poison

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:

 

True Crime Blogs And Websites: Some Top Picks.


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So, as you’re no doubt aware, I have an interest in true crime and I ted to cover the more unusual bits and pieces. If you’re interested in the subject generally then it’s hard to avoid the plethora of websites and blogs out there that deal with it, although the tone and style of some I wouldn’t touch with a barge-pole. So, if you’re a more serious student of the subject, here are a few of my top picks in no particular order:

1. Crime Magazine I’ve written for Crime Magazine since 2007 and I’ve always liked its accessibly style and avoidance of the trashy, prurient attitude you’ll find on many true crime sites. It’ll cost you a small subscription to read the articles on here, but it’s worth it for the quality thereof. There’s no trash here, it’s all handled in a tasteful and factual manner, certainly not for anybody who might want the trashy end of the spectrum. If you like your true crime sensible and non-sleazy, then this is a place for you.

2. Sword and Scale is a newcomer to the genre. It’s free to use, has an accessible style without being quite as heavyweight as Crime Magazine, but not tasteless and tacky, either. I wrote regularly for Sword and Scale and it’s always nice to see something new appear that doesn’t sacrifice quality for sensationalism. For a lighter writing style that doesn’t pull its punches, this is a good place to drop by.

3.True Crime Library A veritable encyclopaedia of al things crime. Everything from Victorian hangings, famous murders, Depression-era bank bandits and the home-grown cases you might not have already heard of can be found here. They also publish plenty of books (some of which I use in my own writing) and have a broad range of subjects with something for everybody. Not overly heavyweight in tone, but not by any means a disreputable torture-porn site, either. A good place for general cases and covering all bases, albeit sometimes slightly more tabloid than I personally like. 

4. Laura James This is more for your fans of historical cases. Think of the ‘classics’ such as Crippen or the Acid Bath Murderer with a broad variety of subjects and a huge database of other cases. Again, I prefer my true crime to be respectful and mindful of the fact that true crime is exactly that. It isn’t fiction, it involves real people whose actions had real consequences and so its not (to me anyway) an area that benefits from being treated like torture-porn hackwork. A great place for historical true crime and the facts are solid and reliable.

5. Executed Today One for anybody with an interest in the death penalty.The style might seem somewhat lowbrow and opinionated at times, but it’s a good site if you’re interested in this particular area. With crime comes punishment and capital punishment is its most extreme and questionable form. Here you’ll find a list of executions, famous inmates, curious stories and general interest stuff. Well worth a look.

6. The Malefactors Register Run by well-known crime writer and expert Mark Gribben (you’ll often find him on crime documentaries, especially ones about the American Mafia) this is an excellent read. Again, there’s something here for everybody. The style is sensible without being overly reverent, blunt without being crude and covers all manner of different areas. 

7. Historical Crime Detective Another fairly new website to look through. Factual, brisk and simple. A meat-and-potatoes site for those who like their prose simple and their cases outside the constant rehashes of Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy and so on ad nauseum. This one often focuses on the less well-known crimes and criminals and, in my opinion, is a breath of fresh air for those among us who’ve gone beyond just reading about and studying the crimes and criminals everybody’s already heard of, over and over and over again. Historical Crime Detective is recommended and certainly one to keep popping back to.

8. Old Bailey Online One for British enthusiasts, but certainly interesting to anybody fancying a look at cases tried in possibly the most famous courthouse in the world. The Central Criminal Court or ‘Old Bailey’ to give it it’s more familiar name, has seen every kind of crime and criminal pass through its courtrooms, often on their way to penal colonies, prisons or the gallows. Terrorists, serial killers, spree killers, armed robbers, spies, traitors and crooks of all kinds have come here to have a judge and jury decide their fate and they still do. The court itself is built on the former site of the infamous Newgate Prison, once one of London’s hanging jails and still a notorious clink with a fascinating (if rather grim) history. For afficionados of historic cases and some of Britain’s best-known crimes and criminals, take a look through their database.

9. Crime Library Probably the most widely-known true crime website out there. I’m not always keen on the style, sometimes it feels a little too populist and not quite as sombre as the subject perhaps demands, but there’s plenty here for anybody and everybody who’s perhaps less of a snob than me. Famous crimes, criminals, detectives, prisons and general mainstream crime is what you’ll mostly find here. It’s not catering to any particular niche and doesn’t claim to, either. Pretty much what you’d expect if you’re new to true crime and you’re looking for a decent, entry-level site to dip your toe in the water. 

So, take a quick look around these if you’re looking for a mix of the old, new, reverent and slightly less so. You’re bound to find something there that will tickle your fancy or help you learn something new, maybe even inspire you to have a crack at writing yourself. After all, if I can do it then anybody should be able to.

Back to the regular output tomorrow, haven’t decided what yet. But do take a look at what’s on offer. It’s a fascinating area of human life and history as long as you’re not incorrigibly squeamish.

Herbert Rowse Armstrong – A Poisonous Plymothian


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Herbert Rowse Armstrong, the only British lawyer to be hanged for murder,

 

Next up in a parade of deliberately-forgotten Plymouth folk is Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong. Retired Army Major, former MP for Plymouth, respectable small-town lawyer, embezzler, fraudster, repeat poisoner and one of Britain’s most notorious murderers. His case isn’t especially memorable in itself, bored and bitter husbands poisoning their wives is nothing new in the true crime trade, but only one British lawyer was ever hanged for murder and it happens to be this chap.

Now many wags, seeing that Armstrong was the only British lawyer to be strung up, might well be thinking ‘Well, it’s a pity more lawyers don’t hang, but at least they made a start.’ or some other macabre witticism. There are also those who believe Armstrong was framed and should never have kept his date with the hangman. If you visit the town of Hay-on-Wye where Armstrong did his dark and deadly deeds (and famous today for its international literary festival), there are still two distinct bodies of opinion on whether he did them at all. I was there a couple of years ago and feelings can still run high on Hay’s most famous (and notorious) resident.

Armstrong’s legal career began after graduating from Cambridge and his first law practice was in Devon, Newton Abbot to be precise. He was born in Plymouth on May 31, 1869 and his childhood home was in Princess Square. Like much of pre-war Plymouth it now no longer exists. What Hermann Goering’s lads couldn’t demolish in wartime mostly fell to the city planners after VE Day, hence the grey, uninteresting concrete jungle that passes for Plymouth city centre. But we digress…

After taking a partnership in a law firm in Hay, the Armstrong’s moved there and initially all was well. At least until the arrival of a certain Oswald Martin. Martin joined Hay’s other law firm and displayed all the conscientiousness, reliability and work ethic that Armstrong conspicuously lacked. With a lawyer available who actually made a decent effort, locals began deserting Armstrong and hiring Martin instead. Business began to slacken off and profits began to dry up. Armstrong needed money to cover his debts and to remove his troublesome rival. He decided on fraud to cover his debts and arsenic to resolve the Martin situation. Domestically, things were increasingly troublesome as well. His wife Katherine, also a native Devonian, was a domineering, quarrelsome, hectoring individual who ran the Armstrong home like her personal fiefdom. To Armstrong, who’d achieved the rank of Major and briefly served in World War One (while cleverly managing to avoid being under fire except once) she was a pain in the neck. She also had a considerable estate so, should she succumb to sudden illness, her husband would be her sole beneficiary.

Armstrong managed to cook the books at his law practice for a while to hide his financial woes, but time was running out. Having embezzled money held as a deposit for a local land deal Armstrong couldn’t then complete the sale because the deposit would be asked for. Stalling the buyer and vendor on completion exasperated both of them so much that they decided to abandon the deal and demanded the deposits be returned. Armstrong didn’t have the money he was supposed to be holding in trust.

First to suffer (after Armstrong’s defrauded clients) was his annoying, domineering, cash-rich wife. Katherine’s health began to fluctuate and she went in and out of hospital during 1921 and 1922.  She always recovered in hospital, but also always became ill while under Armstrong’s care. Armstrong, being a keen gardener, always had large amounts of arsenic in hand and, curiously, her repeated illnesses bore the hallmarks of arsenic poisoning. She died suddenly and Armstrong profited, buying him some more before being publicly outed as a crook in addition to a second-rate and lazy small-town lawyer.

Next on Armstrong’s hit parade was his professional rival Oswald Martin. Not long after the unfortunate departure of Katherine Armstrong (an event her grieving husband barely grieved over at all even in public) Martin received an anonymous gift of a box of chocolates. Not liking chocolates he gave them to his wife and his sister also ate a couple. Both Mrs Martin and her sister-in-law fell seriously ill. Then Martin (who’d been acting for the other party in Armstrong’s embezzled land deal and consequently had no fondness for Armstrong) received a sudden invitation to afternoon tea at Armstrong’s home. Armstrong gave him tea and made sure he ate a particular scone which Armstrong handed him rather than offering the whole plate with the words ‘Please excuse fingers.’ Not a memorable breach of etiquette, as a rule, but it certainly seemed memorable to Martin when he was suddenly and almost fatally ill. Again, his symptoms bore all the classic signs of arsenic poisoning.

The Martin’s all survived, but spent several months living in Hay (a very small place) with Martin’s office right across the street from Armstrong’s and with their would-be murderer not only making polite conversation on a daily basis but persistently inviting both Martin and his wife for another dose of his highly-dubious afternoon tea. The strain must have been almost intolerable. Bad enough for the Martins that they firmly believed Armstong was trying to kill them. Worse that they had to socialise with their would-be assassin as well.

Martin first alerted the local GP, Doctor Hincks. Hincks had treated Martin and Mrs Armstrong and Martin’s suspicions were matched by his own. They were more than matched when Hincks sent the box of chocolates to a private lab for a toxicology test. Lo and behold, a couple had been hollowed out, their fillings replaced with pure white arsenic and melted chocolate smeared over the holes. Enter Chief Inspector Crutchett of Scotland Yard…

Crutchett and his partner, Detective Sergeant Sharp, were hampered by having to work in secret. As a suspect in his wife’s poisoning (proved when her body was exhumed and tested for arsenic) and in the attempted murders of three other people, Armstrong was seen as the type who would either attempt escape or suicide if he knew Scotland Yard were on to him. In the end it made no difference. On New Year’s Eve, 1922 they dropped by Armstrong’s office, questioned him and then arrested him for the murder of his wife. And what did they find when they turned out his pockets before taking him away? A small wrap of special pharmacist’s paper in his waistcoat pocket. A wrap of paper containing a lethal dose of arsenic. When they searched his office they also turned out his desk drawers. Another, larger, package of arsenic was found stuffed inside the desk itself.

Armstrong was quickly tried, convicted and condemned to hang. His appeal failed and this truly poisonous Plymothian met his end at the hands of chief hangman John Ellis at Gloucester Prison on, with a bitter irony, May 31, 1923. It was his 53rd birthday.

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Like a certain Duncan Scott-Ford it’s unlikely that Plymouth’s boosters are likely to put this gentleman in the tourist leaflets. In fairness, he’s been dead since 1923 and his crimes were committed on the Welsh border so it’s no great surprise. That said, he was a local lawyer, Plymouth’s Member of Parliament at one time and, ironically, campaigned heavily on behalf of John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee whose failed execution gave him the unwelcome notoriety of being ‘The man they couldn’t hang.’  passage by murdering his wife and attempting to murder two other people, went from this world to the next without any mishap.