Caroline: So often, when I’m talking about the real life cases that shaped detective fiction in the twentieth century, we’re dealing with stories that end in tragedy for the woman in the dock. I’m thinking of Edith Thompson, who was hanged in 1923 for a murder which her own supposed accomplice swore she had nothing to do with, or Florence Maybrick, who spent fourteen years in prison for a crime with which she had never been charged.
Very occasionally, though, what George Orwell once called “our great period in murder”, produced a story with a different kind of ending. The tale of Adelaide Bartlett has all of the twists and turns you might have come to expect from a late Victorian murder sensation. Except this one does not end at the end of a rope or with the slam of a prison door.
Today, we’re investigating the Pimlico poisoning mystery.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. A brief warning, this episode is going to discuss the medical evidence in a Victorian poisoning case in some detail, as well as the possibility of suicide. Please consult the episode description for more details.
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The bare facts of the Pimlico poisoning mystery are quite straightforward. In 1875 Adelaide de la Tremoille, a 19-year old French-born woman, married 30-year-old Edwin Bartlett, who was a partner in a grocer’s shop in south London. For the first two years of their marriage, they did not live together – Edwin stayed in a flat above the shop and Adelaide went to a residential school for young women. They began cohabiting in 1877, living at a variety of different addresses around inner London until 1884, when they moved to a cottage in Merton, then on the outskirts of the city. In January 1885, they met and became friends with George Dyson, a Methodist minister at the chapel nearby. In September, he moved to a new post in Putney and the Bartletts moved back into the city centre to Claverton Street in Pimlico, a road that runs just north of the river Thames. That same month, Edwin Bartlett altered his will, removing a provision that meant his wife could only keep anything that she inherited from him if she did not remarry after his death. He also named George Dyson as an executor. On the 8th December 1885 Edwin Bartlett became ill at work and came home to take to his bed. Several weeks of treatment by a local doctor and dentist followed, and by the end of the month he said he was beginning to feel better. But at 4am on the 1st January 1886, his wife Adelaide roused their landlord to say that she had woken up to find her husband dead in his bed. A subsequent postmortem and analysis of Edwin’s body found that he had died as a result of ingesting liquid chloroform. On 11th February 1886, shortly before an inquest returned a verdict of wilful murder on her husband, Adelaide Bartlett was arrested and charged with his murder, alongside George Dyson as an accessory before the fact. On 12th April, their trial began at the Old Bailey.
The fascination that this case exerted over everyone who came into contact with it stems from two very unusual aspects. The first is the way in which Edwin Bartlett died. In 1886 liquid chloroform was used as both a solvent and an anaesthetic, but was rare as a cause of death in a domestic setting. More than that, the postmortem showed the peculiar fact that Edwin had about an ounce of chloroform in his stomach but absolutely no trace of it in mouth, throat or windpipe, as might be expected if he had swallowed it against his will. This incongruity became a major feature of the trial, with Edwin Bartlett’s body taking on the properties of a kind of locked room mystery or impossible crime: the deadly chloroform was inside him, yet there was seemingly no way for it to have got there.
Then the second feature that caused this particular mystery to live on in the public consciousness long after the verdict was given is the fact that we still don’t know what really happened. The mystery of how that chloroform came to be inside Edwin Bartlett and who was responsible for putting it there has remained just that: a mystery. And nothing is more tantalising to both writers and readers of crime fiction than an unsolved mystery. The case was still of sufficient interest forty years later that it was published in 1927 as one of the volumes in the “Notable British Trials” series, and in 1936 Margaret Cole chose to cover it for her essay in the Detection Club’s true crime anthology The Anatomy of Murder. More than forty years after that, then Detection Club president Julian Symons used it as the basis for his 1980 novel Sweet Adelaide, in which he offered an imagined backstory to the central character and a solution to the puzzle. People are still writing non-fiction books about it well into the twenty first century, as well — I’ve referenced a few of the best ones in the description for this episode. There have been radio, film and television adaptations of the story, too. Even Alfred Hitchcock almost made one, but said later that he dropped the project because he felt that the François Truffaut film Jules and Jim was too similar to what he had in mind.
The layer upon layer of theory that this case has accumulated over the decades has created its own mythology around the central impossibility of this crime: that matter of how Edwin Bartlett ingested chloroform without either choking on the noxious liquid or leaving any trace of it in his mouth or throat. To even get close to understanding what might really have happened, we have to start peeling those layers away.
Let’s begin with the big picture. There are only three possible explanations for how Edwin Bartlett can have died. It has to have been either an accident, a suicide, or a murder. We can dispense with the first one fairly quickly. Accidental overdose is immediately unlikely because the amount of chloroform he had swallowed was so much greater than any therapeutic dose, a hundred times more than the maximum recommended at the time. A slight overdose could plausibly be an accident or a misunderstanding, but surely not something on this scale. Anyway, chloroform does not kill instantly, so had it been an accident or a mistake, he would have been able to call for assistance before he fell unconscious. The Bartletts shared the house with their landlord and his family, and none of them mentioned hearing any disturbance or outcry. Subsequent investigation also revealed that the chloroform had been introduced into the household in a covert, suspicious way, with Adelaide Bartlett asking George Dyson to get it for her without the knowledge of either her husband or his doctor. On 28th December 1886, three days before Edwin died, Dyson purchased it from several different shops and combined the bottles to get the amount that Adelaide wanted before handing it over to her. This fact also helps to eliminate accident as a possibility. Liquid chloroform was not one of the many medicines that Edwin had been prescribed for his illness, nor did anyone suggest it was a remedy he had asked for himself. It seems highly unlikely, therefore, that he could accidentally take so much of something he wasn’t even aware of being present in his home.
Suicide was also quickly disproved as an explanation. There is nothing to link Edwin Bartlett to the purchase of the liquid chloroform, so no sign of any planning or premeditation on his part. And then there is also no evidence that Edwin was in anything like a depressed or distressed state of mind. If anything, the reverse. After several weeks of suffering with gastro-intestinal symptoms and severe dental issues, he was finally feeling better. As a sidenote, the story of Edwin Bartlett’s teeth is a true horror story of Victorian dentistry: years before, all of his lower teeth had been sawn off at the gum, without anaesthetic, and a false set made to go over them. Of course, the remaining roots then gradually rotted until he was in excruciating pain and his gums were ruined. But, over the course of December, he had had all of the problem areas extracted and the relief must have been immediate. The doctor was able to testify to his improvement — indeed, he believed that at least some of Edwin’s symptoms were the result of hysteria or hypochondria rather than organic disease and was recommending a trip to the seaside, without his wife, as part of his recovery. And the Bartletts’ landlady was able to testify at the trial that Edwin had been in good spirits the evening before his death, eating a good dinner, praising her cooking and ordering a large haddock for his breakfast that he said he would be getting up an hour earlier than usual to eat, he was so looking forward to the morning meal. According to multiple sources, then, Edwin Bartlett did not seem like someone who expected his life to come to an end soon.
That leaves just one other possibility: murder. And to find our way through the maze of theories here, we need first to understand a bit more about the killer’s weapon of choice, liquid chloroform. Chloroform, or trichloromethane, is a volatile substance that can occur naturally in the environment in soil or around seaweed or fungi. At the time of the Pimlico poisoning mystery, it was a very recent addition to pharmacy, being first synthesised in the 1830s. Its anaesthetic properties were discovered during tests on animals in the early 1840s. On 10th November 1847 the Scottish obstetrician James Young Simpson published the results of his experiments with chloroform as an inhaled anaesthetic for human subjects, starting an immediate fashion for medical use of the drug to achieve temporary sedation and pain relief. The arrival of chloroform in Victorian society and medicine was sudden and transformative — a complete step change from what had been on offer for anaesthesia previously. It “blazed on to the Victorian scene like a comet”, as one historian put it, and radically reduced the trauma of what had previously been extremely painful procedures and surgeries. Simpson’s particular interest was in improving women’s experience of childbirth, and he was so successful in doing this with chloroform that six years after that first announcement, he even got a royal endorsement. In 1853 Queen Victoria tried chloroform for the birth of her eighth child, Prince Leopold, after a lady in waiting who had had chloroform for a tooth extraction recommended it. The queen found it reduced her pain greatly, and she started quite a fashion for “childbirth à la reine” or under chloroform.
I think we’re all probably familiar with the use of chloroform vapour wafted on a handkerchief to temporarily render somebody unconscious, as done by the baddies in penny dreadful stories. In fact, this method is not nearly as effective as the thrillers make it seem, with some people experiencing hallucinations rather than unconsciousness. It is also a risky drug with extremely serious side effects, most of which were ignored or overlooked by the Victorians in their delight at no longer having to endure surgery without pain relief. Too much given at once can stop the heart, and less given more slowly can paralyse the lungs and the heart. Either way, the patient will die. Calculating precise dosages is very difficult, especially with only nineteenth century medical equipment and expertise. There were a lot of unnecessary deaths — one expert estimates over 100,000 globally — until these dangers were properly recognised and the drug began to be removed from most medical uses in the 1920s.
In its liquid form, chloroform is highly irritant, meaning that even the briefest unprotected contact will result in blistering and burning. It also has a very strong noxious taste and smell. These are the two properties that made Edwin Bartlett’s death seem impossible: he somehow swallowed a whole ounce of this toxic liquid without seemingly choking on the taste or suffering from any blistering in his mouth or throat. If it had been administered against his will, traces would be expected on his face and neck as he struggled against it, or even in his windpipe if he choked as it went down. And yet there was nothing of the sort. How could this be?
After the break: all the ways Edwin Bartlett might have been murdered, and the one way I think he was.
When Adelaide Bartlett was arrested on 11th February 1886 and subsequently charged with the murder of her husband Edwin, prosecutors could probably have been forgiven for thinking that they had a straightforward case on their hands. Adelaide had a documented motive for her crime in both the recent alteration to her husband’s will and her close “friendship” with George Dyson, to whom she claimed her husband had “given” her as a future wife (although there was no corroborating evidence of this). She also had ample opportunity, having been diligently nursing her husband and administering all of his medicines for the duration of his weeks-long illness. Dyson’s confession that he had obtained liquid chloroform and handed it over to her was just the icing on the cake. She had the poison, she had the chance to use it and a reason for doing so. It looked to have all the makings of a very short trial ending in an obvious conviction.
But Adelaide got lucky in several crucial ways. Arguably the most significant of these was the selection of the chief prosecution and defence lawyers. Her own barrister, Sir Edward Clarke, was not a great cross-examiner or strategist, but he was an excellent courtroom performer, known as “the master of the moving speech”. He had made a splash with his defence in the Penge murder case in 1877 and would go on to represent Oscar Wilde in his libel case against the Marquess of Queensbury. Clarke did best with cases where he was his client’s principal lawyer, the star of the show, and it was a matter in which he could draw on his considerable rhetorical powers to stir a jury’s emotions. Indeed, his closing speech in this trial was so effective that it was still being cited as a perfect example of the art in legal textbooks in the twentieth century.
Clarke also immediately grasped how crucial the chloroform would be to the outcome of the case. He dropped all of his other work in the run up to the trial so that he could completely master the medical background of the drug, so as to turn the apparent impossibility of Edwin Bartlett’s poisoning to his client’s advantage.
Adelaide was also lucky in the chief lawyer for the prosecution, Sir Charles Russell. He was appointed as Attorney General in 1886 by Prime Minister William Gladstone, during the shortlived Liberal party government of that year. Russell was an experienced barrister and a strong support of Irish nationalism. He was later appointed Lord Chief Justice, becoming the first Catholic to hold the position since the Reformation in the sixteenth century. In the 1890s, he also became a strong supporter of Florence Maybrick – a case I have covered previously on the podcast – and tried in vain to secure her early release from prison.
Russell’s involvement in the Adelaide Bartlett case unfortunately coincided with an extremely important political period for him and for the Liberal party. Just days before the trial began, Gladstone introduced the first Irish Home Rule Bill into the House of Commons, and Russell’s time was divided between making speeches in Parliament and the preparation for the Bartlett trial. He did not put in the time that Clarke did to understand the chloroform problem, and it showed.
The prosecution’s case was complicated — over complicated, some critics have said. Russell tried to use the medical evidence to show that Adelaide Bartlett had first rendered her husband unconscious by making him inhale chloroform while he was asleep and then poured the liquid chloroform down his throat until he had swallowed a fatal dose. This, the lawyers claimed, accounted for the fact that there were no signs of blistering or irritation from the drug elsewhere on the body, because a sedated man would not have struggled.
Clarke comprehensively demolished this theory in court, using his new-found knowledge of chloroform to show that this method of administering the drug was very unlikely and even potentially impossible. First he showed evidence that rendering a sleeping person unconscious with chloroform vapour had only been done successfully with children, never an adult. And then he argued that pouring just the right amount of chloroform down Edwin’s throat so that he would die before the swallowing reflex ceased, all the while avoiding his windpipe, was something that only a highly skilled medical professional could do, and perhaps not even them. The foreman of the jury helped this defence greatly with the questions that he put to the medical expert in the trial, who explained that if chloroform or indeed any liquid was administered to an unconscious person who was slumped or lying down, some of it would likely stay in the mouth, throat or windpipe as evidence of how it had entered the body — which, as we know, there was no sign of. This pointed strongly to the idea that Edwin Bartlett had downed the chloroform while sitting up and in full control of his swallowing reflex — another direct contradiction to the prosecution’s theory.
Clarke was also canny in not calling a single witness for the defence, so that Russell had no opportunity to cross-examine anyone — something at which he was an acknowledged expert. As the defendant, Adelaide was not permitted to give evidence in her own trial (this was the law in England until the Criminal Evidence Act of 1898 came into force). This is also why the charges against her supposed accomplice George Dyson were withdrawn on the first day of the trial, causing a huge sensation in court. By declining to charge Dyson, the prosecution were able to use him as a witness against Adelaide, whereas if he had been her co-defendant, he also would not have been allowed to give evidence during the trial.
Margaret Cole, in her essay in The Anatomy of Murder, makes some interesting points about the way that the law mistreated Adelaide Bartlett — the fact that she was not allowed to give evidence in her own defence being chief among them. Cole was disgusted by the judge’s attitude to Adelaide and cites as an example of this his reaction to the fact that she owned a book about birth control, which he called “garbage” — Cole concludes her sentence about this with three exclamations of “ugh!”. She calls his remarks “gross prejudice” and suggests that were Adelaide convicted it would have been “because she was odd, and because she had a book on birth-control”.
Clarke, meanwhile, used the letter of the law to his advantage, exercising the right of the defence to merely show that the prosecution was wrong, rather than trying to prove his client’s innocence. He made no attempt to offer an alternative explanation for Edwin Bartlett’s death, and he didn’t need to. He essentially disproved the prosecution’s theory for how the death had occurred and then said “I rest my case”. Unlike in Scotland, the English courts have only two verdicts available, guilty and not guilty. With the prosecution’s case in tatters, the jury gave the only possible verdict: Adelaide Bartlett was found not guilty of murdering her husband. Interestingly, a writer in the Scottish Historical Review in 1927 suggested that “In the case of Adelaide Bartlett it is difficult to conceive that a Scotch jury could have brought in any verdict short of Not Proven” — a throwback to the Madeleine Smith case from 1857 that I have previously covered on the show.
That is one theory dispensed with. Edwin Bartlett was not rendered unconscious and then made to swallow the liquid chloroform. A variant upon this was proposed by Julian Symons in his 1980 novelisation of the case, Sweet Adelaide — he suggests that Adelaide drugged her husband with chloroform vapour and then used a stomach pump to get the liquid inside him, having observed this being done with medicine when one of the couple’s St Bernard dogs was being treated for distemper. It’s a clever workaround, but it also falls short as an explanation, both because of the previously mentioned difficulty of knocking out an already-sleeping adult with chloroform, and also because it’s very likely that Adelaide didn’t know that she needed to avoid blistering Edwin’s mouth or throat. Compelling evidence was presented at the trial that her knowledge of chloroform was limited to what she had read in a household medical book titled Squire’s Companion to the British Pharmacopoeia. This text informed her that chloroform evaporates quickly and leaves no residue or odour, which likely lead her to believe that the drug would be untraceable in the body a few hours after death — her relaxed attitude to her husband receiving a postmortem suggests that she was either completely innocent or thought that there would be nothing to discover. The book also fails to mention that liquid chloroform has a fiery burning taste and that it will cause blistering if allowed to linger on the skin or in the mouth for any length of time.
That means that the chloroform was neither poured down Edwin’s throat nor introduced directly into his stomach using a pump or tube. The only remaining explanation, then, is that he swallowed it voluntarily. And there are some differing opinions on how that could have been brought about. Yseult Bridges, in her 1962 book on the case, argues that Edwin Bartlett swallowed the chloroform quickly himself, believing it to be medicine. If he downed it completely while fully conscious, there would have been no time for any blisters to form in the mouth, nor would any of the drug have ended up in his windpipe. Here, I think she is on to something — since Adelaide had been managing her husband’s medicine for the weeks of his illness prior to his death, it seems very likely that if she handed him a glass and said “drink this, it will make you feel better”, he would just down it in one. Bridges then goes on to suggest that Edwin was not in full possession of his faculties because he had been “mesmerised” by his wife. Mesmerism was a therapeutic system devised in late eighteenth century Germany that was based on a theory of magnetic forces between individuals, which could have physical effects if channelled correctly, similar to hypnotism. It’s like a crime out of a sensationalist nineteenth century novel, using the power of the mind to force someone to kill themselves. Since there is no evidence that Adelaide practised this skill, nor that it works, I’m going to discount this part of Bridges’ explanation. I think Adelaide’s position of trust with her husband would have been entirely sufficient for him to drink the “medicine” she gave him without argument and while fully conscious. Linda Stratmann, in her book about chloroform, describes what I think to be the most plausible scenario. Adelaide had decided that her husband must die, so that she could enjoy his money and marry George Dyson. At first, she tried a cumulative poison she could administer slowly over several weeks in his food — probably lead acetate, also known as sugar of lead, a sweetish powder easily obtainable from a chemist. But when the doctor noticed the tell-tale bluish line of heavy metal poisoning on Edwin’s gums, she abandoned that plan. This doctor merely thought that Edwin was taking a mercury-based remedy for venereal disease — a hypothesis also proposed by Margaret Cole. Adelaide got very lucky in this doctor. She had just called in the local medical man to verify the fact that Edwin was ailing, and he seems to have been a very gullible and unsuspicious person. He completely swallowed the story she fed him about she and Edwin having a “platonic” marriage — despite clear evidence from other witnesses that they had a long term physical relationship — and that she had acquired the chloroform so as to be able to sedate her husband when he made unwanted advances towards her. By connecting her possession of the drug to the intimate side of her marriage, she cleverly exploited Victorian prudishness to avoid being questioned too closely about the chloroform. Margaret Cole, incidentally, whose own marriage involved an unconventional attitude to sex and sexuality, was inclined to believe this story. She felt that had Adelaide been liberated from the stultifying role of conventional Victorian wife, the Pimlico poisoning mystery might never have occurred.
Regardless, Linda Stratmann suggests that after the lead poisoning failed, Adelaide did some research and decided to try chloroform next, which the household medical book told her was an untraceable poison. It was a bit more difficult to get, so she used Dyson to acquire it. Edwin drank it at her suggestion, and then immediately began to choke and ask for a drink. She handed him a glass of brandy, which he couldn’t swallow but splashed on himself — accounting for the alcohol found on his night clothes, even though chloroform can’t be easily dissolved or hidden in alcohol. He would soon have fallen unconscious and then passed away without regaining his faculties. The mixture of chloroform and alcohol remaining in the brandy glass would have produced a chemical reaction, the product of which is chloric ether, a sweet-smelling gas, an odour that was detected by the Bartletts’ landlord when he was summoned to Edwin’s bedside by Adelaide at 4am. This, to me, is the most likely explanation of how Adelaide Bartlett murdered her husband, as well as being the simplest solution to the apparent impossibility of this case. She just handed him a glass of poison, told him to drink it quickly, and he did.
Part of the lure of the Pimlico poisoning mystery is that Adelaide Bartlett completely vanished after her acquittal, and we have no idea what she did or who she became afterwards. Nobody in the more than a century since has been able to work out where she went after she inherited her husband’s estate. It is as if she exists only in that brief but glaring blaze of publicity that the murder trial created — her youth is a mystery to us, and her later years are equally blank. In that empty space, all kinds of possibilities can co-exist. Julian Symons imagines that she went to America and became “Madame Bartlett”, a promoter of alternative medicine and spirituality. Yseult Bridges found a “Madame Bartlett” who made a lot of speeches and raised money for nursing during the First World War, but that is a case of mistaken identity – that was the opera singer Caroline Gardner Bartlett. There has also been some suggestion that Adelaide reinvented herself as a nurse named Barbara or maybe Sarah McBean or McVean, mostly based on a group photograph of some nurses from 1899 that contains an individual who bears an uncanny resemblance to Adelaide. But there was a real Sarah McVean, a nurse, and she was in hospital in America being treated for diphtheria while Adelaide was on trial in 1885, so that is another dead end.
The famous surgeon, Sir James Paget, commented after Adelaide’s trial that “Now that she has been acquitted for murder and cannot be tried again, she should tell us in the interest of science how she did it!”, but Adelaide never took him up on the suggestion. As I hope I’ve laid out for you, the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of her being guilty. She avoided conviction thanks to a combination of luck, a distracted prosecutor and a very clever defence. All signs point to Adelaide Bartlett being something extremely rare: a Victorian woman who became famous for a killing but actually got away with murder.
This episode of Shedunnit was hosted by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find a full list of books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/thepimlicopoisoningmystery. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
If you would like to take part in the Shedunnit Pledge Drive, the annual event where I ask the podcast’s community to help me fund it for another year, please head to shedunnitshow.com/pledgedrive to do so.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan McAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening.