How to Murder your Wife, in 2 easy steps

In his novel Armadale, Wilkie Collins seemed to share the generally low view of professional detectives, as working-class men sticking their noses where they weren’t wanted. And the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act added to the general perception.

Divorce was now possible without getting a special act passed in parliament, but to obtain a divorce, a woman had to prove adultery with either bigamy, incest or cruelty; a man could divorce for adultery alone. In either case, the need to prove adultery greatly increased the number of private detectives. In Armadale the detective James Bashwood operates out of an office on ‘Shadyside Place’, and in case that hint isn’t heavy enough, he is described as a ‘vile creature…a man professionally ready on the merest suspicion (if the merest suspicion paid him) to get under our beds, and to look through gimlet-holes in our doors.’ Allan Armadale, headstrong and naive, initially rejects the idea of hiring a detective, calling it ‘meddling in…private affairs’.

Not meddling in others’ private affairs, it was thought, had much to recommend it.  It took Dr Edward Pritchard to change some minds. Pritchard was the third of four high-profile doctor-murderers in a quarter-century. Perhaps familiarity was breeding contempt, but people were becoming progressively less shocked with the idea that a middle-class, outwardly respectable professional man might commit murder. Pritchard himself aroused only local interest, not national. For that, it took a discussion on the merits or demerits of professional busybodies vs. professional detachment.

Dr Pritchard was barely a doctor at all. He had been an assistant surgeon in the navy before practising as the medical officer for the Bridlington Union (the workhouse) in Yorkshire for a few years. In 1857, Pritchard purchased a degree from Erlangen in Germany, a degree-factory (the Lancet journal distanced itself and the medical profession: he had bought ‘a venal diploma…not registerable’), and then set up practice in Glasgow. By 1864, he had moved three times, each time establishing a new practice. The reputation he left behind each time was poor – there were unpaid debts, and there was talk about his treatment of attractive women patients. There had also been a fire at his house, and a maid died. Rumours concentrated on his debts (the insurance company refused to pay out after the fire) and his roving eye (some thought the maid might have been ‘in trouble’, that is, pregnant, and drugged, to get her out of the way).

In his final practice, Pritchard established himself just off Sauchiehall Street, with Mrs Pritchard, their five children and two medical-student lodgers, plus a cook and a nursery-maid. In the autumn of 1864, Mrs Pritchard began to suffer from depression, headaches: general poor health. She spent a month with her parents in Edinburgh, and recovered; on her return to Glasgow, she descended once more into illness. By February, her cousin, also a doctor, was consulted by Pritchard; he suggested a mustard poultice and small amounts of champagne. Mrs Pritchard then asked for the professor of medicine at the University of Glasgow to be consulted, but on his arrival he found his patient drunk. He stopped the prescription of champagne, and suggested a low diet, with no stimulants, and no medicines. (Champagne or spirits for illness was not an unusual prescription. A low diet was a bland invalid diet, with little in the way of protein (or indeed flavour), and frequently involving milk, bread and potatoes.)

Mrs Taylor, Mrs Pritchard’s mother, arrived to take care of the invalid, and a few days later she tasted some tapioca intended for her daughter; it made her ill, and was thrown out. A week after that, Mrs Taylor collapsed. Pritchard was with a patient, and a Dr Paterson, a professor of midwifery, was called in. When he arrived, Pritchard told him that his mother-in-law had fallen, but Paterson said her symptoms suggested she had taken an overdose of opium. Pritchard agreed, saying she was a habitual user of a proprietary medicine, Battley’s Sedative Solution, which contained opium, ‘and he had no doubt she had taken a good swig at it’. Mrs Taylor briefly recovered while Paterson was there, but he left in no doubt that she was dying. She did die, and a bottle of Battley’s was found in her pocket. Pritchard looked at it, later testified his maid, and said, ‘Good Heavens! Has she taken all that since Monday?’ He urged silence on the servants: ‘It would not do for a man in his position to be spoken of.’

Dr Paterson refused to sign the death certificate, so Pritchard certified the death himself, giving ‘paralysis’ and ‘apoplexy’ as the cause of death. Paterson wrote to the District Registrar: ‘I am surprised that I am called on to certify the cause of death in this case. I only saw the person for a few minutes a very short period before her death. She seemed to be under some narcotic, but Dr. Pritchard, who was present from the first moment of the illness until death occurred, and which happened in his own house, may certify the cause. The death was certainly sudden, unexpected, and to me mysterious.’ At least, this was what he remembered writing later. The note was destroyed and no further action was taken. Which was unfortunate for Mrs Pritchard.

Pritchard was now looking after his wife on his own, including giving her all her meals himself. Over a period of two days two portions of food – a piece of cheese she complained about, and some egg-flip (eggnog) to which Pritchard added sugar from a separate supply – were tasted by the two servants, who reported that they were ill afterwards. When Dr Paterson was called in once more, Mrs Pritchard told him she had been constantly vomiting, but Pritchard said she was hallucinating, and hadn’t been ill at all. He was, at all times, the picture of uxorious love. Mrs Pritchard died the night of Dr Paterson’s visit, and he lamented over her body, in the doctor’s hearing, ‘Come back, come back, my darling Mary Jane! Do not leave your dear Edward.’ His diary entry for that day was equally poignant: ‘Died here at 1 a.m., Mary Jane, my own beloved wife, aged 38 years – no torment surrounded her bedside – but like a calm peaceful lamb of God, passed Minnie away. May God and Jesus, Holy Gh. – one in three – welcome Minnie, Prayer on prayer till mine be o’er, ever-lasting love. Save us, Lord, for thy dear Son.’ Her death was certified, on his information, as ‘Gastric Fever. Two months.’ When her body was to be despatched to Edinburgh to be buried beside her mother, he insisted that the coffin be opened so that he could kiss her one last time.

On the day of her death, however, an anonymous letter was received by the Procurator-Fiscal of Lanarkshire: ‘Dr. Pritchard’s mother-in-law died suddenly and unexpectedly about three weeks ago in his house…under circumstances at least very suspicious. His wife died to-day, also suddenly and unexpectedly and under…circumstances equally suspicious’. A warrant was issued, and Pritchard was arrested at the station on his return from the funeral. At the preliminary examination, he said he had prescribed no antimony, although he did agree he had been sleeping with their maid, and on this evidence she too was arrested. Mrs Pritchard and her mother were exhumed, antimony was found in both women, and he was charged with two murders.

The trial opened in July after some delay. So much delay, in fact, that the legality of the entire trial is open to question. Under the Habeas Corpus Act (Scotland) of 1701, a trial had to be fixed within sixty days, and completed within a hundred days of ‘the date of intimation’. If the trial was not completed within this time, the accused had to be released. The indictment was served on Pritchard on 31 March; the trial began on 3 July, and was expected to last about five days, which would mean the hundred days ran out during the trial. After consultation, it was agreed that adjournments in the trial would not count, thus (just) meeting the hundred-day limit.

Apart from that, things appeared pretty straightforward. Pritchard was overdrawn at his bank; his wife was insured for £1,000 (and he had already anticipated part of the policy, receiving £225); Mrs Taylor had lent him £500, and had bequeathed two-thirds of her estate to her daughter, or to Pritchard and his children if Mrs Pritchard predeceased him. There was testimony that Pritchard had bough aconite, antimony and various other poisons from one chemist; another said he had sold him morphia, aconite and atropine, while Dr Paterson testified that Pritchard had told him he kept no medicines at all at home (which he had thought peculiar: most doctors made up their own prescriptions). The medical witnesses testified that when animals were given overdoses from a fresh bottle of Battley’s Solution, all survived; animals given overdoses of aconite and Battley’s, however, died in exactly the same manner as when they were given the Battley’s Solution that had been in Mrs Taylor’s pocket.

The maid, Mary McLeod, now sixteen, had been with the Pritchards for a year; she had been seduced by the doctor the previous year, had become pregnant, and he had performed an abortion before continuing the relationship until Mrs Pritchard’s death. She testified against the doctor: she had wanted to leave and find another position, but said that Pritchard had promised to marry her when his wife died. The prosecution finished its case by pointing out that the children and the boarders had no access to Mrs Pritchard’s food; one cook had left halfway through Mrs Pritchard’s illness, and her illness continued unabated when the replacement arrived. The only two people who could have poisoned Mrs Pritchard were Pritchard or Mary MacLeod. It was unlikely that the maid was knowledgeable enough to calculate dosages for a slow poisoning; but if she had done so, why had Pritchard, a medical man, not noticed anything?

The defence was feeble, and not very focused. Mrs Pritchard’s brother claimed that Pritchard had nursed his sister himself because she had she refused to have a nurse; a chemist testified to the amount of Battley’s bought by Mrs Taylor; two more people testified to being prescribed strychnine from Pritchard, to account for the purchases made by the doctor. There was no expert scientific witness: one contemporary historian of crime has suggested that this may have been the only poisoning case in the entire century where the defence offered no medical evidence (leaving out cases where the accused had no legal representation). The sole aim of the defence was to blame Mary MacLeod for Mrs Pritchard’s death, while claiming that Mrs Taylor had accidentally overdosed. Finally, two of the Pritchards’ children were put on the stand to testify that Mamma and Papa loved each other very much.

To no avail. Pritchard was found guilty in less than an hour. Until the trial, the newspapers had been relatively circumspect. When the case first came to notice, the Glasgow Herald had at first had declined to name either Pritchard or Paterson; only three days after Pritchard’s arrest did the newspaper report the ‘illicit connection’ between Mary MacLeod and Pritchard. Even when MacLeod’s ‘forced miscarriage’ was reported, the paper still noted nervously that ‘persons of the highest credit’ were ‘on terms of the most intimate friendship’ with the doctor. And therefore two days later, the same newspaper performed a complete about face: now Pritchard was a model of married decorum, Mary MacLeod told dreadful lies, and Mrs Taylor was simply an old lady who had died a natural death. Even after the guilty verdict, many publications accepted Pritchard’s own word on his background: one report of the trial noted his ‘many contributions to medical science on the subject of cancer and gout, the influence of vegetable medicines on disease’: he was, it concluded, ‘a man of superior attainments’.

It might have felt he was less superior when the condemned man’s confessions began to appear – confessions, plural, for Dr Pritchard made three in all. At first he told his own vicar that he had given his wife chloroform, that Mary MacLeod was present at the time and was aware that he was murdering his wife. Then he wrote a second confession: Mrs Pritchard, according to this one, knew of his relationship with Mary MacLeod, and covered it up, for propriety’s sake. Mrs Taylor had also caught Pritchard with the maid, but even so, he hadn’t killed her; she had overdosed, and he put the aconite in the bottle afterwards, ‘to prove death by misadventure in case any inquiry should take place’. In this version, he gave his wife chloroform to help her sleep, and ‘in an evil moment…besides being somewhat excited by whisky’, he gave her too much, again watched by the maid. In the third confession, he admitted to killing both women, but Mary MacLeod was not present and knew nothing, and that he had murdered from ‘a species of “terrible madness” and the use of “ardent spirits”.’

No one really believed any of this, it would appear from the newspapers, but the Scottish public found Pritchard fascinating just the same. According to the Pall Mall Gazette, ‘the doorstep of DR. PRITCHARD’S house has been literally chipped away into small fragments and carried off for relic-worship’. The Cramb Brothers of Glasgow offered photographs of Pritchard for 1s. each; in Dundee, on the day of Pritchard’s execution, legal proceedings were brought against at least one photographer who was selling photographs not only of Pritchard, but of his family as well. Earlier, when the doctor was moved to Edinburgh for the start of his trial, the prisoner and his guards were besieged in the superintendent’s office at the station, unable to get to the train for the number of people hoping for a glimpse. The crowd dispersed only when, as a ruse, the station-master had the train-whistle blown, as though the train were about to depart. Even then, to ensure that gawpers did not rush back out as Pritchard was escorted down the platform, the passengers were actually locked in the train. (Or they might have been. This report appeared in the Caledonian Mercury, while the Glasgow Herald said that the transfer to Edinburgh occasioned ‘no bustle or annoyance…at the station’. On balance the Mercury’s report is more likely, simply because it is unusual. But only on balance.)

The real interest in this case, however, was centred on the behaviour of Dr Paterson. Two previous doctor-murderers, Palmer and Smethurst, had started a public discussion of professionalism, but it was possible to think of both men simply as bad apples. Paterson, however, was a doctor in good standing, with a real, not purchased, medical degree. He was not a murderer, not a bad apple, but his behaviour, it was generally agreed, was entirely disgraceful. Paterson had testified for the prosecution at Pritchard’s trial, saying that when he saw the patient, ‘I could not banish from my mind the idea, or rather conviction, that her symptoms betokened that she was under the depressive influence of antimony.’

This ‘conviction’, however, did not urge him into any action. He just went home. The next day he was called in again by Pritchard but, he said, convinced that Mrs Taylor was beyond help, did not go. When Pritchard asked him to sign the death certificate, he refused, but again did nothing further. It was only when the Registrar’s office sent him a form that he wrote the letter which said her death was ‘sudden, unexpected, and to me mysterious’. On the witness-stand he said, ‘It was not his duty to interfere in the family without being invited…he did the best he could by apprising the registrar when refusing to sign the certificate’. He felt all he could do was prescribe drugs to counter the effects of the poison he was sure was being administered: ‘provided she got nothing else, [this would have been] sufficient to have very soon brought her round. I did not mention to Dr. Pritchard that his wife was being poisoned by antimony. It would not have been a very safe matter to have done so. I did not go back the next day to see if my advice had been acted on. I did not consider that she was my patient at all…it would be a breach of the etiquette of the profession.’ He also, rather unfortunately for him, told the court what he understood his professional duty to be: ‘first…to do what was in my power to save Mrs. Pritchard’s life; second, to guard my professional reputation [his italics]; and lastly, if possible, to detect the poisoner.’

Immediately after the trial concluded, outraged letters appeared in the press: ‘what confidence can the public be expected to have in any set of men who value professional etiquette above human life’? was the general tenor. After the second of Pritchard’s confessions (the first to be published) appeared, Paterson wrote to the Glasgow Herald to defend his behaviour. A leader in that paper supported him: if he had reported his suspicions, and they had proved unfounded, ‘while Dr. Pritchard would simply have been distrusted and starved, Dr Paterson would have been distrusted, starved, and despised.’ The leader writer instead blamed the Registrar, for not acting on ‘the notable language used by Dr. Paterson’ in his letter refusing to certify the death of Mrs Taylor. The Lancet, however, summarized most people’s view: Paterson’s position was not only ‘weak and illogical as a defence, but…a piece of bad taste from beginning to end…suggesting that Dr. PATERSON is an uncommonly wise fellow, and…a martyr to his very sagacity and acuteness’.

***

Pritchard had a very limited afterlife in the entertainment world, compared to many other murderers. Few entertainment venues seemed to find much entertainment in the subject: the doctor appeared in waxworks exhibitions, but he was rarely the advertised highlight. Even in Glasgow, Mr Kelsall’s Crystal Palace Exhibition listed Pritchard only fifth in its miniature chamber of horrors, down the list after a French anarchist, John Wilkes Booth, the murderer of Abraham Lincoln, and Franz Müller, who had been convicted as the first person to kill a man in a train. Little enough fame for a local boy. In Cheltenham, M. D’Arc’s waxworks merely listed Pritchard among other notorious criminals, promising, more enticingly, that ‘Rimmel’s vaporiser distributes a pleasing perfume through the room.’ Only Mme Tussaud’s thought him enough of a draw to display his model several days before his execution, which the Pall Mall Gazette considered to be ‘very shocking’.

Instead, in 1867-8, the sensation-novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon incorporated Paterson into her paired novels Birds of Prey and Charlotte’s Inheritance, which were already a rich melange of the Palmer, Smethurst and Wainewright stories. When Tom Halliday is poisoned by his unscrupulous friend, his doctor frets, ‘What ought I to do?…If I am right, I should be a villain to let things go on. If I am wrong, anything like interference would ruin me for life.’

And thus, a man’s home remained his castle, even as he was poisoning the chatelaine.

Notes:

stand in her way: Collins, Armadale, p. 527, 529-60; pardoned for the murder: pp. 530-1; sense of shame: pp. 516-17; man from Scotland Yard: pp. 397, 406.

not registerable: Lancet, ‘The Convict Pritchard’, 15 July 1865.

sagacity and acuteness: Pritchard’s crime, trial and the following Paterson controversy have been compiled from: Aberdeen Journal: 5, 12 July 1865; Bell’s Life: 25 March, 1 April, 1, 15, 29 July 1865; Caledonian Mercury: 23, 24, 25, 27, 29 March, 3, 4, 22 April, 27 June, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 21, 22, 29 July, 1 August 1865; Daily News: 25, 30, 31 March, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 19, 13, 21, 29 July 1865; Era: 9, 16 July; Glasgow Herald: 22, 23, 25, 28, 29, 30, 31 March; 1, 4, 5, 26 April; 27 June, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 17, 29 31 July, 1 August 1865; Lloyd’s Weekly: 26 March, 2 April, 9, 16, 23, 30 July 1865; Pall Mall Gazette: 27 June, 8, 24 July 1865; trial transcripts include: A Complete Report of the Trial of Dr E. W. Pritchard, for the Alleged Poisoning of his Wife and Mother-in-Law (Edinburgh, William Kay, 1865); A Complete Report of the Trial of Dr. E. W. Pritchard…Reprinted by Special permission, from ‘The Scotsman’ (Edinburgh, William Kay, 1865); discussions of poison and Dr Paterson: A. Jaeger, Historical and Scientific Notice of the Poisons employed by Dr. Pritchard… (Glasgow, Kerr & Richardson, 1865); Frederick Penny and James Adams, On the Detection of Aconite by its Physical Action: Being Notes of Experiments Made in Connection with the Trial of Dr. E. W. Pritchard (Glasgow, William Mackenzie, 1865); Lancet: 8, 15, 22 July 1865. William Roughead, Trial of Dr Pritchard (Glasgow and Edinburgh, William Hodge & Co., 1906) and Browne and Stewart, Trials for Murder by Poisoning give good summaries of the case.

very shocking: Glasgow Herald, 14 July 1870, p. 4; Era, 3 December 1865, p. 13; Pall Mall Gazette, 25 July 1865, p. 10.

ruin me for life: Braddon, Birds of Prey, p. 47.

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