America

Doctor George Henry Lamson, the ‘Sleight of Hand Poisoner’; Not as clever as he thought.


 

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The case of George Lamson, a once-promising doctor before becoming a drug addict and murderer, is a prime example of writer H.L. Mencken’s maxim on murder:

‘The easiest murder case to break is the one somebody tried to get very cute with.’

Lamson did indeed try to get very cute and, ultimately, it made no difference. Today in 1882 was the day he paid the price. By the time he was helped to gallows at London’s infamous Wandsworth Prison his nerve, tested by years of bad debts, hounding from creditors, rampant drug addiction and outright fear, had deserted him. He spent his final seconds begging the prison chaplain to stay the hangman’s hand for just one final prayer.

All in all, a sorry fate for a man who'[d once shown such promise.

Lamson was an American citizen, serving with distinction in the Balkan War and Franco-Prussian War. In the process the young doctor had been decorated, earning France’s Legion of Honour. While acquiring his decoration and military experience, however, he’d also acquired a habit that would come to rule his life and then destroy it;

Morphine.

By the autumn of 1881 Lamson, still not thirty years old, was a hopeless drug addict with a lengthy reputation for swindling patients, friends and family in order to fund his rampant drug habit. Creditors were hounding him and he’d moved to several different places to escape their demands. Unfortunately, however, their demands followed him. In desperate need of something to pay off his creditors and still sustain his addiction, his drug-addled mind turned to his wife and her cousin Percy John.

Percy’s youth had been spoiled by a crippling spinal disorder that denied him many of like’s simple pleasures. Should he die, the £1500 held in trust for him would be inherited by his wife. Lamson, naturally, intended that the money should come to him and thence to his creditors and the nearest available source of morphine. With that in mind, our medical murderer looked for a way to murder his brother-in-law while setting a false trail to protect himself if he were accused of Percy’s murder.

Capsules were then a new fad and, Lamson decided, would play a crucial part of both his murder scheme and emergency alibi. If he could induce Percy to take capsules obviously not laden with poison while delivering it in some other way then Percy would die, Lamson’s wife would inherit and Lamson would pocket the cash. In December, 1881 his scheme went into effect when he visited Percy at his boarding school.

Percy admired and trusted his dashing, outwardly respectable brother-in-law. He also trusted him, as did the school headmaster specially invited by Lamson as an unwitting alibi witness. In the event of Lamson being accused and trid for murder, he would point to the capsules and deny everything. He also hoped the prosecution might accuse him of using the capsules when a lethal dose of aconitine (a drug he believed untracable) was actually in the raisins of a Dundee cake.

That evening he made a point of describing the new way for Percy to take his medicine, making sure the headmaster saw him filling the capsule with harmless sugar. Making his excuses (he had a train to catch, Lamson left, purposely leaving behind two packets of empty capsules to strengthen his alibi.

Before Lamson even caught his train to Paris, Percy John was already dead.

Suspicion, as Lamson expected, immediately pointed the finger at him. With that in mind Chief Inspector Butcher of Scotland Yard was summoned to investigate and apprehend his prime suspect. London’s newspapers, sensing a classic murder to get their teeth into, helped in the hunt and, before long, Lamson was arrested. The charge was wilful murder, then carrying a mandatory date with the hangman.

The trial, at London’s legendary Old Bailey with Mr Justice Hawkins presiding, didn’t go as Lamson had planned…

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Chief Inspector Butcher had been as diligent as you’d expect from a Scotland Yard detective. He’d found a pharmacist who identified Lamson as buying aconitine while signing a false name in the pharmacist’s Poisons Register. He had evidence of both Lamson’s many debts and that his wife was to inherit Percy’s trust fund. He could place Lamson as being one of the last people to see the victim alive before suddenly and hastily leaving. Lamson’s one shot at an acquittal lay in the prosecution building their case around the capsules. In that there lay one small kink in Lamson’s plan…

They didn’t.

Lamson’s drug-addled mind had failed to account for a very important factor; The jury didn’t need to be convinced of exactly how he’d poisoned Percy, only that he’d done so. And convinced they duly were. After a six-day trial garnering a great deal of publicity (destroying what remained of Lamson’s personal and professional reputation) the jury foreman rose to deliver the verdict;

Guilty as charged, with no recommendation for mercy.

With that Mr Justice Hawkins had only one duty left to perform before a packed and silent courtroom. Donning the dreaded ‘Black Cap,’ a traditional gesture of mourning for the soon-to-be-departed, Hawkins read the final lines of this rather rather sorry drama;

“George Henry Lamson, you stand convicted of the crime of murder.  The sentence of this Court is that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution, where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that afterward your body be cut down and buried within the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul…

Remove the prisoner.”

Lamson was immediately transferred to Wandsworth Prison and the Condemned Cell. The ‘CC’ was only a short walk to the end of ‘A’ Wing where Lamson would end his days in what Wandsworth inmates called the ‘cold meat shed.’ But first, surprisingly under the circumstances, there was a powerful campaign to see his death sentence overturned and Lamson reprieved.

Lamson soon found himself watching his lawyers before a three-judge panel at the Court of Criminal Appeal. Barred by law from speaking in his own defence, he could only watch as his barristers trampled the remnants of his personal and professional reputation in a failed effort to overturn his conviction and sentence.

It was here that his ploy with the capsules came back to bite him. He’d intended for the prosecution to accuse him of spiking the capsules and for the defence to easily destroy their case and win his acquittal. Unfortunately for Lamson, the prosecution hadn’t taken the bait. Without it, the defence couldn’t spring the trap. Moreover, appeals at the time were based entirely on evidence used at the trial, ruling out any chance for them to do so before the appellate judges. It must have loomed large in whatever remained of the good doctor’s drug-ravaged mind that, if the defence couldn’t spring their trap, the public hangman certainly could.

And was probably going to…

Lamson’s court appeal having failed, petitions were arranged, personal appeals were made, a public meeting was organised by other Americans living in London. Even the US Ambassador tried to persuade the Home Secretary to reprieve Lamson after requests from Lamson’s family in the US. All were to no avail. Lamson was unaware of something else, an unwritten rule that a Home Secretary didn’t reprieve poisoners unless they absolutely had to. Chief public executioner William Marwood was instructed to make a date in his diary.

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After a brief postponement from April 2, the fatal day finally dawned on April 28, 1882. At dawn Lamson was awoken in the Condemned Cell. He declined a final breakfast and, when his time came, had to be helped along his last mile between the ‘CC’ and the ‘Cold Meat Shed.’ Unable even to stand on his own two feet, the ravages of fear and morphine withdrawal taking their toll, he had to supported on the trap as the hangman went about his business. William Marwood (pioneer of ‘long drop’ hanging) worked as quickly as possible to bring this once-promising young man’s suffering to an end.

George Henry Lamson was dead.

I wrote a book.


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It’s been quite some time since I last posted ere, but I have been extremely busy with paid work and earning a living. Part of that has been writing my first book.

Criminal Curiosities is a collection of crooks, all with something about their crime, trial or punishment that is singular to them. The first prisoner to face the guillotine, the first to commit a robbery using a landmine, the first case in which the murder victim’s actual body had a starring role in reconstructing the crime for the jury trying his killer and so on.

So, if you’re curious as to who was really America’s first Public Enemy Number One, ever wondered who was first to take a seat in the electric chair or perhaps you’ve never heard of the art forger brave enough to bilk Hermann Goering out of sixty million dollars (at today’s prices) feel free to pick up a copy and please do leave a review.

You can do that here:

 

Wild West – The ‘Gunslinger’ Myth


The stylised version of a Wild West gunfight. These almost never happened.

The stylised version of a Wild West gunfight. These almost never happened.

The Wild West, home of many colourful (often disreputable) characters. Native Americans, gold prospectors, gamblers, cattle ranchers, miners and immigrants scrambled to extend the new frontier. They spread further West in search of their fortunes. With law-abiding, hard-working citizens came criminals. The most notorious were gunslingers, hired guns who’d rob a bank one month, protect a cattle baron the next and then be hired as a town Marshal the month after that. Being a gunslinger didn’t automatically make a man a criminal, some of the best-known were both law enforcers and lawbreakers at different times.

Gunslingers in popular culture.

The popular image of gunslingers comes from cheap novels and films and it’s far more fiction than fact. Hollywood would have us believe that hired guns were either all good (like Gary Cooper’s portrayal in the classic film ‘High Noon’) or all bad (like Michael Biehn’s portrayal of Johnny Ringo in ‘Tombstone’). This black-and-white idea doesn’t reflect reality. Pop culture’s image is often a slow-talking, fast-drawing lone gunman riding into town, taking on several men at once while wearing one or two pistols in low-slung hip holsters and, naturally, letting them draw first before instantly killing all of them. He’ll probably indulge in a drawn-out, climactic gunfight, standing opposite his opponent in the middle of a street for several minutes, each waiting for the other to make the first move. The ‘good guy’ lets the ‘bad guy’ draw first but still wins, naturally.

This portrayal is, frankly, rubbish. Gunslingers weren’t even called gunslingers during the ‘Wild West’ period. They didn’t wear the standard ‘gunfighter’s rig’ of a low-slung hip holster tied to their thigh for a faster draw Many didn’t favour the pistol as their primary weapon. Drawn-out standoffs were almost non-existent, as were single gunslingers choosing to fight multiple opponents single-handed unless they absolutely had to. Few made public show of their skills with trick shooting or fancy pistol-twirling in saloons or on street corners (notable exceptions were ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok and the infamous John Wesley Hardin). They were seldom always lawmen or outlaws and frequently both at different points in their careers (some even managed to hold public office as sheriffs or marshals while operating as vigilantes, assassins, extortioners and general criminals). Pop culture’s version of the gunslinger hasn’t made them more interesting, its dumbed down who these men were, what they did and how they did it while ignoring the more complex aspects.

‘Shootists’ – The reality.

According to etymologist Barry Popik the word ‘gunslinger’ didn’t come into use until the 1920 movie ‘Drag Harlan’ and then in the novels of famed Western author Zane Grey who first used it in his 1928 novel ‘Nevada.’ The word ‘gunfighter’ first appeared in the 1870’s. Wild West gunmen were more commonly known as ‘shootists’, ‘badmen’, ‘pistoleers’ or ‘pistoleros’ (a Spanish word for ‘gunman’). Granted, the word ‘gunslinger’ sounds good, but it first appeared long after gunslingers themselves ceased to exist. Feared gunman Clay Allison is believed to have coined the most popular term of the period when asked about his occupation by replying “I’m a shootist.”

The commonly-accepted gunfighter's rig. They didn't wear these, either.

The commonly-accepted gunfighter’s rig. They didn’t wear these, either.

Pop culture would also have us believe that gunmen wore customised gunbelts and holsters, the standard ‘gunfighter’s rig.’ They didn’t. The stereotypical ‘gunfighter’s rig’ beloved of movie directors the world over didn’t exist during the period. It came into being in the 1950’s when ‘quick draw’ contests with blank-firing revolvers became a competitive sport. The low-slung holster tied down to a man’s thigh simply didn’t exist.

Also almost non-existent was the idea of two fighters walking out into a street, facing each other and then fighting a ‘quick draw’ duel. If a real gunfighter drew quickly it was usually because an opponent had tried to ambush them. Most one-on-one gunfights resulted from personal disputes such as over women or during card games where insults were exchanged and guns drawn immediately. The idea of Wild West gunfights having any resemblance to European duelling is best left in dime novels and movie theaters where it belongs. Only two such face-to-face duels are on record as having actually happened, between ‘Wild Bill’ and Davis Tutt in Deadwood, South Dakota (Hickok killed Tutt with a remarkable single pistol shot at a range of over fifty meters) and between Jim Courtright and Luke Short (Short killed Courtright with a volley of four bullets, not a surgically-delivered single shot. Gunfights like those in the ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ directed by Sergio Leone are wonderful viewing, but bear almost no relation to reality.

Gunfighters of the time were also far more sensible than to tackle multiple opponents single-handed unless they absolutely had to. One extremely rare example was the notorious ‘Four dead in five seconds’ gunfight in Austin, Texas. Gunfighter Dallas Stoudenmire (employed as town Marshal at the time) used his two pistols to kill four men, three of whom  had ambushed him. Unfortunately the fourth was an innocent bystander already running for cover when the shooting started.

Tools of the trade.

A 'coach gun' used by stagecoach guards. Many gunslingers preferred these over revolvers including John 'Doc' Holliday and William Bonney AKA 'Billy the Kid.'

A ‘coach gun’ used by stagecoach guards. Many gunslingers preferred these over revolvers including John ‘Doc’ Holliday and William Bonney AKA ‘Billy the Kid.’

Another myth is that gunfighters all preferred revolvers. In films they draw one or two pistols, empty them without seeming to aim and, naturally, kill every opponent without missing or accidentally shooting anybody else. Any pistol marksman will tell you that holding a revolver with one hand and fanning the hammer with the other is the worst way to shoot accurately. In reality, most gunmen favoured the ‘coach gun’ (a short-barrelled shotgun used by stagecoach guards, hence the phrase ‘riding shotgun’) or rifles like the 1873 Winchester. Legendary gunman Ben Thompson was a firm devotee of the shotgun, as was John ‘Doc’ Holliday’ of OK Corall fame. Billy the Kid always preferred a Winchester rifle. The reason was simple. Shotguns and rifles are more accurate than pistols so killing with the first shot was more likely. It was pointless drawing a pistol quickly if you couldn’t hit your target before they hit you. As Wyatt Earp once put it “Fast is fine. Accurate is final.”

Some gunfighters bucked that trend. Clay Allison, Dallas Stoudenmire and Frank and Jesse James all preferred pistols, but they were exceptions. Small pistols like the Derringer were tiny, often firing only one or two shots instead of the six rounds in a typical revolver. They were easily-concealed ‘hideout guns’ often hidden in waistcoat pocket or boot by gamblers for use at a poker table. Similar guns were  made for women and nicknamed ‘muff pistols’ because they were often carried in the fur-lined hand-warmers fashionable among women of the time. Whether picking a fight over a poker game or trying to rob a female stagecoach passenger, these small guns often fired large-calibre bullets, much to the distress of many an outlaw.

As time went on single-shot, muzzle-loading weapons were replaced by ‘repeating’ guns like the revolver, shotgun and breech-loading rifles such as the 1873 Winchester. Gunfighters now had weapons enabling them to deliver greater firepower with less time spent reloading their weapons. Samuel Colt’s ‘Peacemaker’ revolver was accurate, powerful and instantly outdated other evolvers by being the first to use all-inclusive metal cartridges. The new cartridges rendered old-school ‘cap and ball’ revolvers obsolete almost overnight. These need the user to fill each individual chamber with gunpowder, add a lead pistol ball and some wadding, ram the ball, powder and wadding into each chamber using a lever under the barrel and then fit a percussion cap over each chamber. Only then is a ‘cap and ball’ revolver fully loaded. The ‘Peacemaker’ could be reloaded simply by shaking out the spent metal cartridges and replacing them. Improved weapons meant increased firepower. Increased firepower was essential in the evolution of the gunslinger.

Rise of the hired gun.

 

Legendary gunslinger ‘Wild Bill’ Hickock.

So what created the gunslinger? Why was there a need for hired guns rather than the police forces we know today? In a word, necessity. Law enforcement was at best basic. Individual US Marshals could find their territory extended over hundreds of square miles. County Sheriff had the same problem. There was simply too much ground containing too many people for such limited law enforcement to deal with. Outlaws could easily evade even the most persistent Marshals and Sheriffs simply by crossing State lines, putting themselves beyond the legal jurisdiction of their pursuers. The court system on the frontier consisted largely of ‘Circuit Judges’ (a term still used today). Individual judges were allotted a ‘circuit’ of towns and rode round and round conducting trials and any other legal business that had amassed since their last visit. Jails were insecure and their staff often corrupt, so even when criminals were arrested they often easily escaped. Authorities could also offer rewards for wanted outlaws on a ‘dead or alive’ basis, encouraging many gunslingers to work as bounty hunters. With rewards offered ‘dead or alive’ many bounty hunters found it safer to simply kill wanted outlaws, deliver their bodies and collect their reward. It was safer than the additional risks associated with delivering live outlaws into custody for the same amount of money. Bounty hunters of the time were sometimes referred to as ‘bounty killers’ because, to them, fugitives were worth the same alive or dead.

The gunfighter – Hero or villain?

With the vastly inadequate official systems available, many towns hired their own sheriffs and marshals. Naturally, the job required men who were expert with guns and bold enough to fight when necessary. Not every expert marksman was also prepared to face ruthless criminals for a sheriff’s wage. So townsfolk often turned to whoever was prepared to do the job, often hiring gunfighters based on their fearsome reputation rather than their regard for the law. Notorious outlaws ‘Curly Bill’ Brocius (later killed by Wyatt Earp) and William Bonney (known as ‘Billy the Kid’) were also sheriff’s deputies at one time. Even the infamous John ‘Doc’ Holliday, one of the most feared gunmen of the Wild West, was also deputised by his long-time friend and Deputy US Marshal Wyatt Earp after the famed ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ in Tombstone, Arizona. Equally notorious killer Ben Thompson served as Chief of Police in Austin, Texas, despite having previously served a sentence for murder.

Businessmen also hired groups of gunslingers to protect their lives and their interests. Famed cattle baron John Chisum once employed ‘Billy the Kid’ as a gunman and to protect his livestock against cattle rustlers. Mining companies often employed notorious gunmen such as Butch Cassidy to escort shipments of newly-minted bullion and payrolls, ensuring their safe arrival by hiring gunmen who might otherwise try robbing those very shipments. In the absence of adequate official law enforcement many people sought their own version by employing as sheriffs and marshals exactly the kind of people they hoped to be protected from. Famed marksman Tom Horn (later hanged for murder) was a sheriff’s deputy and a Pinkerton detective while performing contract murders at the same time. Jim Courtright was a town marshal when he fought his famous duel with Luke Short. Being town marshal hadn’t stopped Courtright from trying to extort Short. It didn’t stop Courtright killing him, either. Wyatt Earp was heavily involved in gambling (and, some say, pimping) while also serving as a Deputy US Marshal.

Men of dubious reputations weren’t everybody’s first choice as law enforcers, but then they were often the only men available to do the job. The frontier territories, with their cattle ranches, mining towns, railroads and various other lucrative businesses and limited law enforcement, offered rich pickings for outlaws prepared to rob, extort and kill anybody opposing them. Law-abiding citizens had to hire their own gunmen and sometimes resort to vigilante justice through lynch mobs. Until the law was fully established the gun took precedence.

One last thought on the gunslinger myth is that pop culture isn’t entirely to blame. To develop and keep their credibility gunmen had to be regarded as people to both respect and fear. The more feared they were, the fewer challenges they were likely to face. With that in mind, many gunfighters built myths around themselves, made themselves seem as skilled (and therefore deadly) as they could get away with. John Wesley Hardin was a notorious braggart. Clay Allison was the same. If gunfighters are so badly misrepresented in the modern world then they are also to blame.