Showing posts with label arsenic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label arsenic. Show all posts

03 July 2020

“I am Murdered!”


Tomorrow popularly marks the 244th birthday of the United States. By far, the most popular myth about the Fourth of July is that the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence were universally persecuted, hounded to death, and otherwise had their lives ruined for signing that document. Yes, some lost their homes and property in the Revolutionary War. Some saw family members jailed; some were themselves captured and/or briefly held by the British. But no signer died at the hands of the British government.

Only two signers died by violence. Button Gwinnett, a Georgia signer, became embroiled in a spat with a military rival and died in a duel about a year after he signed the Declaration.

Another signer, George Wythe of Virginia, died by poisoning. In a life that spanned eight decades, Wythe was a judge, classics scholar, and the nation’s first law professor. (The law school at the College of William and Mary, where he taught, today maintains an online encyclopedia dubbed Wythepedia, of course.)

Wythe had learned the law the old-fashioned way: by reading and clerking for an uncle who was a lawyer. Many years later, in the 1760s, one such clerk would work five years in Wythe’s practice. His name was Thomas Jefferson, and for years later he would have nothing but praise for his old boss. “My second father,” Jefferson called Wythe. “My faithful and beloved mentor in youth and my most affectionate friend through life,” and “my ancient master, my earliest and best friend.”

Both men had lost their fathers at a young age, which may explain their bond. Besides Jefferson, Wythe mentored Chief Justice John Marshall, House Speaker and Secretary of State Henry Clay, and possibly President James Monroe, among numerous others.

George Wythe
(National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
Sent to Congress in 1774, Wythe contributed significant legal arguments that shaped the American response to Britain. First, he suggested that America could become a separate but equal nation within the British Empire. (That is to say, a “commonwealth nation.”) When this didn’t fly, Wythe and another signer, the Virginian Richard Henry Lee, insisted that Congress must hold the King, not Parliament, accountable for the colonists’ complaints. If the King refused to remedy their grievances, then the colonies were legally entitled to sever all relations with the crown. Hence the conceit of the Declaration of Independence, which is a laundry list of complaints for which the colonies held the monarch directly responsible.

Despite his great influence, Wythe was not in Philadelphia on July 2 (the day of the actual vote for independence), and he did not sign the document on August 2, 1776, when the largest number of Congressmen signed. For many years it was assumed Wythe signed the Declaration when he returned to Philadelphia in the fall. But some scholars now suggest—horrors!—that Wythe may not have signed the Declaration of Independence at all, but authorized a clerk to act as his proxy. (Wythe typically signed his name “G. Wythe,” but on the Declaration his name appears as “George Wythe” and looks nothing like his usual signature.) This theory is unconfirmed, and Wythe is the only signer for whom this question has been raised.

Wythe left Congress early to help Virginia set up its new government and revise its legal code with Jefferson’s help. Wythe would later draft the state constitution and design the state seal.

Wythe married twice. No children. He and his spouses boarded students attending the College of William and Mary, and may have paid for some of the poorer students’ education. Wythe loved the classics so much that he freely tutored anyone who was down for Greek and Latin. In the late 1780s, he persuaded Virginia’s legislators to ratify the U.S. Constitution, and thus credited with helping Virginia become the tenth state.

But did anyone say murder?

When Wythe’s second wife, Elizabeth, died, he relocated from Williamsburg to Richmond. Giving up his classes and students, he took on the role of chancellor, the top position in Virginia’s Court of Chancery. Though he and his relations had long owned slaves, Wythe had become an abolitionist. (The list of the enslaved people, and what historians know of them, is carefully examined here.) In his old age, Wythe’s household consisted of his cook and housekeeper, Lydia Broadnax, a former enslaved woman whom Wythe had freed, and Michael Brown, a young biracial man who had never been enslaved. Wythe liked the young man and was tutoring him. Both were set to inherit part of Wythe’s estate when he died.

Into this surrogate family came Wythe’s own flesh-and-blood, George Wythe Sweeney, his sister’s 19-year-old grandson. Sweeney was a troubled youth, a heavy drinker and gambler, but Wythe generously designated his grand-nephew to inherit the larger portion of the estate. But should Brown and Broadnax predecease Wythe, Sweeney would get everything.

You can see this one coming a mile away.

Accounts of the deed differ. The one I’m going with goes like this: One morning Broadnax observed Sweeney drinking his coffee from the kitchen coffee pot, then tossing a slip of white paper into the fireplace. Sweeney left the house. Later, the entire household drank from the same coffee pot. All were seized with violent cramps. Broadnax recovered, but young Brown died. Wythe fell fatally ill. Aided by Broadnax, investigators pieced together what must have happened: Sweeney dumped arsenic in the pot, then tossed into the fire the flimsy paper with which apothecaries commonly wrapped rat poison in those days. Wythe lingered in painful agony for two weeks, but was lucid enough to instruct officials to search Sweeney’s room for poison, and to swear out a new will that disinherited Sweeney completely. Groaning, “I am murdered,” Wythe died June 8, 1806 at the presumed age of 80. (His birth date is unknown.)

Sweeney was charged with the two murders and the forgery of some of his uncle’s checks. Broadnax’s damning eyewitness testimony was inadmissible under Virginia law because at that time black people could not bear witness against white men. Sweeney was acquitted of murder. He was convicted of forging the bad checks, but somehow won a new trial, which the prosecutor declined to pursue. Sweeney walked out of the courtroom a free man, and vanished into history.

The final biting irony of Wythe’s story is that the man who spent so much of his life crafting legal statutes in his home state probably wrote the very law that allowed his murderer to go free.

* * *


BSP: You might enjoy one or both of the books I’ve co-authored on the signers of significant U.S. documents, entitled Signing Their Lives Away or Signing Their Rights Away (Quirk Books, 2009 and 2011). Those interested in delving specifically into the murder of signer George Wythe will want to investigate I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing That Shocked a New Nation, by Bruce Chadwick (Wiley, 2009).

02 February 2017

Arsenic and Old Lace


by Eve Fisher

There are lots of reasons to prefer modern times: air conditioning, central heating, indoor plumbing, anesthesia, and antibiotics are the top five in my book. I also really enjoy entertainment on tap, as it were - music, television, movies, books. And I certainly do not wax nostalgic about the good old days of 37 pounds of clothing worn over corsets (see Judith Flanders' "Inside the Victorian Home"), food cooked until it was a puddle of goo, or the constant smell of unwashed... everything. Bodies, clothing, you name it.

But the Victorian age was a great age to kill somebody.

For one thing, there were no regulations on food or drugs, and no real recognition of drugs. So you could buy laudanum, cocaine, heroin, and other fun stuff, clearly labeled, over the counter. (Remember Sherlock's 7% solution... he wasn't buying it from one of the Bow Street Runners, although he might have gotten it from the Baker Street Irregulars...) And almost all the patent medicines contained cocaine, heroin, and/or alcohol.

Food itself was pretty hazardous: bread was whitened with chalk and/or alum, strychnine gave an extra kick to beer, sulphate of copper kept pickles green, and lead was added to chocolate, wine, cider, and a whole lot of other foods. Tea leaves were dried and recycled, and dyed with red lead to make them look fresh. Red lead was also added to cheese for coloring, chalk to milk, and copper to gin...  The London County Country Medical Officer discovered, for example, the following in samples of ice cream: cocci, bacilli, torulae, cotton fiber, lice, bed bugs, bug's legs, fleas, straw, human hair, and cat and dog hair. Such contaminated ice cream could cause diphtheria, scarlet fever, diarrhoea, and enteric fever. "The Privy Council estimated in 1862 that one-fifth of butcher's meat in England and Wales came from animals which were 'considerably diseased' or had died of pleuro-pneumonia, and anthacid or anthracoid diseases." (See the Victorian Website HERE) Plus the Victorians didn't believe that either vegetables or fruit were wholesome, unless they were cooked to a puree, and even then, should only be taken in moderation. If you couldn't figure anything else out, you could probably just kill someone by diet alone...

But let's get on to the real stuff: poison. Arsenic was everywhere. Arsenic was in "wallpaper, beer, wine, sweets, wrapping paper, painted toys, sheep dip, insecticides, clothing, dead bodies, stuffed animals, hat ornaments, coal, and candles". It was used as a beauty treatment - soak your flypapers in water, and drink a few drops in fresh water (which probably came through lead pipes - lead was everywhere) to make your skin translucently white. It was used as a treatment for obesity, and it certainly could take the weight off. Sometimes all of it. Green wallpaper and green clothing were both soaked in arsenic to fix the color. And so was that Victorian mandatory wear for women, crepe, which was THE fabric of mourning.

Now widows were required to dress from head to toe in black, including complete veil, for at least one year, if not longer. Sweating in black crepe mourning garments (37 pounds of it) in summer was common, and I've run across receipts telling women how to wash the [arsenic-laden] black stains from their armpits and neck (both prime lymph node areas). Plus they were walking around, breathing through an arsenic-laden veil all day, every day... Personally, I think we have the explanation why the widow in so many Victorian memoirs and novels falls into a decline and dies young...

And then, of course, some people deliberately used arsenic to kill. Charles Francis Hall, an American Arctic explorer in the mid-1800s, died sometime around October, 1871, on his 3rd expedition. The ship was frozen in for the winter, and he'd returned from an outing with an Inuit guide, when he had a cup of coffee, collapsed, and fell into vomiting and delirium. After the expedition, an official investigation said he died of apoplexy, but a 1968 exhumation showed monumental levels of arsenic. It seems there might have been a feud between him and Dr. Bessels...

And there was pretty Madeleine Smith of Glasgow:  In 1857, when she was 20, she (GASP! HORROR!) had an affair with an apprentice nurseryman named Pierre Emile L'Angelier. Her parents, meanwhile, knowing nothing of Madeleine's behavior, found her a husband. Miss Smith tried to break off her affair with L'Angelier, and asked him to return her letters; instead, he blackmailed her. So off she went to an apothecary's and bought some arsenic - for flies, of course.  Or her complexion.  In any case, you could buy it over the counter.  A few days later, L'Angelier died of arsenic poisoning. Her letters were found, she was arrested and charged with murder, and the trial proceeded. Somehow, she was acquitted. (She was young, she was lovely, she had a good lawyer, and the police had messed up the letters, mixing up the pages...) But she had to leave Scotland. (She later married - twice - and lived until 1928.)

Neil-cream.jpg
Dr. Thomas Neill Cream
Strychnine. Distilled from the seeds of the strychnos nux-vomica tree, which arrived in the West in the 17th century from China and India, strychnine became the standard poison used to kill birds in the country and rats in the city. And people. Dr. William Palmer was the first to be caught using it in England, for killing his gambling associates.  Dr. Thomas Neill Cream (what is it with doctors?), a/k/a the Lambeth Poisoner, used it to kill a number of prostitutes, and claimed to have killed more as Jack the Ripper just before he was hanged. (No, he wasn't "Saucy Jacky", because he was in prison in 1888, when Jack the Ripper was writing letters and postcards.)

Chloroform. Also available over the counter. The most famous story of murder (?) by chloroform is the Pimlico Mystery, and the death of Thomas Edwin Bartlett. A wealthy grocer, he married a Frenchwoman 10 years his junior, Adelaide. The couple had a special friend, the Reverend George Dyson, who hung around a lot. Anyway, one morning Adelaide got up and found her husband dead in bed. The coroner opened him up and nearly passed out from the odor of chloroform rising from the stomach. Adelaide said that he'd been threatening suicide. Dyson said he'd bought the chloroform for the Bartlett's to remove grease stains. (Who knows? Maybe it works.)  But there were no burn marks on the inside of Bartlett's throat, which there should have been if he'd been drinking chloroform.  So Bartlett's father - who'd never been able to stand Adelaide - thought it was all suspicious and had her charged with murder.


At the trial what really spared Adelaide's life was a simple incident, remembered by the servants. One day, Mr. Bartlett was looking through his wife's drawers (God only knows why, but it certainly sounds like the archetypal Victorian paterfamilias), found a pill, and took it, without asking anyone what it was or why it was there.  (Again, God only knows why.)  Later he told everyone, including the servants, what he'd done. Adelaide's barrister suggested that Mr. Bartlett had gotten up in the middle of the night with stomach pains or some such, found the bottle of chloroform, and knocked it back without asking any fussy questions of anyone first. (The barrister said that by drinking it quickly, there would be no burns on the throat.)  The jury didn't entirely believe this, but she was acquitted, to rapturous applause from the spectators. An internationally famous surgeon/pathologist of the day, Sir James Paget, said of the case, "Now that she has been acquitted for murder and cannot be tried again, she should tell us in the interest of science how she did it!"  Feel free to post any solutions to that little problem. Adelaide never told anyone, because she vanished immediately after acquittal, and no one knows where she went.

So, the Victorian Age - your environment is deadly, the food could kill you, poisons abound, and the symptoms of all are pretty much the same.  It was a coroner's guessing game, a jury's whim, and there was no CSI team waiting in the wings.  There was only one Sherlock, and he was on paper only.  No cameras, no social media, no radio, no publicity.  You really could get away with murder.  Especially if you were young and pretty...