Convicted, at the Age of Ninety-four, of the Manslaughter of a Woman, by carelessly administering Arsenic to her
THIS case excited considerable interest, as well on account of the peculiar circumstances by which it was surrounded as of the great age and high respectability of character of the accused. Inglett, at the time of his trial, had attained the age of ninety-four years. He was indicted at the Huntingdon Assizes, on the 19th of March, 1841, for feloniously killing and slaying one Elizabeth Harlett, by administering to her a quantity of arsenic.
The venerable person who stood charged with this offence had for many years carried on the business of farmer and "cow-leech," and in the latter character was in the habit of administering medicines to various kinds of cattle. His great age and long acquaintance with the healing art had caused him to be regarded with much respect among the simple people of his neighbourhood, where his character had been unexceptionable. The deceased, who lived in the village of Houghton, near Huntingdon, took ill, during the year 1840, and the parish apothecary used all his art to restore her to health, but in vain. About Christmas the prisoner was called in to see her, and he immediately administered to her a dose of liquid medicine, which made her very sick, and caused her great suffering; but she got better after taking it. On the morning of Monday, the 11th of January, the prisoner called to see her. As soon as he had left the house, one of her sisters saw standing on the mantelpiece of the room in which the deceased was sitting a cup full of a similar medicine to that which he had before administered to her, and which had made her so sick and ill. When, three or four hours afterwards, this sister went again into the room, she found the deceased very unwell, and the cup standing empty on the table. The deceased got much worse towards night, and from that time till her death she was constantly sick, and suffered excruciating pain, with almost intolerable thirst. Early on Wednesday morning, the 13th of January, having taken some opium pills, she fell into a quiet doze, and soon afterwards death put an end to her sufferings. No suspicion was then entertained of her having died any other than a natural death, and in due time she was buried. When she had been ten days in the earth, however, various rumours got abroad respecting the cause of her death; and the county coroner directed the body to be exhumed, and a jury to be summoned. Two surgeons examined the disinterred body and found it in a generally healthy state, the organs being sound and free from disease, but the stomach and bowels were much inflamed; and the jury returned a verdict that she had died from the incautious and improper administration by the prisoner of "a certain noxious, inflammatory and dangerous thing, to the jurors unknown." The old man was therefore committed to prison for manslaughter.
At the time of the inquest the nature of the "thing" to which the verdict referred in terms so vague had not been ascertained; but the contents of the stomach of the deceased were preserved, and afterwards subjected to the usual tests of the presence of arsenic, which left no doubt that the deceased had taken that dreadful poison shortly before her death. It appeared, by the evidence of a chemist's shopman, that three or four months previously the prisoner had bought of him an ounce of arsenic; but as he was in the habit of using that drug in the manufacture of his cattle ointments the purchase excited no suspicion at the time. In order to show that it was the prisoner by whom or by whose direction the poison was administered, it was proved that on the morning of the death of the deceased he called at the house in which she had breathed her last, and a conversation ensued between the relatives of the unfortunate woman and himself, in which he almost in terms admitted that the fact was so. After some introductory matters a sister of the deceased told him it was his "stuff" that had killed her; to which he replied that could not be, for he had given her only half-a-grain, whereas he had given his own son, and others, a grain and more, without any harm. The sister rejoined: "Then it was too strong for her stomach"; to which the prisoner answered: "Like enough, poor thing!-for her stomach was almost gone." This, and his observation on the day of her funeral that he would not for twenty pounds have given her anything if he had known it, for he'd rather have done her good than harm, constituted the evidence on which the prosecution relied for proof of his having been the hand which administered, or the advice which directed, the arsenic. The family of the deceased spoke very favourably of his kindness and attention to her in her illness.
Lord Chief Justice Tindal told the jury that they would have first to satisfy themselves whether, in point of fact, the deceased had died from the taking of arsenic, and whether the prisoner had administered it. If they were satisfied of those two facts, they would then have to say whether the prisoner had conducted himself so rashly and with such gross negligence as made him liable to an indictment for manslaughter. The question was whether, in reference to the nature of the remedy he applied, he acted with a due degree of care and caution, or whether he acted with rashness and gross negligence. If they were of opinion that he acted with gross negligence, and want of due and proper caution, he was in point of law guilty of the crime with which he was charged upon this indictment.
The jury consulted together for some time, and then returned a verdict of guilty.
The Lord Chief Justice in passing sentence observed that the ends of justice would be answered by the responsibility to which the prisoner had subjected himself being generally known. If any person presumed to administer medically a deadly poison, being grossly ignorant of its character and effects, or with rash negligence in its use, and death ensued, he would be liable to be convicted of the offence of manslaughter. Such a person might have no evil intention, and indeed might be actuated by a desire to alleviate the sufferings of a fellow-creature, but it behoved him to proceed with caution and care. At the time of life at which the prisoner had arrived it would be useless cruelty to inflict upon him a severe punishment; and as he had been already in jail six weeks, the Court would sentence him to a further imprisonment of fourteen days only.
The old man, who appeared to possess his mental and physical powers almost unimpaired, paid great attention to the case as it proceeded. His respectful demeanour, silvery hair and mild countenance secured for him considerable compassion in court, which was strongly increased by the sorrow depicted on his countenance for the deed of which he had been so unwittingly guilty.