The Strange Case of Dr. King
The extraordinary story of a murder trial in which the right man was found guilty for the worng reason
W. STEWART WALLACE
HUMAN justice is not infallible. It frequently happens that in courts of justice, through the vagaries of the law or the perversity of juries, the guilty escape punishment; and, on the other hand, there have been not a few cases where the innocent have been found guilty. It has happened also, on occasions, that the right man has been found guilty for the wrong reason.
An example of this last type of case is possibly to be found in the trial of Dr. William Henry King for the murder of his wife at Brighton, Canada West, in the autumn of 1858. This trial attracted widespread attention at the time, partly because of the human interest attaching to it, since the case arose out of one of those triangular situations dear to the heart of the public; and partly because it was one of the first cases of supposed murder by arsenical poisoning to find its way into the Canadian courts. On its scientific side, it had all the qualities that have in our own day made the Seddon case of 1911 and the Armstrong case of 1922 so notorious.
William Henry King was apparently an exemplary young man.
“I never,” he said in the confession which he wrote under the shadow of the scaffold, “drank a glass of spirituous liquor in my life. I never went to a house of ill-fame in my life. I never went to a theatre but once in my life; and the thought to swear did not come into my mind from one year’s end to another.”
He was the eldest son of a farmer in the township of Cramahe, near the village of Brighton, on the north shore of Lake Ontario, less than a hundred miles east of Toronto. From an early age he had to help with the work of the farm, and the only schooling he got was limited to two months in the year, frequently at the hands of incompetent teachers. When he was still in his ’teens his father became an invalid, and the oversight of the farm devolved upon him.
Under these circumstances, his efforts to educate himself command admiration. He had always been a promising pupil, and showed a commendable desire to get the best education available. In 1851, at the age of eighteen, he persuaded his father to allow him to attend the Normal School in Toronto during the winter months. Like the traditional farmer’s son, he worked hard on meagre fare; and in 1855 he passed his final examinations at the Normal School with distinction and obtained a first-class certificate as a teacher. He then obtained a position in the Hamilton
Central School and taught there during the academic year of 1855-6.
About this time, however, his thoughts seem to have turned to medicine; and while he was teaching in Hamilton he began to study under a doctor named Greenlees, who took pupils after the custom of that day. During the winter months of the years 1856 to 1858 King attended the Homoeopathic Medical College in Philadelphia, supporting himself by teaching school during the summer in various schools near his native place in Canada. At the Medical College in Philadelphia he distinguished himself, being elected in 1857 president of the Hahnemannian Medical Institute in the College, and graduating in 1858 near the head of his class. In March, 1858, he returned to Brighton, Canada West, and hung out his shingle as a qualified medical practitioner.
"K/TEANWHILE, he had married. In 1855, while still attending the Normal School in Toronto, he took as his wife Sarah Anne Lawson, the daughter of a prosperous farmer near Brighton. The young couple set up house in Toronto; and the bride, being, according to her husband’s confession, a good housekeeper, took in boarders to help to defray the expenses of the household while her husband was completing his studies at the Normal School. Mrs. King accompanied her husband to Hamilton in the autumn of 1855, and here too she
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opened a boarding house to help make ends
But in Hamilton domestic discord made its appearance. Mrs. King became the mother of an infant which died at the age of one month; and she accused her husband of having taken a dislike to the child, which appears to have been malformed, while he, on his part, accused his wife of infidelity. She complained to her parents of ill-treatment by her husband; and partly because of this, and also because` of her impaired health, she left her husband and returned to her father’s roof. Her husband wrote a letter to her father setting forth certain accusations against her, but he later apologized for writing it, and his father-in-law returned the letter to him after having taken a copy of it.
While Dr. King was pursuing his medical studies in Philadelphia his wife remained with her parents, but when he returned to Brighton in the spring of 1858 a reconciliation took place and Mrs. King returned to her husband. The two set up house in Brighton, and Dr. King immediately began to build up an excellent practice. He was evidently a man of attractive and impressive personality. His appearance is described as having been “pleasant and gentlemanly” and his manners “easy and graceful.” He was nearly six feet in height, and had a pale countenance, dark hair, and sandy side whiskers such as were worn at that time even by young men. His eyes were dark and penetrating, and he gave the impression of being a man of “strong, original intellect and determined perseverance.” Only a few months elapsed before he was making between $100 and $200 a month, a large income for a country doctor at that time.
For several months all appeared to go well in the household of the reunited couple. It is clear that Dr. King no longer had any deep affection for his wife, and he appears to have embarked during this period on a flirtation with one of his patients. But this flirtation came to an abrupt termination, and apparently did not create a ripple in the calm of the household.
The Second Woman
ON SEPTEMBER 23, however, an incident occurred which was destined to have tragic results. This was the visit to the King household of a young lady, Miss Melinda Vandervoort, from a neighboring township. Miss Vandervoort, though only about twenty years of age, was a friend of Mrs. King, and was at the time staying at the home of Mrs. King’s father. Dr. King had never seen her before. She spent several hours visiting and when evening came Dr. and Mrs. King drove her back to the Lawson farm. On their return Mrs. King said to her husband, according to his confession later: “Miss Vandervoort says she has fallen in love with you. She says she loved you before she ever saw you.”
“That,” said her husband with some acidity, “is very singular indeed.”
Mrs. King went on to explain that Miss Vandervoort had seen a photograph of Dr. King when she was at the Lawson home and while he was attending the Medical College in Philadelphia, and had fallen in love with the photograph at first sight. This apparently ended the conversation.
Just why Mrs. King should have thrown Miss Vandervoort at her husband’s head in this pointed way is difficult to determine. Perhaps she was merely indulging in badinage; perhaps she thought that, by making the young lady out to be a forward miss, she would prejudice her with her husband and so avoid future trouble. If so, she sadly miscalculated. The idea that so attractive a young lady should have fallen in love with his photograph was so flattering to Dr. King's vanity that it made a deep impression on him. and perhaps paved the way for what followed.
The next day Miss Vandervoort repeated her call at the doctor’s house, and this time she was prevailed upon to stay for the night.
The result was momentous. Dr. King was passionately fond of music, and it appeared that Miss Vandervoort was a “professed vocalist.” She sang “Old Dog Gray,” “Ilazel Dell.” “Kitty Clyde,” and other popular songs of seventy-five years ago, and Dr. King confessed later that “her beautiful voice completely intoxicated me.” He discovered that she could “perform on the piano, melodeon, etc.,” and his admiration for her knew no bounds.
His wife, poor thing, was not musical. “I never knew her,” he said, “to sing a word.” He had urged her to cultivate a taste for music but without success. It was also a grievance with him that she was almost illiterate and yet would do nothing to improve her mind. As compared with the cultivated Miss Vandervoort, she seemed 3 very drab creature indeed, and no doubt unworthy to be the wife of one with whose photograph a dazzling girl could fall in love.
Miss Vandervoort knew that the Kings had not been happy together, and this knowledge perhaps gave an edge to her coquetry. Certain it is that she and Dr. King became madly infatuated with each other. When she returned home she sent to him a photograph of herself, which was later to play an important part in the course of events, and a correspondence ensued which was, to say the least, compromising. Dr. King, writing anonymously, thanked her profusely for the photograph, which he described as “the most precious thing (except the original) on earth.” “Can you keep,” he asked, “from sacrificing yourself on the hymeneal altar for the next year? I wish so.” And he ended
his letter with the sentence, "-is very
sick. Last night we thought she would die.” At that time his wife—if the dash, as seems obvious, referred to her—was in better health than usual.
The fair Melinda replied, with an appearance of maidenly reserve, that she felt “an unusual warmth of friendship” for him, but added:
“It appears almost in vain for me to think of you only as a friend. Something seems to whisper, ‘Still hope.’ Since I first had the pleasure of an introduction, my heart is constantly with you . . . We are some distance apart, yet I trust our ties of friendship are such as not to allow time or distance to sever them. Perhaps you’ll pardon my familiarity when you come to realize that you have unlinked the tender cord of affection until you have an alarming influence over my girlish nature.”
Death And Suspicion
DR. KING’S letter to Melinda Vandervoort was written on October 10, and her reply was dated October 18. Midway between these dates, on October 14. Mrs. King was taken seriously ill. She suffered excruciating abdominal pains accompanied by extreme nausea. Dr. King, who was at first her sole medical attendant, diagnosed her case as cholera morbus, and prescribed for her, according to his own statement, the appropriate medicines.
When she did not improve, her father insisted on having another doctor called into consultation. Dr. King agreed to calling in a Dr. Fife, a neighboring physician, and Dr. Fife saw her and prescribed for her. Under his treatment she seemed to improve, and on November 3 she was so much better that she insisted on her husband, her father, and her mother—all of whom had been constantly with her—going to bed and having a good night’s rest. But in the morning she had fallen into a coma, and by the evening of November 4 she was dead.
Dr. King’s grief at the death of his wife was so excessive that medical aid had to be called in. He was given a soporific and slept soundly for several hours. The next day he took part in making the necessary arrangements for the funeral; but on the day of the funeral he was again overcome with grief to such an extent that he aroused much sympathy among those who saw him.
The members of his wife’s family, however, apparently did not place much belief in the sincerity of his grief, for while the funeral was taking place his mother-in-law employed herself in going through his effects. In a coat pocket she found the photograph which the amative Miss Vandervoort had sent him, and also the letter he had received from her.
The Lawson family evidently had very little confidence in the treatment which Mrs. King had received during her illness, and this new evidence went to confirm their suspicions. The funeral was no more than completed when the Lawsons asked for a coroner’s inquest; and when Dr. King, on the day after the funeral, returned from some professional visits he had been compelled to make, he was informed by his father-in-law that an inquest had been ordered.
With a great show of indignation, Dr. King said he would stop that nonsense, and he drove off as if to do so; but instead of making any attempt to stop the inquest he drove to the Vandervoort farm in the township of Sidney, and asked to see Miss Melinda. With her he was closeted for over an hour; and her father was then informed that Dr. King was accused of having murdered his wife, and that Miss Vandervoort’s name had been brought into the case. Dr. King asked that he might be allowed to take Miss Vandervoort “over to the other side” to stay with an aunt of hers, where she would be available to refute such heinous ideas; and her father agreed to this proposal.
The Unsealed Pickle Jar
MEANWHILE the body of Mrs. King had been disinterred, a jury had been impanelled, and an inquest opened. The conditions under which the inquest was held were primitive. It was held in the schoolhouse, and the doctor who conducted the post-mortem removed the stomach from the corpse and placed it in a pickle jar without a top. Not until the next morning, apparently, was the pickle jar sealed. It was then sent to the professor of chemistry at Queen’s University for a report. For some reason the latter was unable to analyze its contents, and it was then sent, by way of a railway conductor, to Professor Croft, professor of chemistry at the University of Toronto. Professor Croft, a very competent chemist, was not satisfied with his analysis of the stomach and asked to have the liver sent as well. This was done, and then Professor Croft reported that he had found in the stomach no less than twelve grains of arsenic, but that the coating of the stomach was only slightly inflamed and there was a possibility that the arsenic had been inserted after death. This was the reason why he had asked for the liver, into which the poison could not be inserted. He discovered that in the liver there was a small amount of arsenic. The jury thereupon found that Mrs. King had come to her death by means of arsenic administered to her by her husband.
In the meantime, however, Dr. King had left Brighton. There was in this, perhaps, nothing surprising, for on the night of the I funeral his father-in-law had removed from his house nearly every stick of furniture, on the ground that it had belonged to his wife. But it was a suspicious circumstance that he should have left without leaving any word of his destination. When a warrant was issued for his arrest and his brother-in-law was sworn in as a special constable to execute I it, he had disappeared. He was traced by his * brother-in-law to Kingston, and thence to : Cape Vincent, on the American side of Lake I Ontario. Enquiries at the post-office indicated that Dr. King was staying at the house of a man named Bate, some six or i eight miles inland. Accompanied by a United I States marshal, Dr. King’s brother-in-law proceeded to this house; and when the marshal entered the house Dr. King jumped out of a window. His brother-in-law pursued him, revolver in hand, and ran him to earth in a barn. He had no legal right to arrest him on American soil; but, despite his
prisoner’s resistance, he brought him back to Canadian soil by dint of sheer intimidation and lodged him in the Cobourg jail near Brighton.
Trial And Conviction
DR. KING’S trial took place at the spring assizes in Cobourg on April 4, 1859, before Mr. Justice Burns. It was estimated that no less than 1.500 persons strove to gain admittance to the courtroom, including some of the ladies of Cobourg, who went away sadly, “judging very wisely that that was no place to wear hoops.” The special prosecuting attorney was Thomas—afterward Sir Thomas—Galt, who had taken silk the year before; and the chief counsel for the defense was John Hillyard Cameron, a famous figure of those days, of whom it was said that, though he was never a Minister of the Crown, he had more political power than many Ministers.
The case which the Crown presented was decidedly damaging. The first witness was the coroner who conducted the inquest, and he was followed by Professor Croft of the University of Toronto, who gave evidence as to the arsenic he had found in the stomach and liver of the deceased. Professor Croft thought the amount of the arsenic found in the liver, though “very small,” was sufficient to cause death; but he admitted that he had not determined the exact quantity. On the stomach walls he had found but little arsenic, and the stomach was hardly inflamed at all; but in the contents of the stomach he had found at least eleven grains of arsenic. The doctor who had performed the autopsy added his testimony to that of Professor Croft, and a number of other doctors gave their opinion that death had been caused by arsenical poisoning.
Then the prosecution called on the father and mother of the deceased. They described her last illness and gave evidence that Dr. King had repeatedly administered to her a “white powder” which caused violent retching, a consuming thirst, and other symptoms of arsenical poisoning. Throughout the evidence of these witnesses, however, there was apparent an animus against the prisoner which even the judge noted, and which seriously affected the credibility of their testimony.
Evidence in regard to motive was then introduced by placing Miss Vandervoort in the box and confronting her with the portrait she had sent to Dr. King and the letters which had been exchanged between them. Miss Vandervoort tried to explain that the daguerreotype had been intended for Mrs. King, and she avowed that the letter she had written to Dr. King had only been “for amusement.”
The prosecutor ordered her to step down from the box, and then read the letters to the jury. Finally, the prosecution called on the prisoner’s brother-in-law and captor to give evidence regarding his attempt to escape when arrested.
The defense confined itself to two types of evidence. In the first place, it put into the witness-box a number of persons who bore testimony to the good character of the prisoner; and in the second place, it called upon a number of medical witnesses, including two professors of the Homeopathic College of Philadelphia, who gave it as their opinion that death could not have been caused by arsenical poisoning. One of these professors said bluntly that he was inclined to think that the arsenic had been put into the stomach after death—at which there was hissing in the court, promptly suppressed—and that the arsenic in the liver might easily be the accumulated result of small medicinal doses. This witness was severely handled by the prosecution, but he scored a distinct point in cross-examination when he called attention to the fact that Professor Croft was a chemist and not a physician, and therefore was not entitled to express any opinions in regard to the cause of death.
Throughout the trial Dr. King had maintained a confident and debonair demeanor; and this was not disturbed by the judge's
charge, which instructed the jury to give the prisoner the benefit of any doubt that might exist in their minds. As a matter of fact, the jury found great difficulty in agreeing upon a verdict. They were locked up from three o’clock in the afternoon until ten o'clock next morning. Then they found the prisoner guilty, much to his apparent surprise, though "with a strong recommendation to mercy.” The judge sentenced Dr. King to be hanged, and though every effort was made by his counsel to secure a commutation of his sentence, he paid the extreme penalty on June 9, 1859.
An Extraordinary Confession
WHILE in jail, awaiting execution, he was visited by a number of clergymen who, though Protestants, advised him that confession was good for the soul. Eventually he was induced to write a confession which was sent to The Globe, a Toronto newspaper. In it he admitted that he had murdered his wife—a crime for which he professed bitter repentance—but he added that he had done
so only at her express request to be allowed | to leave this world.
The most extraordinary part of his confession, however, was that which dealt with the means he had employed to murder his wife. He had maintained throughout that he had not poisoned her with arsenic, and on this point he still insisted. He had, he said, killed her, not with arsenic nor yet with morphine, as had been suggested, but with about one drachm of chloroform administered at early dawn on the day of her death. It would thus appear that the professors from Philadelphia and the other medical witnesses for the defense were not
wrong when they denied that death had been caused by arsenical poisoning. Dr. King had been convicted of murder, according to his confession, on false evidence.
One further question still remains to be solved :
Who put eleven grains of arsenic into the stomach of the dead woman, either after death or so soon before death that the lining of the stomach showed little or no inflammation?