In the early hours of January 1, 1886, the maid of the Bartlett household was shaken awake. Adelaide Bartlett, her mistress, had rushed into her room, telling her to call a doctor at once. Adelaide then ran upstairs to fetch her landlord and announced, “Come down, I think Mr. Bartlett is dead!”
Adelaide had woken to find her husband, Thomas Edwin Bartlett (known as Edwin), face down on the ground. In an attempt to wake her husband, she had apparently poured a pint of brandy down his throat, but it was too late: Edwin was already dead.
Edwin had been sick for some time, first becoming ill at the start of December 1885. A local doctor, Dr. Leach, came to treat Edwin in at his house in Pimlico, in west London. As his condition became worse, Mrs. Bartlett tirelessly looked after him.
Mr. Bartlett’s illness appeared to be compounded by pain from a dentistry disaster ten years earlier. A dentist, rather than pulling, sawed down Edwin’s teeth to the gums for dentures. The remaining stumps and roots of his teeth rotted, causing terrible pain for the rest of his life.
Such injuries can be fatal, and his mouth and jaw were likely riddled with infection by the time he died. But the investigation after his death revealed something far more strange and unexpected. Edwin appeared to have been poisoned.
The Mysterious Pimlico Poisoning
As the death was considered unexpected, an autopsy was performed and at first Edwin’s body seemed normal. The moment the doctors opened his stomach however, everything changed. Doctors were shocked to find a quantity of chloroform inside, enough for a lethal dose.
The doctors found 8 or 9 drops or 4 oz (113.4 g) of poison in Edwin’s stomach, although the exact amount varies in reports. But as they progressed with the autopsy a second question arose: how had the chloroform been ingested?
Chloroform is caustic and causes damage to any soft tissue it comes into contact with. But Edwin did not have any chemical burns in his throat that would be caused by chloroform. Furthermore, no chloroform was found at the Bartlett household. So where did it come from, and how did he consume enough to die?
Adelaide told Dr. Leach and The Crown at her trial that she was in possession of chloroform, but was adamant that she did not kill Edwin. Adelaide had asked a family friend, minister George Dyson, to bring her chloroform. Adelaide said she needed chloroform to rub on Edwin’s gums to ease his pain.
George Dyson and the Bartletts had an odd relationship. Edwin encouraged his wife to be affectionate with the minister, and had promised his wife to minister George Dyson if he were to die. Edwin also changed his will so Adelaide would only be able to claim the estate if she married Dyson.
Responding to Adelaide’s request, George arrived in Pimlico with had 4 oz (0.1 kg) of chloroform. This was enough evidence for the police, and Adelaide was charged with “willful murder”. George was also charged with “accessory before the fact,” and they went to trial.
However, at trial things started to go awry from the first moment. The charges against George Dyson were dismissed almost immediately, and George later actually testified against Adelaide.
Adelaide could not take the stand herself due to a law prohibiting the accused from speaking at trial. As a result, It was down to Dr. Leach and Mrs. Bartlett’s lawyer to convince the jury that she was innocent.
After a week of testimony, the jury returned with a verdict of “Not Guilty.” The prosecution had not provided any proof, explanation, or evidence of how she had poisoned him, which was enough to sway them to their verdict.
But for the interested public, it seemed that she had got away with murder. After the trial was over, surgeon Sir James Paget remarked: “Now that she’s been acquitted for murder and can’t be tried again, she should tell us in the interest of science how she did it.”
Pimlico Poisoning Theories
During the trial, Adelaide’s lawyer told the court that she and Edwin were intimate only once in 11 years of marriage. Adelaide said they had a platonic relationship and zero intimacy between the two.
However, before his death, Edwin had begun to insist on claiming his “marital rights” to sex. The lawyer said Mrs. Bartlett got the chloroform to subdue Edwin when he tried to force her to have sex. She however claimed that she had confessed this to Edwin and had given him the bottle out of guilt.
This story provided an explanation of how Edwin himself could have been in possession of the chloroform, but how did it kill him? If Edwin’s death was murder or not remains unsolved. There are three major theories about what may have happened on January 1, 1886.
Theory 1: Suicide
This theory suggests that Edwin likely heard the dentist say something about necrotic gum tissue when he removed his teeth. Edwin, who was delusional, depressed, and sleep-deprived, panicked at the word necrosis.
Edwin had been ill for almost a month and had been driven into a deep depression. The thought was that Edwin consumed the chloroform to commit suicide. Edwin was convinced he was already dying, and the word necrosis may have pushed him to take his life.
This is considered one possible reason for the lack of chemical burns on Edwin’s throat. If he was drinking the chloroform voluntarily he may have been able to hurry the liquid down, potentially swallowing it before it could do any damage to his esophagus.
Dr. Leach had his own spin on this theory. In the medical journal the Lancet, he wrote that he believed Edwin was not trying to commit suicide and instead drank the chloroform out of spite.
Adelaide told Dr. Leach that she confessed to Edwin about having chloroform. She told him her plan to use the vapors to subdue her husband and prevent Edwin from having sex with her.
Edwin’s response to her confession that she had intended to use chloroform to avoid sex was to roll over and say nothing. He kept the bottle however, and Dr. Leach suggests Edwin drank the chloroform not to die but to become ill and vomit in revenge.
Theory 2: A Mistake
In December 1885, Edwin was taking medicine for his illness frequently. The idea in this theory is that Edwin woke up to take medicine and grabbed the wrong bottle, rushing down the chloroform before he realized what he had done.
Due to his inflamed and rotting mouth, he might not have been able to feel his mouth burning or taste the liquid. When he realized his mistake, it was too late.
However, if Edwin did drink the chloroform, he would have been in much pain. Doctors at Adelaide’s trial stated that Edwin would have been screaming in pain if he had accidentally swallowed the poison. All in the house that night said that no screaming was heard.
Theory 3: A Perfect Murder?
Adelaide knew that she would marry George Dyson if Edwin were to die. The two already had a close relationship. Is it such a stretch to imagine that she would look for a quick way out of her loveless marriage?
According to this theory, Adelaide made Edwin pass out with the chloroform vapors and, perhaps using a length of rubber tube, poured the poison down his throat. Once Edwin was dead, Adelaide then poured brandy into his mouth to disguise the smell of chloroform.
Adelaide has never been proven to be the Pimlico Poisoner. Could modern medicine be able to identify how Edwin died from chloroform? In the 1800s, doctors would prescribe chemicals we now know are deadly, like mercury. Could chemical burns go unnoticed due to the effects of the medicines Dr. Leach gave Edwin?
Drinking chloroform doesn’t instantly kill someone. You can be poisoned over time through food or drink. Adelaide could have been slowly adding chloroform to Edwin’s evening brandy.
Chloroform toxicity has the same symptoms Edwin was suffering from. When he died, he had: diarrhea, stomach pains, drowsiness, and weakness. Was she innocent, or did she get away with it?
Top Image: Did Adelaide Bartlett get away with murder? Source: Björn Wylezich / Adobe Stock.
By Lauren Dillon
Farrell, M. 1994. Adelaide Bartlett and the Pimlico Mystery. British Medical Journal BMJ, 309. 1720. Available at: https://www.bmj.com/content/309/6970/1720
Glending, J. 1990. The Bartlett Trial Revisited: Delicacy, Judicial Bias, and New Women. Dalhousie Review, 70, 3. Available at: http://hdl.handle.net/10222/61082
April 1886. ADELAIDE BARTLETT (30) GEORGE DYSON (27). Old Bailey Proceedings Online, vers 8.0, ref t18860405-466. Available at: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t18860405-466
Foxall. K. 2007. CHLOROFORM Toxicological Overview v1. Health Protection Agency. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/338535/Chloroform_Toxicological_Overview.pdf