I’m continuing my examination of major Victorian murder cases brought about by poisoning. A new one every Monday! These posts were inspired by Kathryn Harkup’s book A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie (2015), from which I am quoting below.
Today let’s talk about monkshood.
“Aconitum variegatum – monkshood – is considered to be the most poisonous plant in Europe; it has been called the ‘Queen Mother of Poisons‘ . . . . The genus contains around 250 species, of which some of the common names include monkshood (named after the shape of its flowers), wolfsbane, leopard’s bane and Devil’s helmet” (142-43).
“The best-known case of aconitine poisoning . . . occurred in 1881 . . . . Dr George Henry Lamson was a medical doctor who volunteered as an army surgeon in Romania and Serbia. When he returned to England he set up a medical practice in Bournemouth, but he had acquired a morphine habit, perhaps as a result of his experiences of war. Initially Lamson prospered, but as his morphine addiction took over his life his practice floundered, and debts started to build up.
“Financial relief came in 1879 in the form of an inheritance. Lamson’s wife, Kate, was one of four siblings who had equal shares of the inheritance from their parents. When Lamson’s brother-in-law Herbert John died, his portion of the inheritance was redistributed amongst the three remaining siblings. However, Lamson’s financial relief was short-lived, and his debts continued to grow.
“Lamson decided that the only way out of his financial difficulties was another inheritance, and he set his sights on Percy John, Kate’s 18-year-old crippled brother. Percy had a curvature of the spine that had paralysed him from the waist down, though he had full use of his upper limbs and was in otherwise good health. Lamson made his first attempt on the boy’s life in the summer of 1881. While on holiday on the Isle of Wight, Lamson gave Percy a pill that he dutifully swallowed. Soon afterwards he became very ill, but he made a complete recovery and returned to his boarding school in Wimbledon for the autumn term. Lamson’s money worries were becoming acute, and he went to America to try to make his fortune but returned with his situation unimproved. While he was there, Lamson made a significant purchase; a type of gelatin capsule designed for taking powdered medication.
“On 24 November 1881, Lamson made another important shopping trip. He bought two grains of aconitine (approximately 130mg) from a pharmacist in London. Lamson was unknown to the pharmacist, but because he was a medical doctor he was able to purchase poisons without having to answer any awkward questions – the pharmacist simply asked for Dr Lamson’s name and checked in the register of medical professionals. Finding everything in order he sold the aconitine to Lamson for 2s 9d.
“On 3 December, Lamson paid a visit to Percy at his school in Wimbledon. When he arrived he sat down to talk with Percy and the headmaster. Sherry was served, to which Lamson added a spoonful of sugar, claiming that it counteracted the effect of the alcohol. At some point during the visit Lamson produced a Dundee cake with three slices already cut and he proceeded to offer them to Percy and the headmaster. He took the last slice for himself.
“Conversation turned to Lamson’s recent trip to America, and he produced some of the capsules he had bought there. He recommended the capsules to the headmaster as a means of giving bitter medications to the pupils so they wouldn’t have to taste them. To demonstrate, he filled one of the capsules with sugar, from the same bowl he had used for his sherry, then pushed the two halves together. He gave the capsule to Percy, complimented him on being a champion pill-taker, and asked him to show the headmaster how easy it was to swallow these special pills. Percy did as he was told. Lamson then promptly made his excuses and left, saying he did not want to miss his train to catch the boat to France” (148-50).
Yeah, nothing at all suspicious about any of this. No way the headmaster will remember that the ill-fated Percy was given some weird pill immediately before he died by a man who then immediately fled the country.
“Within ten minutes of Lamson leaving, Percy became ill. He vomited and complained of stomach pains. He was carried up the stairs to his room by his friends. He said he felt the way he had after taking the pill Lamson had given him on holiday. His condition worsened, with his whole body convulsing so he had to be forcibly held down. Two doctors attended the boy. Both were baffled by Percy’s symptoms, though there was no doubt he was in considerable pain . . . . Percy died that night, after suffering four hours of torment.
“The doctors believed that the body had been poisoned with some kind of vegetable alkaloid. Suspicion fell on Lamson almost immediately, and the police began to search for him. Though he had successfully made it to France, Lamson voluntarily returned to England, and walked into a police station to help with their enquiries. He was promptly arrested for murder.
“A post-mortem examination of Percy’s body had been ordered, but no obvious signs as to the cause of death could be detected. Dr Thomas Stevenson (1838-1908), an expert in alkaloid poisons, was brought in to examine the remains. He managed to extract a substance from Percy’s organs, but there was no chemical test to identify aconitine (and there still isn’t).
“Stevenson had to rely on his extensive knowledge of the taste of alkaloids. The doctor had a collection of 50 to 80 different alkaloids in his laboratory, and he could identify all of them by taste; his party trick was to identify a particular alkaloid by taste before his colleagues could complete the chemical test to confirm its identification. The taste and burning sensations of aconitine were, he claimed, unique. He proposed that as little as 1/60 grain of aconitine, which equates to approximatley 1mg, could prove fatal.
“Lamson was probably well aware that there was no known chemical test for aconitine, and he had chosen this poison deliberately . . . . Lamson’s defence did their best to throw doubt on the scientific evidence, as so little was apparently known about aconitine poisoning.
“The pharmacist who sold the aconitine to Lamson had also come forward to testify. Despite keeping no record of the transaction (he was not required to by law) the sale was so unusual that it stuck in his mind, and when he later read about the poisoning case in a newspaper he contacted the police. Another damning piece of evidence was found in Lamson’s notebook, where he had jotted down the symptoms of aconitine poisoning.
“To this day no one knows exactly how Lamson administered the poison, though it seems likely it was either in the pill or the cake. A lethal amount of aconitine could have been present in the pill capsule while still leaving plenty of room for it to be filled with sugar. An alternative theory, worthy of Dame Agatha herself, is that the poison was in a raisin in the slice of Dundee cake given to Percy. Despite not known precisely how he had carried out the crime, the jury took just 30 minutes to find Lamson guilty, and he was sentenced to death.
“Lamson’s time in prison forcibly broke his morphine habit; perhaps his newly acquired lucidity made him realise the cruelty of his actions. Four days before he was executed he confessed to the murder of Percy John” (150-52).