The Poisoned Heart

It was May 26th, 1762 when Jane Sibson was on trial at the Old Bailey. Mrs. Sibson was accused of murdering her husband George Sibson by spreading butter onto bread laced with white mercury. The apothecary treating her husband, John Tyrrell, founded an argument based with no substantiated facts that Jane Sibson committed petty treason. He brought the charges to the authorities after assisting in an autopsy on the late Mr. Sibson’s body. Tyrrell’s accusations were aided by suspicions of the deceased’s brother, Robert Sibson, who believed his brother George met with an untimely death after Mr. Tyrrell overheard the maid say that Mrs. Sibson had enough poison brought from London to kill forty people.

John Tyrrell’s accusation and self-permissible evidence displayed, in his mind, justifiable probability that there had, in fact, been foul play in Mr. Sibson’s death. Tyrrell, with the support of Robert Sibson, performed an autopsy and found that, in his opinion, the presence of poison was evident and pointed his finger at the deceased’s wife. The brother supported the claim, indirectly, because of the fact that poison was present, in Jane’s possession, which led him to become suspicious of the manner in which his brother died.

During the trial, Jane Sibson was proven to be a loving and dedicated wife. She was distraught at her husband’s illness and only sought to have him treated and cured. Leading up to his untimely demise, she spoke of an agreement the two of them made where, should either of them pass, they would embalm the others heart to keep. She also, having procured opium from America, thought to take her own life in order to be buried with her husband rather than live on without him. She was an honest and caring wife, doing what any concerned spouse would do for her husband. Furthermore, when everyone around her was questioned, from friends and acquaintances to her maid, George and Jane Sibson were viewed as star-crossed lovers.

I believe that their agreement to take the others heart should the other pass-on may have rested on the belief held by some in the eighteenth century that ones heart was the vessel of ones soul. This action was meant to be symbolic of their deeply seated bond and ever-lasting love; a soul-mate keeping their partner’s soul as a token of undying affection. As if inspired by William Shakespeare, Jane was even willing to take her own life rather than live without her beloved George. She was a proverbial Juliet to her Romeo.

Circumstantially, it was proven and supported that Jane Sibson frequently requested of Mr. Tyrrell, as the acting care-taker, should her husband be in need, they should call in other physicians to treat him. They could also offer additional opinions regarding the cause and treatment of his illness. At every turn Tyrrell deemed it unnecessary and stated that George Sibson would get better with food, drink and good spirits. Mrs. Sibson, along with her mother who was present, continuously stated that Mr. Sibson was taken with consumption, but Mr. Tyrrell continuously denied the fact. Finally, discarding Mr. Tyrrell’s advice, Jane Sibson called on a physician, but it was too late and her husband died shortly thereafter. After the fact, Mr. Tyrrell’s own testimony was found to be inconsistent and conveniently full of areas that he, himself, could not even recall.

Thus, in defense of Jane Sibson, the courts acquitted her of the unfounded charges and convicted John Tyrrell in suspicion of his own, seemingly, nefarious plans. As if George and Jane Sibson were cast as Romeo and Juliet, John Tyrrell cast himself into the role of the villain in this story. If Jane and George Sibson are part of an 18th century Shakespearean tragedy, then I believe Tyrrell has cast himself into the role of Othello’s Iago. His unexplained actions and misleading testimony paved the way to his own trial and subsequent demise.

On September 17th, 1762, John Tyrrell was held in front of a jury for perjury in the case against Jane Sibson, for the murder of her husband George. In the trial, Tyrrell’s previous testimony and actions were once again, in question regarding the events leading up to Mr. Sibson’s untimely demise and his actions and accusations against Mrs. Sibson.

The facts stood that many of Tyrrell’s statements were proven fraudulent or that he simply and rather conveniently, could not remember pertinent details regarding his own actions. In the trail against Jane Sibson, these ideas were brought to light, which prompted Mrs. Sibson’s immediate acquittal. Carrying on into his own trial, everything was reiterated and proven again. John Tyrrell, for his own reasons, lied, misled or manipulated persons or details to take Mr. Sibson’s illness, then death and turn it into a murder, implicating the deceased’s own wife.

The facts were that, while handling the case, Tyrrell lacked the knowledge and ability to correctly diagnose Mr. Sibson’s condition. Then, once physicians came to their own diagnosis, he manipulated circumstance with insufficient evidence so he could perform an autopsy. During the autopsy, he was joyful and exuberant at, what he deemed, implicative evidence of poisoning that simultaneously denied a death by consumption, which would have made his diagnosis correct throughout his treatment of Mr. Sibson. Tyrrell denied such actions, but the three others who partook in the autopsy iterated that he was in fact overly excited. His actions continue to perplex the others when he exclaimed that he would take this information to the Old Bailey as quoted in the trail, “Mr. Tyrrell pronounced with a joyful countenance, A brave inflammation, gentlemen! A brave inflammation, Mr. Howard!” after which he continued in his joyous demeanor to say, “Come, you rogue, look at this inflammation; you shall go along with us to the Old Bailey”. At the end of the autopsy, all attending physicians and Mr. Tyrrell signed a certificate stating that they unanimously found no evidence of poisoning, but Tyrrell obviously changed his opinion and brought the case forward regardless. The apothecary was found guilty of perjury but due to his “good character”, the jury recommended him to all the mercy his case would bear.

Now the question that plagues my mind is, why? Why would Mr. Tyrrell a man of good character with no previous record of any mis-doings so vehemently have to find Jane Sibson guilty of poisoning her husband? She was gaining no additional wealth with his death, since it was proven that she was in fact the richer of the two. Mrs. Sibson was not forced into the marriage, nor was she unhappily married to him. Neither case asks Mr. Tyrrell why he would lie about the poison so we are left with attempting to answer for his actions over 200 years later. Perhaps it was simply a misdiagnosis which left his pride and practice wounded thus his elation at being able to find a reason for Mr. Sibson’s death that was out of his control. Or since the act of dissecting a human being was still a fairly new and exciting concept to many in the medical world, perhaps Mr. Tyrrell was hoping for a chance to perform one himself. This excitement at the ability to see into the human body would explain his elated behaviour while being present during the autopsy:

“I begged of him to lay the stomach down, and behave with decency, and desired him to examine the lungs. Said he, I’ll oblige you, and examine them. There appeared a little place of redness; whether Mr. Tyrrell saw it, or not, I can’t say, but he immediately laid it down, and said, I will not inspect the body any longer, and went to the other side of the room, and began to undress. I spoke to the undertaker, and desired him to see that no gentleman went out till I had intirely inspected the body myself.”

Maybe it was a grievous mistake done by an under educated apothecary who, unable to correctly diagnose a patient with consumption, is once again unable to see the signs of consumption found on Mr. Sibson’s lungs after his death.

Yet, neither excitement at being witness to the opening of a body to determine reason of death, nor a misdiagnosis, seems to answer this question: Why blame Jane Sibson for her husbands death? I believe that Mr. Tyrrell was neither a man of good character nor worthy of the mercy bestowed upon him by the Old Bailey court. Mr. Tyrrell was a vindictive man with a poisonous heart, who was unable to believe that the love between Jane and her husband was true and pure. Tyrrell was instead looking for clues to implicate Jane of murdering her husband with poison, since he believed that no woman would think of taking her own life if her husband were to perish. This trial is one of many where true love is brought into question before the court and luckily for Jane Sibson there were many who believed her love for George to be true and un-poisoned, unlike the heart of John Tyrrell.

All information and quotes mentioned are taken from the Proceedings of the Old Bailey: Jane Sibson, Killing > petty treason, 26th May 1762.

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3 comments on “The Poisoned Heart

  1. ryliecole says:

    I truly love the story. As far as the structure goes, I feel that the paragraph beginning with “Now the question that plagues…” seems a bit jarring; not in the content but in the structure. A few of the sentences in that paragraph highlight important issues and lose a lot of their “punch” because the sentence is a bit long. As well, the following paragraph is (I believe) a quote? I was confused briefly as your narrative started using “I” in context to the autopsy. Either indent or use some quotations before it to help clarify.
    I think you found a very interesting trial, and liked how you provided the evidence in your writing. I especially enjoy the “lack of justice” feeling at the end with Tyrrell’s release.

  2. willjhoward says:

    Great story! I don’t have any suggestions on the overall structure of the post as I think it’s well done; I especially like that you make the reader think that it is Mrs. Sibson that committed the crime, but, just like the proceedings at the Old Bailey found, it was someone else entirely.

    There are a few nit-picky issues I would like to bring to your attention though. Really small stuff, sort of pedantic, but important nonetheless.

    In paragraph 8, do you mean “ideals” or should it be “ideas”?

    You misspell “misdiagnosis” as “misdiagnoses” a couple times; the latter is the plural (which is why spell check didn’t catch it!) but you use it in the singular sense.

    I would rephrase the first sentence of the 5th paragraph. It’s a little unclear, and you use the word “that” too many times.

    The first sentence of the last paragraph is a little awkward too. I might rephrase it as: “Yet, neither excitement at being witness to the opening of a body to determine reason of death, nor a misdiagnosis, seems to answer this question: Why blame Jane Sibson for her husbands death?”

    Overall, I think you did a great job of describing the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Sibson and exploring the motives of the true guilty party. Well done!

  3. lalanapaul says:

    Thank you both so much for your help with my blog. You’re both absolutely right in catching those silly spelling mistakes and awkward sentences. I didn’t see that I had forgotten to italicize the quotation. It really helped especially with my overuse of the word “that”, and being able to rephrase the 1st sentence, I was struggling with how to go about it.

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