"How long, O Lord, how long shall we have to listen to all this tripe about commercial arsenic? Murderers learn it now at their mother's knee.”
~Dorothy Sayers, "Strong Poison"
In March of 1894, a handsome 26-year-old named George Dean married a pretty 18-year-old named Mary Seymour. That is the first and the last normal thing detail about their story.
The couple's household in Sydney, Australia quickly became an unhappy one. Dean, a ferryboat captain, was away from home much of the time, and when he was around he and his mother-in-law, Catherine Seymour, quarreled frequently. After Dean banished Catherine from his home, he and his wife fell on increasingly bad terms. When Mary gave birth to a daughter in December of 1894, Dean even began sullenly insinuating (on no good grounds) that he doubted the child was his. On March 1, 1895, Mrs. Dean had a "scrap" with her husband, which ended with him making the ominous comment that he would marry someone else as soon as he "got rid" of Mary. On March 2, she noticed that the lemon cordial she habitually drank had an oddly bitter taste to it. She had noticed a similar bitterness in beef tea she drank several months before. Soon afterward, she fell ill.
Mrs. Dean's health continued to decline, and the strange taste of her food and drink, coupled with some very suspicious behavior on the part of her husband, led to George Dean being arrested in April on a charge of poisoning his wife.
The evidence against Dean looked quite damning. His wife and her mother testified how Dean had suggested Mary drink some porter. He brought her the glass himself. She saw a white sediment at the bottom of the drink, and refused to take it. On another occasion, he served her tea that had the same white substance in it. Before he gave her medicine her doctor had prescribed, she saw him stir a white powder into it, which he assured her was part of the prescription. After taking it, she immediately became violently ill. The doctor later denied that he had ordered any such powder for her. During Mary's illness, her vomit and the remains of her medicine were analyzed and found to contain arsenic and strychnine. The defense argument was simply that Mrs. Dean must have poisoned herself in an effort to frame her husband for attempted murder. Given the evidence, it is a bit surprising that the jury had a hard time reaching a decision. After much wrangling, the jury finally came up with a verdict of guilty, but with a "recommendation to mercy," tacked on to win over those jurors less certain of Dean's culpability. The judge, William Windeyer, remarked that he "had never in his experience tried a clearer case than this," and that he "was as well convinced of his guilt as though he had seen the attempt to poison his wife, not once or twice, but on every occasion on which she fell sick." Windeyer condemned the prisoner to be hanged.
Normally this would have been the end of George Dean, but fortunately for him, Windeyer's comments backfired dramatically. His Honor already had a reputation as a "hanging judge," and his obvious bias against the defendant created a great deal of adverse comment. It was widely suspected that he had pressured the jury to convict the defendant. This quickly snowballed into a general sentiment that this convicted poisoner was an innocent martyr who fell victim to an "outrageous miscarriage of justice." Public meetings were held in favor of the prisoner which drew thousands of indignant citizens. Money was raised for his defense. Petitions were sent to the government. The true villains, public opinion soon determined, were Mrs. Dean and her mother. Rumors spread that Mrs. Dean was a habitual arsenic eater and a woman of the worst possible character. (These rumors were hardly quieted by the embarrassing disclosure of the fact that Catherine Seymour had a background that included pickpocketing, receiving stolen property, and brothel-keeping.) It was even bruited about that Catherine had poisoned her daughter in order to incriminate her despised son-in-law. The public support for George Dean, and corresponding fury against everyone who had a role in convicting him, reached such a level that on April 17 his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
That did little to subdue the uproar over the case. One of Dean's solicitors, William Crick, was an MP, and on April 18 he gave an address before the assembly where he vigorously denounced Judge Windeyer as unfit to sit on the bench, and he demanded that royal commissioners reopen the case. His client, he declared, had been convicted on "utterly unreliable evidence."
In response to this public outrage, the government appointed a commission of three highly-regarded men to review the case. It was, in essence, an informal trial of Mary Dean and her mother, who were now generally regarded as black-hearted witches who had tried to send an innocent man to the gallows. On June 28, this commission released a report stating that they had "grave doubts" about Dean's guilt, and recommended that he be released. It is difficult to determine if this decision was reached solely due to an objective view of the facts of the case, or if they were influenced by the government's anxiety to placate a large, angry populace.
George Dean was freed, and for some time afterward was quite the popular hero. Large numbers of people, mostly women, rode his ferry simply for the privilege of gazing at his "manly brow" and contemplating his courage and virtue in the face of his horrible ordeal. His most outspoken solicitor, Richard Meagher, won a seat in Parliament simply for having defended Dean.
Happy endings all around! Well, not quite. On September 18, a member of Parliament asked the Attorney General, John Want, about rumors that there had been a "confession" in the Dean case. He received the enigmatic reply that Want "must decline to answer, as whatever communication he had was of a confidential nature."
These words brought the Dean controversy, which everyone thought had been finally settled, roaring back to life. A suddenly-nervous Meagher had the "heroic ferryman" issue a statement denouncing his "persecutors." Dean asserted his innocence and demanded that Parliament clear his name from the Attorney General's slanderous insinuations.
By way of reply, Attorney General Want presented to Parliament a statement from Sir Julian Salamons, the lawyer who had conducted the prosecution of Dean before the royal commission. Salamons said that in the previous July, Meagher admitted to him that after Dean had been convicted, the ferryman fully confessed his guilt to the solicitor.
In July 1895, the "Daily Telegraph" published an editorial suggesting that Meagher's ineptitude had been responsible for the innocent Dean being sent to jail. Meagher was so infuriated by this that he wished to sue the paper for libel. He asked Salamons to represent him in this proposed lawsuit. Salamons told him he had no grounds for complaint. After all, he said, Dean was innocent, but had been found guilty. It would be different, of course, if Dean had been guilty...
It was then that Meagher blurted out the truth: Dean was guilty. His client had admitted to Meagher that all the charges against him were true. In other words, Meagher had stirred up public opinion and blackened the characters of two helpless women all to set free a man he knew was a cold-blooded poisoner.
Salamons said he tried to persuade Meagher to make Dean's confession public, but the solicitor refused. This left Salamons with a great dilemma on his hands: He felt that what Meagher told him fell under the category of "lawyer/client privilege," which decreed that he stay silent. On the other hand, if he kept Meagher's revelation to himself, Mary Dean and her mother would continue to be publicly vilified, while a would-be murderer remained a public idol. He finally shared his secret with the Attorney General.
Meagher angrily called Salamons' statement "a base and cruel fabrication," and asserted that Sir Julian was suffering from "the demon of mental affliction." Crick made a thoroughly disgraceful speech in parliament, describing Salamons as "a cunning little Jew," "a wily Jew" who was simply inventing his entire story. Dean himself denied making any such confession to Meagher.
Meagher and Crick picked the wrong target. In his forty years at the bar, Salamons had not risen to the top of his profession for nothing. He responded to Meagher's attack with a Parliamentary speech that was a brilliant and utterly damning condemnation of Dean and his solicitors. By the time he finished speaking, there was not an impartial soul left in the country who still believed George Dean was an martyr. When a chemist who had sold Dean arsenic finally came forward, the public revulsion towards the ferryman was as strong as their former adulation.
On October 5, Dean, Crick and Meagher were arrested and charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Dean also faced perjury charges. Three days later, Crick rose from his seat in Parliament, and made a stunning announcement. He read a full confession from Meagher, where the solicitor admitted the truth of every word Sir Julian had said. Meagher followed that up by resigning from the parliamentary position he had won only a month before. The following day, the Attorney General read before Parliament a statement from Dean, admitting not only his guilt, but that he had indeed told Meagher of his crime.
By that point, it was far from clear who was the most hated man in Australia--Meagher or George Dean.
The charges against Crick were dropped when it was established that Meagher had never told him of Dean's confession. Meagher was found guilty, but his sentence was later overturned on a technicality. Meagher's law career was over, but he became a successful real estate agent, and, rather remarkably, won a seat in the Legislative Assembly. He also served a two-year term as Mayor of Sydney. In 1920, he even managed to use his political connections to get reinstated to the roll of solicitors.
Dean was found guilty of perjury, and sentenced to fourteen years hard labor. Thanks to his good behavior in prison, he was released after nine years and lived a quiet life until his death in 1933. Mary Seymour Dean obtained a divorce in 1896. She remarried four years later. Hopefully, her second husband was a better bargain than her first.