When the trial of Adelaide Bartlett and George Dyson opened on April 12, 1886, it was an immediate media sensation considering the lurid details. Not only was Adelaide accused of poisoning her husband with a fatal dose of chloroform, but the (ahem) unconventional aspects of her married life with Thomas Edwin Bartlett would become prime fodder for gossip on both sides of the Atlantic. Along with the titillating details of adultery there was also the forensic evidence provided by the prosecution experts which focused on one single question: how did Adelaide do it?
Ironically, while George and Adelaide went to trial together, the prosecution's only real interest was in building up their case against Adelaide. For that reason, the acting prosecutor in the case, Attorney General Sir Charles Russell, immediately asked that all charges be dropped against George Dyson and he was promptly acquitted. This paved the way for George to be called as a prosecution witness (as a defendant, he wouldn't have been able to testify for himself). It was Adelaide alone who went on trial for murder (and faced a possible death sentence if convicted).
Defending Adelaide was prominent trial lawyer Sir George Clarke who, according to rumour, had been hired by her still-unnamed father. While Clarke would insist that Thomas had actually taken the chloroform to commit suicide, defense and prosecution were both left with the problem of explaining exactly how the chloroform had entered the dead man's system. One major stumbling block for the prosecution's case was that there were no tell-tale traces of the chemical burns which would certainly have been found in Thomas' mouth and esophagus if Adelaide had poisoned him. On the other hand, George Clarke argued that the lack of burns suggested he had gulped the chloroform down rather than drinking it unknowingly the way the prosecutor claimed.
Despite the mystery of how the chloroform had entered Thomas' system, the fact that Adelaide had several bottles of chloroform in her possession, which George Dyson had purchased for her, was certainly damning. What made things even more suspicious was Dyson's curious decision to purchase the chloroform in small amounts at different shops rather than in one large bottle (under British law at the time, purchasing large amounts of medical poison meant having to sign one's name in a special register pharmacies were required to keep). George Dyson insisted that he had purchased the chloroform at Adelaide's request though he claimed not to have realized until later how suspicious his different purchases would have seemed to police.
As for Adelaide, her reason for purchasing the chloroform helped add to the sense of scandal surrounding the case. Since Adelaide was prevented by law from testifying in her own behalf, it was left up to her family doctor, George Dyson,, and Thomas' father, to share the bizarre details of the case. According to Dr. Leach, Adelaide had told him that she purchased the chloroform to curb her husband's "sexual passion." While she and Thomas had apparently decided to refrain from sex following the stillbirth of her only child, Adelaide was disturbed to discover that her husband "manifested some desire to renew sexual intercourse with her." Since she and George Dyson were already involved, she decided to purchase the chloroform so that she could wave it under Thomas' nose "lulling him into a kind of stupor, and so prevent him giving effect to his sexual passion."
But this was only one of the lurid revelations that came out during the trial. People in attendance audibly gasped at hearing that no less than six condoms were found in Thomas Bartlett's pocked. Also know as "French letters", condoms were fairly crude affairs in those days but the fact that Thomas Bartlett had them at all was considered horrifying. Then there was the discovery of a "marriage manual" in the Bartletts' apartment. Though tame by modern standards, any book containing explicit references to sexuality and birth control was deemed pornographic in Victorian times and the presiding judge, Sir Alfred Wills, devoted considerable time during his final summation about the dangers of such a book for women (he described it as "reading which helped to unsex them.") Judge Wills also insisted that the jury would have to pity Adelaide considering her husband "could throw such literature her way and encourage her to read it" and that "One has learned to-day what is the natural and to be expected consequence of indulgence in literature of that kind."
Since Thomas Bartlett was, like all Victorian gentlemen, expected to protect his wife from corrupting influences, the presence of the book, as well as the condoms in his pocket, cast serious doubt on Adelaide's description of her "platonic" marriage. Abandoning any claim to being objective, the judge seemed determined to sway the jury to find Adelaide Bartlett guilty. He ended his summation by stating: "When a young wife and a younger male friend get discussing, in or out of the presence of the husband, the possibilities of his decease within measurable time and of the friend succeeding to the husband's place, according to all experience of human life, the life of the husband was one that an insurance office would not like to take."
But the jury was less impressed by the available evidence than the judge and prosecutor had hoped. It only took them two hours of deliberation to find Adelaide not guilty. On hearing the verdict, the people in the courtroom and the corridors outside promptly started cheering, something that Judge Wills, who was likely disappointed at the trial's outcome, regarded as an "outrage." Still, Adelaide was free to go.
Despite the evidence presented during the trial, public sympathy had largely turned against Thomas Bartlett who was regarded as being the chief villain in the case. As the husband, it had been his responsibility to protect his wife from corrupting influences and to maintain a normal household, children and all. Though the prosecution tried to present Adelaide as a scheming adulteress who had poisoned her husband to be with her lover, Adelaide's lawyer convinced the jury (and the public) that his client was incapable of murder. Simply by saying nothing (she never gave any statement regarding her guilt or innocence), Adelaide's meek appearance helped win the sympathy of everyone associated with the case.
There were still a few people convinced that Adelaide had gotten away with murder, however. One skeptic, famous surgeon Sir James Paget, greeted the verdict with his now famous quip: ""Now that she has been acquitted for murder and cannot be tried again, she should tell us in the interest of science how she did it!"
But Adelaide continued to stay silent about the case, and her life with Thomas. After her acquittal, she managed to disappear from public notice completely (probably with her father's help) and nothing was ever heard about her again. As for George Dyson, the notoriety surrounding the case and his unconventional relationship with Adelaide forced him to leave Great Britain. Despite conflicting stories over whether he had emigrated to Australia or the United States, nothing more was really heard about him either.
But the case of the Pimlico Poisoning would continue to fascinate true crime buffs well into the present day. Transcripts of the case are still available online and there have been various attempts at solving the mystery of Thomas' death once and for all. Along with books and radio programs describing the case, there was at least two notable attempts to bring the story to life on the silver screen. Alfred Hitchcock once stated that he had planned to make a movie about the case but had ultimately decided against it. The 1986 movie My Letter to George starring Jodie Foster was loosely based on Adelaide Bartlett's story.
So, did Adelaide Bartlett kill her husband? You be the judge.