The mid 19th Century newspaper headlines saw no shortage of cases involving poison. Unsurprisingly, given the relative ease of obtaining such deadly materials, a long narrative of death, whether by accident or design, formed throughout the period and still today the Victorian period is often characterised as something of a heyday for poisons and poisoners. From time to time, salacious stories of a murderer utilising these violent compounds broke out and captured the public’s attention, stacking up a list of names of cold, calculated criminality. In 1855, William Doves name was added to the list after he killed his wife, Doves name drew attention over many of his fellow poisoners, however, when it was uncovered that he had killed her after taking advice from a local wizard, had sold his soul to the devil at a young age and later went on to write a letter to the Prince of Darkness in his own blood, inviting him to collect on his side of the bargain.
The Leicester Journal (1856) Execution of William Dove. The Leicester Journal, Friday 15th August, 1856.
Sheffield Daily Telegraph (1856) The poisoning of a Lady By Strychnine, At Leeds. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Thursday 13th March, 1856.
The Morning Post (1856) Serious Charge Of Slow Poisoning From Strychnine, At Leeds. The Morning post, Monday 10th March, 1856.
Davies, Owen (2005) Murder, Magic & Madness: The Victorian Trials of Dove and the Wizard. Pearson Education Limited, UK
Davies, Owen (2008) Cunning-Folk in England and Wales during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Rural History, Volume 8, Issue 1, April 1997, pp. 91 – 107
Davies, Owen (2007) Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History. Hambledon Continuum, UK
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William Dove & The Wizard
The mid 19th Century newspaper headlines saw no shortage of cases involving poison. Unsurprisingly, given the relative ease of obtaining such deadly materials, a long narrative of death, whether by accident or design, formed throughout the period and still today the Victorian period is often characterised as something of a heyday for poisons and poisoners. From time to time, salacious stories of a murderer utilising these violent compounds broke out and captured the public’s attention, stacking up a list of names of cold, calculated criminality. In 1855, William Doves name was added to the list after he killed his wife, Doves name drew attention over many of his fellow poisoners, however, when it was uncovered that he had killed her after taking advice from a local wizard, had sold his soul to the devil at a young age and later went on to write a letter to the Prince of Darkness in his own blood, inviting him to collect on his side of the bargain. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Wesleyan Methodism & The Marriage of William & Hannah Dove
Traditional religion during the mid-Victorian era, especially amongst the working classes, pervaded social and political life to an extent difficult to imagine when compared to England of the 21st Century. Despite the ongoing enlightenment and the continuous trend of looking towards science to explain the world around them amongst the educated classes and the gradual removal of ecclesiastical powers in law, the Victorians found renewed faith, as moral arguments crept to the fore, countering a growing fear of revolution and promoting religion, spotlighting it’s value to the wealth of society. At the same time, several government led initiatives saw thousands of churches rebuilt and renovated across the country in order to accommodate the people that flocked to worship in their droves. Sunday worship was still central to many people and employers often insisted their staff attend Sunday services at Church. Meanwhile, religious social hubs and buildings enveloped peoples past-times and social calendars, driving entire communities, especially throughout the more rural regions.
As enthusiasm for religion continued to spur forward, so too did the appetite for diversity amongst the congregations and many non-Anglican Protestant denominations saw exponential growth as new paths of worship thrived. Baptists, Quakers and Methodists all saw their emergent services pick off sections of society that originally attended under the previously dominant banner of the Church of England. As a response, many of the old ways began to re-emerge amongst the traditional landscape as a number of preachers and clergymen re-introduced methods of worship that had been out of favour since the reformation, three hundred years earlier. On the complete other end of the spectrum, completely new ideas broke out into the mainstream, a situation most easily recognised with the boom of Spiritualism.
In the early 19th Century, Christopher Dove was a relatively early adopter to the Methodist Church. His parents had been staunchly religious, however, Christopher himself had waited until he was in his twenties before converting to Wesleyan Methodism after largely ignoring religion throughout his late teen years. In 1814 he married Mary Steele, but the relationship was fated to be cut short and Mary died less than one year later, in February of 1815. By the time of his wife’s death, Christopher had dived headlong into the local Wesleyan community and in the same year, he met and married his second wife, Mary Dunn whom he knew through the social events organised through the church. The next year, his father died leaving his successful currying and leather business to Christopher and two of his brothers, William and Thomas. The family lived in the large market town of Darlington in the County of Durham in the North East of England. Previously famous for producing Linen, Darlington had been the focus of growth once the market expanded to produce leather and wool and the Doves business had ridden the wave to place them in a financially comfortable and well respected position within the community. By 1820, Darlington was experiencing a housing boom as the railways arrived in the town promoting further expansion and Christopher and his new wife Mary took the opportunity to move into a newly built house in a middle class urban development in Wellington Place. Here they settled down with their new family. In 1818, Mary had already given birth to their first daughter, Mary and their second daughter arrived in 1819. Christopher, their first son was born in 1820, followed by Elzabeth in 1821, Sarah in 1824, Anna in 1825, Margaret in 1826, William in 1827 and Samuel in 1829. With the high mortality rate of the early 19th Century, it’s somewhat unsurprising that a family so large would suffer the death of a number of their children and so it was when Jane died in 1827, the same year that William was born, aged only 8 years old. William would see three more of his siblings die before he would make it to his teenage years. Samuel was the youngest, dying of Tuberculosis aged only 11 months.
Just prior to Samuel’s death in 1830, the family relocated 70 miles South to Leeds in Yorkshire. Leeds had expanded rapidly in the previous years, launching it from a small town to a large manufacturing city with booming industrial factories staffed by the working classes of the city. At the same time, the middle classes and number of craftsmen grew, filling out the market with grain and produce from the local farms as well as a healthy leather and textiles industry. The Doves moved to the town just in time to see a Cholera outbreak that killed over 700 people, mainly due to the poor conditions and overcrowding around the working class housing areas. Fortunately for the Doves the family dodged Cholera, but they were not so lucky with Tuberculosis. By the end of the decade, Christopher, Anna and Margaret all died of the disease, aged 16, 14 and 12 respectively. The Doves lived relatively comfortably, however, with their 4 surviving children in a suburb of the town that although had lost some of its previous glamour due to the invasion of factories that constantly stretched the industrial zones boundaries, was still the home neighborhood to barristers, craftsmen and engineers.
Christopher Dove built a solid reputation for himself within the large Wesleyan community, which in 1839 was thriving with over 11,000 followers, second only to the Church of England’s 13,000. He was charitable and well known for giving financially, helping to build chapels within the Leeds area, whilst his wife, Mary gave religious classes to the poor and sick. Both parents brought their children up under strict Wesleyan teachings, promoting austerity and charity within the household. Whilst many religious were by this point relaxing their religious fervour, many Wesleyan Methodists were doubling down and free time in the house was spent in religious contemplation and delivering further charitable acts. William Dove, who was by now reaching his early teens, was less taken with religion than his brothers and sisters, though far from a wayward child, he was often at the bottom of his class at school and often in trouble. Perhaps due to his being the youngest son, his mother and father were somewhat lenient towards his early discretions and it wasn’t until he took a gun to school one day, seeing him expelled that they took his rule breaking seriously. His brother and sister had come to the conclusion that he was ungodly and secretly he had already attempted to sell his soul to the devil by pricking his finger with a sharp knife and writing letters in blood. After his expulsion William was sent to a Wesleyan grammar school 50 miles to the South in Sheffield, that his father had helped to set up the year previous in 1838. The school did their best with the wayward boy, but after only a year requested he be removed. Feeling there was little other choice and seeing a future lost with their son, the Doves sought out advice on sending William to an asylum, though to his great fortune, they instead opted to send him to learn farming on a small plot of land owned by one of Christopher’s friends, 70 miles away on the outskirts of the North-East seaside town of Scarborough. Once again William struggled to settle down and if anything his behaviour became only more erratic and alarming. In the time he spent working his apprenticeship on the farm for 5 and half years, he took it upon himself to ignore his tuition and instead while away the hours of boredom pouring Oil of Vitriol on the cows, attempting to poison the horses and setting fire to the local cats, both through the use of fire and Phosphorous. This fascination with fire also grew and he eventually wound up setting fire to dry patches of grass, the farms wagon covers and his own curtains, that he had soaked in alcohol before setting them ablaze. His behaviour was not only sadistic to animals and concerning to his employers, but also dangerous for all those that surrounded him and he frequently threatened the other farm hands with pitchforks and told them if he had a gun, he would shoot them. The violent outbursts reached a peak for farms owners when William threatened the farm owners wife with a knife, prompting him to contact Williams father and requesting him to take him away, but Christopher Dove was able to smooth out the situation and William was permitted to stay on and continue his education. When he left the farm aged 21, the owner said of him only that “He had no aptitude for farming.”
Following his apprenticeship, Christopher once again used his connections to shuffle his son out of sight, this time finding him a working placement on a farm in Tadcaster on the outskirts of Leeds, where he seemed to settle down somewhat, successfully working there for a whole year without any large incident before William decided that he had had enough of the farming life and set sail for the New World. With his wages on the farm having been only 9d per week, one has to assume that this voyage was paid for once again by Christopher and it’s with no leap of imagination to believe he did so gladly, hoping to not see him back in Leeds for a long, long time.
Whilst in North America, William travelled widely across the continent, visiting both a large portion of the United States and Canada, though the specifics are for the most part lost. Most of the stories from his time abroad come from William himself, who arrived back in Leeds only two years later, though far from returning with his tail between his legs, he returned with stories of leading indian tribes into battle. It was now 1852 and William was 25 years old. His parents once again threw him a bone and set him up with the lease of a farm named White Well, in Aberford, a village on the Eastern outskirts of Leeds. Along with the farm, they hired James Shann and Robert Tomlinson as farm hands to help run the place and Mary Peck as a housekeeper. Once back on the farm, however, William fell back in step with his old tricks, setting fire to Mary’s hat whilst she was wearing it and routinely fired off guns into the night sky. He would often wake Shann in the middle of the night and implore him to go on pitch black hunts around the farm, searching out invaders that he had been sure he had heard. Though the hunts never found a single person, they were a fine excuse for William to yield his guns. Whilst William cracked on throughly failing at running a farm, he did, much to his parents’ likely relief, find religion. His behaviour had been erratic and unkind on many occasions, but on others he saw fit to hand out great charity and would always welcome homeless to stay in his barns. William began spending most of his free time surrounded by other Methodists and enjoyed social events at the Woodhouse Grove Primary school an all-boys boarding school for the sons of local Leeds Wesleyan Ministers, which is where he met Harriet Jenkins, the daughter of a Plymouth shoemaker, up visiting her brother, who worked as a teacher at the school. Shortly after their first meeting, William proposed to Harriet and the couple married shortly after in Harriet’s home town of Plymouth, returning to Leeds to settle shortly after. If William’s parents had hoped the marriage might settle their son down, they would soon be further dismayed.
Henry Harrison: Wizard
It wasn’t long after their marriage that the housekeepers around William and Harriet began to spot the signs of trouble in the relationship. In truth, Harriet had been suffering from what the doctors called “bouts of Hysteria” following her brothers death prior to the marriage and her condition did nothing to make the couple seem normal to outsiders, who watched on as William suffered violent mood swings. At times the couple would seem at one another’s throats, arguing loudly. Harriet was profoundly jealous of Williams female acquaintances, routinely accusing him of affairs, whilst William turned to drink, threatened his wife, threatened to burn the house down and once again showing his excitement for firearms, reeled off ammunition into the night sky. His newly acquainted brother-in-law noted how he swung from miserably depressed to highly elated on a day to day basis and many of the servant staff spoke of how they were afraid of his outburst, which inevitably led to several quitting their job prematurely. On the 11th of August, 1854, William was finally arrested for threatening to shoot his parents and then himself, though he was only jailed temporarily and not long after reprimanded in court.
A month after his run in with the law, a series of small, innocuous happenings set William upon a path that would wind up sealing a tragic fate. It all began with what was a seemingly harmless conversation with John Hardcastle, a farm labourer whilst William had been out looking for a lost dog. Hardcastle suggested to William that he visit a man named Henry Harrison at the Leeds Market to help with the predicament. It had been a harmless suggestion on the part of Hardcastle, who went on to supply William with an anecdote from his old job, where his employer had lost 2 guns and sought the help of Harrison to help him find them again. Harrison was well known around the Leeds Market as a Wise Man, otherwise known as Wizard or even a White Witch. The old magician told Hardcastles employer of how the guns he sought had been stolen and that the thieves would pass by the farm the next evening where they would be out shooting rabbits. The hunch wound out to be true and the men were promptly arrested and the firearms returned to the farmer. It was a story that impressed William, who far aside from the lost dog, had also been having trouble with his Landlord after he had recently forfeited his tenancy on the farm, but now wanted to rescind it. Perhaps, William hoped, the old man’s magic could help him to influence the outcome. Enthusiastically, William asked Hardcastle to put him in touch with this wise man the next time they visited the marketplace in Leeds.
In Victorian England, the presence of wise men amongst even large, urban communities wasn’t entirely uncommon. Though more easily found amongst rural populations, one could find the thinly veiled advertising from helpful magicians who often labelled themselves as doctors or dentists, though they were certainly not qualified in either discipline. The wise-men of Victorian times form an important distinction from the similarly persecuted quack doctors by offering certain forms of magic and other-worldly healing abilities. Quack doctors had flourished in the earlier 17th and 18th centuries where they had offered prescriptions and vendored patent medicines that were usually routed in herbalism and folk-remedies, often concealing their untrained past with falsified scientific credentials. Wise-men on the other hand, had roots in communities across the country and indeed, all of europe, for centuries, offering services as vast as finding lost items, finding love for a client, healing the sick, reading the stars, palms or a host other fortunes, protecting against curses and witchcraft as well as dabbling in folk-medicine and herbalism. In attempts to stamp them out from society, churches tried to turn their patrons against visiting these cunning folk, pointing to their links with witchcraft, whilst the law wrote in crimes like those from the Vagrancy Act of 1824, outlawing “persons pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means and device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose.” Deterrents were all well and good, however, as the fist tightened around the practitioners, the demand failed to fall amongst the communities who were not yet ready to give up on magic as a solution to difficult problems, as such, the profession continued unabated in a more subtle, clandestine form and whilst amongst the community the practitioners were known as healers, white witches, wise men, cunning folk, wizards and conjurers, they continued to advertise their services under the guise of medical practitioners, much to the chagrin of the trained surgeons and general practitioners.
Whilst there were many such white-witches that had existed in smaller, rural communities, often forgoing official payment, for the most part, practitioners in Market towns like Leeds were semi-professional and advertised their services with clients full expectation of paying a a fee. Without the existence of any formal training, education, qualifications or regulations, though some did profess to being part of a long familial line, and with the operation being in a murky, grey area of the law, many practitioners were far from wholesome. For every wizard who swore on the veracity of his or her magical powers, there would be another who was just happy to rip-off the gullible.
Where Henry Harrison fell upon this spectrum, is anyone’s guess, but William was clearly not a man who asked too many questions. Harrison had been born in Leeds in 1816 and begun his working life as a dyer in a local factory. By 1840 he had been married, had children, left them stranded and turned to criminality. He served 3 months in Prison in the summer of 1840 after he had been caught stealing 50 yards of dress fabric from a farm and a year later was back in court to be charged for deserting his wife and children. In 1844, he began living in a lodging house with a local widow named Elizabeth Brown and in the mid-1840s began offering his services as a wizard, where he sold prepared herbs and drugs, offered to help find stolen goods and read astrology. He quickly came unstuck in the profession after he offered to help a neighbour who had had his celery crop stolen. It goes some way to showing Harrisons ability to think practically, after he offered to consult with the farmer in his own house, where most of the stolen celery was being kept. As soon as his neighbour saw the stolen crop, he reported the wizard to the police. Still, Harrison had clearly found his calling in life and in 1850 he was well established around the Leeds market place, where he advertised his services under the guise of “astrological doctor”, “dentist” and “water caster”.
“Removal – Dentist Surgery – H. Harrison, astrological doctor and water caster, announces that he has removed from Dewsbury Road, where he has practised dental surgery and astrology for the last fifteen years, to 5, North Row, South Market, Meadow Lane, Leeds. Nativities calculated and horary questions definitively solved on any subject connected with life, death, sickness, marriage, travelling by land or sea, the welfare of absent friends etc. H.H. May be consulted on all diseases incident to the human frame by letter or in person: questions by letter containing a fee punctually attended to.”
A month after speaking with Hardcastle, William and the farmhand were on their way to Leeds Market to sell a crop of potatoes. Hardcastle had arranged a meeting with Harrison for the same evening in the Red Lion Inn and once business had been taken care of, the trio me tin the ub and drank together for 6 hours, hammering out a plan for Williams farm. Harrison asked William for his date of birth and agreed to draw up an astrological chart for him and further agreed to meet him on his farm to take care of any issues he had there. Two weeks later, Harrison arrived on White Well Farm, alongside the landlord of the Red Lion to work his magic. William followed him around, as Harrison took five copper pieces from his pocket, marked them each with a different symbol and then, using a compass to determine the cardinal points, scattered the copper pieces in various places throughout the farmland. All throughout the process, he prayed aloud, implying the magic to free both William dn his farm from the influence of witchcraft. Once he was done scattering the copper pieces, he wrote a further group of symbols on a scrap of paper, handed it to William and told him to keep it in his pocket when he visited the Farms Landlord to renegotiate the lease assuring him that as long as he followed the simple instructions, all would proceed smoothly. Harrison stayed at the farm for dinner and then the pair went to the local pub to get drunk. Before he left, William paid Harrison a crown as a half payment for his services.
It didn’t take William long to lose the paper charm given to him and so, three weeks later, William found himself once more in Leeds seeking out the wizard for a replacement. Whilst there, he told Harrison that he would meet with his landlord the following Wednesday and Harrison assured him not to be concerned. After they concluded business with the charm, the pair found themselves getting drunk in the Red Lion Inn once more and after a few ales, the conversation turned towards Williams’ relationship issues. Harrison had previously met Harriet when he had stayed on the farm for dinner and he wasted no time in explaining to William that the person he had met at the time was no good. To his credit, William countered that he had married his wife “for love and nothing else” and expressed his will that Harrison could fix the problems the pair had with their violent arguing. Harrison took the job on willingly, though he warned William that it would be a tough task and would take some time.
In the 1850’s, divorce in England was still, by and large, illegal. Marriage was an institution still governed by the church and was considered a lifetime commitment for all but the wealthiest of citizens who could afford to grease the wheels a little. It would not be for a few more years, with the introduction of the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, before divorce would become a secular process and become more widely available, though even then it would remain a complicated, often untidy process, heavily weighted in favour of the husband. For the vast majority of unhappy marriages, seeking the help of a magician was not a last resort, but one of the only avenues realistically open to them.
Whatever it was, Harrison certainly had something that had impressed William during his meetings. He began turning to the wizard more and more to solve his problems and when he found himself being worked over by a pair of merchants who had purchased a sample of wheat from him only to vanish before they made payment, William was once more seeking the help of Harrisons magic to solve the issue. Harrison was naturally happy to take his coin and he told William that he would work it so that the situation would resolve in the farmers favour. Despite the fact that the merchants never did reappear and William never received his money, his confidence in Harrison took only a small knock. A further blow came on the 23rd December, when William finally got round to seeing his Landlord, who rejected his pleas to renegotiate the lease for the farm, despite using Harrisons charm. Harrisons reasoning for the charms failure was that the landlord was an “Irishman and would take a good but of working upon.” It was a temporary blip for William’s faith, however, and after his father fell ill in the winter of 1854, William was back again and Harrison told him with confidence that he would not live to see Christmas Day. After his father’s health unravelled and he passed away on Christmas Eve night, Harrisons supernatural powers were all but confirmed in Williams’ eyes. In a follow up meeting, Harrison had told William that his wife would never be right until she conceived, so in order to solve the issue, Harrison assured him he would run some magic for him that would help her to get pregnant.
Due to the failure of Harrisons charm, William was removed as the tenant of White Well Farm in March of 1855 and so the Doves moved to a small hamlet named Woodhouse, 10 miles to the South-West of Leeds. Harriet’s sister made the move with them and stayed with the couple for 5 months, during which time the couples arguments abated to some degree, though as soona s she left, their arguing and disagreements quickly returned. At the end of his tether, William once more found himself on the wizard’s doorstep, pleading with him to fix his wife. With a heavy sigh, Harrison admitted to William that he had been unable to fix the problem and that his wife would simply never be right. William, he said, “would never find happiness until she’s out of the way.” He invited William in and offered to read him his fortune, where he said he had learnt of the situation. Harrison took out a piece of paper from his desk, which he explained was the astrological chart he had been drawing up for him, upon the chart was written the signs of the zodiac,
“There were also hieroglyphic forms, opposite various figures denoting years, beginning at 27 and continuing down to 50 or 52. The figures after 27 were 32 repeated twice or three times. He referred to the forms opposite the various figures, and reading from a book my destiny. He said ‘Between the age of 27 and 32 everything will go against you, you will have nothing but misfortune – That at 32 the Sun and Moon would come in conjunction, and that then everything would be in my favour; That at 32 years of ageI should lose my wife, that at 32 I should marry again, that at 32 I should have a child, and that at 32 I should have an addition to my fortune, and that for my sake he did not care how soon it was here, for until then I should never be a happy man; that after I was 32 everything would go well for a few years.”
Describing Williams new wife, he told the eager farmer she would have auburn hair, a light complexion and a good fortune. William eagerly filed away the information and began keeping an eye out for this woman of his dreams. During one of his meetings with Harrison, the wizard had displayed a liking towards a finely crafted walking stick that he had been carrying with him. Charitable as he always had been, William gave the man the stick, insisting that he receive it as a gift. When Harriet found out about this, however, she was less than impressed and demanded that the old man give the stick back. As the pair went back and forth over the following weeks, arguing over who the stick now belonged to, William was kept awake at night by noises in his walls which he was sure were worked by demons sent by Harrison in retribution for causing him trouble. Still, William managed to crack on, happy in the knowledge that things would eventually begin looking up. By now he and Harriet had begun sleeping separately and Harriets mother had taken it upon herself to take steps for the couple to be legally separated. When William explained the situation to Harrison, he told William to let his wife go, but at the last minute, as the troubled couple sat in the solicitor’s office, ready to sign the final forms, William pleaded with Harriet to stay with him and try again to make the marriage work. In an encapsulation of the roller coaster of their married life, Harriet agreed and the pair left the office together, with fresh hope that William would stop drinking so much and promises from Harriet that she would give him another chance.
In an effort to turn a new leaf in their relationship, William and Harriet moved once again in December of 1855. William had stayed true to his word and stopped drinking as heavily and had begun looking for work. The real problems for the Doves, however, were just about to begin.
William Dove, The Poisoner
Shortly after moving to 3 Cardigan Place, in the hamlet of Burley, 2 miles North of Leeds in December, Williams’ memory was tripped when he met his young widow neighbour, Jane Whitham. Jane had become friends with Harriet but had taken a disliking to William as she could often hear him through the walls when he raised his voice during the pair’s heated arguments. William on the other hand had taken an immediate liking to Jane, who, as a widow with a 2 year old son, had a comfortable fortune in her husband’s inheritance. She also happened to have auburn hair and so, despite the vague description given to him by Harrison, William was sure he had met his soon to be new wife.
Williams’ next meeting with Harrison took on something of a darker twist. Speaking with Harrison, who operated as a Herbalist among his other magical abilities, William inquired after the detectability of the poison Strychnine. Harrison told him that Strychnine, along with other organic poisons like Belladonna and Digitalis were often not detectable, though his knowledge was not entirely with the times. William asked him if Harrison could obtain him a quantity of the poison, but Harrison refused. Over the recent weeks, William had once more slipped into his old familiar cycles of drinking heavily and arguing with Harriet, he still had no job and despite their best efforts, very little appeared to change between the troubled couple. Harriet had been having trouble with her bouts of Hysteria and when things were going well, William nursed her as best he could. One of the duties he routinely performed for her was to collect her medicine from the local surgery and dispensary, run by the family doctor, George Morley. Doctor Morley had been treating Harriet for what he had diagnosed as “Functional Disorder of the Digestive System and Affection of the Nerves” ever since the death of her brother and as a result, she took a concoction of herbal medicines daily. Williams trips to the dispensary had become part of their marriage routine and as such, when he arrived to collect the week’s prescription in February of 1856, it was with some casual familiarity that William turned the conversation towards Strychnine. Most likely, William had read about Strychnine in the papers earlier that year, after a case of poisoning had stormed into the headlines. William Palmer, a Doctor from Staffordshire had poisoned his friend, John Cook using Strychnine and was in the process of awaiting trial that spring in what would turn out to be one of the most sensational cases of the era. William used the case in the papers to move the conversation with the surgery boy, James Peacock, onto the idea of using Strychnine to kill a pair of stray cats that he said had been causing him havoc in his new home. Peacock agreed that the poison would certainly be strong enough to do the job and when William asked if he could purchase some, Peacock measured out 10 grains of the lethal substance, wrapped them in a piece of paper and wrote “POISON” on the outside, handing it over to William. When he returned from the surgery, William placed a piece of meat on a plate, sprinkled a quantity of strychnine on top and placed it in the yard. Within a few days, the poison had given him results and one of the stray cats who had happened upon the meat lay dead in the yard. Wiliam buried the cat and then excitedly returned to the dispensary, this time talking with John Elleson, Doctor Morleys pupil. He explained his stray cat situation and of how he had managed to kill one, but the other had not yet been dealt with and sadly, the rest of the strychnine he had previously picked up from the surgery had been washed away by the rain. Elleson measured out a further five grains and handed them over to William, asking him that if he did manage to have success this time, he would rather like the cat’s skin in order to make a tobacco pouch.
Later that February, Harriet contacted Doctor Morley after she had began to feel more ill than usual. She complained of side and head pains as well as problems with her stomach. The doctor supplied her with a prescription for Carbonate of soda with lemon syrup, opium and rhubarb pills. On the 19th of February, the doves servant, Elizabeth Fisher fell ill and requested she return home. During this time, William happily helped around the home, taking on many of the household chores. He often had helped the servants anyhow and so he gladly continued Elizabeth’s work whilst she was away. Harriet on the other hand became progressively more ill, so much so that on the 25th, she collapsed into a fit, jerking and twitching on the ground after complaining that she had felt a strange sensation in her legs. William continued to administer the medicine to his wife that had been supplied by Doctor Morley to no avail, until she became so ill that they had to call the doctor out to the house once more. Morley inspected Harriet and confirmed that she had been suffering from Hysteria, though William, for some reason, was sure it was something much more terrible. He had spent the recent days getting drunk in the local pub and telling people of how his wife was so sick that he did not expect her to recover. He nonchalantly repeated the same in front of Harriet until Doctor Morley took him to one side and asked him not to place his wife in any undue distress. As the doctor left that day, William measured Harriet’s medicine into a glass, fed it to her and then washed the glass out, placing it back on the shelf, clean, as he did every day. On Saturday 1st March, after Harriets condition had steadily worsened over the previous week, William went to fetch the Doctor once more. On their way back to the house, William told Morley of how if his wife was to die, she had pleaded with William not to allow the doctors to cut her up for a post-mortem due to religious reasons. It was not an unusual request, Williams father had requested the same just prior to his own death, however, the doctor shrugged off the suggestion that she would die once more, saying that he was sure it would not come to that. It was woefully shortsighted, as it turned out, as by the time they arrived back at the house, Harriet had passed away just minutes before. William left the house and went off to get drunk, whilst the doctor spoke with two of Harriets friends who had been present during her final moments and examined the face of the dead woman, which he described as being in a state of anxiety. For William, his wife’s untimely death had been unpleasant, but it signalled a changing of fortune for himself. As he drank away the hours that night, he remembered the wizards’ earlier words that he would not be happy until his wife was out of the way.
The Arrest & Trial of William Dove
Doctor Morley did not immediately suspect any foul play in the death of Harriet. He had spoken to those present and investigated the scene, as was his duty, as well as reporting the death to the Leeds coroner. Shortly after, he was made aware that William had been in possession of a large quantity of Strychnine, however, which though not changing his outlook, did give the doctor reason to pause. Believing that she may have ingested some strychnine by accident, the doctor requested that a post-mortem be performed and despite Williams’ protestations, his request was granted by the coroner. At the same time, an inquest was opened at the Cardigan Arms to confirm the cause of death, though it was immediately suspended until after the results of the post mortem were returned. Doctor Morley carried out the post-mortem upon Harriet alongside his colleague Thomas Nunnely. If William had been confident that strychnine was undetectable, he may have felt some small anxiety if he had been aware that Morley was not only a General Practitioner, but also a lecturer of Chemistry at the Leeds College of Medicine, with a particular interest in toxicology. Nunnely, meanwhile was a lecturer on Surgery at the same college and had spent several years testing the effects of poison on animals. The results of the post-mortem were initially inconclusive, however, the doctors removed Harriets stomach and intestine and sent them off for further investigation in a laboratory
“We divided the whole into three portions; first, the contents of the stomach – the brown pulpy mass before described; second, the mucus and all other matters which could be removed from the stomach by scraping its surface; thirdly, the stomach itself. Each of these, after being repeatedly put through a process of analysis for the separation of its strychnia, was treated by the various tests used to prove the presence of strychnia. From each of them we obtained evidence of its presence. In addition to the chemical tests, we found in the spirituous extracts, very decidedly, the remarkable bitter taste characteristic of strychnia. In the contents of the intestines we found only a faint and doubtful trace of its presence.”
The doctors also dug up the body of Williams dead stray cat and ran the same tests to compare the results, finding them to correlate perfectly. When Doctor Morley presented his reulsts to the inquest on the 7th March, he concluded that,
“I cannot refer death to any other causes than the poisonous effects of strychnine, producing the most peculiar convulsions, so closely resembling tetanus… I cannot refer them to any natural cause; tp nothing but the effects of strychnine. There is no other substance, I believe, which will produce these attacks… We had not the slightest doubt as to the cause of death.”
The inquest was adjourned until the following Monday and in the meantime, William spoke about the inquest with Harrison, assuring him he was innocent and asking the wizard to smooth the way for him. Harrison said that whilst it would be a tough case and William would be in for a rough ride, he would be sure to do so. Whilst William was cheerily telling people in the pub that the inquest was no big deal, that the coroner had known he had strychnine in the house and that the couples relationship had been somewhat ropey and was therefore a matter of due process and nothing more, the police were waiting at his home to arrest him upon his return.
The following week saw the inquest reconvene to renewed enthusiasm in the public. By now the story had hit the newspapers and news of a second Strychnine poisoning case spread rapidly across the country. By Wednesday over 200 hopeful spectators visited the Leeds Court House hoping to gain a spot in the audience and catch a glimpse of WIlliam Dove, who the papers had quickly characterised as a “freak”, plastering their stories with anecdotes of the bizarre behaviour from his earlier life, selling his soul to the devil and carrying firearms to school. Over the following days, further evidence was presented from Doctor Morley including his results of feeding a portion of Harriets stomach contents to 2 rabbits, 2 mice and a guinea pig, with all but one rabbit dying from Strychnine poisoning. In the end it was strongly hammered home to the jury that there could be no doubt over the cause of death. The judge then addressed the jury, reiterating that for now, the guilt of William was not under trial, rather just the cause of death. After 40 minutes of deliberation, the jury returned the verdict that Harriet had died of strychnine poisoning, willfully administered by William. Without flinching, William followed the police back to his cell, where he would sit and await trial for murdering his wife.
William was transported to York Castle, where he was placed in a cell to await the Summer Assizes. During his time in prison, he was described as calm and relaxed. It was, perhaps, testament to Williams’ unwavering belief in the wizard that he could maintain such a calm demeanour throughout the inquest and his following incarceration. After all, Harrison had told him that it would be a tough case, but soon things would begin to look up for him. Whilstin prison, William wrote two letters that he attempted to smuggle out. The first letter was to Harrison, which he bribed a cellmate leaving prison to carry out for him,
“What is your opinion of my case? Let the jury bring in my case whatever they please, I am not guilty. Will you tell me decidedly from my nativity what will be the result, if you can? I had put my entire confidence in you. If you can do anything for me, you must! I have never said anything to anyone about our conversations at any time, I have retained sergeant Wilkins for my council and Barrett for my lawyer. People tell me that your evidence against me about my asking whether a grain, or a grain and a half would be found told very much against me. Write me all about this, but mind you don’t write anything about this in ink but let it be written in milk or lemon juice, or anything that will show when it is brought to the fire. When you write, don’t let them know you have heard from me as all the letters written by the prisoners, or sent to them are read and I have bribed someone to bring this out! Shall I get off in July? Tell me all particulars, if I am, tell me, who is to be my next wife?”
Unfortunately for William, the letter was found during a routine search before the prisoner was released and so his letter was never read by Harrison. The second letter William wrote, which he kept sewn up in a seam in his clothing, was to the Devil and scribed in his own blood.
“Dear Devil – If you will get me clear at the assizes, and let me have the enjoyment of life, health, wealth, tobacco, beer, more food and better, my wishes granted, and live til I am sixty, come to me and tell me. And remain your faithful servant, William Dove.”
As the assizes approached, Williams demeanour began to suffer. He sank further into a depression, perhaps after not hearing a reply from the wizard or the devil. The York Summer Assizes kicked off on 9th July and Williams trial was by far the largest spectacle of the entire program, with the courthouse receiving applications from spectators enough to fill the courtroom ten times over. The trial opened on Wednesday 16th July with Williams plea of Not Guilty, before the judge gave the history of the case to the court, including the nature of Strychnine poisoning and a detailed overview of the rocky relationship that had existed between William and Harriet. Williams’ defence relied mostly on a plea of Insanity, whilst attempting to convince the court both of Harriets poor mental health, her bouts of hysteria and the possibility that she may have ingested the poison accidently. It didn’t seem to be of much concern that it was something of a contradiction to pose William as insane and not accountable for his actions, if he didn’t do anything wrong in the first place.
The medical experts’ opinion of Williams’ mental health was somewhat muddled, with some doctors suggesting that he was the subject of delusions, whilst others said he had full understanding of his actions. After a lengthy 6 hour long closing speech from the defense and 4 days in court, the jury stepped out at 10:05 PM, returning at 10:40 to deliver their verdict to the judge. Judge Baron George William Wilshere Bramwell donned his black cap to address the court, declaring William guilty and sentencing him to be hanged, though the jury had recommended him to mercy, on the grounds of defective intellect. In what was perhaps a final realisation that Harrisons magic had once again failed him, William was unable to let out nothing more than a splutter when asked if he had any final words for the courtroom, before being led back to his cell to await execution.
The Hanged Man & The Undoing of the Wizard
Williams’ appeal was immediate and unsuccessful. Despite a large portion of the Wesleyan community rallying around him, putting forth a petition to Buckingham Palace, in the eyes of the public, William was a wife-killer, a crime which brandished him as one of the lowest of all criminals. The newspapers continued to characterise him as a violent drunk, whilst the wesleyan ministers publicly played up the insanity angle in order to somewhat distance themselves from Williams behaviour, though it was largely unsuccessful and a loud voice in the debate argued that Wesleyan Enthusiasm for religion and superstition was in part responsible for creating Williams mentality. The appeal had been relatively strong, but ultimately it failed and Williams hanging was set to take place on the 9th August, 1856. Whilst he awaited his fate, William wrote a final letter to his lawyer, making no bones about who he thought was to blame for the situation,
“I would wish to remark that I committed the crime through the instigation of that bad man Henry Harrison, of the South Market, Leeds. Had it not been for him, I never should have been in these circumstances. I remain, respected Sir, Yours respectfully, William Dove.”
In a crowd estimated to have been between 10,000 and 15,000, the earliest of which began arriving at 7am to secure a good spot in the crowd. Just before noon, William Dove made his way to the scaffold,
“Dove was no way altered from his appearance at the trial. His face bore the same healthy hue, and his manner was calm and collected. He stepped upon the platform with firmness and deliberation, and immediately turned round to Rev. J. Hartley, who read the prayers for the dead.”
As the clock of York Castle tolled for 12 noon, William Dove was hanged until dead and left in the rain for one hour before being cut down and removed from the grim scene.
With William dead, the coverage of the murder quickly turned towards the role of Harrison and of Cunning-Folk in general. As could be expected, it was not with a polite pen that the stories wre written and the trade was hastily daubed as “nefarious”, outdated and embarrassing to a country that claimed itself enlightened. Whilst the main argument did not blame Harrison for Williams murder of his wife, they were stern in their judgements of the wizard and shone spotlight on how they believed he had enabled and encouraged the ugly outcome. Harrison wrote to the local press in defense of himself, in an effort that went down less than well with the public, who were quick to point out his bending of the truth to suit his own narrative and at times, bold face lies. In the lengthy letter, Harrison was bold in his statements that he had never told William to do anything other than treat his wife well, that his statements in prison concerning his relationship with himself had been almost all lies and generally went about assassinating his character as best he could in order to remove himself from any sense of guilt.
Harrison hoped that in time the press would leave him alone and the storm would eventually blow over and returned to operating as a wise-man to the citizens of Leeds market. One day int he Autumn of 1856, he was visited by Eliza Croft, a housekeeper in the local New Cross Inn. She had been struggling with her relationship and wished for Harrison to set it right. Harrison assured the young woman that in order to make things right and see the man return to her, she must have sex with him, an offer which was perhaps beyond what she thought reasonable, as she left the wizard home promptly after. Over the following weeks, however, she visited Harrison on several occasions in order to plead with the magician to work something out and each time, Harrison reiterated that she must have sex with him, or no good would be able to come of the situation. Eventually, after several knockbacks, Harrison had enough of the rejections and took it upon himself to rape her. Before she left, Harrison warned her not to speak of the issue, else he would bewitch her. It was a threat too far and not, apparently, enough to terrify Eliza into silence as with the encouragement of a friend, she reported Harrison to the police who was finally arrested whilst drinking in the Nag’s Head.
Harrison stood trial for Rape and Fortune Telling on 23rd October, 1856. Disturbingly, the charge of fortune telling was the focus of the defence, who clearly thought it was a charge that held more water. It was a hunch that turned out to be true, as the rape charge was later reduced to aggravated assault, though ultimately Harrison was ofund guilty of both and was entranced to three months in prison total for both charges. In a final twist, as the judge addressed the court to ask if anyone else present had any grievances with the prisoner, Harrison’s first wife stood up and demanded he be punished for deserting his family. Harrisons trial was further extended to include the new charge, however, it soon unravelled that Harrisons marital affairs had been anything but above board. He was, it seemed, a wilful bigamist, having deserted his first wife and remarried. The second marriage had been to his partners daughter, who he had raped when she was 16 years of age and her mother, harrisons partner had coerced Harrison into marrying whilst the pair hid her away to hide her pregnancy. Once the child was born, Harrison gave the child away, though it died just months later. It was a scandal that befitted the man who had told William previously that he would only be happy once his wife was “out of the way.” Harrison was found guilty of bigamy and sentenced to four years enal servitude with hard labour.
With William Dove hanged and Harrison firmly behind bars, the case of Harriet Doves poisoning quickly fell by the wayside. Within a year, the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 was sworn into law, making divorce more accessible to all and one has to wonder if any of the tragic events that had spiralled from an unhealthy relationship could have been avoided, had it been released just a single year earlier. 160 years on, it is a tale often overlooked by the more famous and perhaps more grisly tales of Victorian poisoning, but it is, decidedly, no less bizarre, or tragic, than any other.