S is for Smethurst

This case of murder involving another Doctor came only three years after the case of Doctor William Palmer. Doctor Thomas Smethurst was accused of murdering a spinster lady, Miss Isabella Bankes, to whom he was bigamously married and whose money he would inherit.  Miss Bankes had been pregnant at her death and had been ill on and off for some time with bouts of sickness and diarrhoea.  The doctor who attended was rather suspicious. Smethurst was always bringing Isabella food and drink. And, rather suspiciously, he had banned Isabella’s sister, Louisa, from visiting on the grounds that it was too much for Isabella. While she was ill, Smethurst saw that she made a will leaving everything to him and had it attested by a lawyer. The attendant doctor also said that he thought Isabella was frightened.

This evidence was compelling enough for an arrest. Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor said that he had found arsenic in a bottle of medicine belonging to Doctor Smethurst. However, at the trial, Taylor had to admit that the arsenic had come from his own experiment on the contents of the bottle. Taylor had dipped a piece of copper foil into Smethurst’s medicine which Taylor had boiled in hydrochloric acid. The bottle had also contained chlorate of potassium which released arsenic from Taylor’s copper foil.

In spite of this, Smethurst was convicted on the grounds that something had been administered to cause the death of Isabella Bankes. There was a great outcry against Alfred Swaine Taylor and against the judge, Baron Pollock, whom Dickens knew very well and who admired Dickens greatly, writing of him that ‘ No man could be more free from egotism than Dickens was.’

Naturally, Dickens supported the judge, ‘our brave and excellent friend’, and wrote that ‘I saw the beast of a prisoner (with my mind’s eye)’, and he read the prisoner’s speech in his own defence, but he didn’t believe a word of it. A bit egotistical there!  Opinion was against Dickens and the judge and Smethust received a pardon, though he was convicted of bigamy and served a year at hard labour. When he was free, Smethurst claimed his inheritance and sued Miss Bankes’s family for restitution. He won the case, got his cash, and went back to live with his first wife.

But was that intrepid detective, Mr Dickens, wrong? The Medical Times and Gazette commented: ‘Is the prisoner guilty? We believe he is. Was he proved guilty? Certainly not.’ And the British Medical Journal called Smethurst ‘a liar, a cheat, a scoundrel of the blackest dye’ which seems rather convincing.

Smethurst was a rogue. It seems he may have gained his medical qualifications rather dubiously – from over the counter, as it were. His M.D. was from Erlangen University, known for its sale of medical degrees on easy terms!

And he had married his first wife when he was twenty-three and she was forty-three – she had plenty of money.


S is for Stedman

James Stedman was the criminal involved in what the North Kent Advertiser called ‘A DIABOLICAL ATTEMPT’…

Not the actual murder of Charles Dickens, but it might have been had Dickens not missed his train on the night of June 14th, 1862.

Dickens’s coachman, James Marsh, had left Dickens’s country house,Gadshill, near Higham, Kent, to meet the London train at Higham Station at 10.30.

Unknown to Marsh, two farm labourers had witnessed his departure and one James Munn had held open a field gate and watched as his partner in crime, James Stedman, dragged two heavy rollers and placed them on the road. Any carriage coming at speed would have been overturned.

The coachman, however, was warned by a man standing at the roadside and the accident averted. The empty carriage returned to Gadshill.

James Stedman was tried in July, pleaded drunkenness, and sentenced to hard labour for two months. Fortunate for him, I suppose; even more fortunate for Charles Dickens. I don’t know why Dickens, who was always punctual – who called himself ‘the worked-by-clock-work-Dick’ – missed his train, but lucky for us that he did. He was yet to write Our Mutual Friend. Nor should all those scholars have the pleasure of trying to work out The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Of James Munn, the man who held open the gate, the newspapers had nothing more to say. Nor did they give any information as to motive.



S is also Staggles, Snoswell and Sopp – all murderers from The Household Narrative of Current Events. Comic names, but dreadful crimes. Amelia Snoswell murdered her infant niece, William Sopp, aged twelve, murdered a little boy, and Edward Staggles, aged 18, attempted to murder his employer, first blinding him with acid and then shooting him.

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