The deadly doctor who almost got away with murder

Pritchard was tried at the High Court in Edinburgh.
Pritchard was tried at the High Court in Edinburgh.
Have your say

WHEN Mary Pritchard became seriously ill in December 1864, it was fortunate that her husband was a doctor – or so you would have thought.

Unfortunately for his wife, Dr Edward Pritchard was a liar, a womaniser and a murderer. He was having an affair with a young girl, hiding a shady past and poisoning his wife.

Naturally, his court case gripped the nation.

Mary Pritchard had been ill for a long time. From the effects of antimony poisoning she suffered headaches, retching and her constitution was considerably weakened.

Her mother, Mrs Jane Taylor, a resident of Edinburgh, moved through to the Pritchard’s Sauchiehall Street house in Glasgow to nurse her daughter.

There, on February 25 1865, Mrs Taylor herself fell ill and died. Uninhibited, Pritchard continued to poison his wife until she too died, on March 18.

Two days later the procurator fiscal (public prosecutor) received a letter claiming that the deaths were suspicious. It is thought to have been written by a Dr James Paterson. Paterson had originally been asked to write the two death certificates, and when he refused, Pritchard wrote them himself.

The police launched an investigation. Dr Pritchard was arrested that evening and taken into custody.

It was not the first time the doctor had been embroiled in controversy. It is believed that the family left Yorkshire under a cloud. If they thought they had escaped their past, they were disappointed, as trouble followed them north.

In 1863 a fire in their Berkeley Terrace house killed a young servant girl. The fire was thought to have started in her room, yet she had made no attempt to escape. Was she unconscious, drugged or already dead? Perhaps only the good doctor knew what had really happened. No charges were brought, but the procurator fiscal’s office were aware of the incident and now, two years on, they had a letter suggesting that the deaths of his wife and mother-in-law were suspicious.

A post-mortem investigation was carried out on Mrs Pritchard which confirmed that she had not died from natural causes but had particles of antimony in her liver.

Mrs Taylor’s body was exhumed on March 31 1865. A medical report found she had suffered the same fate as her daughter. Dr Pritchard was charged with murder.

A double murder involving a man of the doctor’s high social standing was considered scandalous and public interest was high. The trial at Edinburgh High Court was bound to grip the nation.

Just after 8am on July 3, Pritchard was taken to Court. Large crowds of people gathered to watched the police van, many even followed it up the Royal Mile. Special tickets were issued for the public gallery and extra space was made for reporters.

The doctor appeared in court dressed in mourning and was described by The Scotsman as appearing “sad and thoughtful” and “cool and collected” throughout the proceedings.

Much of the evidence during the five-day trial came from servants in the Pritchard household. Their testimony highlighted the links between Mrs Pritchard’s bouts of illness and consuming food that the doctor had come in contact with.

It came to light that a 15-year-old servant, Mary MacLeod, had formed a relationship with Pritchard, admitting as much to a washerwoman. This witness revealed the girl had told her that should Mrs Pritchard be taken away, she would take her place.

In August 1864 Miss MacLeod is believed to have had a forced miscarriage and at that time Pritchard showed sympathy to her – it was suspected he had been the father.

Most damning of all, it was alleged that Mrs Pritchard had caught the doctor and Miss MacLeod together that November. It was shortly after this that she first became ill.

During the trial it was proved in court that Pritchard had added antimony and aconite to an opium preparation called Battley’s Solution that Mrs Taylor used frequently. Pharmacists were interviewed and it was acknowledged that a doctor could acquire quantities of antimony without drawing unwanted attention.

The jury took a short time to deliver a unanimous verdict of guilty on both charges. The doctor was sentenced to death.

Pritchard was moved to Glasgow’s North Prison where, local media noted, he admitted that Mrs Taylor knew about the “improper intimacy” between himself and the young servant girl.

On July 28 1865, Edward Pritchard was the last man to be publicly hanged in Glasgow. Thousands gathered at the Saltmarket end of Glasgow Green for the 8am execution.

Normally a curtain would be drawn below the scaffold so the prisoner could suffer their last moments in privacy. But on this occasion, in acknowledgement of the horrific nature of the crimes, the spectators were permitted to witness the condemned man’s final moments.

A noose was placed around his neck and a white cap placed on his head. The executioner released the trap and Pritchard dropped to his death, the hangman climbing below the gallows to pull on the dead man’s legs to ensure strangulation.

In the crowd women screamed men cheered and the body spun slowly – marking the end of Pritchard the poisoner.