Death at the South Pole: The Mystery of Antarctica's Unsolved Poisoning Case

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica
Chris Danals, National Science Foundation

Rodney Marks was walking from a research building to the main base at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station when he started to feel strange. This wasn't the normal weirdness people deal with when adjusting to the -80°F temperatures and 24-hour nights of Antarctic winters. The 32-year-old astrophysicist was struggling to breathe. Soon, his vision became weak. He was also very tired and went to bed early, hoping to sleep off whatever mysterious sickness was plaguing him.

But sleep didn't help. Instead, things just got worse—much worse. At 5:30 a.m. the morning of May 12, 2000, Marks woke up vomiting blood. He went to the station's doctor, Robert Thompson, three times over the course of the day, and with each visit, his symptoms appeared to grow more excruciating. Pain burned through his joints and stomach. His eyes were so sensitive that he had to wear sunglasses even though the sun hadn't risen over the base in several weeks. As his physical condition deteriorated, so did his mental state: He became so agitated that the doctor wondered if anxiety wasn't the cause of his symptoms.

When Marks visited the physician the third time that day, he was distressed to the point of hyperventilation. Thompson injected him with an antipsychotic to calm him down. Marks laid back and his breathing slowed. To the untrained observer, it may have looked as though he was getting better.

But that's not what was happening. Shortly after receiving the shot, Marks went into cardiac arrest, and after 45 minutes of unsuccessful resuscitation attempts, Thompson declared him dead at 6:45 p.m.

As soon as the fight to save his life ended, the 49 people living at the base were faced with a new problem: a dead body in one of the most remote places on earth, at a time of year when it was too cold for planes to land. It would be months before an aircraft was able to collect Marks's remains—and years before it was revealed that there was a chance he had been murdered.

Crime and Death in Antarctica

Death is rare in Antarctica, but not unheard of. Many explorers perished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in their quests to reach the South Pole, and potentially hundreds of bodies remain frozen within the ice. In the modern era, more Antarctic fatalities are caused by freak accidents. Three scientists were riding a Muskeg tractor across the tundra in 1965 when the vehicle plunged into a crevasse, killing everyone on board. In 1980, Amundsen-Scott Station cook Casey Jones died while attempting to clear snow from a shaft in a fan room when the packed snow collapsed and crushed him.

There's also a history of violence on the continent. According to one unconfirmed story reported in Canadian Geographic, a scientist working at Russia's Vostok Station in 1959 snapped after losing a chess game and murdered his opponent with an axe. (Chess was supposedly banned from Russia's Antarctic bases after that.) More recently, in October 2018, a Russian scientist working in Antarctica allegedly stabbed his colleague following a possible nervous breakdown.

With some of these crimes, the Antarctic setting itself may have played a role. Scientists living in Antarctica are forced to share cramped quarters with the same group of people for months at a time. Contact with the outside world is limited, and depending on the weather, going for a walk to clear the mind isn't always an option.

"You're far away from home. You're far away from the people that form your normal social network. You're isolated with a group of people you didn't choose," Peter Suedfeld, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who has studied the effects of Antarctic isolation on the mind, tells Mental Floss.

The extreme isolation there is rivaled only by what astronauts experience in space—in fact, space agencies conduct studies in Antarctica to simulate their long-term missions.

On top of dealing with boredom and claustrophobia, researchers in Antarctica are adjusting to either constant day or night. When someone's circadian rhythm—the biological system governed by the 24-hour day—is disrupted, the negative effects are felt in both the body and mind. According to one study, people on disrupted circadian cycles are more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors.

"Because of the environment, people do get irritable, sensitive, maybe quicker to take offense at something that wasn't meant to be offensive," Suedfeld says. "I think it's fascinating that there hasn't been more violence in Antarctica."

A Belated Autopsy

Rodney Marks was already familiar with the stressors of life in Antarctica when he signed up to work there from 1999 to 2000. The Australian native had previously wintered on the continent from 1997 to 1998 as part of the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica (CARA)'s South Pole Infrared Explorer project. Dr. Chris Martin, one of the researchers who worked on the project with Marks, told the New Zealand Herald: "Rodney liked it so much he wanted to go back again."

For his second stay, he worked on the Antarctic Submillimeter Telescope and Remote Observatory project as a researcher for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. His job consisted of collecting data with a massive infrared telescope and using it to improve viewing conditions at the South Pole. Antarctica is considered one of the best places on Earth to study space, and his work enabled astronomers to make important observations.

Marks charmed his colleagues with his bohemian style and friendly personality. He joined the base band, Fannypack and the Big Nancy Boys, and was dating maintenance specialist Sonja Wolter. Darryn Schneider, the only other Australian at the base that winter and Marks's friend, described him in a blog post: "His dry wit was sometimes misinterpreted here by the people not used to it. This is where his considerate nature and his kindness would come out. I saw him numerous times make amends in a very nice way for these misunderstandings. He would also say or do something kind for someone having a hard time in general."

So when he died suddenly that May, roughly six months into his second journey at the pole, it shocked the researchers and technicians at Amundsen-Scott Station. The station doctor, Robert Thompson, told the young man's colleagues that Marks had died of unknown but natural causes, likely a massive heart attack or stroke. Because it was Thompson's job to treat live patients, not perform autopsies, they would have to wait to learn any more details.

With months of unbroken darkness and dangerous cold stretched out before them, October was the soonest it would be safe for aircraft to land at the South Pole. In the meantime, people living at the base used the excess hours in their days to gather oak scraps and cut and polish them into a casket. They loaded Marks's body into the makeshift coffin and laid him to temporary rest in the base's storage, where the frigid climate would preserve his remains until the end of winter.

On October 30, a plane transported the body from Amundsen-Scott Station to Christchurch, New Zealand, where forensic pathologist Dr. Martin Sage finally was able to perform an autopsy. The amount of time that had passed between the death and the examination didn't stop Sage from making a disturbing observation: Marks hadn't died of natural causes after all. According to the post-mortem, he had ingested approximately 150 milliliters of methanol—roughly the size of a glass of wine. Methanol is a type of alcohol used to clean scientific equipment in Antarctica: It's subtly sweet, colorless, and toxic even in small amounts—which means a fatal dose could easily be slipped into someone's drink without their knowledge.

That left a limited number of options on the table. To the people who lived and worked with Marks up until his final hours, the possibility that he had killed himself was hard to believe. He had thrived in the harsh beauty of Antarctica. He was doing important research at the observatory, and when he wasn't working, he had his friends and Wolter, whom he had planned to marry, to keep him company. But if Marks hadn't poisoned himself, that left his colleagues with the unsettling possibility that they had shared a home with a murderer for over half a year.

An Inconclusive Inquest

Because Antarctica is governed by a treaty signed by 54 nations, handling crimes there can be a headache. Marks was from Australia and had worked for an American station, but he died within the Ross Dependency—a territory of Antarctica claimed by New Zealand. By October, New Zealand had taken over the job of looking into the incident.

While the coroner of Christchurch began an initial inquest in 2000, the investigation took years to complete, and involved several hearings. Detective Senior Sergeant Grant Wormald looked at four possible causes of death: Marks drank the methanol accidentally; he drank it for recreation; he drank it to kill himself; or someone else had spiked his drink. In 2006, Wormald stated that suicide was the least likely explanation for the young scientist's death, citing his promising career and relationship.

It was more plausible that Marks had ingested the solvent to get high and accidentally overdosed. He was a heavy drinker, and had been known to use alcohol to cope with his Tourette's syndrome. But Wormald saw this as further evidence that he hadn't drunk the methanol on purpose: Marks had access to plenty of alcohol on the base if he was looking to self-medicate, and as an experienced binge-drinker, he would have known the risk of drinking unfamiliar substances. When he did get sick, he acted just as bewildered as the rest of the crew, suggesting he had no idea there was poison inside his body.

Wormald concluded: "In my view it is most likely Dr. Marks ingested the methanol unknowingly." But how exactly the methanol got into Marks's system—and if it wasn't an accident, who might have given it to him—remained a mystery.

According to The New Zealand Herald, some experts were critical of Robert Thompson's treatment of Marks in his final hours. William Silva, who had been a physician at a nearby Antarctic station, reviewed Thompson's medical notes from that day and questioned certain aspects of his care. Thompson had access to an Ektachem blood analyzer, a machine that would have detected the dangerous levels of methanol in his patient's system and likely prompted the doctor to take steps toward appropriate treatment. But the lithium-ion battery had died some time before, which meant that turning it off reset its electronic memory. It was shut off the day of Marks's death, and to power it back up, Thompson would have needed to recalibrate it—a process that takes 8 to 10 hours [PDF].

Thompson later testified that he had been too busy caring for Marks to use the Ektachem. He also said that the machine was difficult to use and maintain—a claim that Silva disputed. According to Silva, the Ektachem "is quite straightforward," and Thompson could have called the manufacturer's free technical support line if he was having issues with it (though telephone service was spotty at best).

Thompson never provided a response to Silva's testimony. He was impossible to get in touch with during the later stages of the inquest, having seemingly fallen off the grid. He was never charged with any wrongdoing. (Thompson could not be reached for comment.)

The National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. organization that runs the Amundsen-Scott Station, reportedly did little to make matters clearer. When Wormald asked for reports on Marks's death, the NSF reportedly wasn't forthcoming, saying it didn't have any reports that were relevant to his investigation. The foundation also reportedly ignored his requests when he asked for the results of lab tests conducted on the scant evidence gathered from Marks's room and work station before they were cleaned.

The NSF denies Wormald's characterization of how it handled the investigation. In a statement to Mental Floss, a representative said: "[The] NSF consistently cooperated with the Christchurch coroner's office and New Zealand Police to address this tragic situation. Dr. Marks was an important member of the Antarctic research community. NSF continues to extend its deepest condolences to his family, friends and colleagues."

But according to Wormald, any useful information he pried from the government agency was the product of his own persistence. Only after being pestered by the detective, he said, did the NSF agree to send out a questionnaire to the 49 crew members who had been at the station at the time of Marks's death. The foundation vetted the questions first, "to assure ourselves that appropriate discretion has been exercised," and when they were finally mailed out, they came with a note saying participation wasn't mandatory. Only 13 of Marks's 49 colleagues responded.

A Tragic Accident—Or The Perfect Crime?

Without much cooperation from the National Science Foundation and with no solid leads, the investigation failed to move forward. It fizzled out completely in 2008 when coroner Richard McElrea released a report saying that no conclusions could be drawn one way or the other about the circumstances surrounding Marks's poisoning. Referencing a 2000 report [PDF] based on the medical notes about the case that said there was no reason to suspect homicide or accidental poisoning, McElrea wrote, "I respectively [sic] disagree that accidental poisoning and even foul play can be adequately disregarded without a full and proper investigation." His main takeaway was that the disorganization of the case indicated "an urgent need to set comprehensive rules of investigation and accountability for deaths in Antarctica on a fair and open basis."

Outside of true crime internet forums, a clear idea of what happened to Marks has never emerged. He didn't have any known enemies at Amundsen-Scott Station, and there was no evidence implicating any of the workers at the base with a crime.

With the inquiry into his death producing more questions than answers, Rodney Marks's story occupies a strange place in the history of Antarctic tragedies. Driving on approved routes may reduce the risk of falling into a crevasse—and banning chess may stop game-related fights—but this particular incident left no obvious path toward preventing ones like it from happening in the future. It's not even clear whether Marks's death should be grouped with Antarctica's freak accidents or rare acts of violence.

As of 2019, there's still no system in place for handling homicides that happen on the continent. With so many territorial claims, and some that even overlap, the general rule is that jurisdiction falls to the home country of the person who committed the crime and the station where it took place. That means if a Russian researcher assaults someone at a Russian station, as was the case in October 2018, the case is handled by Russian authorities. But things get stickier if an American commits a crime on a Russian base, in which case both countries could have a claim to the investigation. Situations where an apparent crime produces a body and no obvious perpetrator are, of course, even more complicated.

Until Marks's death, that was an issue the nations working in Antarctica had never had to face. There still has never been a trial for a murder that happened on the continent—though the question of whether murder has been committed there remains unanswered.

Keep Your Cat Busy With a Board Game That Doubles as a Scratch Pad

Cheerble
Cheerble

No matter how much you love playing with your cat, waving a feather toy in front of its face can get monotonous after a while (for the both of you). To shake up playtime, the Cheerble three-in-one board game looks to provide your feline housemate with hours of hands-free entertainment.

Cheerble's board game, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, is designed to keep even the most restless cats stimulated. The first component of the game is the electronic Cheerble ball, which rolls on its own when your cat touches it with their paw or nose—no remote control required. And on days when your cat is especially energetic, you can adjust the ball's settings to roll and bounce in a way that matches their stamina.

Cheerable cat toy on Kickstarter.
Cheerble

The Cheerble balls are meant to pair with the Cheerble game board, which consists of a box that has plenty of room for balls to roll around. The board is also covered on one side with a platform that has holes big enough for your cat to fit their paws through, so they can hunt the balls like a game of Whack-a-Mole. And if your cat ever loses interest in chasing the ball, the board also includes a built-in scratch pad and fluffy wand toy to slap around. A simplified version of the board game includes the scratch pad without the wand or hole maze, so you can tailor your purchase for your cat's interests.

Cheerble cat board game.
Cheerble

Since launching its campaign on Kickstarter on April 23, Cheerble has raised over $128,000, already blowing past its initial goal of $6416. You can back the Kickstarter today to claim a Cheerble product, with $32 getting you a ball and $58 getting you the board game. You can make your pledge here, with shipping estimated for July 2020.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

“Slick” Julia Lyons: The Con Artist Who Posed as a Nurse During the 1918 Flu Pandemic—Then Robbed Her Patients

An actual nurse tends to a patient during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
An actual nurse tends to a patient during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In September 1918, a 23-year-old woman “of marvelous gowns and haughty mien” was arrested at Chicago’s La Salle Hotel after a crime spree that included posing as a Department of Justice representative, cashing stolen checks, and performing “various miracles at getting ready money,” according to a Chicago Tribune article.

The authorities underestimated their slippery prisoner, who escaped from the South Clark Street police station before answering for her alleged offenses. By no means, however, had her brush with the law scared her straight. Soon after her police station disappearing act, Julia Lyons—also known as Marie Walker, Ruth Hicks, Mrs. H. J. Behrens, and a range of other aliases—concocted an even more devious scheme.

The Rose-Lipped, Pearly-Toothed Price Gouger

As The Washington Post reports, Chicago was in the throes of the 1918 influenza pandemic that fall, and hospitals were enlisting nurses to tend to patients at home. Lyons, correctly assuming that healthcare officials wouldn’t be vetting volunteers very thoroughly, registered as a nurse under several pseudonyms and spent the next two months caring for a string of ailing men and women across the city.

Lyons’s modus operandi was simple: After getting a prescription filled, she’d charge her patient much more than the actual cost. Once, she claimed $63 for a dose of oxygen that had actually cost $5 (which, once adjusted for inflation, is the same as charging $1077 for an $85 item today). Sometimes, “Flu Julia,” as the Chicago Tribune nicknamed her, even summoned a so-called doctor—later identified by the police as a “dope seller and narcotic supplier”—to forge the prescriptions for her. Then she’d flee the property, absconding with cash, jewelry, clothing, and any other valuables she could find lying around the house.

As for the physical well-being of her flu-ridden victims, Lyons could not have cared less. When 9-year-old Eddie Rogan fetched her to help his older brother George, who was “out of his head with illness,” Lyons retorted, “Oh, let him rave. He’s used to raving.” Unsurprisingly, George died.

Though pitiless at times, Lyons flashed her “rose-lipped smile and pearly teeth” and fabricated charming stories to gain the confidence of her clueless patients. To win over “old Father Shelhauer,” for example, she asked, “Don’t you remember me? Why, when I was a little girl I used to hitch on your wagons!” Shelhauer believed her, and threw a snooping detective off the scent by vouching for Lyons, whom he said he had known since she was a little girl.

Clever as she was, Lyons couldn’t evade capture forever. In November 1918, detectives eventually linked her to Eva Jacobs, another “girl of the shady world,” and wiretapped the home of “Suicide Bess” Davis, where Jacobs was staying. Through their eavesdropping, they discovered Lyons’s plans to marry a restaurant owner named Charlie. They trailed Charlie, who unwittingly led them straight to his new—and felonious—bride.

“The wedding’s all bust up! You got me!,” Lyons shouted as the detectives surrounded her. They carted the couple back to the station, where they asked a bewildered Charlie how long he had known Lyons. “Ten days!” he said. “That is, I thought I knew her.”

When it came time for Lyons to appear in court, Deputy Sheriff John Hickey volunteered to transport her.

“Be careful, she’s pretty slick,” Chief Bailiff John C. Ryan told him. “Don’t let her get away.” Detectives Frank Smith and Robert Jacobs, who had headed the investigation and arrested Lyons in the first place, echoed the sentiment, citing Lyons’s previous escape from South Clark Street.

“She’ll go if she gets a chance. Better put the irons on,” Jacobs advised. Hickey shook off their warnings with a casual “Oh, she won’t get away from me.”

He was wrong.

“Slick Julia” Escapes Again

Hickey did successfully deposit Lyons at the courthouse, where about 50 victims testified against her. An hour and a half after Hickey left with Lyons to bring her back to jail, however, the police received a phone call from an “excited” Hickey with some shocking news: Lyons had leapt from the moving vehicle and climbed into a getaway car—which sped away so quickly that Hickey had no hopes of chasing it down.

Hickey’s story seemed fishy. For one, he mentioned that they had stopped at a bank so Lyons could withdraw some cash, leading officials to believe that Hickey may have accepted a bribe to set her free. They also happened to be suspiciously far from their intended destination.

“If they were way out there,” Ryan told the Chicago Tribune, “They must have been cabareting together.”

Furthermore, a friend of Lyons named Pearl Auldridge actually confessed to the police that the entire plot had been prearranged with Hickey. He was suspended, and investigators were forced to resume their hunt for “Slick Julia.”

A Schemer 'Til the End

In March 1919, after poring through nurses’ registries for a possible lead, detectives finally located Lyons, under the name Mrs. James, at a house on Fullerton Boulevard, where she was caring for a Mrs. White.

“Mrs. M.S. James, née Flu Julia, née Slicker Julia, who walked away one November day from former Deputy Sheriff John Hickey, walked back into custody, involuntarily, last night,” the Chicago Tribune wrote on March 21, 1919.

In addition to her 19 previous counts of larceny, “obtaining money by false pretenses,” and “conducting a confidence game,” Lyons racked up a new charge: bigamy. Her marriage to Charlie the restaurateur still existed on paper, and Lyons had taken a new husband, a soldier named E.M. James, whom she had known for four days.

With no unscrupulous officer around to help Lyons escape yet again, she was left to the mercy of the court system. True to her sobriquet, “Slick Julia” stayed scheming until the very end of her trial, first claiming that she had been forced into committing crimes against her will by a “band of thieves,” and then pleading insanity. Nobody was convinced; the jury found Lyons guilty of larceny and the judge sentenced her to serve one to 10 years in a penitentiary.

Just like that, “Flu Julia” traded in her nurse's uniform for a prison uniform—though whether she donned her healthcare costume again after her release remains a mystery.