"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Great Burdon Poisoning

Death by poisoning often creates some of the greatest murder mysteries. Unlike other weapons, poison can do its lethal work without the killer being present on the scene. It is a secretive sort of murder, meaning that the criminal usually has to be an almost unimaginable blunderer to be "caught in the act." Often, the only way to catch the guilty party is to firmly tie him/her to the source of the poison. If that cannot be done, it can be very hard to solve the crime. If, on top of that, no solid motive can be found, the case can be considered virtually inscrutable.

As I have noted before on this blog, perhaps the most outstanding example of this judicial conundrum was the impenetrable death of Charles Bravo. A strong runner-up to this grim true-crime honor took place in the mid-19th century, in the otherwise unremarkable English township of Great Burdon.

At the center of our mystery is Joseph Snaith Wooler. Wooler was born in 1810. At the age of 26, he married 21-year-old Jane Brecknell. In 1848, following a career as a merchant in India, Wooler and his wife settled in Great Burdon to spend what they presumably assumed would be a long and peaceful retirement. The couple had no children. They lived alone except for one servant, 27-year-old Ann Taylor. By all appearances, the Woolers were a contented and devoted pair, giving absolutely no hint of the bizarre tragedy to come. Both were "constitutional invalids," (or what would probably now be called "hypochondriacs.") The Woolers took great care of their health, without anything in particular being the matter with them.

Life went on an uneventful course until May 8, 1855. The Woolers ate a dinner of "pig-cheek," which I fear is exactly what it sounds like, and beef. Mrs. Wooler also had soup.  Her husband did not. Soon after this meal, Mrs. Wooler suddenly began suffering extreme intestinal pain and vomiting. A Dr. Thomas Jackson was summoned. This medical man diagnosed a simple case of "influenza and disordered stomach." For a month, the unfortunate woman's symptoms gradually became more severe. A couple of neighbor ladies and Mrs. Wooler's brother often visited the ailing woman, but aside from the doctors, her only constant attendants were her husband and Ann Taylor. They both regularly gave Mrs. Wooler her prescribed medicines and when she could no longer eat, "injections" (enemas) of food. (Unbeknownst to everyone, nutrition given in this manner is undigested by the body, leaving the sick woman to virtually starve.) Mr. Wooler's attitude towards his suffering wife was described as unfailingly affectionate and devoted. He daily read the Scriptures to her.

Puzzled by his patient's stubbornly deteriorating condition, Dr. Jackson called another physician named Haslewood for consultation. This new doctor found himself equally baffled. Early in June, it began to dawn on them that Mrs. Wooler's illness had many characteristics suggesting poisoning.

The doctors kept this suspicion from both the Woolers. Dr. Haslewood later offered the rather lame explanation that "divulging our suspicion of poison at that time could not save the life of the sufferer; but if it came to her knowledge, the shock would hasten the final event." More bluntly, Dr. Jackson justified his silence by stating that if his intimations were proved false, "I was rendering myself liable to an action and damages." (In short, they were more concerned about their own necks than that of their patient.)

Jane Wooler died on June 27. The widower appeared--depending on your viewpoint--either stoically resigned or emotionally indifferent. The doctors refused to sign a death certificate until an autopsy was done.

This post-mortem confirmed their suspicions that she had died from the effects of an irritant poison, which chemical tests revealed to be that eternal standby, arsenic. It was believed Mrs. Wooler had been gradually murdered with small doses of poison administered over a long period of time. Further tests established that the victim had taken arsenic in the form of a solution, rather than the usual powder. The largest concentration of arsenic was found around her rectum, suggesting that her "injections" had been a major conduit for the poison. One of the syringes used to give Mrs. Wooler enemas was tested and found to contain residue of arsenic.

The coroner's jury returned an open verdict: Jane Wooler died of arsenic poisoning, but there was no evidence of how this was done.

This verdict--at least as far as the police were concerned--did not stand for long. There was a growing sense--shared by later crime writers such as William Roughead--that Wooler had spread his shows of piety and uxorial devotion just a bit too thick. Jane's brother William Brecknell--who had always disliked his brother in law--had little doubt about his sister's death. He gave a deposition before the local Justices of the Peace declaring that Joseph "did feloniously, of malice aforethought, and with intent to kill, administer poison to the said Jane Wooler."

Wooler was arrested two days after this deposition. He maintained his innocence, declaring, "I trust that Almighty God, before whom I stand, will bring to light the atrocious criminal who has perpetrated this foul deed."

Wooler's trial opened on December 7. Earlier, the prisoner had made the somewhat novel claim that, if his wife indeed had been poisoned, it must have been from the medicine provided by her doctors, and the defense essentially built their case upon that theory. (However, the remains of the medicines given Mrs. Wooler were tested, and no trace of the poison was found.)

The prosecution made much of the fact that Wooler had a good deal of knowledge about drugs and poisons. During his time in the India, he accumulated a formidable medicine chest, ("Enough to poison the whole village!" according to Dr. Haslewood,) which he continued to maintain at Great Burdon. Among the many drugs in Wooler's possession was "Fowler's Solution of Arsenic." Curiously enough, this bottle disappeared immediately after his wife's death.

One particularly inexplicable detail emerged at the trial. Dr. Jackson and his assistant, George Henzell, were regularly having Mrs. Wooler's urine tested during the latter part of her illness. The samples were stored in Wooler's coach house.  On June 22, Henzell, not finding any samples there, asked that some be sent to him.  Ann Taylor later gave a bottle of urine--which she said was in the usual place in the coach house--to Mr. Wooler, who had it delivered to the doctors.  The samples had consistently tested positive for the presence of a metallic deposit suspected to be arsenic. However, the sample sent on June 22 was free of this deposit. In fact, the doctors believed that the urine could not possibly have come from Mrs. Wooler.

One part of Dr. Haslewood's testimony in particular was considered significant. He reported that on June 23, Mr. Wooler told him that his wife had a "feeling of stiffness and tingling in her hands." Haslewood took great interest in this news, as it confirmed his belief that she was being poisoned. When the doctor asked how long Mrs. Wooler had this symptom, Mr. Wooler said it was for only that one day. When Haslewood later asked the invalid that same question, she said it had been going on for "three or four days." When her husband tried to correct her, she insisted that she was right, adding "I told you to tell the doctors two or three days ago, but you forgot." Was this a case of simple absent-mindedness, or, as the prosecution suggested, was Mr. Wooler displaying guilty obfuscation?  It was considered equally telling that on June 20--the one day when Mr. Wooler was absent from his wife's bedside--she showed a sudden and dramatic recovery. Upon his return, her condition again worsened. There was, the Crown argued, only one person around the victim who had the opportunity and the requisite knowledge of poisons to commit the murder: her husband.

The weakest part of the prosecution case was the complete lack of any discernible motive. The Crown admitted that they had been unable to find a reason why Mr. Wooler--or anyone else, for that matter--would want Jane Wooler dead. There was not even any insurance on her life. The prosecuting attorney could only say that some crimes were unaccountable "save to the eye of God himself."

As was stated previously, the argument made by Wooler's counsel, Serjeant Charles Wilkins, was essentially that a lot of bungling quacks misdiagnosed Mrs. Wooler throughout and, however inadvertently, were responsible for her death. While he did not dispute that she died from arsenic poisoning, he maintained that the source must have been the medicine provided by the doctors. Wilkins blithely threw around words such as "childish," "silly," "utterly devoid of sense," and "infamous in the extreme" to describe the physicians. If his client was poisoning his wife, Wilkins argued, why did he summon doctors? If his client was poisoning his wife, why did Wooler readily show investigators his collection of drugs? If his client was poisoning his wife, why, with his pharmaceutical knowledge, would he choose the easily-detectable arsenic, when he had strychnine, which was much more difficult to spot? Wilkins declared that there was no proof that the missing Fowler's bottle actually contained the arsenic solution, and there was no evidence connecting Wooler with its disappearance. As for the switched urine sample, Wilkins proposed that it had all just been an innocent mistake. (As a side note, it makes little sense that the poisoner--whoever it was--would see any benefit in deliberately providing a false sample after Mrs. Wooler's urine had already been examined.)  Naturally, Wilkins also stressed Wooler's complete absence of motive, and his consistent tenderness and devotion to his wife.

The judge's charge to the jury was very favorable to the defendant; in fact, it could almost be called a demand for an acquittal. After less than ten minutes of deliberation, the jurors complied: Joseph Wooler was pronounced "Not guilty." [As a footnote, Dr. Jackson subsequently sued Wooler for £16, the cost of the "drugs and attendance" he provided during Mrs. Wooler's illness. The jury found for the plaintiff. Wooler said afterwards that "he would not pay a sixpence, as he considered it his wife's blood-money." Spectators manifested "the greatest joy," at what they considered some small payback for what they believed was the earlier miscarriage of justice. The defendant, on the other hand, was received with "hooting and groaning."] Despite this public unpopularity, Wooler lived uneventfully at his Great Burdon home, with Ann Taylor staying on as housekeeper, until his death in 1871.

The verdict, as the "Durham County Advertiser" complained, left "the great sea of dark conjecture as stormy and shoreless as ever." Everyone agreed that Jane Wooler died from arsenic. No one thought for a minute that the poor woman committed suicide through the long, agonizing ordeal of slow poisoning. Aside from Wilkins' wild claims, there is no reason to believe that the doctors were in any way responsible for the victim's death. Someone got away with a particularly cruel and cold-blooded murder. But who?

In his charge to the Wooler jury, the judge, Baron Martin, made the baffling comment that "He could only say for himself that if he were making any surmises or were allowing his imagination to take scope, there was a person upon whom his suspicions would rest other than the prisoner." He later rather weakly explained that he saw no proof against anyone, but if he were to indulge in "surmise and fancy," "not the prisoner but some other person would first occur to my mind." In short, he felt pretty much anyone could have poisoned Jane Wooler.

On the other hand, Linda Stratmann, in her recent book "The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder," argued that the Great Burdon Mystery was not all that mysterious at all. She proposed that, just like an Agatha Christie novel, the real murderer was someone whom no one suspected: the servant, Ann Taylor. Stratmann pointed out that it was Taylor who prepared the soup that had first sickened Mrs. Wooler. Taylor played a major role in nursing Mrs. Wooler and preparing her enemas. As the servant had been the one to fetch the bogus urine sample from the coach house, Stratmann believed it was logical to believe Taylor was responsible for the substitution. (It should be again noted, however, that it was Mr. Wooler who actually sent the bottle.) This author was of the opinion that, despite what was claimed at the time, no particular expertise was required to carry out a program of slow poisoning. On the contrary, perhaps the long-drawn-out nature of Mrs. Wooler's death was a product not of practiced cunning, but the ineptness of an amateur.

While Ann Taylor certainly had the opportunity to commit the crime, finding a motive is even more difficult to fathom than it was with Joseph Wooler. Taylor seems to have had a sterling reputation. Not even the aggressive Serjeant Wilkins tried to cast suspicion upon her--even though she was the only other alternative suspect. There is not a hint of anything irregular or antagonistic about her relations with either of the Woolers. She did not profit in any way from her mistress' death. Unless Taylor had a well-hidden psychopathic side that compelled her to commit a murder for the sheer fun of it, it is extremely difficult to picture her as the guilty party.

Unfortunately, we will never know for certain who was responsible for the death of Jane Wooler. However, pace Ms. Stratmann, I am inclined to believe that Joseph Snaith Wooler privately considered himself to be a very clever and very lucky man.

[Note: For me, the most intriguing aspect of this strange case is the fact that Ann Taylor remained Wooler's housekeeper.  If, as almost had to have been the case, one of those two murdered Mrs. Wooler, the other virtually had to have known--or suspected--their guilt.  One would very much like to know what those two had to say to each other in private.]


  1. Normally, one would suspect either the husband or the maid, but the lack of motive is very puzzling. It may be that there was a romance between them, but there is no word that they married later, as would usually be the case in such instances. If they didn't want to raise suspicions with such an action, they would likely have moved away from the village. It seems to have been a pointless murder. If committed by a psychopath, why would there have been just the one killing? People would have been very suspicious of any feather after that.

    But the defence counsel was certainly correct about the incompetent doctors...

  2. I saw Linda Stratmann give a very good talk last year involving death by poison. But it wasn't as good as the talk I saw her give a few years before about her book on the Illustrated Police News.

  3. Is there any further information about Joseph Wooler and An Taylor after the murder? Did Taylor stay as Wooler's housekeeper until his death? How did he die?

    1. I haven't found any more about them than that. Yes, apparently Taylor worked for him until his death. She then went on to other housekeeping jobs until at least 1891, when she disappears from the records. I don't know how Wooler died, but so far as I know, his death wasn't considered suspicious.


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