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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 29th November 2011

I had a brief period of elation and excitement this morning but it didn’t last. Over breakfast, I saw a news report saying that the British Library had scanned over 4 million newspaper pages from the 18th and 19th centuries and made them available online.

Sadly, once I came through to the study and went online to see how the service operated I found that you can search the archive for free but have to pay a subscription to actually see the scanned pages.

That presents a dilemma. Newspapers are, of course, secondary sources; they simply report events or précis documents. The primary source is the better choice because, inevitably, the newspaper report will reflect the filter imposed by the writer and the editing process. Given that many of the primary sources are available free, there seems little point in paying to find how someone else interpreted the information.

Aconitum napellus, monkshood

Aconitum napellus, monkshood

Nonetheless, I thought I would see what sort of results are on offer based on a sample search. Perhaps, because I had yesterday’s blog about Aconitum napellus, monkshood, in my mind, I put the one word ‘Lamson’ into the search box. In 1882, Dr George Henry Lamson murdered his brother-in-law by concealing aconitine in a soluble capsule used for medicine, a new innovation at that time.

The search produced over 3,500 results. You are provided with the details of the newspapers in which your search term appears together with a short section of text, rather like a Google result, so you can get an idea of what the story is about. Even with all those results, the first page showed a couple that I want to follow up.

As I said, you don’t need secondary sources if you have the primary source and I have the full transcript of Lamson’s Old Bailey trial because it is available free from Old Bailey online. But, there is one aspect of the Lamson case that has always interested me and on this the trial transcript is no help.

It is said that, after his conviction, friends of Lamson, in the USA, petitioned for clemency on the grounds that he was 'a morphine addict'. I would have thought that, if that were so, the prosecution would have brought evidence forward to that effect to demonstrate that Lamson had a pressing financial need leading to his willingness to kill a relative from whom he would inherit, via his wife. Equally, you might have expected the defence to suggest that his morphinism meant he could not be held criminally responsible for his actions. But, the trial transcript makes no mention of morphine.

One of results on the first page of my search includes ‘…affidavits which have arrived from America by the Arizona…’ so it appears that the attempts to get Lamson’s sentence commuted were well reported. But it is when you click on a result to go to the next stage that you are faced with the subscription information.

I could spend £79.95 for a year’s complete access to all 4 million pages but I don’t think I can justify that. There is a 30 day package but paying £29.95 to get a twelfth of what £79.95 gets doesn’t seem like good value. Or, there is a 2 day package which at £6.95 gets you access to a maximum of 100 pages equivalent to 7p a page.

I think I’ll have to plan carefully how to get the best from a 2 day package for an initial exploration. I’ll need to carefully select the incidents where I think newspaper reporting may add to the information I already have and I’ll need to find two quiet days so I can make the most of the 100 pages. It appears that you have to read them online rather than being able to download them for later reading so I can’t chose two days when other activities will limit the time I have to read and make notes.

That means choosing search terms in advance and being methodical about my searches rather than letting an interesting result lead me astray. I know I shall want to search for George Henry Lamson as a phrase in order to reduce the number of results and I also think searching for William Palmer will be worthwhile.

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane
the plant that provided Crippen's weapon

It is said that the people of Rugeley, where Palmer committed his strychnine murders, petitioned for the name of their town to be changed but decided against the change when the prime minister of the day said the town could be renamed but only in his honour. It was felt that being called Palmerston after the noble lord wouldn’t solve the problem.

That’s the sort of story that I would expect the newspapers of the time to cover in detail and I’m sure I’ll find plenty more.

I said, above, that it seemed you needed to read the items online but I was wrong. You can obtain a print of any of the pages so as to be able to read it at your leisure. But at £99.95 each plus £64 for framing I think the print service is aimed more at someone wanting an unusual gift than at researchers.

Although the item on this morning’s news talked about only the 18th and 19th century, the archive goes up to 1949 and that means I’ve already been able to confirm my long-held suspicion that the reason why Dr Crippen’s murder of his wife lingers in the public memory is that the press made much of the chase across the Atlantic with daily reports on the progress of the Montrose and the Laurentic.