Wednesday, August 3, 2011

August 19, 1859 --- Dr. Smethurst

Dr. Thomas Smethurst of London is convicted of "the Richmond poisoning," the murder of his wife in a bigamous marriage. He is sentenced to die.

An "insignificant little man with a red moustache," Smethurst is in his 50's and had been married for some time to a woman twenty years his senior. In 1858, he made the acquaintance of Isabella Bankes at a Bayswater boarding house where their relationship became so notorious that the young woman was evicted. With the apparent knowledge of both his wife and his lover, Smethurst "married" Miss Bankes and took lodgings with her in Richmond. It wasn't long, however, before Isabella became dangerously ill. The symptoms included intense stomach pains and nausea. When it became clear she would not recover, the doctor arranged for a new will leaving Isabella's modest estate of some £2000 entirely to him. Only days before her death, Isabella signed.

The suspicions of a consulting physician lead to an autopsy and Smethurst's arrest. The second doctor became the lead witness for the Crown, claiming to have been the first to spot traces of arsenic in Isabella's vomit. He also described the "peculiar expression of terror" on her face when her husband was in the room. Yet, the defense brought in others to claim that throughout his wife's final days, he nursed her with "kindness and affection." The attorney who drafted the new will insisted that Isabel was alert and "perfectly competent" to make her own decision to sign. Medical experts for Smethurst argued that Isabella was unwillingly pregnant and her death may have been caused by purgatives aimed at self-abortion. Expert medical testimony, including extensive analysis of Isabella's vomit and stools, took four days and was graphically reported in the Press.

The guilty verdict proved controversial; the leading papers and medical journals are filled with combative letters espousing rival theories. Within three days of his date to hang, Smethurst won a respite. The Home Secretary then threw out the conviction on grounds of "sufficient doubt [which] has risen from the imperfection of medical science." Smethurst did serve one year for bigamy. Incredibly, upon his release, he sued the Bankes family and won, collecting on the dead woman's will.

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