 1932, at Menlo Park, California. The mystery surrounding Phar Lap’s death in 1932 in Menlo Park Calif, has finally been solved: " scientists have confirmed that the horse died of arsenic poisoning." 

Researchers Dr. Ivan Kempson of the University of South Australia and Dermot Henry, manager of Natural Science Collections at Museum Victoria, took six hairs from Phar Lap’s mane and analyzed them at the Advanced Photon Source Synchrotron in Chicago, finding that in the 40 hours before Phar Lap’s death the horse had ingested a massive dose of arsenic. they declared

The finding happily fitted the long-held legend that Phar Lap was killed on the orders of gangsters in the US. The then newly installed Victorian Labor premier, John Brumby, was only too happy for the controversy surrounding Melbourne's most famous adopted hero to gain new legs as he was struggling to convince voters the cost of a $220 million new synchrotron was money that was well spent.

It was the typical "theory fitting the crime" irrespective of the cross contamination issues related to tanning solutions and the  the use of arsenic as an insect proofing agent that was so widely engaged in the earlier 20 th centuary before all the facts were known as to how lethal this compound could be if absorbed through skin. 

I guess a simple phone call to Jonas studios in the USA may have resolved the issue a little earlier, and cheaper, as to whether arsenic was ever a chemical used in the preparations of specimens by that firm in the early 20th century.

The answer would have been a resounding “of course”.