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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 8th May 2012

My interest in poisonous and psychoactive plants falls into four, usually, discrete areas. There’s the growing of the plants and the possibilities of accidental poisoning that arise. The psychoactive substances and the policies and politics applied to the control or otherwise of their use. The use of plant derived poisons as murder weapons and the stories of the murderers who used them. And, the use of potentially harmful substances in smaller amounts where they may (or may not) be beneficial.

Today, purely by chance, those last two came together in an interesting side story to what we know about the infamous murderer, Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen.

I wrote, yesterday, about some of the ways in which people have claimed that Crippen did not murder his wife but I didn’t mention one of the odder claims made to support the notion that Crippen was wrongly convicted. This is the idea that the Metropolitan police, and especially Chief Inspector Dew, the officer in charge of the case, was under such pressure to solve the case due to its high public profile that he planted the human flesh under the scullery floor in order to ‘fit Crippen up’.

That idea of this being a high profile case even before the remains were discovered finally got me to do something I’ve been meaning to do since last November. I wrote then about the newly available electronic scans from British newspapers and said that, when I had the time to make good use of it, I would take out a short-term subscription.

Finally, today, I bought myself a week’s access and went looking for more about Dr. Crippen. It looks as though my belief that the thrill of the transatlantic chase was what made Crippen’s case memorable is, at least partially, true but I haven’t had the time to look at all the relevant stories so I’ll come back to that another time.

I went looking for, and found, the story announcing the gruesome discovery at 39 Hilldrop Crescent and then looked back prior to that date to see if I could find any indication that this was a notorious disappearance long before it became a murder enquiry. As I thought, I found no reference to Hawley Harvey Crippen in the time between the end of January 1910, when Cora Crippen died, and the 13th July when her remains were found.

Then, I decided to look further back to see if Crippen had come to the attention of the public previously. And that’s when the two areas of interest converged.

On 26th September 1898, the Western Mail reported on a court case involving a James Edward Deane charged with stealing from his employer, James Munro Munyon. Munyon was, also, Crippen’s employer at the time and, since Munyon was in the USA, Crippen was called to give evidence.

The prosecution case was that Deane had been employed as a ‘consulting physician’ by ‘Munyon’s Homeopathic Remedies’ and had diverted the sale proceeds from some of the products of the business into his own pocket.

Reading the news report, one is struck by the similarity between the obvious scepticism of the judge on the subject of homeopathy and present day attitudes as well as the exposure of the charlatanism almost volunteered by Crippen.

Crippen refers to Deane as ‘Doctor Deane’ but tells the judge he doesn’t know if the defendant has any medical qualification. The judge notes that Crippen is referred to as ‘Dr. Crippen’ and Crippen says he never claims to have a medical qualification.

Whether because he takes his oath to tell the truth seriously or he has the ‘front’ so often seen in snake oil salesmen, Crippen does not shy away from telling the court that the firm employed one doctor who had been struck off. He also acknowledges that Mr Munyon is under investigation and has returned to the USA to escape that enquiry. Crippen agrees that he had given instructions for the same pills to be sold at one shilling a bottle and four shillings a bottle but then, as only a homeopath could, he claims that this made them different ‘cures’.

When asked if there is anything in the pills apart from water and sugar Crippen refuses to answer. He is then asked if he is aware of a doctor in Toronto who took a massive ‘overdose’ of one of Munyon’s ‘cures’ and suffered no ill effects. Crippen claims that doctors are always jealous of one another but it is pointed out to him that Munyon is, also, not a qualified doctor.

The press report notes quite a few occasions when Crippen’s responses to questions provoked laughter from the public gallery so, it seems, people in 1898 were just as sceptical of the claims of homeopathy as most are today. Modern homeopaths often defend their claims by saying that it has been around for a very long time so it must work. I’m comforted to find that it has been ridiculed for all that time. There’s a line in a Tim Minchin song that goes ‘I don’t believe that just because ideas are tenacious it means that they’re worthy’.

I suppose we can conclude that Crippen was a charlatan rather than a deluded believer from the fact that, when he killed his wife, he did not do it with a homeopathic preparation of hyoscine.

Incidentally, Deane was acquitted after the jury accepted the defence case that Munyon had told Deane to sell some products on the side as a way of recovering his expenses.  

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