Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Vicar's "One Unhappy Mistake."

The charity, kindness, and benevolence of the Rev. Mr. John Henry Timmins, vicar of West Malling in Kent, had been well-established in his forty plus years in the village. Visiting the sick was one of his passions, having attended a series of lectures at St. Thomas' Hospital in London - albeit in his youth. 

In late 1882, the 70-year old vicar called upon Sarah Wright, a laborer's daughter who'd been unwell. Timmins had a small vial with him, medicine for his son who had a case of nettle-rash. He poured out a teaspoon for Sarah. She swallowed it and "at once got up from the sofa on which she was lying and screamed, "Oh, Mr. Timmins, Mr. Timmins!" The girl was soon vomiting and foaming from the mouth. Dr. Pope was called - and there were many physicians in West Malling - but Sarah died in less than two hours. The bottle had contained "the essential oil of almonds" and the chemist had clearly marked it as poison. 

The Maidstone magistrates charged the vicar with manslaughter and he was tried at the summer assizes. Stedman, the local chemist had never spoken directly with Rev. Timmins but the instructions were clear - for external use only. Dr. Pope said the vicar told him that he thought a teaspoon was "an innocuous amount." 

Sir Edward Clarke defended the vicar. Rev. Timmins had definitely sent for the innocuous "expressed oil of bitter almonds" but the chemist had sent "essential oil of almonds," which was a deadly poison - prussic acid. By this "one unhappy mistake," a beloved cleric stood in this painful position. The prosecution acknowledged the kindly motives at work but the defendant's sheer rashness and worse, lack of remorse, made it manslaughter. Justice Day told the jury that the case showed a "clear want of care." Nevertheless, the jurymen of Kent took less than ten minutes to bring their verdict of not guilty "which was received with some applause." 

The medical press called the West Malling case "a solemn warning to all amateur 'physickers,'" many of them clergy. While there was little humor in the tragedy, Punch cautioned churchmen to stick to their "noble errand in the world ... and not meddle with the Pharmacopoeia." The Rev. Mr. Timmins remained vicar in West Malling another decade, and he died there in 1897.

Volume Two of Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series is nearing publication. Have you read Volume One? The quite affordable Ebook version is still available.

Image: polyvore.com

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