Author of Fatal Evidence: Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor & the Dawn of Forensic Science ISBN: 9781473883413
and Poison Panic: Arsenic Deaths in 1840s Essex ISBN: 9781473852075, both published by Pen & Sword
When writing my first book, Poison Panic, the name of an “eminent professor” popped up again and again at inquests and trials: Alfred Swaine Taylor. His expertise as a toxicologist were well-respected, and I became curious about him – especially so when I found out that he not only worked on poison analysis, but as early as 1850 was identifying blood stains in connection with crime. My fascination with him was such that he risked taking over Poison Panic, so I decided that my next book would be his biography.
His story had never been told in book-length form before, and I was able to piece together his life using genealogical resources such as parish registers, censuses and wills. His personality peeped through even the most serious of documents, in newspaper reports, journal articles, scientific monographs and letters to men such as Darwin. What I feared might be a somewhat dry tome turned out to be anything but.
I encountered the shade of a man who was at the forefront of his specialism, a man with a hugely curious mind. Outspoken and forthright, often getting into spats with his peers, he began his career as an outsider by choosing an area of medicine and science that had been little explored. He helped to lay the foundations for forensic pathology and science as we know it today.
In this auction, you’ll find papers relating to some of the trials that Taylor was involved in – from letters to judges, to an unsophisticated handbill reporting an inquest. It’s fascinating that Taylor kept such ephemera as a handbill from his cases which would’ve been sold in the street to ordinary people; one suspects that other men in his position would have rejected such a thing as being rather beneath them.
His pursuits beyond the scientific identification of crime were wide-ranging. His first published works were articles on ophthalmology, written in Italian while he was a student on the Continent, and he used his chemical and geological knowledge to try to unravel the secret of the Grotta del Carne near Naples. He had an artistic bent, even though it led to trouble when he was arrested on suspicion of espionage after he sketched sea defences in Italy.
It’s no surprise that Taylor embraced the then-new science of photography with such enthusiasm – to the point that he was trying to improve on Fox Talbot’s method as soon as it was communicated to the Royal Society. One of the most exciting aspects of the discovery at Thorne Court has been that Caroline, Taylor’s wife, had been creating her own photographic images. She can now take her place as one of the first photographers; a woman whose work had until recently been completely unknown. In this auction you’ll find family photos of the Taylors, along with their homemade prints.
And the Thorne Court discovery reveals an interest of Taylor’s which was new to me – astronomy. Taylor’s telescope is part of the auction, and one wonders what he thought as he peered up at the heavens.
One shocking fact that everyone knows about the use of arsenic in the nineteenth-century is that the chemical was used in wallpaper. It was Taylor who sounded the alarm to the public when he mentioned the dangers to a government committee. He was mocked in the press, but his determination to safeguard millions of people was such that he ignored his detractors. Incredibly, some samples of wallpaper and silks that he analysed as part of his investigations are part of this auction; they are an important if not somewhat prosaic piece of nineteenth-century history. Although do wash your hands afterwards if you happen to touch them!
You’ll find first editions and manuscripts of his books, which were read across the world. Within Taylor’s lifetime, his books were published across Europe and North America, and even Japan. His work had an impact beyond the world of crime investigation and were used by authors of crime fiction such as Wilkie Collins and Dorothy L Sayers. In Anthony Berkeley Cox’s novel The Poisoned Chocolates Case, even owning one of Taylor’s books puts characters under suspicion. Taylor, solving crime whilst surrounded by test-tubes, undoubtedly fed into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation: Sherlock Holmes.
The auction features items from Taylor’s fascinating public and private lives, and shows the breadth of his interests. From letters to wallpaper samples, from photographs to a telescope; all of them give us hints as to what the “eminent professor” was truly like.