ADELAIDE BARTLETT – THE PIMLICO POISONING MYSTERY
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Adelaide was French by birth, born Adelaide Blanche de Tremoille in Orleans in 1855. Exotic rumours abounded that she was the illegitimate daughter of a French count, or “an English man of good social standing”. At the age of 20 she married Thomas Edwin Bartlett, who was 10 years her senior. It is thought that Adelaide’s father had bribed Bartlett to marry her. Edwin, as he was usually known, came from a family of close-knit wealthy grocers, and was generally thought to be a good catch. One of the stipulations of the marriage contract was that Edwin had to pay to finish Adelaide’s education, and immediately after the wedding, she was packed off to a Belgian convent for two years. When she returned though, Edwin didn’t seem very interested in satisfying his attractive young wife sexually, and in fact encouraged her to form an intimate relationship with a Wesleyan minister, the Rev. George Dyson, who was usually referred to as Adelaide’s “spiritual counsellor”.
Edwin comes across as a bit of a hypochondriac, a man of an almost painfully refined delicacy. Some of his ailments were real, such as rotting teeth and tapeworms, but others – such as his belief that he suffered from syphilis – were not. In spite of Edwin’s fastidiousness, Adelaide did in fact get pregnant by him, and gave birth to a stillborn baby in 1881. The labour wasn’t helped by Edwin – who could have some strange, faddish ideas – refusing to let the nurse call in a male doctor. Adelaide found the whole ordeal so harrowing that she vowed she would never get pregnant again, and the Bartletts settled for a platonic marriage. When the Rev Dyson came on the scene in 1885, Edwin made him executor of his will, and bequeathed everything he had to Adelaide, on condition she never married again. He later revoked this condition, and urged her to marry Dyson instead.
In August 1885, the couple moved to a small two-roomed flat in Cleverton Street, Pimlico, and the ever-obliging Edwin bought Dyson a railway season ticket, so that he could keep visiting to “tutor” Adelaide. Their teacher/pupil relationship certainly didn’t fool the Bartlett’s maid, who often came across them in “positions unusual for pupil and teacher” on the floor. Edwin’s health meanwhile was in a terrible state. He was under the care of a quack dentist, who thought sawing teeth off at the gums was the answer to his patient’s problems. Adelaide nursed him devotedly. When the family doctor, Dr Alfred Leach, urged her to rest more, Adelaide exclaimed that Edwin wouldn’t settle unless “I sit and hold his toe”.
On 27 December 1885, Adelaide asked Dyson to get her some chloroform. Dyson was able to get past signing the poison’s book in chemist’s shops, as long as he bought the chloroform in small doses at different places. Adelaide told her maid that she needed the chloroform to help Edwin sleep, and Dyson told the chemists that it was for removing stains. What suddenly provoked Adelaide to acquire chloroform? An article in the New York Times in April 1886 claimed that Edwin was keen to reclaim his conjugal rites. Adelaide intended to put chloroform on a handkerchief and wave it in front of Edwin’s face, whenever he felt tempted to betray the deal they had made with the Rev. Dyson.
On New Year’s Eve 1885, Edwin had another visit to the quack dentist. Adelaide accompanied him, and they seemed in good spirits. Adelaide even joked that she wished they were unmarried, so that they could have the pleasure of marrying each other again. They returned home and spent a quiet New Year’s Eve together. In the early hours of the morning, at around 4 AM, Adelaide ordered their maid to fetch Dr Leach. Adelaide meanwhile went up to alert their landlord, Mr Doggett, with the words “Come down! Mr Bartlett’s dead!” Edwin’s stomach was filled with liquid chloroform. It would seem that Edwin had taken his own life.
Adelaide’s father-in-law though refused to believe that his son had committed suicide. There had never been any love lost between him and his exotic daughter-in-law. He had even suspected her previously of having designs on Edwin’s younger brother. On the night in question, he had immediately gone round to his son’s flat, but matters weren’t helped by Adelaide keeping him waiting nearly half-an-hour in the smoking-room. When Adelaide finally appeared, she flung her arms round his neck, and assured him that she would see he didn’t go without, that all was as it had been when Edwin was alive. He went up to view his son’s corpse, and surreptitiously sniffed it for prussic acid. He insisted on a post-mortem, followed by an inquest, which revealed the hefty doses of chloroform in Edwin’s body. The Bartlett’s flat was sealed off, and Adelaide had to seek lodging elsewhere. She was not allowed to take anything with her, and her grouchy father-in-law insisted on searching her pockets before she left.
The trial of Adelaide and the Rev Dyson opened on 12 April 1886. Dyson was soon dropped from proceedings, and Adelaide was tried alone. Adelaide was fortunate to have someone who was regarded as the best barrister in England, Sir Edward Clarke, doing her defence. He was able to throw up enough mud against her father-in-law, suspecting him of having mercenary motives, and to put a strong case for Edwin committing suicide, to pave the way for an acquittal for Adelaide. Another pointer towards suicide was that liquid chloroform burns the inside of the throat, unless gulped down very quickly. Dyson was called as a prosecution witness, and ended up working more for the defence by saying that Adelaide had never done anything so shifty as to try and cover up the purchase of chloroform. He added that Edwin believed himself to be terminally ill, which once again enhanced the suicide theory. The Bartlett’s own doctor wrote in the Lancet that he believed Edwin had taken the chloroform to worry Adelaide with how ill he was, and had misjudged the dose. The New York Times also claimed that Edwin had taken the dose himself, to “save his wife the trouble of waving pocket handkerchiefs before him“! Confusion also raged around the brandy found in the Bartlett’s bedroom. It could be argued that Adelaide had used the brandy to try and revive Edwin. It could equally be argued that she had used it to disguise the taste of the chloroform. It has been suggested that she tricked Edwin into drinking chloroform by proposing that they toast the New Year in.
Public support had rallied to Adelaide’s side during the trial, and her acquittal was greeted with huge applause. Not everyone was convinced of her innocence though. The foreman of the jury, although bringing in a Not Guilty verdict, added “although we think grave suspicion is attached to the prisoner, we do not think there is sufficient evidence to show how or by whom the chloroform was administered”. The prominent surgeon, Sir James Paget, made one of the most famous remarks in British criminal history, when he said “now that she has been acquitted for murder and cannot be tried again, she should tell us in the interests of science how she did it!”
After the trial Adelaide completely vanished from public view. It’s not clear what happened to her at all. Some say she married the Rev. Dyson, (unlikely, as he is thought to have emigrated alone to Australia), others say that they never met again. I would love to know what happened to her, but it seems that Adelaide simply vanished into history. How she managed to cover her traces so effectively is just another of the great mysteries of this case.