The Victorian Shipman

A chance purchase gives Dr James Finlayson an intimate perspective on a notorious murder case

  • Date: 03 January 2011

AT EIGHT O’CLOCK on 28 July, 1865, a condemned prisoner was led onto Glasgow Green and before a crowd said to number 100,000 became the last person to be publicly hanged in Glasgow. His name was Dr Edward William Pritchard and he had been convicted of poisoning his wife and mother-in-law.

Probably most readers of this magazine will have never heard of Edward Pritchard. I certainly had not until two years ago when I spotted an item in that potent troubler of elderly doctors’ marriages – a second-hand bookseller’s catalogue. The entry described a volume consisting of reprints of Scotsman newspaper articles from the time of the trial of Dr Pritchard, along with a few other items bound in the back relating to his life.

Singularly untruthful

Pritchard was born in Hampshire in 1825, the son of a captain in the Royal Navy. After an apprenticeship in Portsmouth he became a Navy surgeon and in 1846 a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. In 1851, having married Mary Jane Taylor, the only daughter of a successful silk merchant in Edinburgh, he became a practitioner in Filey in Yorkshire. Here he was later described as “fluent, plausible, amorous, politely impudent and singularly untruthful”.

In June 1860 Pritchard moved his family to Glasgow and established a practice in a fashionable area but the medical fraternity must have regarded him with some suspicion as several attempts to gain admittance to the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow were rejected. Three years later in 1863 a fire occurred where Pritchard and his family were living in Berkley Terrace in which a servant girl died. Following his subsequent murder conviction there was suspicion that the fire was no accident and might have been raised by Pritchard himself to cover the murder of the wretched domestic.

Later Pritchard purchased a large house in Sauchiehall Street (just around the corner from the present offices of MDDUS) with the help of a loan from his mother-in-law who always expressed great admiration for her doctor son-in-law. Soon after moving there the unfortunate vacancy for a housemaid was filled by a 15-year-old girl named Mary MacLeod. Later it came out that while his wife was away on holiday Dr Pritchard started an affair with the girl, subsequently terminating the consequent pregnancy.

Suspicious deaths

In October 1864 Pritchard’s wife Mary began to be unwell, suffering from nausea and vomiting, an upset bowel and increasing lassitude. On trips to visit her family in Edinburgh she always seemed to improve but on returning home to Glasgow her condition deteriorated.

Concerned for Mary’s health, her mother, Mrs Taylor, came to Glasgow to nurse her daughter. She was described as a particularly strong and fit woman but on 25 February became suddenly ill and died. Mary continued to deteriorate and on 17 March she also died. The death was certified by Pritchard as being due to gastric fever and when his wife’s body was transferred back to Edinburgh the doctor exhibited a great deal of fervent feeling, kissing his dead wife on the lips.

However, the Procurator Fiscal had received an anonymous letter raising suspicions about Dr Pritchard. The authorities investigated and post mortems were carried out establishing poisoning as the probable cause of death in both cases.

During the subsequent trial the prosecution were meticulous in establishing their case. Dr Pritchard was shown to have purchased large quantities of poisons (more antimony was purchased by him than all his medical brethren in Glasgow combined). A large amount of poison was found in Mrs Pritchard and her mother.

Pritchard’s motives for murder were clear – his obsession with the servant girl Mary McLeod – and by vigorous examination of the other servants in the house it was established beyond doubt that the doctor had given the poisons to the unfortunate women. The only defence Pritchard’s counsel could muster was to blame Mary MacLeod.

Victorian forensics

A number of things struck me on reading of the trial. Many living in the present tend to think all past ages as dark and filled with ignorance and crime. Yet Victorian newspapers seem to do a much better job than our present media of providing accurate information to their readers. The account of the Pritchard trial was printed almost verbatim.

I was also struck by the way in which the legal authorities established their case and with the meticulous forensic investigations carried out on the bodies of the deceased and on the various materials obtained from Pritchard’s residence. I had been unaware of how knowledgeable and skilful Victorian scientists were and in particular how they recognised their own limitations and the need for cross-checking.

Against this scientific accuracy, however, stands the ignorance and pride of the doctors who attended the ladies before their demise. One Dr Paterson, who attended Mrs Taylor, testified that he had no doubt that Mary Pritchard was being poisoned by her husband. He claimed that medical etiquette meant that it was impossible for him to do anything about it.

The Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Inglis, in an amazingly comprehensive summing up at the end of the trial, criticised Dr Paterson severely in words that we could probably all read with benefit today: “I care not for professional etiquette or professional rule. There is a rule of life for consideration that is far higher than these – and that it is the duty of every citizen in this country, that every right-minded man owes to his neighbour, to prevent the destruction of human life in this world. A duty I cannot but say that Dr Paterson failed”.

An interesting discovery

On receiving my copy of the report of the trial of Dr Pritchard from the bookseller I was fascinated to discover personal documents relating to the case bound in the rear of the volume.

First there was a letter written by Dr Pritchard himself in December 1864 to the parents of a medical student who was staying with him. During the trial, it emerged that this student had also suffered symptoms of poisoning. In this letter Dr Pritchard writes to the student’s parents encouraging him to return: “Tom bolted off without asking me for a note to you. He must not be running away after every illness – I was most anxious and careful about him”. There was also a long manuscript, in an unknown hand, recording the visits of a Dr Dewar, who lived in Blythswood Square and was a surgeon to the Glasgow jail, detailing his visits “for purely Christian motives” to Dr Pritchard in his condemned cell. The notes record that Pritchard had told Dr Dewar he had procured abortions for Mary MacLeod on three occasions, although he did not believe the children were his. He also claimed that the girl “had complete command of him, sometimes locking him in a room” and that she had encouraged him to “try stronger poisons if the ones used were not effective”.

The final document appears to be a letter written by Pritchard from his condemned cell to his lawyer giving notice of money due him by various patients and asking to be brought “a small bottle, square and flat with scented olive oil to adorn hair,” presumably for his execution. The case of Dr Pritchard should perhaps make us think again about the special risks posed by some doctors. When Dr Harold Shipman was found guilty of his terrible crimes it was often said, by doctors, that he was just a bad man who happened to be a doctor. I am by no means certain that this was the case. It does seem likely that doctors are overrepresented among serial or multiple killers. Clearly doctors have a particular expertise with poisons and other dangers to the human body, and there are aspects of a doctor’s role involving power and control that can give rise – in susceptible individuals – to some very dangerous thoughts and actions.

Dr James Finlayson is a consultant psychiatrist in Inverness

This page was correct at the time of publication. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

Read more from this issue of Insight

Insight (formerly Summons) is published quarterly and distributed to all MDDUS members throughout the UK. It provides a mix of articles on risk, medico-legal and regulatory matters as well as general features and profiles of interest to our members. Browse all current and back issues below.
In this issue

Related Content

Equality, diversity and inclusion workshop

Equality, diversity and inclusion workshop

Coroner's inquests

Save this article

Save this article to a list of favourite articles which members can access in their account.

Save to library

For registration, or any login issues, please visit our login page.