Robert Buchanan Trial: 1893

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Robert Buchanan Trial: 1893

Defendant: Robert Buchanan
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Charles W. Brooks, William J. O'Sullivan
Chief Prosecutors: De Lance Nicoll, James Osborne, Francis Weliman
Judge: E. C. Smyth
Place: New York, New York
Date of Trial: March 20April 26, 1893
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death

SIGNIFICANCE: This was one of the earliest trials to be fought almost exclusively on forensic science testimony.

In May 1892 a New York reporter, Ike White, heard rumors surrounding the sudden death of a brothel keeper named Anna Buchanan. According to the death certificate the madam had succumbed to a stroke, but friends of the dead woman were convinced that she had been poisoned by her husband, Dr. Robert Buchanan, so that he might acquire her $50,000 fortune. White did some digging and uncovered a journalistic gem: just three weeks after Anna's death, Buchanan had remarried his first wife, Helen, in Nova Scotia. Further investigation revealed Buchanan to be a debauchee, who most nights could be found in New York's bordellos, drinking and carousing till the early hours, a lifestyle that made serious inroads into his bank balance, hence the rumors about Anna's death.

Further fanning the flames of suspicion were remarks allegedly made by Buchanan two years earlier during the trial of Carlyle Harris, a New York medical student charged with wife-murder. At first her death, too, had been attributed to a stroke, but pinpointing of the pupils had led investigators to detect a morphine overdose. Harris was convicted and sentenced to death. Buchanan had followed proceedings with great interest, frequently referring to the accused as a "bungling fool" and a "stupid amateur," and boasting that he knew how to avoid the telltale pinpoint pupils.

In receipt of these and other revelations, White started a noisy campaign in the New York World, demanding the exhumation of Anna's body. He got his wish. Sure enough, analysis of the organs confirmed the presence of morphine, and Buchanan was charged with murder.

When the trial, presided over by Recorder Smyth, opened on March 20, 1893, it was soon clear that this case would be fought in the test-tube. Courts were just beginning to pay close attention to scientific testimony and in Professor Rudolph Witthaus, the prosecution had one of the nation's foremost toxicologists. Witthaus, who had analyzed the dead woman's organs, told the court how, using the Pellagri test, he discovered that "the body contained 1/10th of a grain of morphine in the remains," which he estimated was the residue of a fatal dose of 5 or 6 grains.

Heartened by this testimony, chief prosecuting counsel Francis Wellman asked the witness if he knew any means whereby it was possible to disguise the pinpoint pupils so characteristic of morphine poisoning. Witthaus referred to his original report: "Treatment of the eyes with atropine might very well eliminate the narrowing of the pupils which otherwise follows morphine poisoning."

Grisly Demonstration

In order to drive home this point the prosecution chose to conduct a gruesome experiment. A cat was brought into court and injected with morphine; then drops of atropine, an alkaloid derived from belladonna, were placed in the poor creature's eyes. It was cruel but effective, as jury members were able to see for themselves how the dying cat's pupils were dilated, just as Witthaus had said.

Wellman now reminded the jury how, earlier, they had heard from the nurse who had attended Anna in her final hours, and who recalled seeing Buchanan bending over his stricken wife, dropping some medicine in her eyes. Needless to say, such an action now assumed a more sinister association.

At this point it appeared as though the state had an open-and-shut case against Buchanan, but Buchanan's chief lawyer, William O'Sullivan, was an exdoctor turned attorney, and he had spent six months before the trial studying medical literature on morphine and the methods for demonstrating its presence. He rose and greeted Witthaus with a deceptive smile. There then followed a series of seemingly innocuous questions about the various tests that Witthaus had employed: the ferric chloride test, the Huseman test, the Frdhde test, and above all the Pellagri test. O'Sullivan asked casually, "The jury has been told that the so-called Pellagri test is especially important for demonstrating the presence of morphine. Can you confirm this?"

Witthaus agreed that it was, although he stressed the need for a number of tests to provide corroboration.

"Very good," said O'Sullivan. Now, his understanding of the Pellagri test was that if morphine was present, an unmistakable glowing purple color would appear, which soon changed to cherry red. "Is this correct?"

"Yes," replied Witthaus.

O'Sullivan asked if it was possible for an alkaloid produced by a decaying cadaver to produce a similar reaction.

"So far," said Witthaus, "this has not been observed anywhere in the world."

Whereupon O'Sullivan called Professor Victor C. Vaughan to the witness stand. While the jury sat transfixed, Vaughan set up an impressive array of tubes and bottles. Then O'Sullivan asked Vaughan if the Pellagri test was a sure indicator of the presence of morphine.

"No," said Vaughan. "There can be no such certainty."

"Then the Pellagri test can produce deceptive errors?"

"Yes it can," replied Vaughan, who then proceeded to subject a piece of pancreas that had been decaying for several weeks to the same tests that Witthaus had used. In a second tube was a preparation of morphine. Working quickly and sloppily, in a manner that flouted all the standard laboratory procedures for accuracy, Vaughan magically managed to obtain the distinctive purple and then cherry red reaction from the pancreas as well as the morphine. There was an uproar in court. Delighted reporters rushed for the exits to phone this latest sensation to their newspapers.

Witthaus looked on in amazement, unable to believe that O'Sullivan was able to get away with such shoddy science; but strident prosecution objections came too late to lessen the impact that Vaughan's "experiments" had clearly had on the jury.

Throughout, the defendant had been a mute observer of all these shenanigans, almost unnoticed, and he remained that way when acquittal seemed certain. But it wasn't to be. Like others in the New York legal community, O'Sullivan felt that during the Harris trial, the defendant's decision not to testify had militated heavily against him, and he had no inclination to repeat that mistake.

What he did get was a catastrophe. Buchanan's whining manner and selfobsessed answers only became more exaggerated under cross-examination, as Wellman trapped him in so many lies and contradictions that any doubt created by the scientific dispute was entirely canceled out. Buchanan limped from the stand in tatters. Even so, it says much for the contentious nature of the scientific evidence that when the jury retired on April 25, they still needed over 28 hours to find him guilty of murder.

After Buchanan was sentenced to death by Recorder Smyth, his lawyers launched an appeal based on the tainted scientific evidence. This time Witthaus was ready for them. He had taken his courtroom humiliation badly, and set out to reestablish his reputation by proving that Vaughan's methodology had been flawed. Eventually he tracked the source of the error to impurities in the chemicals used by the other scientist.

Buchanan's appeal failed, and on July 2, 1895, just like Carlyle Harris two years beforehand, he made that short, lonely walk to the electric chair at Sing Sing.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Smith, Edward H. Famous American Poison Mysteries. London: Hurst & Blackett, 1927.

Thorwald, Jurgen. The Century of the Detective. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964.

Vaughan, Victor C. A Doctor's Memories. Minneapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1926.