Wednesday, June 29, 2011

July 7, 1865 --- A Deadly Doctor in Glasgow

A Scottish jury convicts Dr. Edward Pritchard of Glasgow of poisoning his mother-in-law and his wife. The doctor had been arrested shortly after his wife's funeral, where he had tearfully lifted the coffin lid for a final kiss. His good wife had been violently ill for some time when her mother came to live with them early in 1865. Not two weeks later, the meddlesome Mrs. Taylor died in a fit, after taking her daily dose of opium. Three weeks later, her daughter followed her to the grave, gastric fever being blamed.

Throughout this tragic period in his home, Pritchard had called in Dr. James Paterson to consult. When Mrs. Taylor died, Paterson refused to sign the death notice, informing the registrar, "The death was certainly sudden, unexpected, and to me mysterious." But despite suspicions that Mrs. Pritchard was also being poisoned, Paterson failed to act. That is, until her death, when Paterson was the likely author of an anonymous letter to police which prompted Pritchard's arrest.

Both bodies were exhumed and traces of antimony found in each. A military "sawbones" who had purchased the title of "Doctor," Pritchard portrayed himself as a victim of "malignant professional jealousy." His lawyers bid to shunt suspicion onto a young housemaid, Mary M'leod, with whom Pritchard - while ever playing the role of grief-stricken family man - admitted "an improper connection." The defense argued that the jealous 16-year-old, had slowly poisoned two women to free the man she loved. The Lord Justice, addressing the jury, said it would be "very hard to believe" a teenager could baffle two doctors. The jurymen follow his Lordship's lead and, hearing their damning verdict, Pritchard sways noticeably.

While Pritchard is condemned, the timid Dr. Paterson is merely denounced. He had testified that warning Mrs. Pritchard would have been "a breach of the etiquette of my profession." From the bench, the judge declares: "There is ... the duty that every right-minded man owes to his neighbor to prevent the destruction of human life in this world, and in that duty I cannot but say Dr. Paterson failed."  The Lancet rebuked his "cowardice and want of judgment" and The Times his "perverted scrupulosity."

As for Pritchard, before he hanged, he confessed, blaming "a terrible species of madness and the use of ardent spirits." The Spectator cringed at such "cold persevering cruelty...happily rare in Great Britain." Pritchard's hanging was the last public execution in Scotland; wrote a witness, "He did not die easily."

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