"...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, August 31, 2015

The Poisonous Adelaide Bartlett

A surprising number of bizarre murders arise out of a backdrop of bland normality. Dull, respectable folk with dull, respectable lives suddenly take an unexpectedly shocking turn.

The same can hardly be said for today's heroine, Adelaide Bartlett. Her life began in an aura of weird mystery, and, many years later, ended in one.

And what happened in between was pure murder.

We have very little information about Adelaide's early years, and what is known is decidedly odd. She was born in France on December 19th, 1855. Her mother was an Englishwoman named Clara Chamberlain. Clara was married to a French mathematics teacher named Adolphe Collet de la Tremoille, but he was apparently not Adelaide's biological father. The question of who sired Adelaide remains unanswered. It was said that her real father was "an Englishman of good social position," but even this was never established. All we know is that he must have been well-known and "respectable" enough to feel it necessary to keep his identity a secret. He must also have been of considerable wealth and influence. Adelaide's father remained an important figure in her life, guiding her destiny with a powerful hidden hand.

Adolphe de la Tremoille died in 1860. Clara followed him to the grave six years later. The now-orphaned Adelaide was taken in by a William Wellbeloved and his wife Ann. Adelaide grew up to be a pretty, intelligent, graceful, and well-educated girl, but her strange family circumstances inevitably left its mark on her personality. However, it was not until some time later that the world learned just how warped a psyche she may have had.

When Adelaide was 19, her father arranged a marriage for her. She was sent to England, where a 30-year-old grocer named Edwin Bartlett was--to put it bluntly--given a large sum of money to marry her. Edwin was, on paper, a perfectly good matrimonial catch. He was ambitious, hard-working, clean-living, amiable, and reasonably attractive. However, he and Adelaide were virtual strangers when they wed. It would not be surprising if the girl deeply resented this arranged marriage, but no one, including Edwin, gave her feelings on the matter any consideration at all.

via British Newspaper Archive

The marriage contract had three stipulations Edwin had to follow before receiving his money and his wife: He had to take sole responsibility for Adelaide, he had to promise never to refer to her dodgy background, and he had to continue her education. In accordance with this last clause, immediately after the pair married on April 6, 1875, Edwin packed his bride off to a boarding-school in Stoke Newington. Adelaide remained there for a year, after which she was sent to a Protestant convent in Belgium. (Although Adelaide had been raised as a Catholic, she converted to her new husband's religion.) It was not until late in 1877 that she returned to England, and she and Edwin finally began their life together.

On the surface, at least, all seemed well. Adelaide made a great show of acting the "perfect wife." Edwin's chain of grocery stores flourished. Still, it must have been a dull existence for the new Mrs. Bartlett. She made no friends (although she easily charmed men, women appeared to find her decidedly off-putting.) With Edwin working long hours at his business, she spent most of her time alone with little to do.

In 1878, the first signs of trouble emerged. Adelaide had found an unorthodox way of keeping herself entertained. Her new father-in-law, Edwin Bartlett Sr.--who had disliked Adelaide from the start--accused her of having a liaison with Young Edwin's brother, Frederick. Although the charges apparently were only too true, Edwin took his wife's side in the family dispute and professed to believe her denial that an affair had taken place. The couple managed to force Edwin Senior to make a formal apology--in writing! Frederick fled to America, although there are signs that he and Adelaide secretly remained in communication.

The Bartletts remained childless until 1881, when, after a long, difficult labor, Adelaide gave birth to a stillborn child. She found the entire experience so traumatic that she vowed she would never become pregnant again. Edwin acquiesced with this decision.

In 1883, the Bartletts moved to Merton Abbey, near Wimbledon, where they made the acquaintance of the local Wesleyan pastor, 27-year-old George Dyson. The trio soon became the closest of friends. Edwin enlisted the reverend to tutor Adelaide in the Classics.  Dyson would often spend the day alone with Adelaide at the Bartlett home while Edwin was at work. The two men exchanged gushing letters, with Edwin writing Dyson lines like "Who could help loving you?" The Bartletts archly called the pastor "Georgius Rex." Dyson wrote Adelaide some truly unforgivable poetry, such as:

Who is it that hath burst the door,
Unclosed the heart that shut before,
And set her queen-like on its throne,
And made its homage all her own?
My Birdie.

The relationship continued after the Bartletts moved to a two-room flat in the suburb of Pimlico. This odd ménage à trois became so intimate that--according to the later testimony of George and Adelaide--Edwin virtually "gave" Adelaide to the reverend, making Dyson her unofficial "co-husband." Furthermore, if Edwin should predecease Adelaide, he asked Dyson to marry her.

Adelaide confided to Dyson many troubling things about her husband. Edwin, she said, had been suffering for years from a mysterious "internal complaint." To soothe the pain of this affliction, she was in the habit of giving him chloroform. Worse still, she claimed that a Dr. Thomas Nichols had told her that Edwin would undoubtedly die within a year.

It was a fact that late in 1885, Edwin's normally robust health took a sudden downward turn, so much so that a physician, Alfred Leach, was summoned. Dr. Leach found that Edwin was suffering from indigestion that he believed was caused by mercury poisoning. Additionally, Edwin's teeth and gums were in an appalling condition. (Edwin had fallen into the hands of a quack dentist, who prepared his mouth for dentures by sawing his teeth off at the gum line.) When Leach questioned him, (he assumed Bartlett had been taking mercury as a cure for syphilis,) Edwin said only that he had been taking pills, but he professed not to know what they were. He strongly--and, as it turned out, truthfully--denied having any venereal disease.

During Edwin's illness, Adelaide appeared to be the most devoted of wives. She insisted on acting as his sole nurse, attending him day and night. When Leach advised her to get more rest, she replied, "What is the use, doctor? He will walk about the room like a ghost; he will not sleep unless I sit and hold his toe." She asked the doctor to bring in another physician for a second opinion, with the curious explanation that if Edwin did not get better soon, his friends would accuse her of poisoning him.

A Dr. Dudley was called in to examine the invalid. He found that Edwin was suffering from sleeplessness and depression, but as far as he could see there was nothing else wrong with him. He concluded that Edwin was a mere hysteric, and advised him to get out more. Dr. Leach believed Edwin was suffering from worms. He dosed the patient with a truly nightmarish series of purgatives, which he believed finally had a beneficial result. Edwin remained in poor spirits, even confiding to the doctor that he believed he would die soon. However, by late in December he rallied slightly, and talked of returning to his work.

On the 27th of December, Adelaide approached George Dyson with an unusual request. She asked him to buy a bottle of chloroform for her, so she could give it to Edwin to help him sleep. When the reverend asked her why she couldn't get it from Dr. Leach, she explained that "he did not know that she was skilled in drugs and medicines, and not knowing that, he would not entrust her with it." Dyson obediently went to several different chemists, where he purchased four small bottles of the drug. He told them he needed it to remove grease stains. He then poured the contents into one large bottle, which he turned over to Adelaide. Neither he nor Adelaide made any mention of the transaction to Edwin.

On December 30, Dr. Leach told Edwin he was nearly completely well, and needed no further medical help. The following day, Edwin went to see his dentist. Dr. Leach and Adelaide accompanied him. Everyone was in good spirits. Adelaide was markedly affectionate towards her husband. She told Leach that she and Edwin wished they were unmarried, so "they might have the pleasure of marrying each other again."

Edwin was nearly back to his old self. Despite his recent dental work, he ate a large supper, and enjoyed it immensely. He asked their landlady, Mrs. Doggett, to serve him a large haddock for his breakfast the next morning, saying that "he should get up an hour earlier at the thought of having it."

Adelaide and Edwin spent New Year's Eve alone together. After 11:30 p.m., no one in their rooming-house had any contact with them. All was quiet until 4 a.m., when Adelaide awakened the Doggetts with startling news: Edwin was dead.

The Doggetts found Edwin lying on a small bed near the drawing-room fireplace. The body was cold, indicating he had died several hours earlier. Adelaide told them that she had fallen asleep with her hand around Edwin's foot. When she woke up, she saw her husband was lying face-down. She turned him over on his back and tried pouring brandy down his throat, but she quickly realized that Edwin was beyond all aid. She stated that she had given him nothing else that night. Mr. Doggett noticed on the mantlepiece a glass three-quarters full of a liquid that smelled like a combination of brandy and ether. He did not see any bottle of chloroform.

When Dr. Leach came to examine the body, he asked if Edwin could have taken a poison. "Oh, no," Adelaide replied. "He could have got at no poison without my knowledge." As he could see no obvious cause of death, the doctor told her an autopsy would be required. Adelaide readily assented. "We are all interested in knowing the cause of death," she said agreeably.

Edwin's father believed he already knew "the cause of death." The minute he heard of his son's sudden passing, he was inexorably convinced that Adelaide had poisoned Edwin.

The post-mortem revealed that Edwin had been a strong, healthy man, with no hint of any "internal complaint." The only clue to his death came when his stomach was opened. The contents had an overwhelming odor of chloroform.

This revelation that Edwin Bartlett died a far-from-natural death completely changed the tone of the investigation. The Bartlett rooms were ordered sealed, forcing Adelaide to seek lodgings elsewhere. She was not allowed to take anything with her, and before she left, Edwin Senior made a great show of checking her pockets.

When George Dyson heard the mention of "chloroform," he became greatly alarmed. The first time he was able to be alone with Adelaide, he asked her, in a distinctly accusatory way, if she had used the chloroform he bought for her. "I have not used it," she replied peevishly. "The bottle is there just as you gave it to me." When he continued to press her on what had become of the bottle, she angrily stamped her foot and snapped, "Oh, damn the chloroform!" When he asked her about the "internal complaint" she had told him was slowly killing Edwin, she denied having ever said anything of the sort.

It began to dawn on Dyson that his Birdie had some very sharp claws. He declared that he wanted to tell the authorities about his connection to the chloroform. Adelaide warned him to do no such thing. The two wound up having a raging quarrel that ensured their strange romance was most definitely over.

The inquest into Edwin's death opened on January 6, but was adjourned until the analysis of Edwin's stomach was completed. Afterward, Adelaide told Dyson that he was distressing himself unnecessarily. When he retorted that on the contrary, he felt he had ample reason for worry, she said casually that if Dyson would only keep his mouth shut about the chloroform, she "would not incriminate" him. Adelaide told him that she had thrown the bottle of poison away. Dyson said hesitatingly, "Suppose it should be proved that you----" "Don't mince matters," Adelaide snarled. "Say, if you wish to, that I gave him chloroform!" Dyson merely silently walked away from her. The two never spoke again.

By January 26, the medical examination into Edwin's death was complete. Dr. Leach told Adelaide that only chloroform had been found in his body; there was no "secret poison" which might have led people to believe she had murdered her husband. "I wish anything but chloroform had been found!" she exclaimed. Adelaide admitted that she had had that substance in her possession. She then proceeded to give the doctor "a sketch of her married life." Adelaide explained that Edwin had peculiar theories about "animal magnetism" and the relations between husband and wife. At Edwin's insistence, their marriage had always been completely platonic. Their marriage was consummated only once, because she wished to have children. After her tragic labor, they returned to living as brother and sister. When they met George Dyson, Edwin threw the two of them together. "He requested us, in his presence, to kiss, and he seemed to enjoy it. He had given me to Mr. Dyson."

However, Adelaide went on, towards the end of Edwin's life, he had second thoughts about their arrangement. He now wished to have sexual relations with his wife. Adelaide primly informed him that this was hardly fair play. She reminded Edwin, "You know you have given me to Mr. Dyson; it is not right that you should do now what during all the years of our married life you have not done." Despite this chastisement, he continued to make romantic overtures to her. To cool his ardor, she decided to obtain some chloroform. She planned to sprinkle some on a handkerchief and wave it in his face whenever he got frisky, so he "would go peacefully to sleep."

Instead, Adelaide went on, her conscience got the better of her. On that fatal New Year's Eve, she confessed her little scheme to Edwin. They "talked amicably and seriously" about the matter, and retired for the night: He lying on his little bed, she sitting and holding his foot. Some hours later, she awoke to find him dead.

She did not examine the bottle of chloroform to see if Edwin had swallowed any of it. On January 6, she retrieved it from their rooms and threw it away.

One can only wish it were possible to have seen the doctor's face when Adelaide told him all of this.

The inquest was resumed early in February. Dr. Leach repeated to the court Adelaide's remarkable account of her married life. Adelaide herself declined to testify.

George Dyson, on the other hand, was positively eager to, as he put it, "make a clean breast." Once the coroner's jury heard his story, it had no hesitation in ruling that Adelaide had murdered her husband, with the reverend acting as accessory before the fact. The ex-lovers were both taken into custody.

Adelaide's attorney was Sir Edward Clarke, one of the most talented--and expensive--lawyers of his day. As she herself hardly had the money to hire such eminent counsel, it has been presumed that her father was responsible for Clarke lending his expert services. Having an illegitimate daughter was obviously already enough of a deep, dark secret for this mystery man. Having an illegitimate daughter hanged for murder would be beyond the pale.

Although Adelaide and Dyson were both called to stand trial, prosecuting counsel recognized that the reverend may have been an incredible doofus, but he was no murderer. At the opening of the trial, they announced they would not offer any evidence against him. Accordingly, the judge directed the jurors to acquit Dyson, and he was released to become the star witness against the remaining defendant. Clarke immediately saw that Dyson's release was an inestimable advantage for his client. He later wrote that "the more closely I could associate his actions with those of Mrs. Bartlett, the more I should strengthen the instinctive reluctance of the jury to send her to the hangman's cord while he passed unrebuked to freedom."

Dyson testified that there had been no "secret understanding" between Adelaide and himself. There had never been any "impropriety" between them. He threw his bottles of chloroform away merely out of a mindless panic. He went to several different chemists in order to obtain as much as Mrs. Bartlett had wanted. He lied about his reasons for wanting the poison simply to avoid tedious explanations.

Dr. Nichols took the stand. He stated that he had never met either of the Bartletts in his life, and he most certainly never said that Edwin would die within a year. Adelaide's story of the platonic marriage was exploded when it was revealed that Edwin had condoms among his belongings. Additionally, the midwife who had attended Adelaide during her childbirth testified that Mrs. Bartlett told her the conception had occurred on the one time she and her husband had not used "some preventive."

The main mystery of the case was how the chloroform got into Edwin's stomach. If he had swallowed the poison, it would have created painful burns in his mouth and throat. No sign of this was found. This difficulty in establishing a murder method proved fatal for the prosecution. The best they could do was suggest that Adelaide had Edwin inhale enough chloroform to put him into a stupor, and then somehow poured more of it down his throat--something that even medical witnesses for the Crown admitted would be a "very difficult and delicate operation."

The prosecutor's case was simple: Edwin's will left everything he had to Adelaide, with no strings attached. (In retrospect, it is rather sinister that he made this new will only four months before his death. His previous will had left his money to his wife only on the condition that she never remarried--a clause that had angered her.) She was, the Crown argued, anxious to marry George Dyson. So, she resolved to get her hands on both her money and her man by--through some means or other--filling her husband full of chloroform. The defense countered by portraying Adelaide as a devoted wife of many years. She had assiduously and uncomplainingly nursed him when he was ill, and readily called in doctors to help him. Does it seem credible, Clarke argued, that this wifely paragon suddenly turned into a murderess--and one who used a method even prosecution witnesses admitted would be nearly impossible to pull off? Clarke pointed out that this was the first case of an alleged murder by liquid chloroform. Didn't it seem unlikely that this quiet suburban housewife had invented an unprecedented method of murder? Clarke hinted that it was much more likely that Edwin Bartlett, ill, depressed, and anxious for his beloved wife to find happiness with George Dyson, deliberately killed himself. The lawyer suggested that if Edwin swallowed the chloroform quickly enough, it would not have left any marks on his mouth and throat. He closed by declaring that "From the moment of that death every word and act and look of hers has been the word and act and look of a woman conscious of her innocence."

It was arguably not the most accurate way to describe Adelaide's actions, but Clarke's famed eloquence had its desired effect. Although the judge's summing-up was fair (and fairly damming to the defendant,) the jury voted for an acquittal. However, they were compelled to add the caveat that although there was not "sufficient evidence to show how or by whom the chloroform was administered," "we think grave suspicion is attached to the prisoner."

If Adelaide's trial had been held in Scotland, it's likely the jury would have delivered a verdict of "Not Proven," that famed Caledonian way of saying "Not guilty, and don't do it again."

After Adelaide was released, she was, for the first time in her life, an independent woman--itself arguably a strong motive for murder. Unfortunately, we do not know what she did with her freedom. Following her acquittal, she simply vanished from history. Over the years, many stories have been offered purporting to describe the latter years of this most enigmatic of accused murderesses, but to date, none of them have been confirmed. However, wherever she went or whatever she did, it is hard to picture anyone with her personality (she would today probably be diagnosed as a "character disorder,") coming to a happy end.

As for the supporting players in her homicidal little drama, all we know of George Dyson's subsequent history is that he emigrated to Australia. One assumes he became very cautious about doing favors for his female friends. As for poor Dr. Leach, in 1892 he, like Edwin, came to a strange and premature end:

After the trial, the London "Times" complained that Edwin's death "remains in its original darkness--an extremely unsatisfactory, but probably inevitable, result." The famed surgeon Sir James Paget was far blunter, stating that now that Adelaide was acquitted, she should, in the interests of science, let everyone know how she did it!

If, as most crime historians assume, Adelaide indeed "did it," she kept that interesting information to herself. All we can do is speculate the about the "how." Did this otherwise unremarkable woman indeed invent a new way to murder?

Probably the most colorful theory was outlined by Yseult Bridges in her book "Poison and Adelaide Bartlett." Bridges highlighted a very odd discussion Edwin had with Dr. Leach less than a week before his death. He told the doctor in Adelaide's presence that George Dyson was a hypnotist, and "he mesmerized me through my wife." Adelaide quickly cut Edwin off, reproaching him for saying such "absurd" things. "It is ridiculous nonsense he is talking," she told the doctor. Edwin, however, continued to insist that he was "under a mesmeric influence" that was forcing him to do "strange things." Dr. Leach dismissed Edwin's revelations as "delusions."

Bridges theorized that Edwin was indeed being hypnotized, but by Adelaide herself, for her own evil purposes. Perhaps Edwin's unaccountable depression and lassitude were being caused from his wife putting him into a chronic hypnotic state. Perhaps this also explained why Adelaide was able to induce him to rewrite his will in her favor. We know that Adelaide possessed a copy of "Squire's Companion to the British Pharmacopoeia," which included the information that brandy was a common solvent for chloroform. We also know that several days before Edwin died, Adelaide purchased a bottle of brandy. Edwin was a teetotaler, and the Bartletts had never bought any brandy before. Bridges imagined that on New Year's Eve, Edwin was "made to pass from the sleep state into the hypnotic state that night, and, under the influence of hypnotic suggestion, took up the glass of chloroform mixed with brandy which Adelaide had put within his reach on the corner of the mantelpiece, gulped it down, and, without pain or vomiting, sank back upon his pillows in a relaxed and natural attitude, and so passed from hypnotic trance into death." (Remember that after Edwin's death, the room was found to contain a glass of brandy with some drug in it.)

Edwin's autopsy showed the presence of a minute quantity of lead acetate, which was never explained. Bridges believed that Edwin's previous illness was caused by Adelaide slowly poisoning him with lead--which Leach mistook for mercury poisoning. (After Edwin's death, two glass bottles filled with lead acetate were found among Adelaide's belongings.) After realizing that Dr. Leach wanted to do tests to ascertain the nature of Edwin's illness, Adelaide abandoned her plan and turned to hypnosis and chloroform instead.

Kate Clarke in her "The Pimlico Mystery," also accepts Adelaide's guilt, although she painted a slightly different picture of that New Year's Eve. Eschewing the hypnosis angle, Clarke suggested that Edwin, who had suffered from sleeplessness, was easily persuaded by Adelaide to try a little chloroform in brandy as a sedative. "And was it then, as the clock on the mantelshelf began to strike twelve, that Adelaide suggested they drink a toast to the New year? Did she then hand him the glass of chloroformed brandy to toast their future happiness? And was there a loving smile on her pretty face as she watched him swallow it gladly, settle back on his pillow and drift into sleep--and death? Had Edwin cried out as the chloroform reached the back of his throat and into his stomach, the sounds of celebration from the party below would have drowned his cries..."

Admittedly, these are peculiar murder scenarios. But, then, Adelaide Bartlett was a very peculiar person.


  1. The fact that Adelaide Bartlett disappeared from history - and that it is unlikely someone of her character would do so if she were still alive - suggests that someone with quicker reflexes and less obtuseness than her husband took issue with her later on. Perhaps her father-in-law resorted to a rougher justice than the courts.

  2. Is it unusual for someone (Dyson) to be both a defendant and prosecution witness in the same trial?

    1. It's probably not common, although I've seen similar instances.

  3. My goodness, what a story. I’m definitely going to be remembering this story about Adelaide Bartlett for a long time to come if only for the big mystery of whether she really did off her husband or not.

  4. Such a fascinating mysterious case, indeed. Not only the death/murder itself, but the whole history surrounding Adelaide Bartlett: her obscure family origins, her mysterious biological father, how she vanished completely from history - everything. Almost supernatural-like, some would say.
    Btw, it was a nice, detailed read. I have been searching about this case but the information is very scarce. Thanks.

  5. See my new book OH DAMN THE CHLOROFORM. Details if Adelaide Bartlett's ACTUAL father, extended family- and also the fate of Dyson, Leach etc.

  6. Details of Adelaide's father - fascinating. He was hidden in plain sight and I found her half-siblings and siblings. Such u expectedly shocking and varied lives....


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