History, Homicide, and the Healing Hand

by E. J. Wagner

A version of this article appeared in a 2004 supplement of The Lancet

When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.”—Sherlock Holmes, in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”

Even a casual stroll through history in search of doctors enmeshed in criminous events is richly rewarded. Early anatomists, like Vesalius, found it necessary to illegally retrieve subjects of their specialties from public gibbets.

The need for anatomical specimens in the 18th century led to a brisk business in stolen cadavers, and to stirring events like the notorious Doctors’ Mob in New York City in 1778. This was not a gathering of inflamed physicians, but a group of terrified medical practitioners driven into hiding from hostile, rampaging citizens.

It began when a feckless surgeon named Hicks, at work dissecting an anatomical subject of uncertain provenance, was distracted by a noisy group of boys in the street. He retaliated by waving a partially dissected arm through the window. When one of the boys climbed a ladder for a better look, Hicks cheerfully called out, “Go look at your mother’s arm!”

As fortune would have it, the mother of the boy had recently died. Terrified, the child ran to find his father, who was, with a number of other men, working on a construction project nearby. The father and his cohorts went to the cemetery, opened the woman’s grave, and found it empty. Armed with their tools, they marched to the hospital, gathering numbers, stones, and umbrage as they went. The doctors, fleet as well as cautious, went to the jail, where they barricaded themselves for protection and awaited rescue. The mob rummaged through the dissecting room, and becoming freshly stirred by the mutilated state of the abandoned subjects, they headed for the doctors’ hideout.

The militia was mustered to protect the peace. The governor and mayor arrived with Baron von Steuben, the German officer who had served as military adviser to the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, and who later acquired American citizenship. The Baron pleaded with the guard to resist firing on the unruly citizens, for whom he felt much sympathy. In the midst of his compassionate speech he was struck on the head by a stone with such force that he fell to his knees, blood streaming from his head. Staggering erect, he faced the hostile crowd and cried, “Fire!”

The order was obeyed, a number of rioters fell, the uprising was quelled. Physicians subsequently endeavored to rub the windows of the dissecting room with soap or tallow and to keep them closed.

Fifty years later, a shortage of cadavers led to murderous problems in Edinburgh, Scotland. Bodies had long been illegally disinterred for sale to the medical school lecturers of Surgeons’ Square, but it took an enterprising duo named Burke and Hare to stumble on a method of streamlining the dismal business. By smothering their usually inebriated victims, they were able to provide never-buried goods ready for disassembly.

Robert Knox, the famous surgeon whose wit was as quick as his scalpel and whose lecture halls were always packed with students, paid generously and asked few questions. It was to his dissection room that the Burke-Hare products were delivered. But eventually the moral lapses of the Burke and Hare operation were brought to judicial notice. Burke was tried for murder, and Hare, who turned Crown’s witness, testified for the prosecution.

The reputation of the incurious Knox suffered. An eminent committee investigated the matter, partly at the request of Knox, and, after debate, decided that Knox could be faulted only for managing his laboratory too casually. “I will do just as I have done before”, the doctor announced. Clearly, by offering considerably more for “subjects” than the usual price, he had managed to inflate both the value and the death rate of the poor of Edinburgh.

Physicians whose ethical lapses brought them to public notice did not always enjoy the pattern of privileged protection offered to Knox. In the autumn of 1849, in Boston, George Parkman, doctor of medicine and businessman, disappeared after being last seen at Harvard Medical College. The medical school porter, an industrious man named John Littlefield, while working late one night had chipped through four courses of brick to access the privy below John Webster’s chemistry laboratory. By the light of a lantern he discerned a number of body parts, among them one pelvis with male genitalia attached and 6 inches of intestine. “I knew at once”, Littlefield remarked perspicaciously, “this was no place for such things”.

Investigation disclosed more parts of a partially burned male corpse in Webster’s laboratory, as well as a distinctive dental plate identified as Parkman’s. Webster owed Parkman a large sum of money he couldn’t repay—a fact the prosecution offered as motive for murder.

Webster claimed innocence, implying that Littlefield was a body-snatcher who had merely planted the remnants of his trade in the privy. The grim New England jury was not distracted, and delivered a guilty verdict. John Webster, professor of chemistry at Harvard, was sentenced to death.

Webster then constructed a confession with the aid of a helpful minister, in which he claimed the killing was an unplanned act of passion. Since the body in question had been dismembered and partially burned by Webster, it could not offer support for the lesser charge of manslaughter. The confession, riddled with inconsistencies, has kept crime historians busy for decades. Doubt did not stop the hanging, however, which took place in the summer of 1850. Webster’s body was buried secretly by his friends—to avoid the attention of body-snatchers.

There was an echo of the Webster case in 1893, when Thomas Thatcher Graves (who received his M.D. degree from Harvard in 1871) was accused of poisoning one of his patients, Mrs. Josephine Barnaby, of whose will he was beneficiary, and her guest, Mrs. Worrell, by sending them a gift of whisky laced with arsenic. Mrs. Barnaby died; Mrs. Worrell, of sterner stuff, survived and testified.

When the prosecutor was asked by a reporter if he had qualms about requesting the death penalty for a Harvard doctor, he is said to have replied, “Why no—there’s precedent—we hanged one of them in Boston just a few years ago.” Graves simplified the matter by poisoning himself in his cell.

Homicidal physicians commonly possess an innate sense of drama coupled with unusual arrogance. Consider the proclivities of Edward Pritchard, who in 1865 was an established medical practitioner and family man in Glasgow, Scotland. He had a penchant for dramatic self embellishment, and was known for his public lectures. Twirling a walking stick he claimed was a gift from Garibaldi, he described a number of imaginative adventures, declaiming: “I have plucked the eagles from their aeries in the deserts of Arabia and have hunted the Nubian lion in the prairies of North America.” After exercising his creative sense of geography, he would present his listeners with carte-de-visite photographs of himself, suitable for framing. He would offer the pictures to his patients as well, thoughtfully autographing the likenesses before requesting a small donation to defray their cost.

Doctor Pritchard

Doctor Pritchard

Pritchard liked women, but as a home-loving man focused his attentions on housemaids within his domicile. His family grew suspicious. The resulting tension was treated with doses of arsenic and antimony, judiciously meted out.

An anonymous note, probably sent by an observant colleague, alerted the authorities. Pritchard was convicted and sentenced to death; his execution, billed as the last public hanging in Scotland, attracted a wildly enthusiastic audience of 100,000. Even though he acknowledged the justice of his sentence the crowd was loudly unforgiving. The tale, perhaps apocryphal, is told that Pritchard was so unnerved by the bloodthirsty shrieks of “Murderer!” that he turned to Calcraft, the executioner (who flaunted a moribund rose in his lapel), and exclaimed with relief, “Thank God you’re here!” Pritchard’s removal no doubt improved medical practice in Glasgow, but it was a sad loss to the performing arts.

Members of the dental profession also have a place in this gathering of murderous medicos. Warren Waite, of New York City, as able at tennis as arranging teeth, felt a need to embellish his finances. He accomplished this by his research at New York’s Flower Hospital, where he gathered a collection of dangerous substances, including typhoid, anthrax, diphtheria, tuberculosis, arsenic, and chloroform. He used these to experiment on his large family of wealthy in-laws. Some promptly succumbed. A stubborn few, like his father-in-law, proved so tough that Waite was forced to resort to the crude use of a chloroform-soaked pillow held tightly over the victim’s face.

A suspicious brother-in-law insisted on an autopsy. The claim by Waite’s defense that “an evil Egyptian” had control of his soul was unsuccessful, and he was electrocuted in May, 1917.

On the distaff side, there was Alice Wyncoop, a well-respected physician in Chicago, who, in 1933, was convicted of shooting to death her 18-year-old daughter-in-law, having first thoughtfully anaesthetized the girl with chloroform. The doctor claimed the killing was accidental. She served 25 years before dying in prison.

They are woven throughout medical history—these grotesque practitioners—poisoners, smotherers, pitiless experimenters, and, most alarming, those whose crimes are still undiscovered, whose names are still unknown.

Further reading:

Bemis, George. Report of the Case of John W. Webster: Indicted for the Murder of George Parkman. Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1850.

Furman, Guido, ed. Medical Register of the City of New York for 1865: For the Year Commencing June 1, 1865. New York: New York Medico-Historical Society, 1866.

Rae, Isobel. Knox the Anatomist. Edinburgh & London: Oliver & Boyd, 1964.

Roughead, William. The Murderer’s Companion. New York: Press of the Readers Club, 1941.

Roughead, William, ed. Burke and Hare. 1st American ed. New York: The John Day Company, 1927.

Roughead, William, ed.. Trial of Dr. Pritchard. Glasgow: William Hodge & Company, 1906.

Wagner, E.J. The Science of Sherlock Holmes. Hoboken: John Wiley, 2006.

Pursuing Verity

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4 Responses to “History, Homicide, and the Healing Hand”

  1. Digging Up Dead Doctors | EJDissectingRoom Says:

    […] EJ Wagner is a crime historian and author of the Edgar winning “The Science of Sherlock Holmes”. She has written for Ellery Queen, The NY Times, Lancet, and Smithsonian Magazine, among others.
She is currently working on a novel and the traveling Museum exhibit “Sherlock Holmes: The International Exhibit” which  is currently at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and soon to open in Ohio.
Her website is http://www.ejwagner-crimehistorian.com/‎
 Her Lancet article on medical murders, History, Homicide, and the Healing Hand may be found on her blog,here https://ejdissectingroom.wordpress.com/2009/11/27/history-homicide-and-the-healing-hand/ […]

  2. Barb Schlichting Says:

    Interesting. I didn’t realize that this is why there were so many bodies stolen from the cemeteries. Very good read.

  3. ejdissectingroom Says:

    Thanks, Doug.
    Burke and Hare is indeed a great case-and I’ve happily presented it as a performance piece for years,
    But bitter amusement aside,there is still the difficulty that while folks like their surgeons to have a clear idea of where the gall bladder, for instance, is located,they don’t want their loved ones to provide the map.
    Autopsies are too rare, and anatomical studies neglected

  4. D.P. Lyle, MD Says:

    Great post. The Burke and Hare case is particularly wild. I used it as an example of asphyxial death in two of my books–Forensics For Dummies and Howdunnit: Forensics. The term Burking is applied whenever someone sits or lies on another to bring about death from asphyxia. When people in the area didn’t die fast enough for Burke and Hare to make a hefty profit from their bodies they began killing folks. Burke would sit on them until they died. You can’t make this stuff up. I love following your blog. Keep up the good work.

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