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.

After Taylor’s death, new editions of his book The Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence continued to be published as Taylor’s Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence (often shortened to Taylor’s Medical Jurisprudence), until the very last edition in the 1980s. As each edition went by, less of Taylor’s original work could be seen, until the last edition arrived where there is nothing of Taylor’s words left. He appears only in a portrait as a young man, with a handful of lines extolling his importance in the early days of medical jurisprudence; the advances of scientific knowledge had edited him out.

But the earlier editions, which Sayers and Berkeley would have had on their shelves, had more of Taylor in them – even in the 1930s, Taylor’s account of the 1857 Waterloo Bridge Tragedy((A partial skeleton and clothing was found in a carpet bag under Waterloo Bridge in London. A police surgeon reassembled it and Taylor was called in as the police were under pressure for neither being able to identify the victim, nor track down the perpetrators. The body was never identified and the murderers never found.)) still appeared in Taylor’s Medical Jurisprudence.

Taylor wrote in very clear, straightforward language, and his books and journal articles were accessible to readers who had neither a scientific or medical background. Barristers, judges, jurors and the police found his books very useful. In 1845, when John Tawell was accused of poisoning his mistress with Prussic acid,((Taylor was not one of the expert witnesses, but obituaries about him said that he had worked on the case. One of his books was used as a point of reference during the trial, and after the trial, he conducted experiments about the odour of Prussic acid, which smells like almonds because it has the same active ingredient as bitter almonds. Tawell had put Prussic acid in a glass of Guinness, and Taylor’s experiments showed that when Prussic acid was added to something with a strong smell, the odour of bitter almonds was undetectable. He referred to this again with the death of Walter Palmer, who Taylor and his colleague Dr George Owen Rhys believed had been poisoned by his brother William Palmer by adding Prussic acid to brandy. An objection was raised to this theory that someone would have smelt the Prussic acid, but at the inquest, Taylor poured some Prussic acid into a glass of brandy to show that the tell-tale smell is masked by other scents.)) one of the books referred to in court was by Taylor – Prussic acid was a very new murder weapon.

But it wasn’t only people in the legal profession who found his books of use – so too did authors of crime fiction. Even Wilkie Collins, who was writing crime fiction before it was even called that, had two editions of Taylor’s On Poisons on his shelf. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of one of the world’s most famous fictional detectives, refers to Taylor’s Medical Jurisprudence in his semi-autobiographical novel The Stark Munro Letters.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case hovers on the periphery of postmodernism, a satiric send up of crime fiction writing – of the ways in which the clues can be assembled and reassembled to create quite different solutions to a puzzle. The members of the Crime Circle, several of whom write crime fiction, are approached by Scotland Yard to solve a murder which has flummoxed the police, and each member comes up with a different answer. The ownership of Taylor’s book becomes a possible clue, as it implies that the owner has criminological knowledge.

There are many crime writers I know – and I count myself among them – who worry what would happen if their browsing history were analysed. “Strychnine poisoning symptoms”, “cyanide time to die”, “arsenic corpse preservation”, “nux vomica colour” would all be potentially suspicious if someone I knew were to be poisoned and the police discovered what I’d been researching. Taylor’s Medical Jurisprudence is a Golden Age, pre-internet version. The Crime Circle in Berkeley’s novel is based on the Detection Club, of which Berkeley and Sayers were members.

Real-life cases are mentioned in The Poisoned Chocolates Case, as the Crime Circle try to find parallels which might shed light on the case they’re investigating. Among the cases is the Tawell trial, as mentioned above, which books like Taylor’s Medical Jurisprudence helped to keep in circulation.

Although Alfred Swaine Taylor died in 1880, his influence lasted a long time, both in terms of legal and medico-legal knowledge and practice, but also in the field of crime fiction..