Some Famous Medical Trials
By Leonard A. Parry
2000/09 - Beard Books
1587980312 - Paperback - Reprint - 344 pp.
These problematic cases are as valuable to the student of legal medicine and to the amateur criminologist as they are irresistible to the lover of grim and gruesome melodrama.
In this fascinating book, Dr. Leonard A. Parry, a physician and Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, brings to light many interesting cases that have been passed over by the more general chronicler. Thirty-two cases, spanning the years 1615 to 1924 and chosen with a view to their historical and legal significance, give an excellent idea of the evolution of criminal jurisprudence in England.
Dr. Parry appeals not only to one's curiosity for the morbid and the thrilling, but also to one's analytic instincts by taking a judiciously legalistic approach to his subject matter. As a physician, he has naturally focused on the medical evidence in the cases, while underlining the problematic and intellectual aspects. Not all deal with murder. They present a panoply of treason, medical forgery, abortion, rebellion, torture, libel, and assault. Based on a well-planned and well-balanced record of original sources, the cases are as valuable to the student of legal medicine and to the amateur criminologist, as they are irresistible to the lover of grim and gruesome melodrama.
From Nightingale's Healthcare News:
Leonard Parry, an English physician and Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, recreates thirty-two English cases involving medical issues or physicians from 1615 to 1924. Although the earlier ones involved medical issues, they cannot be called strictly medical cases because at the time there was no such legal principle as a medical expert. Until about the middle of the eighteenth century, murder cases and those involving intentional injury caused by doctors were based on witnesses, documents, circumstantial evidence, and confessions, often given under torture or the threat of it, rather than medical expert testimony or opinions. The reasons for this are the relatively elementary stage of science, including medical science, and along with this, the fact that "in the seventeenth century the doctor was not so clearly differentiated from the laity as he is now." In cases of poisoning in the 1600s, alchemists rather than doctors were looked to to describe the symptoms from certain kinds of poisons. The first trial Parry could find where a medical professional was called to prove the cause of death was in 1752. In England the first General Medical Council to regulate medical education and qualification was not formed until the latter 1800s; and the Medical Act explicitly distinguishing physicians from lay persons and laying down uniform standards and practices was not passed until 1858. A few of the cases Parry treats were for treason or libel against a doctor. But the large majority, and the most interesting, are the cases of murder, attempted murder, or intentional injury by doctors.
Parry's work as an author is mostly the work of research, meticulous research. He does not moralize about the cases, no matter how manifestly depraved the physician-murderer; nor does he question the evidence, evaluate the conduct or skills of prosecutors or defense attorneys, or take a position on the outcome of the cases. In some of the cases, the accused were acquitted. Parry's predominant interest is the fascinating medical and scientific facts of the cases and the methods of the accused doctors. Parry got his material from the original sources of court documents, historical records, and news accounts. Secondarily to the facts and methods which are his main concern, Parry includes interesting and notable legal, historical, cultural, and scientific anecdotes about the intersection of medicine and criminal law. Parry's faithfulness to material found in the original documents does not make for a pedestrian record of notable medical cases. The author's own curiosity in medicine and the diabolical workings of human nature along with his intellectual interest in the specific topic of medical crimes leads to a style that is as colorful as it is factual and informative.
As you'd expect, most of the cases of murders by doctors involve poison. One of these which stands out in the author's gallery of depraved physicians is Dr. Neil Cream, "Wholesale Poisoner." "The series of callous, cold-blooded murders committed by Dr. Thomas Neil Cream are as remarkable and unique as any recorded." He likely would have remained undetected except for a coincidence made possible by his own inexplicable behavior no doubt caused by his guilty conscience. Having poisoned two young woman he had brief relations with with strychnine, this Dr. Cream wrote a letter to the father of a medical student in the same rooming house where he lived saying he had evidence the son committed the murder. Signing his name "W. H. Murray," Cream said he would destroy the evidence if the father paid him fifteen hundred pounds. The father sent the letter to the son in the belief it was from an insane person. The son turned it over to Scotland Yard.
About this time, Cream reported to Scotland Yard that he thought he was being followed and was worried. Ordinarily, Scotland Yard ignored such reports it received so many. But something about Cream prompted the Yard to follow up on his. It happened that a constable who had been on patrol in the neighborhood where the two woman were murdered recognized Cream as the man whom he had seen leaving the house where one of the murders had taken place on the day of the murder. Cream was caught in the web of evidence coming unbidden to Scotland Yard from him. The decisive clue in finding him guilty with a sentence of hanging was the letter he had written using a false name in which he said the girls by been murdered by strychnine. No one but the murderer would have known that this was the cause of death since the official cause had been given as alcoholism, and the girls had been buried. Upon exhumation, medical examination revealed strychnine in the women's' bodies. Further investigation turned up two more murders in the U. S. during a visit by Cream, who had told someone that he "used strychnine in connection with the prevention of childbirth" of the woman he had had relations with, leaving the impression it was used in an abortion when in fact childbirth had been prevented by the murder of the woman.
Parry similarly goes into the background of each of the cases in a way combining the engaging, entertaining styles of Sherlock Holmes and Perry Mason mysteries. There's "The Murder of Doctor by Doctor"; "Dr. Smethurst's Lucky Escape"; "The Resurrection Man"; and "The Brighton Murder," to name only a few. The tales are about the length of short stories. In this relatively short space, Parry brings the central characters alive with succinct psychological profiles, descriptions of the events of the respective crimes, and explanations of the perspectives, evidence, and tactics of prosecutors and defendants in the trials.
For readers looking for more than colorful, intriguing mysteries with distinctive main characters who are physicians, the tales include medical facts concerning poisons, legal practices of the various times, matters of forensic science, and where applicable, points on a case's significance in the history of the intersection of medicine and law, as in the "First Case of Murder by Morphia." For its engaging style and its plentiful factual material, Parry's "Some Famous Medical Trials" is appealing to a wide field of readers.
Dr. Leonard S. Parry was a physician and Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons.