Sunday, March 6, 2011

March 14, 1882 --- The Wimbledon Poisoner

At the Old Bailey, Dr. George Henry Lamson, is condemned to hang for what Justice Hawkins calls his "cruel, base and treacherous crime."

The 29-year old medico has been convicted of the murder of his 18 year old brother-in-law, Percy John. Crippled with curvature of the spine, the deceased had lived in Wimbledon with a caretaker. In early December of the previous year, Lamson came for tea, bringing a pre-sliced Dundee cake. He served a piece to the caretaker, one to Percy and had one himself.  He also brought along some new capsules - Percy had problems swallowing his medicine.  Lamson filled a sample with sugar, he gave it to Percy, who took it.  Within hours, Percy died an agonizing, convulsive death.

News of Percy's death ("No more pathetic tale has ever been penned...") shocked the country. Lamson turned himself into to Scotland Yard, vowing to clear his name. It would not be easy. To begin with Lamson was no doctor; he had been dismissed from the Bournemouth Medical Society when it was discovered that he had naught but the slightest-training. A brief stay in America had only further bankrupted him. His wife, Percy's older sister, stood to inherit £1500 pounds should her brother pre-decease her.

The motive is, therefore, clear. As for method, the prosecution opens with a detailed analysis of Percy's "carefully preserved" vomit, which revealed no small amount of wolf's bane or aconite. The raisins in Percy's slice of the cake had been carefully removed, soaked in the poison, and then replaced in the sweet. A chemist in the City recalled selling Lamson (posing as a "Dr. Harris") enough aconite to kill forty people.  The suspicious sugar capsules were simply red herrings. Lamson's defense had been unique; the crime was so clumsily planned, anyone would be mad to think he could get away with it. Further, medical experts testified that Percy had not long to live anyway, so why risk killing him?  He was convicted and sentenced to hang.

There was some little effort to ask the Home Secretary for clemency.  Surely so transparent a plot was not the work of a rational man.  The request was denied.  "The Wimbledon Poisoner" went to the gallows with terrible trembling. Marwood, the hangman, was heard to whisper, "I'll be as gentle as I can."

Sketch from the Penny Illustrated Paper

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