Did Adelaide Bartlett Get Away With Murder?

Updated on January 29, 2018
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I've spent almost half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

A bit of mystery surrounds Adelaide Bartlett’s origins, although Michael Farrell's writing in the British Medical Journal notes that, “Her father was probably Adolphe Collot de la Tremouille, Comte de Thouars d’Escury. Her mother may have been an obscure English girl, Clara Chamberlain.” Other sources say her father might have been an English gentleman from the upper levels of society.

Adelaide was born in Orleans, France in 1855 and spent her early childhood there before being sent to live with her maternal uncle and aunt in England.

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Adelaide Meets a Husband

Soon after her arrival in England, Adelaide met a prosperous grocer named Edwin Bartlett who was 11 years older than her. He became enamoured with the French beauty and set about winning her hand. The two were married in 1875. Again, some sources say the marriage was arranged and Adelaide’s feelings about the matter were not of concern.

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But, the couple did not live together for two or three years as Edwin sent his young bride away to a boarding school to complete her education.

Apparently, Edwin intended the marriage to be a platonic one. However, Adelaide became pregnant but delivered a stillborn infant in 1881. She claimed the pregnancy resulted from the only time she and her husband had made love.

At this point, Edwin’s father, Edwin senior, enters the picture. He loathed Adelaide and accused her of having an affair with Edwin’s younger brother Frederick. There seems to have been substance to the allegation because Frederick quickly took off for America.

Clergyman Becomes Family Friend

Early in 1885 the Reverend George Dyson, 27, a Wesleyan clergyman, became friends with the Bartlett’s. He was soon hired by Edwin Bartlett to tutor his wife in the classic while he, Edwin, was off tending to his grocery chain all day.

A contemporary account in Lloyds Weekly Newspaper reports on how prosecutors later characterized the relationship between Adelaide and Dyson:

“… Bartlett, failing in health, surrendered his wife to Dyson, who was the family pastor; [and] Dyson subsequently maintained a husband’s relations with Mrs. Bartlett.”

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A Dr. Alfred Leach was treating Edwin Bartlett and prescribed chloroform at the insistence of his patient who, apparently, had some strange ideas about dealing with illness. Adelaide nursed him day and night as the most dutiful of wives.

Large quantities of poisonous substances such as chloroform had to be signed for when bought from pharmacies so, the Reverend Dyson was sent off by Adelaide to buy four small bottles of chloroform from separate shops.

Shortly thereafter, in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1886, Adelaide called the owners of the lodging house in which they lived to fetch Dr. Leach because she feared her husband was dead. She was right.

There was no obvious cause for the grocer’s demise, so Dr. Leach ordered an autopsy. Adelaide thought that was a good idea saying “We are all interested in knowing the cause of death.” It was determined that the death was caused by chloroform.

Edwin’s father loathed Adelaide and made a big fuss about his son’s death. He pressed for, and got, an inquest, which reached a verdict of “wilful murder.”

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Sensational Old Bailey Trial

In April 1886, Adelaide was brought to trial at the Old Bailey charged with the murder of her husband. Her defence was brilliantly handled by Sir Edward Clarke who put forward the theory of suicide.

Historic-U.K.com points out that, “Although poor Edwin’s post-mortem revealed a large amount of liquid chloroform in his stomach, there was no trace in the mouth or throat.” The liquid burns tissue and would likely have left evidence of its passage in the victim’s throat, but there was no scarring.

The defence said that Adelaide could not have administered the poison because its taste is so foul that it is almost impossible to swallow and triggers vomiting. Also, she could not have poured it down Edwin’s throat while he was unconscious because some would have gone into his lungs and none was found there.

Sir Edward painted a picture of a devoted wife nursing a sick husband. Was it likely that she had suddenly turned into a murderer and had invented a method killing someone that had never been used before? A method that even the prosecution acknowledged was almost impossible to pull off.

In his closing address to the jury, the wily defence counsel said “From the moment of that death every word and act and look of hers has been the word and act and look of a woman conscious of her innocence.”

Sir Edward created enough doubts about the guilt of his client that the jury acquitted her. But, it was a half-hearted acquittal. The jury added that there was not “sufficient evidence to show how or by whom the chloroform was administered.” And, then came the zinger “we think grave suspicion is attached to the prisoner.”

However, Sir James Paget, a surgeon and pathologist at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, entertained no doubts. Following the verdict, he said, “Now that it is all over, she should tell us, in the interest of science, how she did it.”

She never did.

After the trial, she vanished and left no trace of her whereabouts. Some have suggested, without a shred of evidence to support the theory, that Edwin Bartlett Senior took care of matters by acting as the executioner he believed his daughter-in-law had cheated.

Bonus Factoids

Edwin Bartlett believed in the power of animal magnetism, also known as mesmerism, to cure ailments. The idea was that all living things from carrots to camels emit an invisible natural force. However, Edwin continued to suffer from rotting teeth and, possibly, tape worms.

The Reverend George Dyson, as with many smitten lovers, wrote poetry for the object of his devotion.

Who is it that hath burst the door,
Unclosed the heart that shut before,
And set her queen-like on its throne,
And made its homage all her own?
My Birdie.

History has not judged the cleric’s verse well.

Sources

  • “Adelaide Bartlett and the Pimlico Mystery.” Michael Farrell, British Medical Journal, December 24, 1994.
  • “The Trial of Adelaide Bartlett for Murder.” Edward Beal (ed), Ballantyne Press, 1886.
  • “Women Poisoners: Murder in Victorian England.” Historic-U.K.com, undated
  • “Adelaide Bartlett’s Trial.” Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, April 16, 1886.
  • “Poison and AdelaideBartlett: The Pimlico Poisoning Case.” Yseult Bridges, Hutchison & Co., 1962.
  • “The Poisonous Adelaide Bartlett.” Strangeco.ca, undated.

Questions & Answers

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      • k@ri profile image

        Kari Poulsen 2 months ago from Ohio

        I guess Bartlett, Sr. could have taken care of her. Maybe she ran to America to be with the brother. I really liked Sir James Paget's attitude.

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