A Mysterious Death In Whitechapel

Reading through the accounts of Victorian inquests that took place in Whitechapel, it quickly becomes apparent that life could prove difficult for any of the residents, irrespective of their class or station in life.

Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, on Sunday 12th August, 1849, published the following account of the sordid death of a local doctor:-


“An inquest was held on Friday, before Mr. Baker, at the Grave Maurice’public-house, High-street, Whitechapel, touching the death of Mr. John James Watts, aged sixty-six, one of the parochial surgeons of St. George-in-the-East, who died from the effects of poison, in the Whitechapel workhouse.

Elizabeth Lewis deposed that she managed the Britannia Coffee House, in the Whitechapel-road.


On Tuesday night last, the deceased came to the house, accompanied by an elderly female, and engaged a bedroom for the night. They were shown to a room, and the deceased paid witness two shillings for the apartment. They both appeared quite well and sober.

They went to bed, and nothing was heard of them during the night.

On the following morning, at ten o’clock, witness, finding that they were not up, sent the servant girl to knock at the door.

She returned directly afterwards and said that there was something the matter in the room, for the man and woman were moaning very loudly, and appeared as if they were dying.

Witness instantly went upstairs, and called out to the deceased, “What is the matter?”

The deceased faintly answered, “Open the door and come in.”


Witness opened the door, and found the deceased and the woman lying in bed, and they seemed as if in great pain and very ill. The room was in great disorder. Witness asked the deceased if she should fetch Mr. Blackman, a surgeon, and he replied, “No, I’ll have no other but my partner, Mr. Broadwater, who lives in Cannon-street, St. George’s in-the-East.”

Witness immediately went to Mr. Broadwater’s, but he was from home.

Witness then returned home, where she found the deceased and the female apparently much worse.


They were both vomiting very much, and witness sent again for Mr. Broadwater, who soon afterwards attended, and eventually Dr. Allison, one of the parochial surgeons, arrived, and gave an order for the admission of the deceased and the female into the workhouse, in consequence of the deceased refusing to be conveyed to his home or to hospital.

By the jury:- Witness found two bottles in the room containing a liquid, which she handed over to Mr. Blackman, and also an empty phial.


Mr. W. J. Broadwater, surgeon, said the deceased was late his partner, and had been so for upwards of two years. They jointly occupied a house in Cannon-street-road. The deceased was one of the parochial surgeons of St. George’s-in-the-East, and he had absented himself from his professional duties for the last five weeks, and witness: had never heard of him.

It had latterly come to his knowledge that the deceased was in the habit of visiting a female named Sarah Craig, a widow. The deceased was a married man, but was separated from his wife sixteen months after their marriage. This was about thirty years ago.

The poor law guardians had only lately suspended the deceased from his duties, in consequence of his negligence.

Between ten and eleven on Wednesday morning last, the witness received a message to attend Mr. Watts, at the Britannia Coffee-house.

Witness at first felt a delicacy at doing so, and said they had better call a medical man in from the neighbourhood; but shortly afterwards a second messenger came to his house, and he then went to the deceased, whom he found lying in bed with a female, both of whom were in a sinking state.

They were both vomiting most violently and they complained of excessive thirst.

Witness then sent for some brandy, which he administered to the deceased in cold water.


The deceased had scarcely any pulse, and the whole surface of the body was cold, with a slatey appearance of the skin, which is usually found in persons who suffer from cholera.

The deceased had violent purging and vomiting, and the witness at the time considered the deceased and the female suffering from an attack of the Asiatic cholera.

The deceased, after swallowing a portion of the brandy and water, revived a little, and could just articulate that he was dying.

By the coroner: Arsenic would produce all the appearances under which they were then suffering.

The witness on Thursday last interrogated Sarah Craig, who now lies dangerously ill at the workhouse, and she informed him that she had been taken suddenly ill shortly before entering the coffee-house, and that she obtained some medicine from a chemist, some of which she had taken.

Witness was unable to find out whether the deceased had taken any of it, or anything else.

She afterwards informed the witness that the deceased obtained some other “stuff” from some other chemist.

From her statement, it appeared that they had both been suffering from the want of the common necessaries of life, which had produced an attack of diarrhoea. They had no supper on the Tuesday night, and the deceased paid the last money he had for the use of the bedroom at the coffee-house.


William Challis, a labourer, said Sarah Craig was his sister, and, on hearing of her illness, he visited her at the workhouse, on Thursday last.

She then told him that the deceased had given her three glasses, containing a liquid, and desired her to drink it. She did so, and directly afterwards she became very ill.


Mr. Joseph Nash, surgeon to Whitechapel Workhouse, said that the deceased, together with a female, were brought in about five o’clock on Wednesday evening.

They were both exceedingly ill, and, from their appearances, he treated them for Asiatic cholera. The deceased was sinking fast, and he died at half-past three o’clock on the following morning.

In the course of the same afternoon, the witness examined the female, and, while he was doing so, one of the nurses handed him in a packet of powders, which she had found in the deceased’s clothes, and some of which contained corrosive sublimate, an acrid poison, and one was labelled poison.

He had since made a post mortem examination of the body, and he felt no doubt that the deceased had died from the effects of a mineral poison. The contents of the stomach and the intestines had since been analysed by Professor Letheby, lecturer on chemistry at the London Hospital, who detected the presence of oxalic acid, and corrosive sublimate.

The witness had also been informed, that, on the Tuesday evening, the deceased had procured a small quantity of prussic acid at Mr. Blackman’s shop.

Mr. Broadwater here mentioned that the deceased was in the habit of taking a few drops of prussic acid occasionally for a disease of the heart under which he laboured.

By the Coroner:- Witness would not undertake to say what the female was suffering from, but she was in a very dangerous state, and he did not expect her to survive.


The jury returned the following verdict:- “That the deceased died from the effects of poison, but how or in what manner it was administered, or whether taken by the deceased, or otherwise, there was not sufficient evidence for the jury to say.”