The Surgeon and the Poisoner

Claudius Galen WHEELHOUSE, towards the end of his eventful life, filled his “retirement” hours serving the people of Filey in a variety of ways – JP, magistrate, and chairman (I think) of the Lifeboat Committee. He was also a churchwarden at St Oswald’s, Filey (Today’s Image). His compassion for humankind, or “peoplekind” if you prefer, was probably instilled into him as a child, but an early, and very public, demonstration of it occurred in 1856. Aged thirty and building his career and reputation as a surgeon, he added his name to a petition, pleading that the life of “The Leeds Poisoner” should not be taken by the hangman.

Your petitioners…humbly pray that your most gracious Majesty will be pleased to spare the life of…William Dove.

Claudius and about twenty other citizens were of the opinion that:

…if persons of such unsound and defective intellect as…William Dove are to suffer the extreme penalty of the law, the effect upon the public mind will be most injurious, and will tend more than any other cause to bring capital punishment, under whatever circumstances imposed, into general odium and disrepute.

They seem to have believed that locking him up for the rest of his life would be “the most just and adequate punishment”.

The woman who sent her armies to slaughter people in the hundreds of thousands was unmoved, and a large crowd gathered in York on Saturday, 9th August, to watch “the drop”. A novice hangman added a certain amount of extra drama to the terrible occasion but William was eventually dispatched. He didn’t struggle much.

His family was, apparently, of “the Wesleyan persuasion” and he had been attended by several religious gentlemen in his last days. He had admitted his guilt but, from my reading of the case thus far, he didn’t seem to care for his wife much. I doubt they diagnosed “borderline personality disorders” 150 years ago but that section of the DSM-5 would be my first port of call in an attempt to understand the wretched fellow.

Poor Harriet JENKINS. She had met and married the handsome northern man of limited, but independent, means in Plymouth in the summer of 1852. She was from a good family. A  clergyman brother was also a professor of mathematics in Madras, and her mother and sister, traveling up from Devon to look after her, crossed the letter announcing Harriet’s death. A saving grace, perhaps – there were no children born to the unhappy couple.

You will find the Poisoner and his victim on FamilySearch Treeand there is a lengthy PDF of the inquest, trial and execution online that can be freely downloaded.


Edward the Confessor

The Glasgow Poisoner, Edward William PRITCHARD, made a confession on the 11th of July which was printed in many British newspapers, including The Manchester and Lancashire General Advertiser on the 15th.

I, Edward William Pritchard, M.D., M.R.C.S.E., and L.A.S.. &c., hereby make in writing, in the presence of the Rev. R. S. Oldham, M.A., the following confession, for transmission by him to the proper authorities:- It was when my wife was at Kilmun, in the summer of 1863, that I first became intimate with the girl Mary McLeod, sleeping with her in my house, 22 Royal Crescent. This continued at intervals up to the time of our removal to 131, Sauchiehall Street. She became pregnant in May last, and, with her own consent, I produced a miscarriage. I have reason to believe that Mrs. Pritchard was quite aware of this, and that she rather sought to cover my wickedness and folly. My mother-in-law, Mrs. Taylor, came last February to our house, and caught Mary McLeod and myself in the consulting room; and the day before her death, having apparently watched us, she said to me in the same room, ‘You have locked her into a cupboard,’ which was true, but nothing more passed. I declare Mrs. Taylor to have died in the manner I have before stated, and I now believe her death to have been caused by an overdose of Battley’s solution of opium. The aconite found in that bottle was put in by me after her death, and designedly left there, in order to prove death by misadventure, in case any inquiry should take place. Mrs. Pritchard was much better immediately after her mother’s death, but subsequently became exhausted from want of sleep. I accounted for this by the shock produced by her mother’s death, and, hardly knowing how to act, at her own earnest request I gave her chloroform. It was about midnight, Mary McLeod was in the room, and in an evil moment (being somewhat excited by whisky) I yielded to the temptation to give her sufficient to cause death, which I did. I therefore declare, before God, as a dying man, and in the presence of my spiritual adviser, that I am innocent of the crime of murder so far as Mrs. Taylor is concerned, but acknowledge myself guilty of the adultery with Mary McLeod and the murder of my wife. I feel now as though I had been living a species of madness since my connection with Mary McLeod and I declare my solemn repentance of my crime, earnestly praying that I may obtain Divine forgiveness before I suffer the penalty of the law.

“Edward William Pritchard.”

Eight days later, preparing to meet his Maker, he chose to be more truthful. The Coventry Standard brought his second confession to the attention of its readers on the 28th July.


Subjoined is the full confession made by the condemned criminal Pritchard, now lying in Glasgow Gaol for execution on the 28th inst. It will be remembered that he made another confession on the 11th inst., but that is withdrawn, and a truthful confession made. Here it is in full:-

“Confession by Edward William Pritchard and made in the presence of an all-seeing God, and of the Rev. T. Watson Reid, my present spiritual adviser, on the 19th day of July, 1865, at Glasgow prison, for communication to the proper authorities:-

“I, Edward William Pritchard, in the full possession of all my senses, and understanding the awful position in which I am placed, do make free and open confession that the sentence pronounced upon me is just; that I am guilty of the death of my mother-in-law, Mrs Taylor, and of my wife, Mary Jane Pritchard; that I can assign no motive for the conduct which actuated me beyond a species of terrible madness and the use of ardent spirits. I hereby freely and fully state that the confession made to the Rev. R. S. Oldham, on the 11th day of this months, was not true, and I hereby confess that I alon, and not Mary McLeod, poisoned my wife in the way brought out in evidence at my trial. That Mrs Taylor’s death was caused according to the wording of the indictment I further state to be true, and the main facts brought out at my trial I hereby fully acknowledge. I plead wholly and solely guilty thereto, and may God have mercy on my soul. I pray earnestly for repentance not to be repeated of, and for forgiveness from Almighty God, through the intercession of our blessed Redeemer, Mediator, and Advocate, Jesus Christ, the Lord and Saviour. Fellow-creatures, pray for me, and let me add I am in charity with all men. I have now to record my humble thanks to all who have taken part in any way for my interest. May each and all accept the thanks of a truly penitent sinner, and may Heaven be their reward.


“JOHN STIRLING, Governor (Witness).

“EDWARD GEARY, Warder (Witness).

“JOHN MUTRIE, Warder (Witness).”

On the 27th July Pritchard wrote his last letter:-

“To Dr Underdale Taylor, Hutton Hall, Penrith, Cumberland.

“Farewell brother. I die in 20 hours from this. Romans viii, 34 to 39 verses. Mary Jane, darling mother, and you I will meet, as you said the last time you spoke to me, in happier circumstances.

“Bless you and yours, prays the dying penitent.


Pritchard’s fellow-creatures were not in the mood to pray for him the following day. The Newcastle Guardian and Mercury reported on the 29th:-

On making his appearance on the scaffold, he was received with a fearful storm of yells by the crowd, who seemed to have as little sympathy for him in the hour of extremity as he had exhibited towards his victims. Indeed, so universal has been the abhorrence of his cold-blooded crime that scarcely a single word of sympathy has been expressed in his favour.

…In a moment…the fatal bolt was withdrawn, and the body was swinging in the air. Owing, however, to a very short fall having been given, the wretched culprit struggled some time quite convulsively ere life was extinct. As soon as the drop fell loud screams and yells escaped from the women, as they were variously moved by horror or hatred; while a faint cheer and a waving of hats was given by the men, who thus expressed their sense of satisfaction that so vile a villain had met his rightful doom, and one less hypocrite was in the world. The sight, as the body hung swaying in the wind, was almost unparalleled at such a scene. Contrary to the general custom and expectation, Dr Pritchard’s long hair and beard were not cut off before the execution, and they gave the body a strange appearance as it hung dangling in the dull morning light.  After hanging the usual time, the body was cut down.