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Le Courier du Canada
4 November 1857

(Translation from original article)



We hold it as a matter of principle not to give any detail, not to make any comment on things which are a question of the competence of criminal tribunals, before the proceedings, and not to say more than the bare minimum, after the proceedings. Therefore we are not intending at this point to discuss the guilt or innocence of the individual named Tumblety whom the Grand Jury in Montreal has just acquitted, and thereto we have only one word to say: if this individual has escaped the penalty of the law, despite the serious facts proved against him in the inquiry conducted before the police magistrate, because of the specialised nature of the accusation, it is, it seems to us, the duty of the authorities to take up again the pursuit of other areas of accusation which may develop from the evidence of the inquiry.

The various remarks that follow are intended to draw the attention of the public and the legislature, of whatever type, to the importance of legal medicine insofar as it serves to clarify awareness of the judges and the accused in a multitude of legal processes. There have often been complaints about the way medico-legal matters are undertaken and conducted in Canada. Without going over what has been said at various times, without even putting forward an opinion on the observations of experts in the present Tumblety case, we believe we must use the opportunity to engage magistrates and doctors of this country to make a serious study of this question in the interests of the individual and of society.

It is to provide proof of the need for reform in the method of procedure that we offer the public the present Tumblety case in that it concerns the medico-legal expertise that has been produced in this matter. Tumblety had sold pills and liquids which were supposedly made up of abortive substances, or at least those which would fall within that category of medicines defined in English criminal law under the name of "noxious substances." The affair promptly and directly revealed one aspect of legal medicine: for if the medicines were of a completely inoffensive nature Tumblety had committed a deception in aggravated circumstances, and if on the other hand the medicines were of a type to cause the least danger to health, under the alleged circumstances, then Tumblety was guilty of an atrocious crime.

The medicines sold by Tumblety have been examined by three experts: Mr. Birks, a chemist from Montreal, Dr. Sutherland, a professor from Montreal and Mr. Larue, a toxicology from Quebec. The "Medical Chronicle" in its October issue published the testimony given by the first two experts, and Dr. Larue was very willing to provide us, with permission from the authorities, his report which has not been published elsewhere and of which we start publication today: we do this at the risk of giving our readers several columns of material which is for the most part barely intelligible to our subscribers, with the aim of drawing the attention of all to the important subject of the role of legal medicine in the evading of criminal punishment, and of airing in the press and especially in specialised publications appropriate discussion to make known the names and knowledge of these men who have devoted their efforts to these types of study and who are consequently rendering great benefits to society. In the present Tumblety case, the opinions of the three experts differ completely from each other and, moreover, on matters which today can hardly be considered scientific areas. As Mr. Birks and Dr. Sutherland have not, to our knowledge, given a detailed report of the precedures in their laboratory, but have disclosed only the results of their research, we will report this result as given in the Medical Chronicle, then we will publish the report of the third expert, Mr. Larue.

Who is wrong? Who is right? We are not qualified to pronounce on these issues: but it is obvious that society and individuals have a great interest to ensure that these very important medico-legal inquiries should be conducted in such a way as not to condemn without consideration the accused nor to allow the truly guilty to escape.

We are only giving the testimony of Mr. Birks and Dr. Sutherland insofar as it concerns the composition of Tumblety's medicines, quoting from the Medical Chronicle:

Mr. Birks said: "After a detailed examination of the contents of this bottle, I found that it contained black hellebore, or 'hellebonen', and a small quantity of syrup. I have also very carefully examined three pills and I found that they were composed of cayenne pepper, aloe, savin oil and cantharides."

Dr. Sutherland on the question: "What substances do you supposed were used in the composition of these pills?" answered:

"Mainly aloe and at least two other important ingredients of whose nature I am not sure, perhaps cayenne pepper and some essential oil... I have examined one pill which was entirely sufficient... I said that I was certain of the presence of aloe."

The questiones posed to these two experts dealt not only with the composition of the drugs but also with their abortive qualities. The question posed to Mr. Larue - and which he answers in the report which follows - dealt exclusively with the composition of the drugs, considering, no doubt, their general effects as poisons or substances dangerous to bodily health.

Report of Mr. Larue.

We, Francois Alexandre Hubert LaRue, Licentiate of Medicine, and Professor of Legal Medicine, Toxicology and Hygiene at the Laval University of Quebec, have been commissioned, 3rd October 1857, by order of the Honourable Procurator for Lower Canada, by way of an official letter sent to us by Henry Driscoll, Knight, Queen's Counsel, requiring us to prove the ingredients of a certain liquid and certain pills. On 3rd October, 1857, at 9:30. we received from the hands of the Grand Constable for the City of Montreal, M. Delille:

1) A phial, of about two ounces capacity, completely filled with a reddish brown liquid; which phial was stoppered with cork but not sealed

2) A white card box containing ten pills, each of five grains, which box was not sealed.

The Grand Constable and we, having in turn appended our names and the date - 3rd October 1857 - on the white label on the phial and on the box, these objects were immediately deposited in an iron case which was then locked and this case placed in a cupboard which contained no similar substances and this cupboard itself was locked, the keys being kept in our possession.

Monday, 5th October 1857, having provided ourselves with test tubes, "horns" and new receptacles etc. we locked ourselves in the laboratory of the Laval University to which no one had access during the whole period of our research, the keys remaining at all time in our possession. Being unable to foresee the number of type of reactions which would be needed in the course of our research we had to ensure sufficient supply both in quality and amount as might be needed.

For the present inquiry, we were content to check the purity of our distilled water and hydrochloric acid by use of the normal reagents.


These substances were presented in the least favourable condition (regarding the state of the pills and the solution) for this examination:

Liquid - The liquid, two ounces in quantity, has a reddish brown colour, which takes on a yellowish appearance when held up to the light from a window. After several hours at rest it deposits a black substance, extremely tenuous and light, resembling a powder. The quantity of this powder, as near as can be calculated, would not be more than a quarter of a grain. The small of the liquid is unpleasant, neither piquant nor acrid - I would not know what other to compare it to. Its taste is sugary, unpleasant and reminded me of the taste of "ricin" oil. This taste is not piquant, acrid, bitter nor corrosive, being neither acid nor alkaline. The taste exhibited no trace of alcohol and a sample of the liquid, tipped into a watch glass, did not ignite when a lighted match was brought near. One drop, tipped onto a sheet of white paper, did not stain it. The liquid has a watery appearance, perhaps slightly viscous; it does not visibly change the colour of sunflowers (? tournesols)

Pills:- The pills, of five grains, are well made and rounded. The external colour is greenish yellow. They have an odour of spirit of mint which masks any other smell. One of these pills, when divided with the nail, was when broken open of a reddish brown colour, showing here and there small red grains. The paste from which these pills are made is fairly homogeneous. The taste is very bitter, a little sugary, and above all of an extreme piquancy which burns the tongue. The burning that these pills produce on the tongue is sufficiently painful that I was obliged to rinse my mouth several times to get rid of it, and it was only by constantly applying cold water to the tongue that I managed to make it stop. This burning left only a slight redness on the end of the tongue. This burning and pain are absolutely consistent with those produced by a few graines of cayenne pepper. Two of these graines were extracted and placed under the microscope with two grains of cayenne pepper, bought from the apothecary, and presented the same appearance with regard to form and colour. When these two grains were placed on the tongue they produced this same pain just mentioned.

The colour and, above all, the distinctive taste of these grains allow me to conclude the very probable presence of cayenne pepper in these pills; however I cannot absolutely state this in the present circumstances.

After scraping a portion of one of these pills onto a sheet of white paper, and submitting it to an examination under the microscope, the substance, instead of exhibiting the reddish brown color it had shown while the pill was whole, showed a yellow color which stained the paper. There could be seen small points of bright white, too small to be separated, and, in addition, those red graines which have already been discussed; there was no trace of leaves, roots, no insect remains. Spread out with a little water on a glass slide, the substance exhibited the same yellow colour with a light greenish reflection.

Another pill, after being scraped and examined under the microscope, did not appear so homogeneous in its formation. Besides the structures observed in the first pill, others were found in this one, small light yellow grains, having the appearance of gum. One of them, placed on the tongue, produced a strongly bitter taste.

From the foregoing examination, the results are:

1) That in the composition of these pills, there are several substances

2) That apart from capsicum (cayenne pepper), whose physical characteristics of colour and taste are sufficient for me to assume its very probable presence in the pills, the physical and microscopic examination of these pills produced nothing of note, nothing to justify suspicion as to the presence of one substance more than another.


On the 7th October, we proceeded to the chemical examination of the liquid; as this liquid was coloured, we proceed to decolour it. the medium used for this was chlorine. But as the introduction of this gas could produce other reactions from a range of substances, we watered down a sample of the liquid to the point where it was colourless and divided this into two parts. The first was treated with hydrochloric acid. After it was well shaken and left to rest for one hour, no precipitate formed. Therefore there is a complete absence of silver, lead and mercury at the very least.

The second part, treated with silver nitrate and left to rest for one hour, showed no reaction.

Therefore there is absence of the following acids: hydrionic, hydrochloric, hydrobromic, prussic and oxalic.

In a small green glass globe, washed in preparation with hydrochloric acid and distilled water, we placed roughly a third of the liquid for examination and we subjected it to a stream of chlorine passed through distilled water. The liquid discoloured and was then agitated, filtered, treated with hydrochloric acid and subjected for half an hour to a stream of hydrogen sulphide passed through distilled water. At the end of this period, a slight, white, milky precipitate had formed. In case the liquid contained oxidised arsenic, it was again subjected to a stream of hydrogen sulphide and heated. It formed nothing in addition to this milky white precipitate. The milky character of this precipitate was too charateristic of the presence of sulphur itself to be confused with some precipitate of sulphur. However the liquid was left at rest for one hour; at the end of this time the precipitate had not clotted. In any event, the precipitate, because of its colour, could only be confused with sulphur of arsenic. The liquid was filtered and the precipitate washed with distilled water, then treated on the filter with distilled water with added ammonia. If this precipitate were due to the presence of arsenic, the ammonia would have dissolved it and mixed with it in the test tube; and then the addition of hydrochloric acid, to saturate the ammonia, would have caused the reappearance of the precipitate. All these steps were carried out with the greatest care but the hydrochoric acid produced no precipitate.

After this experiment I concluded that there was a complete absence of the following substances in the liquid: arsenic, tin, antimony, gold, platinum, lead, mercury, copper, cadmium and bismuth.

The liquid, already filtered, was then supersaturated with ammonia and treated with ammonia sulphydrate. When shaken, and after waiting some time, there was no formation of precipitate nor any reaction whatever.

From which we can conclude the complete absence of nickel, cobalt, iron, zinc, manganese, aluminium, chromium, oxalates and phosphates of barium, strontium, lime, magnesium, aluminium.

At this point in the research, fortified by the negative result which the physical examination had provided, and supported by the negative result of the analysis, we did not fear to experiment on ourselves.

Not having eaten for three hours, we ingested a large soupspoonful of the liquid - this dose did not produce the slightest symptom.

This last experiment leads us to conclude that the liquid, in the amount of one soupspoonful, is not toxic to humans.


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