Tag Archives: Alfred Swaine Taylor

The Back Doors to Death: Alfred Swaine Taylor talk at Highgate Cemetery – Thursday 20th September

Alfred Swaine Taylor, one of the most famous forensic scientists of his day, was laid to rest at Highgate Cemetery in north London in 1880.

At my talk, find out more about Taylor – his well-known and obscure cases, and his sidelines in photography and geology. Discover his impact on crime fiction and find out why Golden Age detective fiction author Dorothy L Sayers called his books “The Back Doors to Death.”

Tickets are on sale now at just £8 each (£6 for Highgate Cemetery volunteers).  Doors 7pm. Thursday 20th September 2018.

Meet crime authors at Shrewsbury Waterstone’s

Meet crime authors from across the country at Shrewsbury Waterstone’s on Sunday 15th April from 2pm to 3.30pm. The branch is expanding its Crime Section, so to celebrate they have joined forces with the Crime Writers’ Association to bring you this Meet the Author speed-dating event. There’ll be fiction and true crime, an opportunity to talk to authors – and, of course, buy books.

Come and say hello! I will be in attendance with the shade of Alfred Swaine Taylor, whose most famous case – that of William Palmer, The Rugeley Poisoner – started with a poisoning in a Shrewsbury hostelry.

Find Shrewsbury Waterstone’s at 18-19 High Street, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, SY1 1SJ.

Alfred Swaine Taylor and The Poisoned Chocolates Case

Wonderful pulp cover of The Poisoned Chocolates Case, showing a woman in 1950s evening wear reaching for a chocolate.

It might seem odd to think that Alfred Swaine Taylor, who died in 1880, could have anything to do with Anthony Berkeley’s 1929 novel The Poisoned Chocolates Case – but he does.

I had already found references to Taylor’s books in some of Dorothy L Sayers’ work, so it wasn’t a surprise to find Taylor popping up once again in Berkeley’s novel as they’re both Golden Age authors who were acquainted with each other. In fact, before Taylor’s name was even mentioned in the book, my own knowledge of Taylor and poisons was piqued when the symptoms brought on by the poisoned chocolates was mentioned.

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that the poison used in the novel is nitrobenzene – it’s mentioned quite early on. And the title of the book does somewhat giveaway the fact that poison might be involved somewhere.

I first heard of nitrobenzene in researching Fatal Evidence – when the chemical compound was first discovered, Taylor sounded the alarm. It had many purposes but was often used as a flavouring and as a scent because it mimics bitter almonds. Now, bitter almonds contains the same active ingredient as Prussic acid, and if you eat vast numbers of apple pips, or the soft centre of pips from fruit such as cherries and peaches, you’ll be consuming poison. Nitrobenzene was a synthetic variant, but it was still dangerous.

As I read on, congratulating myself for already knowing rather a lot about nitrobenzene thanks to Taylor, who should be mentioned but Taylor himself? Or least, Taylor’s Medical Jurisprudence? The same book which Sayers refers to in her work.

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Who was R O Gilmore?

The frontispiece of the book showing the book's title, an engraving of showing the pub where John Parsons Cook died, and a stamp in the top right-hand corner which says R O Gilmore.

Ward and Lock’s “Illustrated and Unabridged edition of The Times report of the trial of William Palmer…”

Among the many adventures I had writing Alfred Swaine Taylor‘s biography, I decided to track down the previous owner of a book.

I work at a well-stocked library, and was able to borrow or consult most of the books I needed for my research. But I knew of two books on William Palmer which we don’t have, both of which were opportunistically cranked out by Ward and Lock just after the trial.

Their Illustrated Life and Career of William Palmer of Rugeley uses mainly old engravings which must have served time in many other books; only one of them isn’t a stock image, but is the portrait of William Palmer at the races which appeared in the Illustrated Times newspaper. The tale of Palmer is told in near-novelistic style.

Their other book, the frontispiece of which you can see above, contains transcripts of the trial at the Old Bailey, taken verbatim, and apparently nicked wholesale from The Times. It’s full of images which appeared in the Illustrated Times – which, despite the name, isn’t connected with The Times newspaper.

I managed to buy both books online, and most of the engravings in Fatal Evidence‘s plates section are from the Illustrated and Unabridged Edition. It’s a wonderful piece of history to have on my bookshelf, but I wondered, when I saw the neat owner’s stamp on the frontispiece, who was R O Gilmore?

A stamp in faux Gothic lettering, saying R O Gilmore.

The name inside the book

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Shadow drawings

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One of the reasons why Alfred Swaine Taylor is an interesting person to write about is that, when he wasn’t rummaging through jars of human innards looking for poison, he had an artistic side and experimented with photography. When Fox Talbot revealed his sciagraphs (‘drawings of shadows’) – which were generally referred to as ‘photogenic drawings’ – at the end of January 1839, Taylor was fascinated and began his own experiments at once. When he couldn’t get Fox Talbot’s recommended silver compound to yield results, he came up with his own characteristic way round it – he used ammonio-nitrate of silver, ‘a compound which has been used for many years as a test for arsenic.'1)Alfred Swaine Taylor, On the Art of Photogenic Drawing, London: Jeffrey, 1840, p.6. He didn’t patent his process – he seems to have had a low opinion of those who did – and not long afterwards, he enthusiastically embraced what we now recognise as photography, using a camera (or ‘camera obscura’ as they were then known).

Examples of Taylor’s photography survive in two albums which are in private hands,2)See articles in the History of Photography journal, by Stephen White (vol 11, July-September 1987, pp.229-35) and Laurence Alt (vol 16, winter 1992, pp.397-8). and I have been unable to contact the owners, so I won’t be able to use them in my book. Fox Talbot’s are held at the Science Musuem, but I wondered, given how clear Taylor’s instructions were, whether I could make my own photogenic drawings. The problem was, where would I lay my hands on the ingredients to make my own solution of ammonio-nitrate of silver? And hopefully, without ending up on some sort of alert list?

As luck would have it, an opportunity arose to make a cyanotype. I didn’t realise you could buy kits to make these, but I was able to make one at a workshop. Somewhat ironically, given that Taylor’s photogenic drawings used a compound which was used for identifying the presence of a poison, the cyanotype process actually uses a poison – cyanide. I was very excited to come up close and personal to Lady Cyd. It uses two compounds – ammonium iron(III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide, and was discovered by Sir John Herschel in 1842. So if it seems similar to the photogenic drawing, then it is – same process, different chemical. I think this is as close as I’ll get to the technique Taylor used.

I was in Liverpool this weekend, visiting my old university chum Jen, and the annual River Festival was on. A celebration of culture and watery activities was going on across Liverpool’s iconic waterfront, and the Open Eye Gallery was hosting a “sun photograph” workshop. It was run by Rachel Brewster of Little Vintage Photography, who just so happens to be related to Sir David Brewster. He was a Scottish scientist who took a great interest in Fox Talbot’s work, corresponding with him over the development of calotypes (making photographs on paper, an alternative method to the Daguerrotype); he also invented the kaleidoscope.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Alfred Swaine Taylor, On the Art of Photogenic Drawing, London: Jeffrey, 1840, p.6.
2. See articles in the History of Photography journal, by Stephen White (vol 11, July-September 1987, pp.229-35) and Laurence Alt (vol 16, winter 1992, pp.397-8).