"...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, April 30, 2018

The Luck of Thomas Smethurst

"One of the most dangerous classes in the world,” says Holmes, “is the drifting and friendless woman. She is the inevitable inciter of crime in others.”
~"The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax," Arthur Conan Doyle

If you love not wisely, but too well, you become a protagonist for William Shakespeare. If you love not wisely and not well at all, you become Strange Company blog fodder.

That brings us to the star of this week's post. He styled himself as a "doctor," but his medical degree was likely bought through dodgy means. In fact, virtually everything about him was dodgy; he was one of those people that generally inspires mistrust on first sight. He even had a name fit for a Dickensian villain: Thomas Smethurst.

Smethurst was born in Budworth, Cheshire, in 1805. In 1828, he married one Mary Durham. She was over twenty years older than the groom, but possessed enough money to make her charms irresistible to Smethurst. Two years later, he became a licensed apothecary, and later somehow acquired a medical license. (Likely through the early 19th century equivalent of mail order.) The dubious nature of his degree did not stop him from having a successful private practice, which was followed by an equally popular establishment specializing in the then-fashionable "water cure." In 1850, Dr. Smethurst retired on a comfortable income of £240 a year.

The year 1858 saw Thomas and Mary living in a boarding house in Bayswater. It was here that they met the woman destined to lead them into true-crime immortality: 42-year-old Isabella Bankes.

Bankes, like Camille Holland, was the perfect example of Sherlock Holmes' dangerously vulnerable "drifting and friendless woman": she was a spinster, reasonably attractive, possessed of a handsome private income, and longing for a little romance in her life. She was, in other words, perfect prey for the Thomas Smethursts of this world. Before long, it became shockingly obvious to their landlady that Dr. Smethurst and Miss Bankes had become considerably more than mere friends and neighbors, and she ordered them to leave her house.

They obliged. In December 1858, Thomas and Isabella--both merrily ignoring the fact that the doctor was a married man--entered into a bigamous union and settled down together in Richmond. As for the legitimate Mrs. Smethurst, she appeared to take her husband's flagrant infidelity with a remarkable sang-froid. Thomas continued to visit his wife occasionally and provide her with financial support, which evidently was enough to keep her contented.

Meanwhile, Isabella's health began to take a serious downturn. She had occasionally suffered from what were diagnosed as "bilious attacks," but by March 1859, they suddenly increased in severity. She began suffering violent spells of vomiting and diarrhea, and complained of a burning sensation in her throat and stomach. Her physician, a Dr. Julius, prescribed various medications, none of which had any effect. Her odd symptoms, and their resistance to any of the usual treatments, led him to suspect she was being poisoned. Dr. Julius could not help but note how very attentive Isabella's "husband" was to the invalid: Smethurst was continually bringing her food and medicines.

In mid-April, Isabella's sister Louisa came to see her. She was shocked at the change in Isabella. When the patient complained about the awful taste of the tapioca she had been served, Louisa offered to make her a fresh batch. Smethurst instantly vetoed the suggestion. After that, he forbade Louisa from making more visits, explaining that Isabella's physicians had given orders that she not have any visitors. The excitement was too much for her.

It could be surmised it was too much for Thomas, as well.

In late April, Isabella was examined by another physician, a Dr. Todd. He recorded that the ailing woman had a "peculiar expression...a terrified look, such as I have never before observed in a patient." His prescribed remedies were no more effective than Dr. Julius' had been, and Todd too began entertaining dark theories about the nature of her illness.

On April 30, Smethurst visited a solicitor and presented him with a will Isabella had recently signed. The document left all she possessed to "my sincere and loved friend, Thomas Smethurst." Once that was taken care of, he wrote Louisa giving her permission to visit. She found her sister in even worse shape than before. Louisa had brought Isabella some soup. Smethurst took the tureen from her and brought it in another room--so the soup could cool, he explained. A moment later, he brought the soup back and gave some to Isabella, who promptly vomited it back up.

Isabella's doctors compared notes and agreed that an examination of her stools and vomit was called for. They collected samples and sent them to the renowned toxicologist Alfred Swaine Taylor for testing. The results were no great surprise to them: Isabella was being poisoned. On May 2, Dr. Smethurst was arrested.

Smethurst vigorously protested that he was innocent of any wrongdoing. He insisted that if Isabella had been ingesting arsenic, it must have come from the medications prescribed by Dr. Julius. Her doctors were killing her, he declared.

On May 3, Isabella died. Smethurst was now charged with murder.

The next day, an autopsy was performed, which revealed that Isabella had been five to seven weeks pregnant. The doctors who performed the post-mortem ruled that her pregnancy alone could not account for her illness. They believed she might have suffered from acute dysentery, but that the most likely cause of her death was irritant poisoning. No arsenic was found in her body, but further tests revealed the presence of a small amount of antimony. Her bottles of medication were also tested. All appeared to be normal except for one. This container of potassium chlorate, which was dubbed "bottle 21," became the central item in the case. Professor Taylor announced that this bottle showed the presence of arsenic. He gave his opinion that Smethurst had used the potassium chlorate--a common diuretic--to speed up the elimination of arsenic from Isabella's system, thus explaining why the autopsy failed to find any traces of the poison. According to Professor Taylor, Smethurst was a poisoner, and a very clever one.

Taylor's verdict was the central piece of evidence at Smethurst's trial. The prosecution brought in an array of doctors who all agreed that Miss Bankes had not suffered from dysentery, or any other natural illness. Testimony showed that Isabella's doctors had not prescribed her any medications containing arsenic or antimony. If those poisons were in her system, they were put there by nefarious means.

It was all looking extremely black for the defendant, until Dr. Taylor reluctantly took the stand. He was forced to make one of the most embarrassing revelations ever given during a murder trial by an "expert witness." It turned out that--whoopsie!--"bottle 21" had never contained arsenic, after all. Taylor--rather late in the day--realized that the arsenic he had detected really came from the copper gauze he used in his tests. Despite this blunder, he continued to insist that Isabella Bankes had been killed by an irritant poison.

He just could no longer prove it.

The scientific community was disgusted with Taylor. An editorial in the "Dublin Medical Press" thundered, "The man who, par excellence, was looked upon as the pillar of medical jurisprudence; the man who it was believed could clear up the most obscure case, involving medicolegal considerations, ever brought into a Court of Justice; the man without whose assistance no criminal suspected of poisoning could be found guilty in England; the man whose opinion was quoted as the highest of all authorities at ever trial where analysis is required, is the same who has now admitted the use of impure copper in an arsenic test where a life hung upon his evidence, the same who has brought an amount of disrepute upon his branch of the profession that years will not remove, the ultimate effects of which it is impossible to calculate, which none can regret end, a lesson may be taught which will not be lost upon the medical jurists, and which may tend to keep the fountain of justice clear and unpolluted." The editorial closed by suggesting that Professor Taylor permanently retire to the country and take his copper gauze with him.

The defense brought on their own medical witnesses, who asserted that Isabella had died from natural causes. If she had been poisoned, they were certain the autopsy would have found evidence of it. These physicians believed the traces of antimony Taylor discovered could be attributed to the bismuth Isabella had been prescribed. The prosecution continued to insist Miss Bankes had been poisoned, although they conceded that it was impossible to say what exactly the poison had been, or how it had been administered.

The solid defense arguments led many legal minds to assume Smethurst would be acquitted. However, even though Taylor's initial verdict of poison had been refuted, it managed to taint the case. An aura of "poisoner" still clung to the defendant, and Smethurst's naturally shifty personality did not help him any. Despite the strong case to be made for "reasonable doubt," the jury found Smethurst guilty of murder, and he was sentenced to death.

The verdict was immensely unpopular. The public and the medical community found themselves in the uncomfortable position of saying, "We think he did it, too, but we have to let him off."  Smethurst may well have been (in the words of the "British Medical Journal") "a liar, a cheat, a scoundrel of the blackest dye," but his trial had signally failed to prove that he was also a murderer.

In those days, there was no Court of Criminal Appeal. If Smethurst's admittedly unlikeable neck was to be saved, it could only be done by the Home Secretary, George Cornewall Lewis. After being bombarded by petitions from medical and legal experts pointing out the many flaws in the case against the condemned man, Lewis took the unprecedented step of granting Smethurst a free pardon. In his report, Lewis noted that he had no other choice, due to "the imperfection of medical science, and from the fallibility of judgement, in an obscure malady, even of skilful and experienced medical practitioners."

In other words, Dr. Taylor wound up being responsible for saving Thomas Smethurst from the gallows. I doubt he appreciated the irony.

In December 1859, Smethurst stood trial for bigamy. His defense was characteristically sordid: He revealed that his wife Mary had previously lived with an artist, John Peter Laporte, and had borne his child, a son named Charles. (A curious footnote: it was Charles Laporte who had introduced his mother to Smethurst.)

Smethurst's lawyer argued that Mary had wed Laporte, thus making her marriage to Smethurst invalid. (And, not incidentally, making the late Isabella Bankes Thomas' only legal spouse.) Unfortunately for the defendant, the court was unmoved by this novel argument. He was found guilty and sentenced to a year imprisonment. Upon his release, Smethurst and his wife were reunited, and undoubtedly spent many happy years sharing some unforgettable memories.

In 1862, Smethurst claimed probate on Isabella's will, successfully fighting off a challenge from Miss Bankes' relatives that the document was invalid. He inherited some £800.

The last we hear from our hero is when he petitioned the Home Office asking compensation for the six months he spent in prison between his arrest and the pardon. His application was refused with the tart comment that Smethurst "had a very lucky escape."

[Note: Some crime historians believe that, pardon be damned, the bigamous little doctor was a cold-blooded poisoner. However, in the "British Medical Journal" of January 5, 1985, J.F. Fielding argued that Isabella's symptoms, as well as the results of her autopsy, all clearly point to Crohn's Disease being the true cause of her death. In her book "The Secret Poisoner," Linda Stratmann added that if Isabella did suffer from Crohn's or ulcerative colitis, her pregnancy may well have exacerbated the condition, leaving her to die from malnutrition or dehydration. On the other hand, we have Louisa Bankes' description of Smethurst's decidedly shady behavior during Isabella's last illness, not to mention the fact that Miss Bankes' death proved greatly profitable to him.

Smethurst deserved to be acquitted. But did he deserve to be exonerated? We'll never know for sure.]


  1. Yes, one of those cases which demands a 'not guilty' verdict, but not a 'not guilty' opinion.


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