drugs

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.

‘Doctor’ Crippen, Hanged Today In 1910. Innocent? Or Hanged For The Wrong Murder..?


The infamous ‘Doctor’ Crippen, actually a salesman of quack medicines.

 

Most people know the name. Most who know the name, know the story. ‘Doctor’ Hawley Harvey Crippen (actually a salesman of quack remedies) unwittingly became one of criminal history’s most infamous names. His wife Cora disappeared. Her remains were found beneath  the coal cellar of their home, 39 Hilldrop Crescent. Crippen flees to Canada with his mistress, Ethel le Neve. The Transatlantic pursuit of Crippen and his paramour, secretly recognised by Captain Kendall of the SS Montrose, whose radio message made Crippen the first murderer caught by radio. Crippen and le Neve arrested after Scotland Yard’s Walter Dew caught a faster ship (the SS Laurentic) and surprised them. Talk of an abusive, unfaithful, drunken, violent wife whose conduct might have driven him to breaking point. Crippen’s illicit liaisons with his secretary and the final chapter on November 23, 1910, when Crippen walked smiling to the gallows. Ethel, having been cleared of any wrongdoing, disappeared into obscurity for the rest of her life. Well, almost…

But was Crippen hanged for the wrong murder? Was he even guilty? New forensic evidence doesn’t conclusively exonerate him. But it certainly raises questions about the original verdict, particularly the forensic evidence that gave Crippen his death sentence. According to leading forensic toxicologist John Trestrail (writer of the FBI textbook on poisons and poisoners) and DNA expert David Foran, the remains found under the coal cellar are not Cora Crippen’s. Foran’s testing of mitochondrial DNA (only present on the female side) was based on an original tissue sample tested for a match with three of her surviving descendants. The samples didn’t match. This doesn’t automatically exonerate Crippen. After all, if the remains weren’t his wife then whose were they? If he didn’t murder Cora then did he murder somebody else? Was he tried, convicted and condemned as a genuine murderer, but actually hanged for the wrong murder?

Trestrail, a world-renowned expert on poisons and poisoners, has stated that this is the only poisoning case he’s ever examined where the poisoner also dismembered their victim. He bases this idea on the premise that poisoners have recognised the real principle of the so-called ‘perfect murder.’ A ‘perfect murder’ isn’t one where a murderer isn’t caught, it’s the murder that goes entirely undetected. Use a poison that mimics some disease or other and, barring any suspicions, it’s far more likely the death will be attributed to natural causes. Poisoners usually grasp that, at least in theory. They don’t need to dissect their victim. Doing so would be pointless if they’re hoping to pass off poisoning as a natural death. Crippen, despite being one of the world’s most notorious poisoners, doesn’t fit the typical profile of a poisoner. If he was a poisoner at all.

One other complication arises. While the samples were DNA-tested they were also tested to establish the gender of the remains. The test used is cutting-edge and only performed at Foran’s lab. According to the test results, the remains were male. If the tests are accurate, the remains weren’t Cora’s and the deceased wasn’t even female (ruling out the theory that Crippen performed illegal abortions and something went wrong). Essentially destroying the prosecution’s case and the forensic evidence on which it was largely based.

Hawley Crippen, star of the world’s first trial-by-media and still resident at Madame Tussaud’s ‘Chamber of Horrors’, might well be innocent.

If Crippen was wrongly convicted and unjustly hanged, it doesn’t just destroy the case against him. It cripples the reputation of the prosecution forensic expert, the ‘Father of forensic science’ Sir Bernard Spilsbury. Spilsbury is still a colossus in forensic circles. His career was legendary. His case findings and working practices are still held up as examples. Only recently have Spilsbury’s skill, accuracy and reputation been questioned. Spilsbury mostly testified for the prosecution in murder cases. His evidence and stature meant that, merely by appearing, he could swing a jury’s verdict. If he could be so far wrong in the Crippen case, his first big case and his passport to scientific and criminological legend as helping convict over 250 murderers, then how many other defendants might have died at the end of a rope for crimes they didn’t commit?

Trestrail also questions the behaviour of the lead investigator, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Walter Dew. The dismembered body reminded many Londoners of Jack the Ripper. The resulting media storm created immense pressure to catch the murderer. Even Home Secretary Winston Churchill took a personal interest in the case.  After Crippen’s arrest, Dew left Scotland Yard, becoming a private detective and writing the lucrative book ‘I Caught Crippen…’ Trestrail believes that another crucial piece of evidence (a pyjama top belonging to Crippen, found with the remains) was planted by Dew and his Detective Sergeant in an effort to close the case quickly. According to Trestrail, the press and public wanted a murderer hanged, so Dew (and possibly Willcox and Spilsbury) served them Crippen on a plate. If Dew did frame Crippen, did he frame  the right person for the wrong murder? Was he so convinced of Crippen’s genuine guilt that he planted evidence for the forensic team to find? Did he frame an actual murderer at all, or simply serve up the most plausible suspect, not on a plate, but a pathologist’s slab with his neck broken?

William Willcox, chief toxicologist for the prosecution, found hyoscine in the remains. He also found it with unusual (if not suspicious) speed. Hyoscine has never been used in a murder case before or since, yet Willcox found it very quickly despite that. Crippen had purchased hyoscine from a local chemist before the murder. But why and how did Willcox even know to test for it? Why look specifically for hyoscine when far more common poisons like arsenic or cyanide were more likely suspects? Crippen possessed hyoscine. Scotland Yard knew he possessed hyoscine. And Willcox, with possibly dubious ease, found hyoscine. This when it would have been a highly unlikely poisoner’s and forensic toxicology itself was in its infancy. Strange.

Rightly or wrongly, Crippen went to the gallows at Pentonville Prison at 9am on November 23, 1910. 103 years ago today. According to his executioner, hangman John Ellis, Crippen smiled as he saw the noose and quickened his pace as though he wanted it over quickly. He was buried, as was the custom, within the prison where he was hanged. Ethel changed her name and left England, not returning for many years. She always feared exposure as ‘Doctor’ Crippen’s mistress. Near the end of her life she finally came back and, not long before she died, she asked a friend to take her to London to visit two places from her past. One was Holloway Prison where London’s female criminals are held, where Ethel herself was held before trial as an accessory. The other was Pentonville, where her lover smiled at the noose.