Friday, August 30, 2013

Part Four: The Human Crocodile

The Human Crocodile

When a doctor goes wrong he is the first of criminals. He has the nerve and he has the knowledge. Palmer and Pritchard were among the heads of their profession.’ – Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Speckled Band (1892).   

'Trust me, I'm a doctor!'
'Not with that comb over I wouldn't !'

On Friday 28th July 1865, the last ever public execution to take place in Scotland was performed on Glasgow Green. Around one hundred thousand spectators were present to see Edward William Pritchard, an English doctor, dangle at the end of a hangman’s noose. Pritchard blamed a ‘terrible madness’ for his actions yet it was clear that the murders had been carefully planned.

Pritchard was born in Hamsphire in 1825, the son of a captain in the Royal Navy, became a naval surgeon who served on HMS Victory and in 1846 a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. He and his wife had three daughters and two sons before they moved to Glasgow in 1860. Pritchard had left his previous job in Filey in Yorkshire, followed by questions of debt and impropriety towards female patients. There, he had been described as ‘fluent, plausible, amorous, politely impudent and singularly untruthful’.
In 1860, having moved to Glasgow, his applications to join the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow were rejected – perhaps because of doubt regarding his qualifications – it turns out  his diploma had been bought from the University of Erlangen in Germany. One of his many  detractors commented ,"He spoke the truth only by accident.” For example, it seems he used to claim to be a personal friend of great Italian liberator Garibaldi and carried a walking cane with the inscription: 'Presented by Gen. Garibaldi to Edward William Pritchard' as some kind of proof. He also gave lectures on his travels, describing how he hunted “the Nubian lion on the prairies of North America," which is a great feat of accuracy if you think about it geographically. Once he moved to Glasgow he had the strange habit of ‘walking down the street, handing postcards which contained his own picture to people he thought worthy’.
But in 1863, a servant girl died when fire broke out at the Pritchard home in Berkley Terrace which lies round the corner from Madeline Smith’s house.  The procurator fiscal held an enquiry; why did a young healthy girl stay in bed reading while her bedroom went on fire? The answer they failed to come up with was that she was dead already. Pritchard received the insurance money and used it, and a loan from his mother-in-law to move the family to a large house in Sauchiehall Street. The mother-in-law was a terrible judge of character and really admired her son-in-law.

The vacancy for a housemaid was filled by a 15 year old from Islay named Mary McLeod.  Pritchard immediately started an affair with her, later terminating her pregnancy and promising to marry her should his wife die before him.
                                                                        The unfortunate wife.

At the same time, Mrs Pritchard (Mary Jane) became ill in October 1864 in the Sauchiehall Street home. Her husband and physician declared it ‘gastric fever’ and another two doctors concurred. Mrs Pritchard briefly recovered while visiting her parents in Edinburgh only to fall ill again upon her return to Glasgow… and her husband. Her concerned mother, Mrs Taylor, came through from Edinburgh to help nurse her only to contract the same ‘illness’ on arrival and die on 25th February 1865. In her will she left £2500 to her daughter who promptly succumbed to her illness on the 17th March. A Dr Paterson refused to sign the death certificates because of his suspicions regarding the illnesses. So Pritchard signed them himself. 
Dr Paterson did not speak out re his suspicions, later testifying at Pritchard’s trial that he had no doubt that Mrs Pritchard was being poisoned by her husband but that medical etiquette meant that it was impossible for him to do anything about it. Instead there was an anonymous letter sent to the procurator fiscal asking for some attention to be brought to the case.
Edward Pritchard was devastated by the loss of his wife. While through in Edinburgh preparing for the funeral, he pleaded for the coffin lid to be removed one last time and with a display of fervent feeling, he tearfully kissed the lips of his beloved Mary Jane. It was an act that later gained him the name ‘the Human Crocodile,’ for his crocodile tears.
On his return to Glasgow Queen Street, he was met by a detective superintendent and accused of her murder.
The hearing took place over five days and it took the jury less than an hour to declare Pritchard guilty. The Taylors were still supportive of Pritchard until Mrs Taylor’s body was exhumed and post-mortem showed large quantities of antimony in both bodies. Records proved that Pritchard had bought large quantities of poison over the previous few months - more antimony than the rest of the doctors in Glasgow combined. His motive was clear – his obsession with the servant girl. One paper reported: "No one who saw the intelligent, thoughtful and mild-looking individual seated in the dock on the first morning, could be prepared for anything like the consummate villainy and diabolic cruelty which each day brought to light ... the whole murderous plot." His fondness for young ladies - especially household serving maids – earned him his other nickname; The Poisoning Philanderer.
His only defence was to try and shift the blame to the servant girl, Mary McLeod – a claim which he later withdrew. That did not stop him from calling two of his children to the witness stand, aged fifteen and eleven, to tell the court how much their father had loved their mother. Pritchard cried as the children stood in the witness box.
But it was the evidence of his affair with young Mary that ripped his credibility to shreds (not to mention the poison in the dead bodies). It was the beginning of the end for the devilish doctor and despite protestations of innocence, his appointment with death was just weeks away. He was convicted of the murders of both women, he was dispatched to the gallows.
He made several confessions, eventually saying: ‘The sentence is just, I am guilty of the deaths of my mother-in-law and wife. I can assign no motive beyond terrible madness. I alone – not Mary McLeod – poisoned my wife.’ Huge crowds gathered outside the court as he was taken away and Pritchard theatrically bowed to them.
Edward William Pritchard was hanged at 8am on 28th July 1865, his body buried in the South Prison’s Murderer’s Graveyard where plots are only identified by the initials of the dead. Many years later, during building work for the High Court, workmen found a pair of shoes under a stone marked 'EWP'. These were Pritchard's patent leather shoes, perfectly preserved, which he had worn to the scaffold. One of the workmen took the shoes and sold them in a nearby pub.

Caro GB 30th August 2013


  1. I'd never heard of Pritchard -- interesting case. (For some reason, 19th century true crime cases have always fascinated me.) Thank you, excellent article.

    "Part four", though ... Part three was Oscar Slater; I've skimmed through the titles of all the articles thus far in 2013, and didn't spot parts one or two. Any clues as to how far back to look? Tags, perhaps? Or do I simply need new glasses?--Mario R.

  2. Patent leather crocodile by chance? Another terrific tale of happy times at home.

  3. As I read the story, I couldn't help but feel terribly sorry for (besides the murder victims) the poor children. Mother and grandmother murdered, father executed, and where do they go from there???

    Remind me not to move to Glasgow. You're painting such a lovely portrait... :-)))

  4. Caro, thank you for this fascinating post. Regarding Pritchard's upperclass contemporaries' predilection for parlor maids, I HIGHLY recommend Ann Perry's Callander Square. Her mysteries are also novels of manners and Perry's book will give you insight into the mindset that would prevent a doctor from reporting his colleague because his "ethics" would not allow it. After all, it was only women and children being harmed. #$@%%^&^)&&^$!!!!!

  5. Your posts are fascinating. Can one attribute all these crimes to the weather? I think evil because I think that's what it is flourishes everywhere, but extremes seem to bring it out. Hoping for a new book from you.

  6. Hi Mario,
    The Trail of Jessie McLachlan was Part One, Madeline Smith was part two, Oscar Slater three and Pritchard was four. They were published on consecutive Fridays, if that helps you any. Glad you are enjoying them. The four of them ( the Square Mile Murders ) were made into a TV series here many years ago.. all starchy collars and 'Yes, Me Lady.' Like Parker in Thunderbirds but the acting wasn't as good.

  7. Thank you, Caro. I had, indeed, read and enjoyed both those articles as they were published -- but confess I managed to miss them in the table of contents because I was scanning the first word of the article, not the whole title. First day of weekend after a long, hard week, I'm afraid. Thank you for your reply, and for your patience. And, of course, all four of the mini-histories.--Mario R.