London

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.

Watching the detectives: The arrest of the inappropriately named Daniel Good.


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Daniel Good is probably an unfamiliar name, hanged as he was back in 1842. But the result of his crime if still familiar the world over. Good’s crime was unexceptional, the brutal murder and partial dismemberment of a woman he’d been living with. Horrific, certainly, but unfortunately not unusual.

His crime, committed on April 7, 1842, was discovered by accident. A uniformed officer of London’s Metropolitan Police went to arrest Good after he was seen stealing a pair of trousers from a pawnbroker in Putney. While the officer was busy discovering the victim’s corpse (and probably stunned by its having crudely dismembered) Good made his escape. A manhunt immediately began, nine divisions of officers joining the search.

With no plainclothes officers then in existence, the Met had a serious problem even with nine divisions of officers looking for him. Good, having committed a particularly brutal murder, was also facing a mandatory death sentence. If caught, he would almost certainly hang. But, uniformed officers being highly visible men, Good easily spotted them and slipped the net. Having successfully escaped London itself, Good may well have thought he was home free. As it turned out he couldn’t have been more wrong.

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Having found work in Tonbridge as a labourer, Good remained unaware that one of his new colleagues, one Thomas Rose, was a  former Metropolitan Police officer. Now off the force, Rose wasn’t in uniform and Good, looking for uniformed officers instead of anyone in plain clothes, was very much in harm’s way. Like many former police officers Rose kept a strong interest in crime and criminals. It wasn’t long before Rose recognised Good and alerted his chief pursuers Inspector Nicholas Pearce and Sergeant Stephen Thornton.

On April 25, 1842 Daniel Good was arrested. Once convicted, he was condemned to die. On May 23, 1842, only a month after his arrest, he ascended the ‘New Drop’ outside London’s notorious Newgate Prison to keep his date with the hangman. Executioner WIlliam Calcraft performed his grim duties with, unusually for him, speed and efficiency.

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After being left to hang for the traditional hour to ensure his death, Good was subjected to a rather creepy, but not unusual indignity; having his death mask made for him. This wasn’t unusual at the time, executed prisoners were often subjected to it. A mould was made of his face and a plaster bust made of his head. Good’s death mask now resides in Scotland Yard’s legendary ‘Black Museum,’ a place inspiring a 1950’s radio serial narrated by Orson Welles who famously called it a ‘mausoleum of murder.’

With Good safely in his grave, the Metropolitan Police had to reconsider having only uniformed officers in their ranks. Had some officers been working out of uniform, they reasoned, they might have caught him far sooner. With that in mind a permanent cadre of non-uniformed officers. the Detective Department, was set up in August, 1842. It later became the Criminal Investigation Department.

The Detective Department were the beginnings of Scotland Yard’s now-legendary detectives. In time, their reputation grew and their remit extended. Not only do they cover all crime within London, they are still regularly called in by local forces to assist in especially difficult cases.

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All local police forces today also have their own CID branches, following the Met’s example. Some of them (Frederick Wensley, Fred Cherrill, Jack Capstick, Robert Fabian, Leonard Burt, Ernest Millen, Jack Slipper and ‘Nipper’ Read among others) became celebrities, legendary in their own time.

Daniel Good obviously wasn’t there to appreciate his unwilling place in criminal history. The Yard’s detectives having grown to achieve legendary status, many generations of incarcerated or executed criminals won’t have appreciated it much either.

 

Bill Richmond – Boxer, Trainer, Socialite (and Hangman?).


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A few days ago we looked at the tragic tale of Henry Flakes, the boxer who might have been something special had circumstance and crime not derailed his plans. Today, we’re going to look at Bill Richmond AKA ‘The Black Terror.’

This is another tale where crime and sport (apparently) mix but go (fortunately for Richmond) in an upwardly-mobile direction. Henry Flakes faced the executioner. Bill Richmond (according to Bill Richmond) was an executioner and not just of your average nobody. Richmond started life as badly as he could have done, as a slave during the American Revolutionary War. During his enslavement he had all manner of unpleasant jobs foisted on him and the execution of American spy Nathan Hale happened to be one of them (according to Richmond).

Richmond always said that he wasn’t Hale’s actual executioner, he didn’t actually drop Hale to the end of a hangman’s rope. What he did claim to have done was to be the assistant who found a suitable tree, a suitable rope, made sure the rope was properly attached and the hangman’s knot properly tied before British Army Provost-Marshal Cunningham actually did the dreadful deed. It wasn’t lonag after that that he was spotted by Lord Percy, Duke of Northumberland, engaged in a brawl where he handily flattened a group of English soldiers single-handed. Percy took a shine to him and engaged him as a servant.

Richmond, being no longer a slave and with a fairly benevolent employer, went through school (unusual for a black manservant even at a time when English gentlemen regarded them as a ‘must have’ fashion accessory) and Lord Percy even arranged for him to be apprenticed to a local cabinet-maker. But it was a chance encounter with a local brothel-keeper named Myers, some harsh words on both sides and a Myers receiving a thorough beating that turned Richmond’s head to thoughts of boxing.

A second chance dust-up at York Races in 1796 with a local thug named William ‘Docky’ Moore convinced him. Moore was a local bruiser and bully who outweighed Bill by a good 40 pounds and was well-known as fearsome brawler. After some mutual insults an on-the-spot fight was agreed and Moore was beaten into submission. He was also carried away completely blind. Bill’s only rewards were escaping moderately unscathed and a few coins collected from the crowd. He also caught the eye of an aristocrat, rake and wastrel named Thomas Pitt, Lord Camelford.

Any aspiring sportsman in the 1800’s needed a patron, a sponsor, somebody to invest in their talent. Camelford, being a gambler of vast funds and equal enthusiasm, saw in him a chance for some reflected glory and no small amount of lucrative betting. Camelford provided Bill’s living expenses and Bill bashed his way up the ladder until he was a credible challenger for the title ‘Champion of England.’ Bill also found himself living in London, then the epicentre of unofficial (and entirely illegal) bare-knuckle boxing fraternity. He trained and fought, fought and trained and despite being self-taught, he developed an elusive style essential at a time when boxing had no weight divisions. Boxers could easily have a fight arranged minutes before it actually started and find themselves fighting bare-knuckle, full-contact fights against opponents with a fifty-pound weight advantage. Bill learnt to evade bigger opponents, draw them into his blows, to counter-punch and box on the retreat. He may have been little more than a middleweight by today’s standards, but his style made him a match for physically-stronger but less technically-skilled opposition.

By early 1805 Bill wanted to challenge the feared and admired Englishman Tom Cribb. Camelford refused him permission, wanting to protect his investment and avoid seeing Bill fight an apparently-unbeatable opponent. Cribb wasn’t a technically-gifted fighter, but he did outweigh Bill by fifty pounds (mostly muscle) and his determination to be knocked out rather than give up made him a crowd favourite. When Camelford lost a pistol duel with a Captain Best later that year Bill saw no further obstacle to challenging Cribb for his title. Being 16 years older and fifty pounds light than Cribb, Bill probably didn’t think he had much time to waste, either.

Their fight in October, 1805 was a classic of its time. The lighter, older, cleverer boxer versus the younger, stronger, heavier, cruder brawler. Bill put up a tremendous display but after over 90 minutes of bare-knuckle battering, Cribb’s youth, weight, stamina and punching power began to tell. Bill was knocked out and his challenge had failed. ‘Cribb vs Richmond’ attracted more press attention than the departure of Nelson’s fleet for the Battle of Trafalgar and the public wanted to know everything. How was their training going? How did they train? Where were they training and where would they fight? Very few boxing matches have ever overshadowed such major historical events as Trafalgar, but ‘Cribb vs Richmond’ certainly did even though Cribb was victorious and the ‘Black Terror’s’ challenge had failed.

But it hadn’t failed completely. Being a black foreigner who was smaller, older but also more skilful, having the audacity to challenge the native English champion earned Bill both attention and respect. Taking so severe a beating and refusing to quit, having to be knocked out rather than giving up, earned him unbridled admiration from many people. Bill, smart man that he was, used the fame and the money to move upwards in London society. He opened ‘Richmond’s Rooms’ a private boxing academy standing where Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column stand today.

‘Richmond’s Rooms’ were a runaway success. It became a Mecca for anybody interested in boxing. Wealthy gentlemen, including Lord Byron, considered it fashionable to visit and, if they were lucky, be able to spar with Bill. Gamblers and fight organisers used it as a meeting place. Fans turned up simply to cast their eye over likely contenders and Bill trained his own fighters.

One of those fighters was freed American slave Tom Molyneux, known as ‘Black Ajax.’ Molyneux’s style was as crude as his appearance and social graces (which were very crude indeed), but he had great stamina and enormous punching power. If he couldn’t beat Cribb himself, reasoned Bill, then Molyneux had the strength and the youth that maybe looked like he could. Cribb however, by now a wealthy man and celebrity in his own right, wasn’t keen to fight again. Not without a little persuasion…

The persuasion came in the form of Bill setting up a match between Molyneux and one of Cribb’s own proteges, Tom Tough.. Molyneux took only minutes to prove that Cribb’s hot prospect wasn’t anywhere near as tough as his name implied. English honour (and our collective ego) demanded that the master step in for his badly-beaten student and humble this foreign interloper. Cribb had no choice but to agree. Fortunately for Cribb Molyneux had been thoroughly seduced by London’s bright lights and his own darkest desires. While Cribb was hidden away training, Molyneux was spending huge amount’s of Bill Richmond’s money by spending more time carousing, drinking and whoring his way around London to the delight of the local gossips and the fury of his patron.

They fought on December 18, 1810. Their first fight lasted 19 rounds before the oh-so-sporting English crowd, not keen to see a white English legend battered unconscious by a black foreigner (and Cribb was losing heavily by then) started a riot during which one of Molyneux’s hands was broken. Fighting one-handed and with six broken ribs and a shattered jaw, Molyneux carried on. But the outcome was inevitable. Cribb finally knocked him out in the 40th round, but Richmond soon publicly demanded a rematch.

The rematch was lost even before it was fought. Cribb hid himself away, training with some of the best athletes of the time. He regularly soaked his hands in vinegar to toughen knuckles that were already said to be hardened enough that Cribb could punch the bark off an oak tree. He went on walks and jogs of up to twenty miles per day. He ate properly, rested properly, avoided alcohol, tobacco and women.

Molyneux didn’t. His first fight with Cribb made him famous and he took full advantage by immersing himself in as many of London’s dirtiest, most sordid pleasures. And he was indulging instead of training while using Bill’s money to do it. The rematch in September, 1811 was farcical. Cribb, probably in the best shape of his life, used the bloated hungover, physical wreck vaguely resembling an opponent as though he was a human punchbag. Bones were broken, blood was spilled and Molyneux was destroyed in a matter of minutes. Molyneux’s having lost so easily and his debauchery having been funded by Bill’s money caused a bitter split and Molyneux, whose debts far exceeded his ability to pay, soon found himself in the Debtor’s Jail on Horsemonger’s Lane. After his release he eaked a very small income fighting all-comers at travelling fairs and carnivals before finally drinking himself to death in August, 1818. He was only 38 years old.

For Richmond, whose cutting Molyneux off completely, not paying his bills and never speaking to him again probably comes under the heading ‘Harsh, but fair’, life continued almost as comfortably as before. Granted, his boxing academy was pulled down to make way for Nelson’s Column and Trafalgar Square, but he was famous to the point where King George IV wanted to meet him, wealthy enough to have more money than he could spend and became one of the foremost sporting legends of his time.Possibly the greatest honour of his life came when, at the Coronation of King George IV, Bill was invited to join the ceremonial guard of honour, met the King and was decorated by George IV personally. He finally died at his home in London on December 28, 1829 aged 66. Remarkable that a bare-knuckle fighter should live so long, even more remarkable that a former slave and bare-knuckle boxer should rise so high.

Not bad for a slave boy, when you think about it.