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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.


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