2 minute read

Robert Buchanan Trial: 1893

Grisly Demonstration

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 20—April 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."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917