Published By: Pen & Sword History
Publication Date: 4th September 2017
If there was a suspected poisoning in Victorian Britain, Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor was one of the toxicologists whose opinion would be sought. A surgeon and chemist at Guy’s Hospital in London, he used new techniques to search human remains for evidence that had previously been unseen. As well as finding telltale crystals of poison in test tubes, he could identify blood on clothing and weapons, and he used hair and fibre analysis to catch killers.
Taylor is perhaps best remembered as an expert witness at one of Victorian England’s most infamous trials – that of William Palmer, ‘The Rugeley Poisoner’. The case of the strychnine that wasn’t there haunted Taylor, setting up controversial rivalries with other scientists that would last decades. It overshadowed his involvement in hundreds of other intriguing cases, such as The Waterloo Bridge Mystery; The Great Fire of Newcastle and Gateshead; and the investigation into female impersonators, Boulton and Park. Crime struck even at the heart of Taylor’s own family, when his nephew’s death became the focus of The Eastbourne Manslaughter.
Taylor wrote many books and articles on forensic medicine; he became required reading for all nineteenth-century medical students. He gave Charles Dickens a tour of his laboratory, and Wilkie Collins owned copies of his books on poisons. Taylor’s work was known to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and he inspired the creation of fictional forensic detective Dr Thorndyke; for Dorothy L. Sayers, Taylor’s books were ‘the back doors to death’.
From crime scene to laboratory to courtroom – and sometimes to the gallows – this is the world of Alfred Swaine Taylor and his fatal evidence.
As long-time readers will know, I have an unhealthy interest in toxicology and poisons and I’ve reviewed a few books on the subject as well as lots of crime novels; I put it down to having an interest in history, chemistry and puzzles. I just can’t help myself.
Helen Barrell’s biography of Alfred Swaine Taylor comprehensively covers the life and work of this early advocate of forensic science and public health. I found this biography engrossing, and easy to read, with plenty of illustrations and a comprehensive bibliography. Which makes me very happy.
Taylor’s books are covered, and for a change Caroline Taylor gets a mention; she helped write his books. Barrell covers some of his major cases and the minor ones usually missed out of other books. Widely known for giving evidence in murder trials, Taylor also pushed to improve water quality. His campaigns to tackle food adulteration, reform how courts used expert witnesses and how coroners were chosen brought him into contention with politicians. He did eventually push through some changes and was successful in his campaign to have arsenic sales controlled. This book covers it all, and in fashion that anyone can understand.