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TitleBitter Nemesis - The Intimate History of Strychnine - J. Buckingham (CRC, 2008) WW
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LanguageEnglish
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Page 2

BITTER
NEMESIS

The Intimate History of Strychnine

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Page 165

144 • Bitter Nemesis: The Intimate History of Strychnine

latter. The course of tetanus was normally from one to four days
with a gradual onset, and he had never heard of a case where the
patient would be suddenly stricken with severe symptoms like
Cook’s followed by an equally sudden respite. He thought that
Cook’s symptoms were wholly consistent with nux vomica poi-
soning. Tetanus might arise from something as trivial as a tooth
extraction or a fishbone in the throat.

It is here that Victorian ignorance of the causes of disease first
begins to show itself. For although Dr. Curling had written a
book about tetanus, he thought that the symptoms were essen-
tially due to irritation of the nervous system. This is true in a
sense, but he knew nothing of Clostridium tetani. The doctors
in this pre-Pasteur era could only explain the onset of disease
from such trivial causes in terms of a hypersensitive predispo-
sition which some patients might show; a kind of allergy. This
ignorance was of great help to the defence, who played on the
probable state of Cook’s mind as it reeled from despair to elation
when his horse won, and the consequent irritation to his ner-
vous system.4 The evidence about “idiopathic tetanus” was essen-
tially accurate, from an observational point of view, although the
attempted explanations were wrong. Tetanus may arise without
apparent injury; in fact, the more insignificant the initial wound
by which bacteria are introduced into the body, the more likely it
is to be ignored and forgotten.5

The next witness, Dr. Robert Todd, had seen two cases of idio-
pathic tetanus. “The proximate effect of tetanus, whether caused
by idiopathic or traumatic tetanus, or strychnia, is probably the
same on the nerves leading from the spine. The particular affec-
tion of the nerves is unknown. …I have no doubt the peculiar
irritation of the nerves in tetanus is identical with the peculiar
irritation of the nerves in strychnine poisoning.” But like Curl-
ing, he opined that the course of Cook’s affliction was consistent
with strychnine, not tetanus. Sir Benjamin Brodie, Queen Victo-
ria’s surgeon, was called to agree with all of this. He handled his
cross-examination in a patrician manner:

Mr. Sergeant Shee: Considering how rare tetanus is, would
you think that the description of a chambermaid and of a pro-
vincial medical man, who had only seen one case of tetanus,

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Shaken in Every Possible Way • 145

could be relied upon by you as to what the disease observed
was?

Sir Benjamin Brodie: I must say I thought the description
very clearly given.

Later prosecution witnesses dealt with the effects of strychnine
in deliberate and accidental poisoning. Chief among these were
several people who had been present at the death of the unfortu-
nate Mrs. Sergison Smith, but three other cases were gone into.
Witnesses travelled from Glasgow to describe the sufferings of
Agnes Sennett, who took an hour to die after taking some strych-
nine pills intended for another patient at the Glasgow Royal Infir-
mary. “We were obliged to cut her clothes off because she never
moved. She was as stiff as a poker,” one of them said. Mr. Edward
Moore described how some fifteen years previously, he had nearly
killed a Mr. Clutterbuck whom he had been treating for paralysis
with strychnia. After Moore increased the dose to a quarter of a
grain, he found the patient “stiffened in every limb…screaming,
frequently requesting that we should turn him, move him and rub
him.” He was suffering for about three hours altogether, but the
treatment was evidently successful on the whole, because “he was
completely recovered the next day after the attack, and the patient
himself said he thought his paralysis was better.”

The final case was more sinister. This concerned the poison-
ing of a woman, Mrs. Dove, who could not be named in court.
Her maid, Jane Witham, described how she first complained of
her back hurting. Her ankles were twisted, her eyes drawn aside
and staring. She complained of a pricking in her legs and twitch-
ing of the muscles in her hands, which she compared to galvanic
shocks. She initially asked for her arms and legs to be rubbed,
but later on she could not bear it; if touched between the spasms,
another attack would be brought on. She could swallow all the
time except on the last day, when her mouth became tightly shut.
She took five days to die.

Nearly the whole of the fifth day was taken up with the evi-
dence of Dr. Taylor and of Professor Robert Christison.

Alfred Swaine Taylor was born at Northfleet, Kent, in 1806.6
After medical studies in London, he attended lectures by Orfila
in Paris. He developed an interest in forensic science as a result of

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Page 329

Figure 19. Robert Robinson and R.B. Woodward.

Figure 20. The 1917 assassination plot. The three female
conspirators in prison. Left to right; a wardress, Hettie Wheel-
don, Winnie Mason, Alice Wheeldon. (From the Illustrated Lon-
don News, Feb. 10, 1917.)

Figure 21. Transvestite cabaret artiste Molly Strychnine with
her accompanist Fuckoffsky.

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