Friday, 2 August 2013

Dr. Warder: A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, Woodcut, Public Domain
Poison was considered one of the simplest ways to commit a murder and this became an epidemic in Victorian times as the life insurance industry meant that doing away with an insured relative could be lucrative. It was only later, in the 1900s, that technology to prevent death by poison made poisoning more difficult. From the beginning of the 1800s onwards, arsenic was often used, although cyanide gained popularity towards the middle of the century,

On 11 June 1866 at Bedford Square, Helen Warder, aged 36, was murdered by her husband. Dr. Alfred Warder, aged 43, administered to his wife over a period of one month, quantities of aconite, which is also known as wolf's bane.  A report of Helen's death appeared in the Brighton Herald dated 11 July 1866, headed "Suspicious Death of a Physician's Wife in Brighton".  Read more...
 The inquest was held at the Olive Branch Inn in Silwood Street. The jury had been sworn in at the tavern, and had viewed the body in Bedford Square, according to the law.

First, the Doctor's impressive list of qualifications and medical history were read out to the Court, including the fact he gained his MD at the University of St. Andrews in 1862. The Doctor and his wife, Helen Vivian Warder, aged 36, had been living in Brighton for about two months past. Helen Warder was the sister of the surgeon, Mr. R. Branwell of Cambridge Road, Hove. Mr. Branwell was highly esteemed in the district and had recently held the post of Major in the Brighton Artillery Volunteers.

The deceased woman met her end at 36 Bedford Square, where she and her husband had taken lodgings on 23 May that year. About a month ago, she became ill and was first treated by her husband. Mr. Branwell and other members of the family visited the sick woman. Mr. Branwell became convinced his brother-in-law wasn't administering the correct medication, and so he brought in Dr. Taaffe for a second opinion, and various remedies were tried, without success. No reason could be discovered for Helen Warder's illness. Mr. Branwell and Dr. Taaffe had just decided to call in another doctor for an independent diagnosis, but they didn't act quickly enough. Mrs. Warder died the following Sunday morning.

A post mortem was suggested to Dr. Warder, to which he agreed. The doctors decided that the death was not the result of natural causes and the viscera were sent to a Professor Taylor for analysis. Mr. Stuckey, a solicitor, attended the inquest on behalf of Mr. Branwell, but Dr. Warder was not present or represented. It was said that he had been taken ill after the death of his wife.

The Wrong Medicine

Richard Taaffe was sworn in first and told how he visited the sick woman, Mrs. Warder, and her husband. Mrs. Warder complained about her symptoms, a constant desire to pass water, with great pain in the region of the bladder and neighbouring parts. Dr. Taaffe prescribed the usual remedies. Dr. Warder had told Dr. Taaffe he had prescribed twenty-drop doses of Fleming's tincture of aconite as the only remedy to allay the pain, although this had also produced tingling of the limbs. Dr. Taaffe objected to this treatment and instead substituted henbane, tincture of castor, valerian and laudanum and water fomentations. The remedies seemed to be doing her good. After a few days, Dr. Warder informed Dr. Taaffe, in the presence of his wife, that she was tired of these remedies and could not take them any longer. She had been vomiting almost twice a day, and her stomach loathed the remedies and couldn't retain them. Dr. Taaffe changed the medication and left it to Dr. Warder to administer, but even this did not allay the sickness. Helen Warder continued to complain of gripping pains in her stomach. Again, the prescription was changed by Dr. Taaffe, who now suggested she take bismuth and opium. This remedy seemed more agreeable to the sick woman.

A Fresh Symptom

Several days before she died, a fresh symptom occurred. Her tongue became grossly swollen, its mucous covering was white as though it had been parboiled. Dr. Warder's explanation for his wife's condition was that the previous day, in order to relieve her intense thirst, and also for quieting the sickness, he prescribed that she suck pieces of ice. After sucking ice all day, explained Dr. Warder, at night she needed a scalding hot drink of milk and arrowroot. It was this hot fluid after the cold ice that had produced the tongue's appearance. Dr. Taaffe prescribed an effervescent draught and in about 48 hours, the tongue resumed its natural colour. However, in about a week, her symptoms began to worsen again.

The Cause of Death

Dr. Taaffe arranged to meet Mr. Branwell at the Warder house the next day, but the former was called away to attend another patient. Mr. Branwell went alone to the house to see his sister. Then Dr. Taaffe received a note from Mr. Branwell informing him that on arriving at Bedford Square at half past five, he had found his sister dead.

The aconite Dr. Warder gave his wife was too much for medicinal purposes. The tingling in the limbs of which Helen had complained, was a typical reaction to the medication. Dr. Warder had said that since Dr. Taaffe's objection, he had not administered the aconite again. During Dr. Taaffe's visits, Helen Warder remained silent, allowing her husband to speak for her. Dr. Taaffe confirmed also that Mr. Branwell never interfered in his treatment of the patient. He felt that the medication did not act upon the patient as it should, but he could not be sure that the treatment he prescribed to Helen Warder was actually followed through in his absence. Dr. Taaffe expressed the opinion that he should have expected to find traces of the disease in the body, considering that the deceased was comparatively well at ten o'clock that night, yet died at half past five next morning.

Post Mortem Analysis

The post mortem analysis was damning. This is a shortened extract from the findings.

The mucous membrane of the stomach was congested in a star like form, especially near its junction with the gullet and its large end or curvature. At its upper end the mucous membrane peeled off very easily. The stomach contained about eight ounces of a thick brown fluid. The lining membrane of the gullet was softened, soddened and of a whitish colour and peeled off easily down to the muscular tissue, being friable and easily broken up into flakes. The papillae of the tongue were raised at the roots of that organ, and its mucous covering membrane was of a whitish opaque colour and was torn off easily in large flakes. Both kidneys were congested.

On the Wednesday, 18 July 1866, the Brighton Guardian reported what had been a foregone conclusion, that Dr. Alfred Warder received a verdict of "wilful murder". But the guilty doctor had swiftly left for London, and then quietly returned, booking himself into the Bedford Hotel, where staff discovered him naked and dead on his bed the following morning. It was found he had committed suicide through drinking prussic acid.

Dr. Warder had had two wives previous to marrying Helen Warder and each had died in unnatural circumstances.

Note: Aconite is derived from wolf's bane, a small yellow flower. It is claimed it got its name from the practice of saturating meat with its juice as a bait to kill wolves.


  • Brighton Herald, 18 July, 1966.
  • Brighton Guardian, 18 July 1866.
  • Cameron, Janet, Brighton and Hove, Murders & Misdeameanours, Amberley Publishing, 2008.

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