Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Last week (September 1, 1860)

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Thomas Winslow has been acquitted by the verdict of a Liverpool Jury. He was charged with the murder of Ann James, by administering to her antimony in small doses, whereby her death was hastened, if not caused in the first instance. This crime of poisoning is on the increase amongst us, and we had best look round and see what steps we can take to ensure ourselves against the murderer who approaches the bed-side of his victim as a husband, as a wife, as a friend. Your burglar or highwayman is, by comparison, an honest villain—a right gentle ruffian. He kills you with a bludgeon—you kill him with a halter. He levies war upon you, and is ready to take the consequences of defeat. When one thinks of Palmer and his doings, Rush is almost worthy of canonisation,—always, be it understood, with the murderer’s doom as the first stepping stone to glory. The modern poisoner has discarded the rough agencies of his earlier brethren. He treats you secundum artem, and gives you the benefit of the latest discoveries in toxicology. He considers your circumstances—your little peculiarities of constitution—your habits, and then passes his arm under your own, and, with soft expressions of sympathy and commiseration, blandly edges you into your grave. He knows that the business in hand is a ticklish one. He is playing a game of chess—with poisons and antidotes for his pieces—against Mr. Herapath of Bristol, and Dr. Alfred Taylor of Guy’s Hospital for his adversaries, and must give them check-mate—or stale-mate at the least—under very sharp penalties in case of defeat. The two gentlemen named are supposed to possess some skill at the game.

When one comes to think out the details of these crimes, it seems as though the mere bodily tortures which the victim must undergo, form the smallest part of his sufferings. He is struck down apparently by disease, and acquiesces in his infirmity as the mere condition of mortality. We must all part. The last half-choked words must be spoken sooner or later, so that in idle grief there is no use. That which alone can soothe—even whilst it aggravates—the pangs of those last few days or hours is the consciousness that those whom we have loved are around us, and doing what they may to conjure back the grim spectre which is standing at the bed-head, and claiming us as its own. Human affection is immortal, and cannot pass away like a dream or a tale which is told. But what if a moment should come when, upon comparison made between the pangs of yesterday and the pangs of to-day, a horrid suspicion stings the brain sharply and venomously as though a wasp had done it?” Is that a murderer’s hand which, a few minutes back, smoothed the pillow and the coverlid, and which is now wiping off the clammy moisture from my aching head. It is the hand which was pressed in mine at the altar—it is the hand which, over and over again, exchanged with mine the cordial grasp of manly friendship—but now! My murderer is waiting on me. In place of medicine they give me Death. In place of food they give me Death. I cannot breathe my suspicions, save in the ears of the person who is killing me. I am lying helpless in the midst of millions of my fellow-creatures, who would rush to my rescue, if they knew how hard I am bestead. Under the window there is the measured tread of the policeman, but I cannot call him to my help.” Such things have been, although in most cases there is the doctor, and to him, at least, the doubt may be expressed—though the expression is, for the most part, deferred until it is—too late. Those secret murderers are the most merciful, who do their work quickly. If our relatives and friends must poison us, at least let them economise suffering, and not give us time to be aware of what they are about. One would willingly compromise for a bullet through the head, or the quick, sharp streak of the assassin’s knife.

One would suppose that Science was ever more powerful for good than for evil. The same skill which discovered fresh poisons, should discover fresh antidotes—or at least, where the operation of the poison is too quick, fresh tests, so as to render impunity well-nigh hopeless. On the other hand, juries do not like to hang scientifically, so to speak—that is, upon the bare testimony of men of science. They say that the discovery of to-day is the error of to-morrow. No doubt mistakes have been made. Doubts have been expressed, if the ruling of Mr. Justice Buller was correct in the famous laurel-water case. It is now admitted that the tests employed to ascertain the presence of arsenic, when Mary Blandy was arraigned for the murder of her father, only proved the presence of some innocuous substance with which the arsenic was adulterated. The Scientific Chymist may make mistakes—the Hangman makes none. All this is true enough; but juries are apt to lay an over stress upon it. Witnesses may bear false testimony. Circumstantial evidence may be wrongly interpreted. The Analytical Chymist, at least, intends to be honest; and the processes he employs are less likely to result in error, than ordinary reasoning upon ordinary events. He stops short, to be sure: his testimony only goes to the extent of indicating the presence or absence of the poison; and after that the question falls within the scope of ordinary men. It is not, however, very common in cases of poisoning, that any great doubt prevails as to whether poison was the cause of death: the real difficulty always is, “Who gave it?” This Liverpool inquiry was no exception to the usual rule. The victim’s death was caused—or at least her death was much accelerated by small doses of antimony. So far, there is no doubt. Nor in this case, as in that of Smethurst, could there be any hesitation as to the intention with which Thomas Winslow administered the drug—supposing that he administered it at all. There could be no idea of mala praxis in this case. If Winslow put antimony at all in the poor woman’s broths and potions, his intentions were evil. One of the most alarming features in this case is, that the poisoner had the discretion to avoid all violent, or heroic effects. You could not say that Mrs. James was poisoned on this day or that day in particular. She was afflicted with a somewhat sharp illness, and the poisoner assisted the ailment by lowering her system, and disabling her powers of resistance. The enemy was active enough without the walls, and the traitor within damped the powder of the defenders. How is this form of injury to be met? It is idle to talk about the improbability that any person could be found capable of carrying out such wickedness. People are found capable of carrying it out. By some singular twist of the human mind or feelings they actually acquire a morbid taste for witnessing the effect of their drugs upon their victims. The Thugs of India took a professional pride in their work, and enjoyed a case of judicious strangulation. So it was with the child-poisoners of Essex a very few years ago. They would take the little creatures home, and pet them, and poison them—giving them now a kiss, and now a little arsenic. It was the same thing in the Borgia days—the same thing in those of Brinvilliers. At a later date Madame Laffarge brought poisoned cakes into such fashion in France that the position of a French husband had its drawbacks. We may be astonished that Miss Madeline Smith did not find more imitators; and there was good reason for fearing that Palmer might become the founder of a school. Although they did not make as many proselytes as might have been anticipated, it is grievous to be compelled to add that the crime of murdering by poison is on the increase, and that it is carried out for the most part in a way which makes detection difficult, if not impossible. We hear of certain cases—too many of them, indeed—but the general opinion is, amongst those who have had the best opportunities of looking into this matter, that a large proportion of murders by poison are never heard of at all. It is better to look the truth boldly in the face.

Now this method of attack upon the citadel of life is so treacherous, and so easily carried out, that all precautions you may take against it are insufficient. You may throw difficulties in the way of procuring poison—you cannot wholly prevent the sale. You may establish a careful system of registration on death, and require certificates as to the cause of it in every case, but these precautions are constantly evaded. Something more might possibly be done in either case; but when all is done we have only checked, not rooted out, the evil. Another point of very considerable importance would be if juries were a little more alive to the extent of the evil, and would resolve to do their duty with unusual severity whenever the crime of poisoning was in question. They seem to do the very reverse, and to reserve all their indecision and all their reluctance to incur responsibility for the cases in which they should be most decided, and least disposed to tamper with the obligations of their office. It is very possible that the fear of consequences, and the apprehension of death are not very powerful agencies for the prevention of crime which arises from the play of violent passion, or the pressure of extreme poverty. A man in a frenzy of excitement, or one who is driven desperate by destitution is very apt to leave results to chance. Not so with the poisoner. He, or she, pre-eminently calculates consequences. When such marvellous precautions are taken to escape detection, one may be very sure that all considerations which may affect the murderer’s safety are fully taken into account. Were the chances of acquittal upon reasonably clear evidence but slight, a poisoner would walk about for some time with the antimony, or whatever it might be, in his pocket, before he would dare to use it. When the chances of acquittal are considerable, of course precisely opposite results are produced. The poisoner, as matters stand, is aware that independently of the natural reluctance felt by jurors to convict upon a capital charge, there is the additional and still greater reluctance to convict upon scientific evidence. He is perfectly aware of this. It is a fact well known to all persons who practise in our Criminal Courts, that the behaviour of the poisoner in the dock is very different from that of any other prisoner who is charged with murder. He is neither depressed nor elated—neither stolid nor rash in admission. He knows that he is playing for his life, and plays the game out with his wits about him. Impress, therefore, upon this class of offenders that the crime with which they stand charged is so heinous in the eyes of their fellow-creatures that every effort will be made to bring them to punishment, if their guilt is established, and you at once deprive them of one strong incentive to crime in this particular form—namely, the strong probability of impunity. No one can read the evidence given last week before the Liverpool jury, and not feel considerable misgivings as to the propriety of the verdict. It was clearly established that the death of the unfortunate woman, Mrs. Ann James, was much accelerated by small doses of antimony. Her strength and system were so reduced by this treatment that she was unable to hold out as long as she would otherwise have done. It was proved that the prisoner was accustomed to the use of antimony, and knew its effects. Antimony was traced into his possession. It was shown that he occasionally prepared food for the deceased, and that she was violently affected after partaking of food prepared by his hand. In particular, there was a cup of sago which Thomas Winslow had prepared and placed at the bedside of Mrs. James in which antimony was found. He had a strong interest in her death, inasmuch as by a will she made during her illness, Townsend was left her sole executor, and he alone knew of certain property which she had in the Savings’ Bank, and in gas shares. Antimony was found in what passed from the poor woman’s body during life, and antimony was found in the body after death. Nor can it be said that anything like grave suspicion rested upon any other person, who had access to her bed-side during her last illness. Townsend, indeed, endeavours to cast suspicion upon her niece, one Jane Caffarata, and her husband; but the method of his so doing, only served to fix suspicion more heavily on himself. It would be well that jurors should reflect upon the consequences of their acts, before they allow this crime of poisoning to go unpunished, if for no other reason than this, that the poisoner is seldom or never a man of a single crime. It seems to be a law of mental pathology, that when you have poisoned one person, you poison several. Where there is not much chance of detection, and still less probability of conviction when you are detected, it seems so easy to get rid in this manner of any one who may stand in your way. Thomas Winslow, after he was discharged upon the indictment, was again taken into custody upon another charge of poisoning. It is said that three other members of Mrs. James’s family have died within the last year from the effects of antimony. He is described as a small, thin, under sized man, of mean appearance. His head is small, his hair dark. There is intelligence in his face, but yet more cunning than intelligence. His forehead is low, his under lip projects. He is about forty years of age. It is said that he was very “fidgetty” during his trial.

Of course it may well be, that the effect produced upon the minds of the spectators, who had an opportunity of watching the demeanour of the witnesses, may be different from that derived from a mere perusal of the printed reports of the evidence. Few persons who merely read the evidence, will doubt that the Liverpool jury might have weighed the matter a little more carefully before bringing in a verdict of Not Guilty, in the case of Thomas Winslow, indicted for the murder of Ann James, by poison.


Surely Dogberry resides in the green county of Hertford. Perhaps he is mayor of St. Albans. The peculiarity about the Dogberry system of administering justice consists in this, that it proceeds upon reasonably correct inferences from imperfect or muddled premises. It is right as half a story is right. It holds water like an Irish bull. Granted that all that was passing in the justice’s mind were true, and that nothing else were true, the Dogberry decisions would do well enough. Here is a case in point. Quite recently a little girl about twelve years of age named Ruth Harrison was charged with an assault upon Elizabeth Kirby, a child about five years old. The whole affair was a squabble amongst children. The first witness called was a certain Mrs. Elizabeth Biggs, who deposed that about five o’clock in the evening she was sitting in her house in Sopwell Lane, in the good town of St. Albans, when she heard some children crying. The good woman went out, when a little girl named Jane Lambeth told her that a little girl named Ruth Harrison had been beating a still smaller girl named Elizabeth Kirby. Jane was eight years old. Ruth was about twelve years old. Elizabeth was five years old. Hereupon the truculent, excited, and incautious Ruth made the admission in the presence of the witness that she had slapped Elizabeth, and, so far from feeling any repentance for her offence, she was prepared to do it again. Jane was present. Jane stated to the Worshipful the Mayor of St. Albans, and to his two yoke-fellows of justice, that about six p.m. on the previous afternoon she, Jenny, being engaged in her own lawful affairs, was in Sopwell Lane. She there witnessed the outrage which was the subject of contention before the Court. Ruth had hit Bessy a crack with her fist upon the back. Jane then went in-doors, but on coming out, she was greatly pained at witnessing a repetition of the offence. Ruth being called upon for her defence, in effect pleaded son assault demesne, and molliter manus. It appeared that Ruth, just before the commission of the offence, was engaged in the lawful and praiseworthy occupation of collecting dung in a basket. Bessy, being of malicious mind, and intending to obstruct her, Ruth, in the course of her business, came up and kicked her basket about. In point of fact, Bessy was the original assailant. Whereupon, Ruth, being moved to anger, “hit her twice with her hand,”—it is to be presumed, slapped her. There was no evidence forthcoming to show that Ruth’s statement was untrue in any respect, or at all over-coloured. Hereupon his Worship the Mayor, admitting that the case was a trivial one—in which respect he was perfectly right—decided that, as an assault had been committed, the prisoner must pay a fine of sixpence, with ten shillings costs. In default of payment, she must be imprisoned for ten days. Ruth’s mother hoped the Mayor would send the child to prison at once, for work was so bad, that it would be impossible for her to pay the amount. The Mayor, in mercy, informed her that fourteen days were allowed her to pay the fine, but at the expiration of that period the child must go to prison if it was unpaid. The fourteen days have not yet run out, but it is to be hoped, in the name of common humanity and common sense, that some one in St. Albans has paid the fine, and liberated the child from the danger of being sent to prison. Her whole life would, in all probability, be vitiated if she were sent to a gaol. She would be marked for ridicule and contempt amongst children of her own age, and it is not very likely that she would ever lose the style and title of a gaol-bird. It is a very serious thing to send a child to prison, and to give a wrong bias to a whole life. Reformatories and Industrial Schools are admirable institutions, but they are intended for a very different class of children. If a child within the appointed limits of age has been guilty of any offence which brings him or her within the grasp of the law—and it is clear that the parents are unable to give the child such a training as will cause it to abstain from crime—the Reformatory is a place of refuge, rather than of punishment. So of the Industrial School, where the child is proved to be a mere vagrant—a little Bedouin of the streets. The Industrial School may, and probably will, prove its salvation. It is strange that these grown men who, as a mayor and magistrates, must be presumed to be persons of ordinary intelligence, could have arrived at such a decision. Supposing one school-boy to hit another a box on the ear, would they really treat that as an offence against the criminal law? Where offenders are of a certain age, punishment is best left in the hands of the schoolmaster or parent.


If the attention of Europe were not so wholly directed to the turn which affairs are taking in Italy, this sad business in Syria would be more thought of and discussed. The assassinations committed by the Sepoys during the Indian mutiny, however horrible and shocking to Englishmen, as our own countrywomen and countrymen were the victims, were comparatively trifling when contrasted with the wholesale massacres of Syria. Whole towns have been laid waste; in others, the Christian quarters have been turned into a mere shambles. Men have been murdered in cold blood after they had been persuaded to give up their arms, by hundreds,—ay, by thousands. Children have been slain as the ruffians of the Indian Bazaar slew them recently, or as the soldiers of the Duke of Alva slew them in by-gone days. Of the fate of the wretched women, one would rather not think, save in so far as the exertions of the European Powers may avail to liberate the survivors from the hands of their brutal captors. Many, indeed, escaped: but the fashion of their escape seems to have been but a lingering form of death. Here is a picture drawn by the intelligent hand of the gentleman who has been deputed to report from the spot to the “Times” upon the state of affairs in Syria. He was present at Beyrout when the refugees of Damascus arrived there. There was a column, mainly of women and children, composed of from 2000 to 3400 souls. “They were widows and orphans, whose husbands, fathers, and brethren had all been slain before their eyes, with every indignity and cruelty the most barbarous fanaticism could devise, and whose most comely maidens had been sold to gratify the brutal lust of filthy Arabs.” The Syrian sky was glowing like brass. The fugitives were parched with thirst, choked with dust, afflicted with ophthalmia, covered with flies. Here a poor creature was overtaken in labour; there, another fell down dead. Little children strove, and strove in vain, to draw nourishment from breasts which could supply none. Old men and women sank down exhausted, and when water was brought to them at last, their strength was so far gone that they could not each out their hands to take the cup. The prevailing character of this mournful company, however, was apathy. Man had done his worst upon them,—the well of tears was dried up. Where they fell—there they lay. The survivors staggered on, glaring before them with glassy eyes, and had no pity for any one, neither had any one pity for them.

How has all this crime come about? What is the meaning of this active antagonism, which excites the followers of Mahommed to try conclusions in so sanguinary a way with the followers of Christ? There is a kind of mental epidemic which seems to have seized upon the Eastern world. It broke out in India. There is now little reason to doubt that the Mahommedans were at the head of the Indian mutiny—the Sepoys, mainly recruited from Oude, were but the raw material in their hands. At Djedda it was the same thing;—now this horrible tragedy has taken place in Syria. We hear that unless vigorous measures of precaution be taken, similar occurrences may be expected in other provinces of the Turkish empire. We are very apt to exaggerate the degree of enlightenment of these Eastern nations, and to attribute to them intelligence, if not like our own, at least differing from ours rather in kind than in degree. It is not that we have deliberately arrived at this conclusion; for, in point of fact, if we reflect for a moment,

upon the course of events, and the gradual decadence of these Eastern nations, it is clear enough that for centuries past human intelligence must have been on the decline among them. The Western European will, however, scarcely be prepared to admit the depth of their delusions. Evidence upon this point can only be furnished by those who have dwelt amongst them, and become familiar with their real feelings and opinions. Now it so happens that a French missionary who was at Damascus previous to the massacre, and probably at the time it occurred, and who has spent many years of his life amongst those Eastern tribes, has thrown a little light upon this obscure matter. M. Jules Ferrette has addressed a long letter to the “Revue des Deux Mondes,” which has been published in the number for the 15th of August. He tells us that during the Sepoy mutiny there was imminent danger that the massacres which have just now taken place in Syria might have occurred. The Syrian tribes believed that the Mahommedans of India had invaded the British frontier and had pillaged our capital—London. The British Queen and her Viziers had been driven away, and had taken refuge at Constantinople. Russia was asking for their extradition, in order to inflict upon them condign punishment for recent transactions in the Crimea. The Sultan, however, could not readily be moved to grant the humble petition of the Russian Emperor, because it had been represented to him that not long since, when the Russians were troublesome, the British Queen had displayed great alacrity in sending an army and a fleet to the assistance of the lawful suzerain at Constantinople. For this service, and for similar services, Queen Victoria, the French Emperor, and the King of Sardinia had been relieved for the space of three years from the necessity of paying the tribute which is due from all infidel vassals to the Commander of the Faithful. Opinions were divided in Syria as to the policy of this act of clemency, but the inclination of Syrian judgment was against the course taken by Abdul Medjid. All the zealots, all the men whom we should describe as “earnest politicians,” thought that the Sultan had made a mistake, and that the moment had arrived for utterly exterminating the Infidels—even as it had been done in India. The bombardment of Djedda occurred at a very opportune moment, and somewhat modified the tone of public opinion. It must also be remembered that, on their side, since the Crimean War, the Christian population in the Turkish provinces have been looking up. They have cast aside the black turbans, and the sad-coloured raiment which had been worn by their forefathers, even as our own Quakers are discarding their peculiar hats and coats, though for very different reasons. Christian women—and this seems to have filled up the cup of their offence—have actually appeared in trowsers of green silk—green, the very colour of the Prophet’s standard! Again, the Christian population generally, taking advantage of the recent concession extorted from the Sultan, have refused to pay money in lieu of military service. These grievances have tried the patience of the Wise Men of the East.