Self-Convicted Poisoners

  1. Palmer
  2. Thomas Wainewright
  3. Neill Cream
  4. Christiana Edmunds
  5. Drs. Pritchard, Lamson and Smethurst
  6. Winslow.

A curious phase of the mystery of murder is that poisoners who need not be in a hurry, who can destroy every particle of the poison employed other than the fatal dose, who can arrange time and even circumstances to suit their designs, constantly defeat their own ends by excess of elaboration and in the long run are brought to justice. In bygone times when arsenic was in high favour and could be easily procured, many poisoners went scot free. The symptoms of arsenical poisoning are analogous to those of gastritis and dysentery; toxicology was a little-known science, death certificates were not necessary and doctors could be easily deceived. The arsenic poisoners of later days are faced with great difficulties, and the insuperable one is that the body of the victim itself supplies the cause of death. Arsenic cannot be eliminated from the tissues by death and indeed tends to preserve the body. Hence the skilled poisoner discards arsenic and finds in the alkaloid products much more subtle and suitable instruments for his purpose.

Palmer employed strychnine. There was no known post-mortem characteristic. The symptoms of strychnine poisoning can only be recognised by certain effects on the victim while living. After death the alkaloid is difficult to isolate. As the symptoms produced by strychnine are akin to those by tetanus, a doctor attending a person suffering from strychnine poisoning might well mistake one for the other. It was on this point that Palmer’s defence rested. Save for the surrounding circumstances his defence might have succeeded. But though Palmer was aware of the subtle properties of strychnine, he was not certain that it could not be detected in the body after death or he would not have attempted to upset the jars containing the viscera to be analysed. Failing to do so he tried to bribe the postboy who had to convey the jars to London to overturn them. The postboy refused and his evidence told terribly against the accused. As it happened, Palmer’s anxiety was unfounded. No strychnine was discovered in Cook’s body, and Mr. Sergeant Shee, who defended Palmer, made a powerful use of the fact. But all to no purpose. It was “the jockeying” (the term Palmer applied to the summing-up of Lord Chief Justice Cockburn) that did it. Palmer protested to the last that Cook did not die from strychnine, but if it were so and death resulted from the antimony which was given previous to the strychnine Palmer was guilty all the same. There is every reason to believe that he poisoned others besides Cook. He took the pitcher to the well once too often.

Thomas Wainewright, the “Janus Weathercock” of the London Magazine and an associate of Charles Lamb and his circle, was also a wholesale poisoner. Like Palmer he employed strychnine, but unlike him he escaped the gallows. Medical knowledge of the alkaloid poisons in the thirties was limited, and thanks to this ignorance Wainewright evaded the punishment due to him. He is said to be the original of Julius Slinkton in Charles Dickens’s Hunted Down. Wainewright was transported to Tasmania for forgery; his luck in escaping the capital charge was amazing. He made blunders over and over again but no notice was taken of them. In these scientific days he would assuredly have been hanged.

Neill Cream as a devotee of strychnine is outside the pale of ordinary murderers. He used death as his means of livelihood. In some cases his fiendish craft may have been successful, but the three instances which came to light during his trial were utter failures and led to his undoing. Like Jack the Ripper, he selected his victims from women who got their living on the streets and for whose fate nobody cared. Four women​—​there may have been more​—​died from the “long pills” which Cream induced them to take. In the first case the doctor who attended was careless and indifferent, and though he saw the woman alive and should have recognised the symptoms he certified that she had died from excessive drinking. The other three victims were taken to the hospital and here no mistake was made.

Meanwhile Cream was seeking to make money out of murders, and a more callous method was never devised. In its recklessness it almost touched absurdity. Soon after the death of the first woman​—​Matilda Clover by name​—​a well-known West End physician received a letter, the writer of which insinuated that the physician had given poison to Clover, that he (the writer) was in possession of incriminating evidence and he would require to be paid heavily to keep his mouth shut. The recipient of the letter handed it over to the police, but the latter did not trouble to enquire into the death of Matilda Clover, though her name and address were given, and Cream continued his trade as a dealer in death.

He disappeared for a time, having gone to Canada, and on his return to England recommenced his cold-blooded, stupid course of wholesale murdering. In the house where he had rooms also lodged a young medical student, and soon after the inquests on Alice Marsh and Emma Shrivall (who died of strychnine poisoning in St. Thomas’s Hospital) the father of the student​—​a doctor at Barnstaple​—​received a letter accusing his son of poisoning girls, the writer demanding £1,500 as the price of his silence. The father refused to be blackmailed and handed the letter to the police, who saw it was now time to take action. But for the moment they were quite in the dark.

Then came the inquest on Ellen Donworth, who it was proved died from strychnine, and while the enquiry was proceeding the coroner received a letter signed “A. O’Brien,” who offered to bring the murderer to justice provided he were paid £30,000 by the Government. A fortnight went over and a well-known member of Parliament received a blackmailing letter signed “H. Bayne.” A comparison between the three letters showed that the writing in each was the same, and pursuing the clue furnished by the letter to the Barnstaple doctor the police came to the conclusion that “Dr. Neill,” the student’s fellow lodger, would be worth shadowing. Meanwhile, the body of Matilda Clover, the first victim, was exhumed without the knowledge of anybody outside Scotland Yard. This was in November, but though the net was slowly closing round Cream he was let alone.

Gradually, however, he began to suspect something disquieting was going on and he took counsel of a private enquiry agent named Haynes. Why he should have taken this course rather than lie low and have seized the first opportunity to vanish is only one of the many inconceivable ineptitudes which marked almost every step of this egregious blunderer. One day while travelling in an omnibus with Haynes he heard a newsboy shouting “Arrest in the Stamford Street Case.” This, Cream appears to have thought, referred to Alice Marsh and Emma Shrivall, who lived in this​—​at that time​—​thoroughfare of doubtful reputation. On alighting he bought the evening papers and eagerly scanned them. Haynes noticed that when he had finished reading he became relieved. No wonder, for the arrest had nothing to do with the poisonings, but belonged to another affair also in Stamford Street.

The miscreant probably prided himself on his masterly cunning when he scraped acquaintance with McIntyre, an officer attached to the Criminal Investigation Department. Perhaps he wanted to convey the impression that he was quite ready to court enquiry. McIntyre, who at first did not suspect Cream, very soon became greatly interested in his new friend, and it was not long before he neatly trapped him.

The two were having a cheerful glass together at a Lambeth hostelry, and Cream was complaining about the ridiculous action of Scotland Yard in subjecting him to surveillance. He asked McIntyre what he ought to do.

“You’d better see Inspector Harvey or Chief Inspector Maloney about it. Just write what you want and I’ll pass it on.”

Cream accordingly wrote his complaint on a piece of paper he took from his pocket, and the two set out for Scotland Yard, but as they were crossing Westminster Bridge he suddenly became suspicious, refused to proceed any further and left McIntyre to go on by himself. McIntyre was quite content. He had got what he wanted and more than he could have hoped for. Cream’s handwriting was compared with that of the blackmailing letters and found to be identical, while the paper he had used had the same watermark as that of the letter sent to the Barnstaple doctor! Little more was required to convict this clumsy, wholesale poisoner.

Quite as imbecilic and reckless was Christiana Edmunds, who to satisfy her morbid spite against one particular person broadcasted strychnine without scruple. From first to last she incriminated herself, yet had she not been so scrupulously careful in her preparations to meet possible enquiries she might have gone her way and no one would have been the wiser.

The strange drama opened in a confectioner’s shop in Brighton. For some days the assistants had been puzzled by purchases of chocolate creams by boys, who after a little lapse of time brought them back to be exchanged for others saying that those first bought were not the kind required. The thing was repeated so often that twice the assistants sent one of the staff after the boys to watch what they did with the chocolates. The report on each occasion was that the boy was met by a lady to whom he gave the chocolates, and no more was thought of the matter. Shortly after, a little boy who ate a chocolate cream from a box purchased at the same shop was taken ill and died in a few hours. He had been poisoned by strychnine. An inquest was held; other chocolate creams in the shop were analysed and found to contain strychnine; the confectioner gave evidence and was exonerated from blame.

Before the death of the child a lady called upon the confectioner and accused him of selling poisoned chocolates, and while the inquest was being held she presented herself as a witness but her evidence was not accepted. Then she put in a statement how she had bought chocolates of the same confectioner which had made her and some of her friends ill. Nothing came of this statement; the enquiry was closed and the affair was almost forgotten, when a sensation was caused by the arrest of the lady who was so zealous in accusing the confectioner.

The police had in their possession a strange story which they proceeded to unfold. It appeared that a lady, who had been a customer of a Brighton chemist for some four years, purchased a small quantity of strychnine, signing in his poison register book the name of Wood, Hillside, Kingston. Shortly after this a boy brought an order from another Brighton chemist for a quarter of an ounce of strychnine, but the first chemist thinking the order too big supplied only a drachm. The inquest on the poisoned child followed, the chemist receiving a letter purporting to be from the coroner asking for the production of his poison register for the purpose of an enquiry into a matter which had nothing to do with anything sold by him. The book was delivered to the messenger, subsequently returned, and the chemist noticed that a leaf preceding that containing the entry of the sale of strychnine to “Mrs. Wood” had been torn out. A curious discovery followed​—​both the order for a quarter of an ounce of strychnine from another chemist and the letter from the coroner were forgeries! As in the case of Neill Cream, it was of vital importance to compare handwritings. The police wrote a letter about nothing in particular to Mrs. Edmunds and she replied. Her writing gave her away as the forger. It is to be presumed that in removing the leaf from the register she tore out the wrong one, thus adding blunder to blunder.

Then search was made for small boys and three were found. They all told the same tale. They had each been stopped by a lady who sent them for chocolate creams. The creams were not what she wanted and they took them back. In the meantime the lady had contrived to insinuate strychnine into some of the creams first purchased.

What was at the back of this diabolical schemer’s mind? Just this. She had taken a morbid fancy to a doctor who had attended her. The doctor was married and it occurred to Christiana Edmunds that if she got rid of the doctor’s wife it would further her design. Accordingly she gave her rival a chocolate cream which the lady found so bitter she spat it out. The doctor thereupon roundly accused Christiana of having attempted to poison his wife, and the poisoner, to clear herself and throw the blame on the confectioner, “pursued,” as Sergeant Ballantyne, who prosecuted, put it, “a course of conduct so extraordinary as to be totally unparalleled in the records of any criminal court of justice.” It may also be said that her blunders were equally unparalleled. She was condemned to death, but declared afterwards to be insane. Her insanity is her only excuse.

Pritchard, Lamson and Smethurst belong to the type of poisoners headed by Thomas Wainewright. They were masters of hypocrisy and concealed their moral depravity beneath a mask of affability and conciliation. Palmer, on the other hand, affected a bluff jollity which perhaps was even more deceptive. The blunders of these men were due to over-confidence in their immunity from detection due to their profession. Pritchard made one fatal error through impatience. His wife’s mother he poisoned with antimony followed by aconitine, and her death took place with startling suddenness, but poison was not suspected. Within three weeks Mrs. Pritchard, who had been ailing for some time, died and without apparent cause. In each case Pritchard himself filled up the death certificates, the doctor who had been called in refusing to do so. Before the funeral could be completed Pritchard was arrested and the post-mortem showed that the deaths of both mother and daughter were from the same cause, poisoning with antimony in combination with aconitine.

There was no evidence that Pritchard had administered poison, but he omitted to destroy a bottle of Batley’s solution​—​a preparation of opium from which mother and daughter found relief and constantly took​—​and in this bottle both antimony and aconitine were found. Moreover, it was proved that Pritchard had bought large quantities of both poisons. His haste to get rid of his mother-in-law was because at her death his wife would come into some £2,000 and Pritchard was in great monetary difficulties.

Lamson followed on the same lines. He also wanted money and he also used aconitine. His over-elaboration in the poisoning of his schoolboy brother-in-law defeated itself. Yet he was so supremely self-assured of his own safety that when a paragraph relative to the inquest on young Percy John appeared in the newspapers he had the assurance to present himself at Bow Street police station, announcing himself as Dr. Lamson, and stating that he had came straight from Paris to know what he was “to do about it.” He was received very civilly but found himself a prisoner, and his guilt was proved in spite of his using a subtle poison which he thought would never be detected.

How in the Armstrong case the hand of the poisoner was revealed all will remember. And so with Seddon. This man was so convinced his craft would never betray him that he did not take precautions to cover up his deadly steps. The purchase of arsenical fly papers, considering how they had figured in the Maybrick affair and in that of Catherine Flanagan and Margaret Higgins, the wholesale poisoners of Liverpool, was a stupid blunder which brought Seddon’s neck within the hangman’s noose.

Criminal records, so far as one has been able to discover, show only two instances beside a recent one, which it is not necessary to go into, where crafty and carefully arranged poisonings have not been satisfactorily traced to their authors. One of these is the case of Dr. Smethurst, and the other that of Thomas Winslow of Liverpool.

There was not the least doubt that Miss Isabella Banks, in whose death Smethurst was pecuniarily interested, was poisoned. Before she died Smethurst was charged with having administered poison to her, but there was not sufficient evidence to justify a committal and he was released. After her death he was re-arrested and charged with murder. The body showed unmistakable signs of antimonial poisoning, and Smethurst was found guilty, but afterwards reprieved, escaping through a loophole made by the blundering of Professor Taylor, the analyst.

The case of Winslow stands by itself. His trial for “administering antimony to Ann James” with intention to cause her death is, for two reasons, unique in the annals of poison mysteries. One reason is that the woman’s death was due to cancer and not to the antimony which was found in her body and was undoubtedly given her by some person, and the other that the circumstantial evidence against Winslow was of such a nature that at first sight it would seem difficult to disconnect him from her death in a criminal sense. The story is a very curious and complicated one, but too long to detail here. Direct evidence against Winslow was wanting and he was acquitted.