CSI Wanstead: Was Catherine poisoned?

Today is the anniversary of Catherine’s death, so it seems fitting to write about the circumstances surrounding her final hours. Catherine Tylney Long was the wealthiest, most desirable, most famous woman in Regency Britain. The public felt that they knew her intimately. Naturally the nation was shocked when she died suddenly and mysteriously.

Catherine Tylney Long

When Catherine’s death was reported in the newspapers, there was a public outpouring of grief similar to the scenes witnessed at the funeral of Princess Diana.

diana-funeral

Nineteenth century reports show that crowds lined the streets as Catherine’s funeral procession trundled out of London. The Duke of Wellington was among those who joined the somber parade at Chippenham, while throngs of workers poured out of the surrounding parishes and villages to line the route

But was Catherine’s death suspicious? People have asked me – Do you think she was poisoned? Did the Cad murder her? What caused her sudden death? Why was there no post mortem for such a high-profile figure?

My book does not speculate on the cause of death. I deliberately stick to the official verdict, stating how Catherine was seized by spasms and died in agony. ‘She cried out begging God to spare her. Despite the efforts of the best doctors in England, Catherine died at eleven o’clock, on 12 September… Sir Henry Halford, who attended on her to the end pronounced that ‘she died entirely of a broken heart’.

As an historian, my role is to report the symptoms and first hand accounts. The cause of death is left to the reader’s imagination. This seems to have opened up an interesting debate. Some believe that the official verdict was rather convenient. Was there something the family wanted to sweep under the carpet? So let’s review the evidence…

Did the Cad murder her?

Catherine’s husband, William, believed he would benefit from her death. Furthermore, William boasted about his henchman who ‘was a consummate bravo, and had murdered nine persons’.

Did the mistress poison her?

There was certainly a time when Catherine was in danger of being poisoned. The lock on her medicine chest was smashed open, because her love rival wanted to kill her. William knew that his mistress was responsible and said to a close friend, ‘we must get rid of this damned dangerous bitch!’

Why was there no post mortem?

ninteeth century autopsy

Autopsy in the first half of the nineteenth century was rare in Britain for many reasons:

Science – there were no set standards or methodology until Gray’s Anatomy was published in 1858.

Religion – Catherine’s family would have balked at the idea of cutting her open, disfiguring her for the afterlife.

Social – sudden death was not unusual and was therefore rarely investigated.

Did the family want to keep the true cause of death secret? There are several theories:

Scandalous – Some believe that Catherine died of syphilis – a parting gift from the Cad!

Undignified – A close friend on the scene reported, ‘[Catherine] had an illness of eight days. Her complaint was in the bowels, which reduced her to a state of extreme debility; this produced a violent nervous excitation, which terminated in delirium and death’.

Convenient – The Cad always said dispassionately: ‘My wife died of dysentery.’ However, the recent Domestic Violence Law (2015) would probably find him guilty of ‘psychological abuse’ and ‘coercive control’. 

In Conclusion

In an age where autopsy was unreliable, it was certainly easier to get away with murder. Perhaps Catherine was poisoned! Or given small doses of poison for a sustained period to debilitate her? However, I do not subscribe to this theory, because at the time of her death she was living in seclusion among a select and trusted group of people.

I also believe that ‘dysentery’ is too simplistic a diagnosis. Her friend’s description of ‘violent nervous excitation’ is telling. Catherine had been suffering from chest pains or ‘spasms’ for several years, brought on by the stress of being married to an abusive man. This was probably the underlying illness that led to her sudden death. In some ways, it supports her doctor’s assessment that ‘she died entirely of a broken heart’.

Medical advances

The uncertainty surrounding Catherine’s death seem to echo that of Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, who died in 1861. In the two years before his death, Albert was often debilitated by chronic stomach cramps. The physician in attendance at his deathbed, William Jenner, diagnosed typhoid fever. However, modern writers believe that the sustained period of illness suggests that Albert may have died of Crohns’s disease or abdominal cancer.

Catherine and Prince Albert were celebrities, with the best doctors in attendance. Despite this, their cause of death is unknown. It emphasises of the lack of medical knowledge in the mid-nineteenth century and the tremendous strides that have been made since then.

modern-autopsy

Twenty-first century autopsy is high tech. It is hard to imagine a world without it, to assist in both medical and criminal investigations.

The twists and turns of Catherine’s life are astonishing. Her story unfolded in the press like the chapters of a highly wrought Gothic novel. There was duels, grossest adultery, murder threats, kidnapping, slashed wrists and much more. In view of this, the theory that she was poisoned is not implausible.

Despite the challenges she encountered, Catherine was not a tragic figure. She was a popular celebrity who influenced British culture, fashion and law. She also instigated a landmark court battle against the establishment and gained an important victory in the fight for women’s rights. You can read her sensational story in my book – The Angel and the Cad.

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