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"Further remarks on the employment of chloroform by thieves"

London Medical Gazette
(15 November 1850): 834-35

By John Snow, M.D.

In a former communication on this subject* I said, that if "thieves and prostitutes were to resort to the use of chloroform in the public streets, in the manner alleged, the attempt would only lead to their instant detection on the spot" (*Med. Gaz. Last volume, p. 327). This opinion has been more than confirmed by what has since occurred. In two or three cases in which it was alleged that robberies had been effected by means of chloroform, that part of the accusation which related to the use of this agent broke down on the cross-examination; whilst in two instances--the only ones, as I believe--in which it has been proved that chloroform was used with felonious intent, the culprit failed to induce insensibility, and was detected on the spot, although the attempt was not made in the street, but in a more secluded place. The first of these cases occurred in London, a few months ago. A young man returning after midnight with his sweetheart from a dance at a public-house, induced her to accompany him down a Mews or stable-yard. He there took out a bottle containing chloroform, and poured some of it on a han[d]kerchief, which he applied to the young woman's face. She tore away the handkerchief, and called out in such a manner as to bring a policeman from a neighbouring street to her assistance, who secured the offender, and picked up the bottle, which the latter had thrown away in his flight. The reader will probably remember that this case was amicably compromised, by the prisoner marrying the complainant, whilst he was remanded, and out on bail.

The other case, which happened recently, and is detailed in the Medical Gazette of yesterday, is of a more atrocious kind. A man who was lodging at an hotel in Kendal, secreted himself in the room of an elderly gentleman, whom he attacked in the middle of the night with a rag steeped in chloroform. The means used, so far from keeping the gentleman asleep, [834/835] had a contrary effect; and although the robber struggled with his victim till blood was drawn by his violence, and the bedding had fallen on the floor in the scuffle, he did not succeed in making him insensible, or in preventing his bringing assistance by his cries.

It is quite true that the attempt, had insensibility been induced, might have resulted in murder; for the thief in the dark, and without experience to guide him, could not have known when to stop in time to spare life, if that were his intention. I therefore coincide in the remark in the leading article of the Medical Gazette of yesterday, respecting the insufficiency of eighteen months' imprisonment as a punishment for such a crime.

There may, however, have been circumstances which would have some weight with the Bench, and have not appeared in the newspapers.* (*Our information of the facts was derived not from a newspaper, but from private information from a respectable source. -Ed. Gaz.) I can easily suppose that it was the man's first attempt at robbery; for I cannot imagine that an experienced thief, or one who had the advantage of belonging to a gang, and therefore of consulting about, and trying beforehand, the means to be used, would on hearsay or newspaper evidence, have adopted the use of an agent so ill suited to assist him. Again, a chief object of punishment is to protect the public by preventing future crime; but in this instance the signal failure of the attempt at robbery will do more to deter others from using a like means than any example that could be made of the criminal. I think that this kind of attempt is not very likely to be repeated; and although chloroform is one of the thousand articles the use of which should be confined to medical men, yet the subject, in my opinion, is hardly of sufficient importance to require legislative interference. The murders by arsenic, in the rural districts, are a disgrace to the age and country in which we live, and have long and loudly called for a legal enactment to limit the sale of this poison: but if Parliament have to discuss what articles have to be admitted into the provisions of a "Sale of Poisons Restriction Bill," I am afraid that we shall be long in obtaining such an enactment; and if, when at last obtained, it be complicated by including too many substances, it will not work well.

The public have been greatly alarmed about the employment of chloroform by thieves, but what they really have to dread is, that robbers will still resort to the old means of the bludgeon, the pistol, and the knife, and not to one which allows the victim so good an opportunity to escape, and themselves so great a chance of detection. Every person who has inhaled chloroform must be quite aware that it could never have been given to him, in his sober senses, without his knowledge, even though every care were used to lessen the impression it makes, by beginning with the vapour largely diluted, and gradually increasing its strength; and no domestic animal, however tame, can be induced to take chloroform voluntary, but before being made insensible, or in the least affected by it, must always be in some way secured. Therefore, to use chloroform for the purpose of overcoming a person is to adopt a means that cannot be put in force till he is already overcome, and involves a difficulty just like that contained in the juvenile problem of catching a bird by applying a little salt to its tail.

[Editorial comment:] * * * Chloroform has been used in France for the perpetration of rape, and the offender tried and convicted. We hope Dr. Snow's prediction, that it cannot be used for robbery without the certainty of failure and detection, may not be proved wrong by experience.

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