THE SLOW POISONERS By Charles Mackey -- Pub. 1841
-- The like was never read of.
-- In my judgment, To all that shall but hear it, 't will appear A most impossible
-- Troth, I'll tell you, And briefly as I can, by what degrees They fell into
atrocious system of poisoning, by poisons so slow in their operation, as to make
the victim appear, to ordinary observers, as if dying from a gradual decay of
nature, has been practised in all ages. Those who are curious in the matter may
refer to Beckmann on Secret Poisons, in his "History of Inventions," in which
he has collected several instances of it from the Greek and Roman writers.
in the sixteenth century the crime seems to have gradually increased, till, in
the seventeenth, it spread over Europe like a pestilence. It was often exercised
by pretended witches and sorcerers, and finally became a branch of education amongst
all who laid any claim to magical and supernatural arts. In the twenty-first year
of Henry VIII. an act was passed, rendering it high-treason: those found guilty
of it, were to be boiled to death.
of the first in point of date, and hardly second to any in point of atrocity,
is the murder by this means of Sir Thomas Overbury, which disgraced the court
of James I, in the year 1613. A slight sketch of it will be a fitting introduction
to the history of the poisoning mania, which was so prevalent in France and Italy
fifty years later.
Kerr, a Scottish youth, was early taken notice of by James I, and loaded with
honours, for no other reason that the world could ever discover than the beauty
of his person. James, even in his own day, was suspected of being addicted to
the most abominable of all offences, and the more we examine his history now,
the stronger the suspicion becomes.
that may be, the handsome Kerr, lending his smooth cheek, even in public, to the
disgusting kisses of his royal master, rose rapidly in favour. In the year 1613,
he was made Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, and created an English peer, by the
style and title of Viscount Rochester.
further honours were in store for him. In this rapid promotion he had not been
without a friend. Sir Thomas Overbury, the King's secretary-who appears, from
some threats in his own letters, to have been no better than a pander to the vices
of the King, and privy to his dangerous secrets -- exerted all his backstair influence
to forward the promotion of Kerr, by whom he was, doubtless, repaid in some way
did not confine his friendship to this, if friendship ever could exist between
two such men, but acted the part of an entremetteur, and assisted Rochester to
carry on an adulterous intrigue with the Lady Frances Howard, the wife of the
Earl of Essex. This woman was a person of violent passions, and lost to all sense
husband was in her way, and to be freed from him, she instituted proceedings for
a divorce, on grounds which a woman of any modesty or delicacy of feeling would
die rather than avow. Her scandalous suit was successful, and was no sooner decided
than preparations, on a scale of the greatest magnificence, were made for her
marriage with Lord Rochester.
Thomas Overbury, who had willingly assisted his patron to intrigue with the Countess
of Essex, seems to have imagined that his marriage with so vile a woman might
retard his advancement; he accordingly employed all his influence to dissuade
him from it. But Rochester was bent on the match, and his passions were as violent
as those of the Countess.
one occasion, when Overbury and the Viscount were walking in the gallery of Whitehall,
Overbury was overheard to say, "Well, my Lord, if you do marry that base woman,
you will utterly ruin your honour and yourself. You shall never do it with my
advice or consent; and, if you do, you had best look to stand fast."
flung from him in a rage, exclaiming with an oath, "I will be even with you for
this." These words were the death-warrant of the unfortunate Overbury. He had
mortally wounded the pride of Rochester in insinuating that by his (Overbury's)
means he might be lowered in the King's favour; and he had endeavoured to curb
the burning passions of a heartless, dissolute, and reckless man.
imprudent remonstrances were reported to the Countess; and from that moment, she
also vowed the most deadly vengeance against him. With a fiendish hypocrisy, however,
they both concealed their intentions, and Overbury, at the solicitation of Rochester,
was appointed ambassador to the court of Russia. This apparent favour was but
the first step in a deep and deadly plot.
pretending to be warmly attached to the interests of Overbury, advised him to
refuse the embassy, which, he said, was but a trick to get him out of the way.
He promised, at the same time, to stand between him and any evil consequences
which might result from his refusal. Overbury fell into the snare, and declined
offended, immediately ordered his committal to the Tower. He was now in safe custody,
and his enemies had opportunity to commence the work of vengeance.
first thing Rochester did was to procure, by his influence at court, the dismissal
of the Lieutenant of the Tower, and the appointment of Sir Jervis Elwes, one of
his creatures, to the vacant post. This man was but one instrument, and another
being necessary, was found in Richard Weston, a fellow who had formerly been shopman
to a druggist. He was installed in the office of under-keeper, and as such had
the direct custody of Overbury.
far, all was favourable to the designs of the conspirators. In the mean time,
the insidious Rochester wrote the most friendly letters to Overbury, requesting
him to bear his ill-fortune patiently, and promising that his imprisonment should
not be of long duration; for that his friends were exerting themselves to soften
the King's displeasure. Still pretending the extreme of sympathy for him, he followed
up the letters by presents of pastry and other delicacies, which could not be
procured in the Tower. These articles were all poisoned.
presents of a similar description were sent to Sir Jervis Elwes, with the understanding
that these articles were not poisoned, when they were unaccompanied by letters:
of these the unfortunate prisoner never tasted.
woman, named Turner, who had formerly kept a house of ill fame, and who had more
than once lent it to further the guilty intercourse of Rochester and Lady Essex,
was the agent employed to procure the poisons. They were prepared by Dr. Forman,
a pretended fortune-teller of Lambeth, assisted by an apothecary named Franklin.
Both these persons knew for what purposes the poisons were needed, and employed
their skill in mixing them in the pastry and other edibles, in such small quantities
as gradually to wear out the constitution of their victim.
Turner regularly furnished the poisoned articles to the under-keeper, who placed
them before Overbury. Not only his food, but his drink was poisoned. Arsenic was
mixed with the salt he ate, and cantharides with the pepper. All this time, his
health declined sensibly.
day he grew weaker and weaker; and with a sickly appetite, craved for sweets and
jellies. Rochester continued to condole with him, and anticipated all his wants
in this respect, sending him abundance of pastry, and occasionally partridges
and other game, and young pigs. With the sauce for the game, Mrs. Turner mixed
a quantity of cantharides, and poisoned the pork with lunar-caustic.
stated on the trial, Overbury took in this manner poison enough to have poisoned
twenty men; but his constitution was strong, and he still lingered. Franklin,
the apothecary, confessed that he prepared with Dr. Forman seven different sorts
of poisons; viz. aquafortis, arsenic, mercury, powder of diamonds, lunar-caustic,
great spiders, and cantharides. Overbury held out so long that Rochester became
impatient, and in a letter to Lady Essex, expressed his wonder that things were
not sooner despatched.
were immediately sent by Lady Essex to the keeper to finish with the victim at
had not been all this time without suspicion of treachery, although he appears
to have had no idea of poison. He merely suspected that it was intended to confine
him for life, and to set the King still more bitterly against him. In one of his
letters, he threatened Rochester that, unless he were speedily liberated, he would
expose his villany to the world.
says, "You and I, ere it be long, will come to a public trial of another nature."
* * * "Drive me not to extremities, lest I should say something that both you
and I should repent." * * * "Whether I live or die, your shame shall never die,
but ever remain to the world, to make you the most odious man living." * * * "I
wonder much you should neglect him to whom such secrets of all kinds have passed."
* * * "Be these the fruits of common secrets, common dangers?"
these remonstrances, and hints as to the dangerous secrets in his keeping, were
ill-calculated to serve him with a man so reckless as Lord Rochester: they were
more likely to cause him to be sacrificed than to be saved. Rochester appears
to have acted as if he thought so. He doubtless employed the murderer's reasoning
that "dead men tell no tales," when, after receiving letters of this description,
he complained to his paramour of the delay.
was spurred on to consummate the atrocity; and the patience of all parties being
exhausted, a dose of corrosive sublimate was administered to him, in October 1613,
which put an end to his sufferings, after he had been for six months in their
the very day of his death, and before his body was cold, he was wrapped up carelessly
in a sheet, and buried without any funeral ceremony in a pit within the precincts
of the Tower.
Anthony Weldon, in his "Court and Character of James I," gives a somewhat different
account of the closing scene of this tragedy. He says, "Franklin and Weston came
into Overbury's chamber, and found him in infinite torment, with contention between
the strength of nature and the working of the poison; and it being very like that
nature had gotten the better in this contention, by the thrusting out of boils,
blotches, and blains, they, fearing it might come to light by the judgment of
physicians, the foul play that had been offered him, consented to stifle him with
the bedclothes, which accordingly was performed; and so ended his miserable life,
with the assurance of the conspirators that he died by the poison; none thinking
otherwise than these two murderers."
sudden death -- the indecent haste of the funeral, and the non-holding of an inquest
upon the body, strengthened the suspicions that were afloat. Rumour, instead of
whispering, began to speak out; and the relatives of the deceased openly expressed
their belief that their kinsman had been murdered. But Rochester was still all
powerful at court, and no one dared to utter a word to his discredit.
afterwards, his marriage with the Countess of Essex was celebrated with the utmost
splendour, the King himself being present at the ceremony.
would seem that Overbury's knowledge of James's character was deeper than Rochester
had given him credit for, and that he had been a true prophet when he predicted
that his marriage would eventually estrange James from his minion. At this time,
however, Rochester stood higher than ever in the royal favour; but it did not
last long -- conscience, that busy monitor, was at work.
tongue of rumour was never still; and Rochester, who had long been a guilty, became
at last a wretched man. His cheeks lost their colour -- his eyes grew dim; and
he became moody, careless, and melancholy. The King seeing him thus, took at length
no pleasure in his society, and began to look about for another favourite.
Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, was the man to his mind; quick-witted, handsome,
and unscrupulous. The two latter qualities alone were sufficient to recommend
him to James I.
proportion as the influence of Rochester declined, that of Buckingham increased.
A falling favourite has no friends; and Rumour wagged her tongue against Rochester
louder and more pertinaciously than ever. A new favourite, too, generally endeavours
to hasten by a kick the fall of the old one; and Buckingham, anxious to work the
complete ruin of his forerunner in the King's good graces, encouraged the relatives
of Sir Thomas Overbury to prosecute their inquiries into the strange death of
was rigorous enough in the punishment of offences when he was not himself involved.
He piqued himself, moreover, on his dexterity in unravelling mysteries. The affair
of Sir Thomas Overbury found him congenial occupation. He set to work by ordering
the arrest of Sir Jervis Elwes.
at this early stage of the proceedings, does not seem to have been aware that
Rochester was so deeply implicated. Struck with horror at the atrocious system
of slow poisoning, the King sent for all the Judges. According to Sir Anthony
Weldon, he knelt down in the midst of them, and said, "My Lords the Judges, it
is lately come to my hearing that you have now in examination a business of poisoning.
Lord! in what a miserable condition shall this kingdom be (the only famous nation
for hospitality in the world) if our tables should become such a snare, as that
none could eat without danger of life, and that Italian custom should be introduced
among us! Therefore, my Lords, I charge you, as you will answer it at that great
and dreadful day of judgment, that you examine it strictly, without layout, affection,
or partiality. And if you shall spare any guilty of this crime, God's curse light
on you and your posterity! and if I spare any that are guilty, God's curse light
on me and my posterity for ever!"
imprecation fell but too surely upon the devoted house of Stuart. The solemn oath
was broken, and God's curse did light upon him and his posterity!
next person arrested after Sir Jervis Elwes, was Weston, the under-keeper; then
Franklin and Mrs. Turner; and, lastly, the Earl and Countess of Somerset, to which
dignity Rochester had been advanced since the death of Overbury. Weston was first
brought to trial. Public curiosity was on the stretch. Nothing else was talked
of, and the court on the day of trial was crowded to suffocation.
"State Trials" report, that Lord Chief Justice Coke "laid open to the jury the
baseness and cowardliness of poisoners, who attempt that secretly against which
there is no means of preservation or defence for a man's life; and how rare it
was to hear of any poisoning in England, so detestable it was to our nation. But
the devil had taught divers to be cunning in it, so that they can poison in what
distance of space they please, by consuming the nativum calidum, or humidum radicale,
in one month, two or three, or more, as they list, which they four manner of ways
do execute; viz. haustu, gustu, odore, and contactu."
the indictment was read over, Weston made no other reply than, "Lord have mercy
upon me! Lord have mercy upon me!" On being asked how he would be tried, he refused
to throw himself upon a jury of his country, and declared, that he would be tried
by God alone. In this he persisted for some time.
fear of the dreadful punishment for contumacy induced him, at length, to plead
"Not guilty," and take his trial in due course of law. [The punishment for the
contumacious was expressed by the words onere, frigore, et fame. By the first
was meant that the culprit should be extended on his back on the ground, and weights
placed over his body, gradually increased, until he expired. Sometimes the punishment
was not extended to this length, and the victim, being allowed to recover, underwent
the second portion, the frigore, which consisted in his standing naked in the
open air, for a certain space, in the sight of all the people. The third, or fame,
was more dreadful, the statute saying, "That he was to be preserved with the coarsest
bread that could be got, and water out of the next sink or puddle, to the place
of execution; and that day he had water he should have no bread, and that day
he had bread, he should have no water;" and in this torment he was to linger as
long as nature would hold out.]
the circumstances against him were fully proved, and he was found guilty and executed
Turner, Franklin, and Sir Jervis Elwes were also brought to trial, found guilty,
and executed between the 19th of October and the 4th of December 1615; but the
grand trial of the Earl and Countess of Somerset did not take place till the month
of May following.
the trial of Sir Jervis Elwes, circumstances had transpired, showing a guilty
knowledge of the poisoning on the part of the Earl of Northampton the uncle of
Lady Somerset, and the chief falconer Sir Thomas Monson. The former was dead;
but Sir Thomas Monson was arrested, and brought to trial.
appeared, however, that he was too dangerous a man to be brought to the scaffold.
He knew too many of the odious secrets of James I, and his dying speech might
contain disclosures which would compromise the King. To conceal old guilt it was
necessary to incur new: the trial of Sir Thomas Monson was brought to an abrupt
conclusion, and himself set at liberty!
James had broken his oath. He now began to fear that he had been rash in engaging
so zealously to bring the poisoners to punishment. That Somerset would be declared
guilty there was no doubt, and that he looked for pardon and impunity was equally
evident to the King.
while in the Tower, asserted confidently, that James would not dare to bring him
to trial. In this he was mistaken; but James was in an agony. What the secret
was between them will now never be known with certainty; but it may be surmised.
Some have imagined it to be the vice to which the King was addicted; while others
have asserted, that it related to the death of Prince Henry, a virtuous young
man, who had held Somerset in especial abhorrence. The Prince died early, unlamented
by his father, and, as public opinion whispered at the time, poisoned by Somerset.
some crime or other lay heavy upon the soul of the King; and Somerset, his accomplice,
could not be brought to public execution with safety. Hence the dreadful tortures
of James, when he discovered that his favourite was so deeply implicated in the
murder of Overbury.
means was taken by the agonized King to bring the prisoner into what was called
a safe frame of mind. He was secretly advised to plead guilty, and trust to the
clemency of the King. The same advice was conveyed to the Countess.
Francis) Bacon was instructed by the King to draw up a paper of all the points
of "mercy and favour" to Somerset which might result from the evidence; and Somerset
was again recommended to plead guilty, and promised that no evil should ensue
Countess was first tried. She trembled and shed tears during the reading of the
indictment, and, in a low voice, pleaded guilty. On being asked why sentence of
death should not be passed against her, she replied meekly, "I can much aggravate,
but nothing extenuate my fault. I desire mercy, and that the lords will intercede
for me with the King." Sentence of death was passed upon her.
day the Earl was brought to trial. He appears to have mistrusted the promises
of James, and he pleaded not guilty. With a self-possession and confidence, which
he felt, probably, from his knowledge of the King's character, he rigorously cross-examined
the witnesses, and made a stubborn defence. After a trial which lasted eleven
hours, he was found guilty, and condemned to the felon's death.
may have been the secrets between the criminal and the King, the latter, notwithstanding
his terrific oath, was afraid to sign the death-warrant. It might, perchance,
have been his own. The Earl and Countess were committed to the Tower, where they
remained for nearly five years. At the end of this period, to the surprise and
scandal of the community, and the disgrace of its chief magistrate, they both
received the royal pardon, but were ordered to reside at a distance from the court.
been found guilty of felony, the estates of the Earl had become forfeited; but
James granted him out of their revenues an income of 4,000 pounds per annum!
could go no further. Of the after life of these criminals nothing is known, except
that the love they had formerly borne each other was changed into aversion, and
that they lived under the same roof for months together without the interchange
of a word.
exposure of their atrocities did not put a stop to the practice of poisoning.
On the contrary, as we shall see hereafter, it engendered that insane imitation
which is so strange a feature of the human character.
himself is supposed, with great probability, to have fallen a victim to it. In
the notes to "Harris's Life and Writings of James I," there is a good deal of
information on the subject. The guilt of Buckingham, although not fully established,
rests upon circumstances of suspicion stronger than have been sufficient to lead
hundreds to the scaffold.
motives for committing the crime are stated to have been a desire of revenge for
the coldness with which the King, in the latter years of his reign, began to regard
him; his fear that James intended to degrade him; and his hope that the great
influence he possessed over the mind of the heir-apparent would last through a
new reign, if the old one were brought to a close.
the second volume of the "Harleian Miscellany," there is a tract, entitled the
"Forerunner of Revenge," written by George Eglisham, doctor of medicine, and one
of the physicians to King James. Harris, in quoting it, says that it is full of
rancour and prejudice.
is evidently exaggerated; but forms, nevertheless, a link in the chain of evidence.
Eglisham says: -- "The King being sick of an ague, the Duke took this opportunity,
when all the King's doctors of physic were at dinner, and offered to him a white
powder to take, the which he a long time refused; but, overcome with his flattering
importunity, he took it in wine, and immediately became worse and worse, falling
into many swoonings and pains, and violent fluxes of the belly, so tormented,
that his Majesty cried out aloud of this white powder, 'Would to God I had never
then tells us "Of the Countess of Buckingham (the Duke's mother) applying the
plaister to the King's heart and breast, whereupon he grew faint and short-breathed,
and in agony. That the physicians exclaimed, that the King was poisoned; that
Buckingham commanded them out of the room, and committed one of them close prisoner
to his own chamber, and another to be removed from court; and that, after his
Majesty's death, his body and head swelled above measure; his hair, with the skin
of his head, stuck to his pillow, and his nails became loose on his fingers and
who, by the way, was a partisan of the Duke's, gives a totally different account
of James's death. He says, "It was occasioned by an ague (after a short indisposition
by the gout) which, meeting many humours in a fat unwieldy body of fifty-eight
years old, in four or five fits carried him out of the world. After whose death
many scandalous and libellous discourses were raised, without the least colour
or ground; as appeared upon the strictest and most malicious examination that
could be made, long after, in a time of licence, when nobody was afraid of offending
majesty, and when prosecuting the highest reproaches and contumelies against the
royal family was held very meritorious."
this confident declaration, the world will hardly be persuaded that there was
not some truth in the rumours that were abroad. The inquiries which were instituted
were not strict, as he asserts, and all the unconstitutional influence of the
powerful favourite was exerted to defeat them.
the celebrated accusations brought against Buckingham by the Earl of Bristol,
the poisoning of King James was placed last on the list, and the pages of history
bear evidence of the summary mode in which they were, for the time, got rid of.
from whom Buckingham is said to have procured his poisons was one Dr. Lamb, a
conjuror and empiric, who, besides dealing in poisons, pretended to be a fortune-teller.
The popular fury, which broke with comparative harmlessness against his patron,
was directed against this man, until he could not appear with safety in the streets
of London. His fate was melancholy.
one day in Cheapside, disguised, as he thought, from all observers, he was recognized
by some idle boys, who began to hoot and pelt him with rubbish, calling out, "The
poisoner! the poisoner! Down with the wizard! down with him!" A mob very soon
collected, and the Doctor took to his heels and ran for his life. He was pursued
and seized in Wood Street, and from thence dragged by the hair through the mire
to St. Paul's Cross; the mob beating him with sticks and stones, and calling out,
"Kill the wizard! kill the poisoner!"