THE POISON GARDEN website      Arum maculatum berries on a Cannabis leaf 


This free script provided by JavaScript Kit

Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 29th May 2012

I haven’t, yet, paid for a year’s subscription to the British Newspapers Archive although it is nearly three weeks since I said I would. It is very likely that I will subscribe soon because, after looking at some of the material I downloaded during my short-term trial, I’ve been left with a question.

I only found three items related to Dr. Robert Buchanan and that is interesting in itself. Two of them are largely similar, probably, meaning they were re-workings of the same agency report. All three are from July 1895 and report on Buchanan’s execution.

In its report the Star, in Guernsey, notes that the 1893 trial lasted six weeks and attracted widespread attention so it seems strange that I didn’t find any evidence of that attention in my previous searches. That gives me one reason to sign up but not the most compelling one.

As briefly as I can set it down, the story of Dr Buchanan concerns his second marriage, after divorcing his first wife, to Anna Sutherland, a wealthy brothel keeper. Even before the wedding Sutherland had made a will leaving everything to Buchanan and it wasn’t long after, in 1892, that Buchanan came into her wealth. Initially her death was attributed to natural causes but Buchanan was heard claiming that he knew how to cover up the tell-tale pinpointing of the pupils associated with morphine overdose and another event also brought suspicion on him.

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

Sutherland’s body was exhumed and forensic scientists found morphine (from Papaver somniferum, opium poppy) to be present. Because the prosecution expected the absence of pinpointing to be a key part of the defence case it undertook what the New York Times called a ‘grisly demonstration’. This involved bringing a live cat into court, injecting it with morphine and then dripping atropine (from Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade) into its eyes, because atropine enlarges the pupils. The dead cat was shown to the jury so the members could see that the cat’s pupils remained normal sized.

In spite of this demonstration, the case was finely balanced after the defence called expert witnesses who presented claims that morphine could be absorbed from the soil and showed that methods for testing for its presence were imprecise in the extreme. What apparently led to the jury’s guilty verdict was Buchanan’s own appearance on the witness stand where he displayed a whining self-obsessed manner and was repeatedly caught out under cross-examination. Though this may have been the deciding factor, the trial is cited as the first case where forensic science providing the crucial evidence.

A fuller account of the case is available1 (note you will need to click on the ‘Additional Topic’ to get to the second page).

Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade

Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade

Because of an abridged version of the sort of legal challenges we’re used to surrounding the death penalty in the USA it was July 1895 before Buchanan’s execution took place.

According to the US reports at the time of the trial, there was another key factor in discovering that Sutherland’s death was not due to natural causes. This was that Buchanan secretly remarried his first wife within three weeks of the death. That gives the whole thing the appearance of a careful conspiracy, the sort of thing TV crime dramas turn to regularly.

The UK reports speak of the convoluted appeals processes that delayed the execution and say that his divorced wife made every effort to secure his release. There is no mention of a remarriage. Given that all three of the UK reports may have come from the same source it may just be one journalist’s oversight but it has left me curious to know if the remarriage can be verified.

What seems to have most interested the UK press, however, is not the case itself but the process of execution by means of electric shock. It is noted that the Buchanan execution gives ‘yet another demonstration’ of the inadequacies of the method.

Buchanan was shocked for fifty-eight seconds. (The reports say he was given a current of 1,740 volts but I won’t let myself be diverted by the poor standard of scientific knowledge amongst the press on this occasion.) At one of the connection points, on his leg, burning took place with the flesh visibly scorched and smoke given off. When the current was turned off, Buchanan still had a weak pulse and was heard to gasp several times. The current was turned on for a further twenty-three seconds after which Buchanan was declared to be dead.

I haven’t found any American accounts giving the gruesome details of the execution so I wonder if the UK press had decided, as along ago as the 19th century, that the US way of executing prisoners was barbaric.

In Geneva, after the Marie Jeanneret case in 1868, it was decided to abandon the use of capital punishment so there must have been some discussion of the morals and merits of this form of judicial sanction. Seeing if I can find that discussion is what may well lead me to taking out an annual subscription to the archive.

The death penalty for murder was abolished in the UK in 1969. If abolition was seriously being promoted as early as the second half of the 19th century there may be a rather depressing read across to the campaigns for reform of the drug control regime.

Follow @thepoisongarden on Twitter

Full Entries


Tuesday 25th October 2016 Saturday 20th August 2016 Sunday 6th March 2016 Wednesday 3rd February 2016


Saturday 28th November 2015 Friday 27th November 2015 Monday 17th August 2015 Wednesday 15th July 2015 Friday 26th June 2015 Thursday 25th June 2015 Thursday 30th April 2015 Wednesday 29th April 2015 Wednesday 11th March 2015 Tuesday 3rd March 2015 Saturday 28th February 2015 Sunday 22nd February 2015

November 2014

Monday 24th November 2014 Saturday 8th November 2014

October 2014

September 2014

Wednesday 24th September 2014 Monday 1st September 2014

August 2014

Tuesday 26th August 2014 Saturday 16th August 2014 Tuesday 5th August 2014 Friday 1st August 2014

July 2014

Sunday 27th July 2014 Wednesday 23rd July 2014 Sunday 13th July 2014 Sunday 6th July 2014 Tuesday 1st July 2014

June 2014

Wednesday 25th June 2014 Tuesday 24th June 2014 Sunday 22nd June 2014 Monday 9th June 2014 Wednesday 4th June 2014

May 2014

Monday 26th May 2014 Sunday 18th May 2014 Wednesday 14th May 2014

April 2014

Sunday 13th April 2014 Saturday 5th April 2014 Thursday 3rd April 2014 Tuesday 1st April 2014

March 2014

Monday 31st March 2014 Tuesday 25th March 2014 Friday 21st March 2014 Monday 17th March 2014 Sunday 16th March 2014 Tuesday 11th March 2014 Thursday 6th March 2014 Wednesday 5th March 2014 Saturday 1st March 2014

February 2014

Thursday 27th February 2014 Monday 24th February 2014 Wednesday 19th February 2014 Monday 17th February 2014 Thursday 13th February 2014 Monday 4th February 2014 Monday 3rd February 2014 Saturday 1st February 2014

January 2014

Thursday 28th January 2014 Thursday 23rd January 2014 Friday 17th January 2014 Wednesday 15th January 2014 Monday 13th January 2014 Thursday 9th January 2014 Tuesday 7th January 2014 Wednesday 1st January 2014

December 2013

Monday 23rd December 2013 Friday 20th December 2013 Tuesday 17th December 2013 Friday 14th December 2013 Thursday 12th December 2013 Sunday 8th December 2013 Wednesday 4th December 2013 Sunday 1st December 2013

November 2013

Friday 29th November 2013 Wednesday 27th November 2013 Tuesday 26th November 2013 Friday 22nd November 2013 Monday 18th November 2013 Friday 15th November 2013 Thursday 14th November 2013 Sunday 10th November 2013 Thursday 7th November 2013 Wednesday 6th November 2013 Friday 1st November 2013

October 2013

Thursday 31st October 2013 Sunday 27th October 2013 Wednesday 23rd October 2013 Monday 21st October 2013 Friday 18th October 2013 Friday 11th October 2013 Wednesday 9th October 2013 Tuesday 8th October 2013 Monday 7th October 2013 Tuesday 1st October 2013

September 2013

Monday 30th September 2013 Saturday 28th September 2013 Friday 27th September 2013 Monday 23rd September 2013 Sunday 15th September 2013 Monday 9th September 2013 Sunday 8th September 2013 Tuesday 3rd September 2013 Sunday 1st September 2013

August 2013

Tuesday 27th August 2013 Sunday 25th August 2013 Monday 19th August 2013 Friday 16th August 2013 Tuesday 13th August 2013 Friday 9th August 2013 Friday 2nd August 2013 Thursday 1st August 2013

July 2013

Saturday 27th July 2013 Sunday 21st July 2013 Wednesday 17th July 2013 Monday 15th July 2013 Saturday 13th July 2013 Friday 12th July 2013 Thursday 11th July 2013 Wednesday 10th July 2013 Tuesday 9th July 2013 Saturday 6th July 2013

June 2013

Friday 28th June 2013 Tuesday 25th June 2013 Friday 21st June 2013 Thursday 20th June 2013 Wednesday 19th June 2013 Saturday 15th June 2013 Sunday 9th June 2013 Saturday 8th June 2013 Saturday 1st June 2013

May 2013April 2013 March 2013 February 2013 January 2013 December 2012 November 2012 October 2012 September 2012 August 2012 July 2012 blog June 2012 blog May 2012 blog April 2012 blog March 2012 blog February 2012 blog January 2012 blog December 2011 blog November 2011 blog October 2011 blog September 2011 blog August 2011 blog July 2011 blog June 2011 blog


The POISON GARDEN website is not connected with Alnwick Garden Enterprises Ltd and/or The Alnwick Garden Trust.