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.