O is for Opium

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 opium.


When you think about drugs and the nineteenth century, most people would immediately think of opium and other derivatives from the poppy plant (laudanum, morphine, heroin, etc). It was pretty ubiquitous and used far too freely in over-the-counter medications and tonics.

Harkup writes, “The ease of obtaining morphine before 1920, and the fact that it was undetectable in cadavers until 1850, together with publicity from several high-profile cases undoubtedly means murderers have gone unpunished for their crimes” (187).

“The easy availability of morphine up until the early twentieth century meant that it was not an uncommon murder method, and scientists had to work hard to develop chemical test to identify poisons in cases of suspicious deaths.

“The real-life Buchanan case brought to light the problems of distinguishing between the different alkaloids that might be present in a body. In 1892, Dr Robert Buchanan was living in New York after divorcing his first wife, and he had taken up with Anna Sutherland, the madam of a brothel. Anna had amassed a huge fortune through her business, and Buchanan decided to marry her. Her fortune was clearly not enough for Buchanan, though, and he insured Anna’s life for $50,000. When Anna died of a cerebral haemorrhage Buchanan was quick to collect the insurance money. He hurried back to his native Nova Scotia and remarried his first wife, just three weeks after Anna’s death” (193).

Yep, this is a play straight out of The Bungling Murderer’s Playbook.

FFS, guy.

Carlyle Harris, Buchanan's bungling brother-in-arms.

Carlyle Harris, Buchanan’s bungling brother-in-arms.

“Buchanan had almost got away with murder, but friends of Anna were suspicious and thought Buchanan had poisoned her. Two years earlier, Buchanan had taken a particular interest in the case of Carlyle Harris, who had murdered his wife using an overdose of morphine. The authorities had been alerted to Carlyle’s use of the poison by the appearance of Mrs Harris’s eyes after death. The morphine had caused the pupils to contract to pinpoints; Carlyle Harris was subsequently found guilty of murder.

“Buchanan called Harris a ‘bungling fool’ and a ‘stupid amateur’ [takes one to know one, I guess], and pointed out to his friends that if Harris had used atropine eyedrops they would have counteracted the effect of morphine, and no one would have been suspicious. A nurse who attended Anna Sutherland during her final illness noticed Buchanan doing just that – putting drops into Anna’s eyes when there was no obvious need to do so.

“Anna’s body was exhumed, and a post-mortem determined that death was due to a lethal dose of morphine, but the jury needed to be convinced. To demonstrate to the jury the effect of atropine and morphine a cat was brought into the courtroom. Both drugs were administered to the cat to demonstrate the effects on its eyes. This was a straightforward demonstration when compared to the difficulties in proving that sufficient morphine had been administered to Anna to kill her.

“At the time there were a number of chemical reactions that could be carried out on suspect materials, and characteristic changes in colour would identify the presence of certain compounds. Buchanan’s defence made a great show of the unreliability of these chemical colour tests. The best-known test for morphine at the time was the Pellagri test; the suspect substance was dissolved in concentrated hydrochloric acid, and a few drops of concentrated sulfuric acid were then added. Next, the resulting mixture was evaporated. A glowing red colour in the residue indicated the presence of morphine. By adding dilute hydrochloric acid, sodium carbonate and tincture of iodine . . . to the mixture, the glowing red was transformed into green.

“The Pellagri test, and many others, had been carefully carried out by Rudolph August Witthaus (1846-1915), a celebrated forensic chemist, in the Buchanan case. However, the defence produced another expert witness, Victor C. Vaughan, professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan. Vaughan claimed that cadaveric alkaloids (alkaloids produced in animal bodies by the decay process) gave the same results as morphine. A series of chemical tests were performed in the court that claimed to show positive colour-test results from extracts obtained from a decayed dog’s pancreas.

Victor C. Vaughan, a disgrace to laboratory regulations everywhere.

Victor C. Vaughan, a disgrace to laboratory regulations everywhere.

“A courtroom was not the ideal place to carry out complex chemical tests, and Vaughan skipped a few of the steps he claimed were not important to the final outcome. Test after test was carried out on test tubes containing morphine, and others containing cadaveric alkaloids. The colours Vaughan produced in his test tubes did not always match up to those stated in the textbooks; either way, the jury became baffled by the array of colours and descriptions of chemical processes. They were left with the impression that, even if the colours produced did not match the textbook descriptions, the same colours were produced by both morphine and cadaveric alkaloids, and the two compounds were essentially indistinguishable.

“Buchanan was convicted of the murder (and subsequently went to the electric chair), but this was based on other evidence brought against him. The scientific evidence appeared discredited, and newspapers rushed to publish the findings – the reliable Pellagri test was not so reliable after all.

“Though the tests performed by Vaughan for the jury did not stand up to the high level of standard procedures expected for such a serious crime as murder, the public’s confidence in forensic science was badly shaken. . . . . Anna Sutherland had certainly died of morphine poisoning, but a simple and reliable test needed to be found that would convince a jury. After the trial, to reassert the importance and reliability of forensic science, tremendous effort went into establishing reliable, reproducible and unmistakable tests for poisonous compounds. A new level of rigour was brought to the science of forensics, and these processes continue to be tested, improved and replaced by ever more robust methods to this day” (193-95).

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One Response to O is for Opium

  1. Halee Pagel says:

    Why did Victorians enjoy publicizing how murderers could have gotten off Scot free? It’s like giving out your password after an attempted hacking!


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