Great Burdon Slow Poisoning Mystery

There is buried in Haughton churchyard one Joseph Snaith Wooler, who died on September 25th in 1871, aged 61.  The stone which commemorates his wife, Jane, who died 16 years previously on June 27th, 1855, aged 46.

Mr Ord wrote in his journal:

On the 27th day of June, 1855, a respectable married lady died at Great Burdon. Her name was Jane Wooler, and she was the wife of Mr Joseph Snaith Wooler by whom she was greatly beloved and with whom she had resided for many years in India.  Her remains were placed in a grave near to the western door of HaughtonChurch, but were shortly afterwards disinterred and examined; upon a rumour having got abroad that the unhappy lady had been poisoned.

The result of the post-mortem examination was a discovery of arsenic.  In the absence of persons whom suspicion might have rested as having administered the poison, the blame fell upon Jane’s husband.  It was believed to have been done by a long continued systematic process.  It appeared as if by one universal opinion – expressed by the Pastoral Curate – and taken up by all classes of society – to rest upon her sorrowing and deeply bereaved husband.

The case became known as the Great Burdon Slow Poisoning Case, the word ‘Great’ appearing as it did, at the head of every newspaper paragraph on the subject.

Mr Wooler underwent his trial at Durham Assizes and it was said that he owed his escape from the gallows, to the emotional eloquence of Sergt Wilkins.

But there were also some exceptions to the verdict of the public at large, arising from men whose thoughts were not confined to those narrow pharisaical grooves, which limit them to entertain adverse opinions of their fellows.  But were able to take into account a wider range of circumstances and allow their greater compass of intelligence, to develop new theories.

It was thus that my ever-to-be revered father thought of the Wooler case, and I accept his view without reservation.  I do not find a single incident in the traditions of Mr Wooler’s married life, or in those of his long widowhood of 16 years which he spent at Haughton-le-Skerne, that is at all calculated to upset such a theory.  Which is as follows?

There is a custom in India for ladies to take small doses of arsenic with the object of improving their complexions.  This they do with great secrecy.  A practice begun in India would be continued in England and would become almost necessary to existence.  Mr Wooler always had a supply of arsenic by him, to dress his knee. 

Mrs Wooler would have access to his medicine chest.  He would be utterly unconscious, of the use she made of it.  Her greatest sufferings would occur when, owing to his loving watchfulness, she had not had an opportunity of obtaining her baneful opiate.

On the day he was from home - she was in better health.  Had she been able to reach the medicine chest?  Sadly, it will always remain a mystery.

Amongst Mr Wooler’s adherents, none was stronger in the belief of his innocence, than good Mrs Summerson of Haughton-le-Skerne.