Rape, abductions, and murders are horrific crimes. But what have they to do with the history of anaesthesia? The connection is chloroform, the most popular anaesthetic of the nineteenth century and the Jekyll and Hyde of the drug market. Its anaesthetic powers cocooned patients in oblivion, protecting them from the pain of operations. But chloroform also became popular with criminals, as it provided an easy way of overpowering victims, and sometimes of killing them.
In 1857 Sir William Wilde (father of Oscar) was accused of rape under chloroform by his patient, Mary Travers. Although Mary eventually admitted in court that her accusation was false, she explained that she had chosen chloroform because it had such a “treacherous” reputation.
Certainly the appearance of chloroform in one of London’s most notorious murder trials–the Pimlico Mystery in 1886 settled it in the public’s imagination as one of the most dangerous drugs around. Adelaide Bartlett was accused of murdering her husband, Edwin Bartlett, with chloroform. During the trial, a picture emerged of the Bartletts’ most extraordinary menage a trois with George Dyson, a Methodist minister. Edwin had apparently encouraged Adelaide and Dyson to form a relationship, in the expectation that Adelaide would marry Dyson after Edwin’s death. (Edwin had a history of ill-health.) At Edwin’s autopsy, scientific investigations revealed the presence of chloroform in his mouth or oesophogus. This confirmed that Edwin must have been upright and able to swallow when he took the chloroform. Adelaide admitted having chloroform in the house, but claimed it was simply to fend Edwin away if he became amorous. Was Adelaide a murderess or an innocent victim? The jury was gravely suspicious but could not convict for lack of evidence. “Now that it is all over, she should tell us, in the interest of science, how she did it,” said surgeon Sir James Paget at the end of the trial. But she never did, and the case remains unsolved to this day.
Nor has the danger of chloroform faded into history. In 1994, a doctor was tried and convicted in Liverpool, UK for adbucting and raping a young woman, allegedly using chloroform, and in September of this year, the team investigating the disappearance of 3 year old Caylee Marie Anthony in Orlando, USA suspected that chloroform may have been used to abduct the child. The dark side continues… To enter the drawing for a copy of Dr. Snow’s book, click here.