Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, Artist and Suspected Poisoner
The idea that someone you know is capable of murder is a shocking thought. And in the London literary scene of the 1820s everyone knew Thomas Griffiths Wainewright. He threw the best parties, he wore the best clothes, and his distinctive lisp and biting wit were both equally memorable. When he was arrested for forgery and fraud, everyone was shocked. And when the rumours started to circulate that he had poisoned someone for the insurance money, everyone was horrified. Horror turned to condemnation, and condemnation turned to sensationalism. Soon the legend of what Thomas had done far overtook any reality of who the man had really been.
Thomas Griffiths Wainewright was born in London in 1794. His mother Ann died giving birth to him, and his father Thomas (who was a lawyer) died only a few years later. Young Thomas was left to be raised by his grandparents, and specifically by his grandfather Ralph Griffiths. Ralph was a self-made man who had been begun as a watchmaker’s apprentice in Staffordshire but had moved to London and made a fortune selling books and running a literary magazine. His genius had been to make his magazine prestigious; that way he could get away with paying his writers in “exposure”. He and his brother Fenton also had the good fortune to buy the rights to the erotic novel Fanny Hill from the author John Cleland for £20. Reportedly it had made them between ten and twenty thousand pounds before it was officially banned for obscenity and they wound up in court. (Ralph got off with a caution.)
Ralph did not like his grandson, as was evidenced by his will where he specifically said that Thomas would receive nothing from his estate other than the property he had set up in covenant for his daughter Ann. This might have been because of his dislike of Thomas Wainewright senior, or because he blamed young Thomas for killing his mother in childbirth, or just annoyance at the child who had been foisted upon him. When Ralph died in 1809 Thomas did inherit enough to live on comfortably. Unfortunately Thomas would never be content to live comfortably.
His grandmother died in 1812 when Thomas was 17 and studying at the Hammersmith Academy (one of London’s most prestigious private schools). That left Thomas officially under the care of his uncle George, who was also the heir to the Griffiths fortune. George was perfectly happy just to live off his money and dabble in the literary scene. Young Ralph was not so content. He had become a “dandy”, living beyond his means by buying fancy clothes and trying to keep up with the ever-changing fashion scene. In order to keep himself in this fashion he needed to become a serious artist, so he apprenticed himself to Thomas Phillips. However he lacked the discipline to put in the practice needed to master painting, so he decided to try his luck in the army and see if he could strike it lucky there.
He bought a commission (with the aid of kindly Uncle George) as an ensign in an infantry regiment. He had dreams of being a fashionable officer like the Horse Guards he saw around London, but in actuality he found himself posted to Fermoy in County Cork. He arrived too late to go to Canada with his regiment to guard the border with the USA, and instead spent six months stuck in a small town in the south of Ireland on garrison duty. At the start of 1815 his small garrison crew were moved to Portsmouth in England, and in February he went absent without leave. He returned before this officially became desertion. In May he sold his commission on, three months before his regiment returned from Canada. He had been in the army less than a year and had never served in the field.
Shortly after he left the army Thomas Griffiths Wainewright suffered a nervous breakdown of some kind, though details are scant. There has been much speculation that this “unhinged him”, but little actual evidence. To recover from this he took a room in a boarding house near Chiswick, which was owned by a Mrs Frances Abercromby. He might have been recommended it by some of his army friends, as Mrs Abercromby’s husband had died a few years earlier while deployed in Fermoy. She had been left with two small children as well as an eighteen year old daughter named Eliza Ward from a previous marriage. Thomas saw Eliza and he was smitten. Two years later they were married at the London church of St Martin-in-the-fields.
The time between 1811 and 1820 in English history is called the “Regency Era”. Between King George III’s removal from the throne due to his mental illness and his death, his son the Prince of Wales served as regent. Though this was only a single decade it’s fascinated people ever since and been treated as a time of great decadence (at least, for the rich). Perhaps this was because Prince George himself had been such a “young buck” for so long. There was some truth to this legend; it was a time of great extravagance and a man with a taste for fancy clothes, flashy jewelry and the social whirl could spend an awful lot of money he didn’t actually have.
Thomas Griffiths Wainewright was a “dandy”, a term which didn’t have the air of condemnation it later received. Dandies were elegant and stylish, and one got nowhere in the art world without being a dandy. In order to support this lifestyle he took up writing, for the first time in his career. He wrote for the London Magazine under the pen-names of Cornelius van Vinkbooms and Janus Weathercock. This was just a sideline to his artistic career, though. A common theme in his works was the story of the Undine, a German water spirit who had tricked a knight into marrying her so that she could gain a human soul. His passion for art went beyond creating it, and he also became a collector of art. Like his fancy clothing, this took money he didn’t have. So Thomas decided to get…creative.
The money that Thomas had inherited from his grandfather had always been locked up so that he could not access the capital. An income of £250 a year gave him and Eliza enough to live a comfortable upper middle class life. Of course, the life they wanted to live was far above that. So Thomas got into debt, and then he needed to pay those debts. The only people allowed to withdraw the capital from his trust were the three trustees: relatives of his named Robert Wainewright, Edward Foss senior and Edward Foss junior. So in 1823 Thomas forged a power of attorney with their signatures and used it to withdraw half the capital from the trust fund. That was his first overt act of fraud; one which at the time carried a possible death sentence.
Half the capital was ten times his former annual income, but Thomas soon burned through it all and needed more. In the summer of 1824 he repeated his crime, and this time he drained the account dry. Within two years that was all gone and Thomas was forced to use his artistic treasures as security for a loan. By 1827 he and Eliza weren’t able to afford to live in London, so they moved to Chiswick and into the house of kindly uncle George Griffiths.
1828 began with a birth and a death. The birth was of Thomas and Eliza’s first child after ten years of marriage, a boy they named Griffiths. The death was of uncle George, who died convulsing from a mysterious stomach complaint. Thomas inherited the Griffiths estate; including £5000 in cash, a country estate and a library worth a fortune. Sadly the country estate turned out to be incredibly expensive to maintain while the library was soon sold off to pay debts old and new. The man who organised the sale, Benjamin Wheatley, soon became a family member of sorts. He fell in love with Eliza’s younger sister Madalina, who he met at the house. She, her sister Helen, and their mother Frances had moved to the estate shortly after Thomas had inherited it.
Helen and Frances were still living at the estate by 1829, by which time money was becoming very tight again. Having failed at art and writing, Thomas had become famous as a host; something which was a problem when his debts with the local tradesmen came due. The sudden death of Frances Abercromby after a swift illness helped to take the pressure off, since it meant that Eliza inherited her mother’s money and could use it to plug the gaps. But only for a short time.
In 1830 Helen Abercromby turned 21, old enough to be a legal adult. A few days after her birthday her sister Eliza took her to an office in London to have her life insured. Then to another one. And another. Overall they visited fifteen different companies. Eliza’s excuse for taking out short term life insurance on such a healthy young woman was that it was to be “security for a loan”, which was enough to get them three different policies totalling eleven thousand pounds. (Which is around a million pounds in today’s money.) Beyond that though they began to run into difficulties and suspicion. They managed to get two more policies adding another five thousand pounds to the value of Helen’s life. Then, of course, she died.
On the 13th December 1830 Helen Abercromby made a will. It left everything to her sister Madalina, and appointed Thomas as executor. Two days later she made another will, in favour of Eliza and Thomas. In between she had transferred the beneficiary of some of her life insurance to be Eliza as well. To celebrate being done with this legal mess (which she hadn’t enjoyed at all) Helen went out to the theatre with her sister Madalina. That night she fell ill.
Over the next few days Helen’s condition worsened, and though Thomas secured the most fashionable doctor in London to attend her it turned out that he wasn’t actually much good as a doctor. He treated her blinding headache and partial blindness with laxatives and bleeding, which didn’t help. She did seem to improve but after a week she had a sudden collapse, and in a fit of convulsions she died. She was still only 21 years old.
Helen was the third person to conveniently die in Thomas’ life, and of the three she’s the one who it’s almost certain that he and Eliza murdered. Even ignoring the ludicrous coincidence of the timing of her death, Eliza was seen by the servants giving Helen “medicine” which had not come from the doctor. Her symptoms directly match poisoning by strychnine, though the doctors would not have recognised this at the time. (In fact, Helen was possibly the first person ever killed with strychnine in England.) None of this proves anything, but it is highly suggestive. Whether George and Frances were murdered is another question, of course. But Helen’s death was definitely a little too convenient, and the insurance companies took notice.
There was no inquest into Helen’s death, though there were three autopsies that found no conclusive evidence (using the science of the time). That’s not to say there was no suspicion, especially once the insurance companies found out that there were multiple policies on her life. So they refused to pay until their own doctor had done an investigation. Thomas didn’t just wait for that to happen, though. He assigned one of the policies over to his moneylender to cover his debts, and the man advanced him enough money to hire a lawyer. One of the other policies was assigned to Madalina, and so Thomas (as the executor of Helen’s will and oh-so-concerned about his other sister in law) sued on her behalf to have that policy paid out immediately.
It was a clever idea which disguised his self-interest. If that policy had been paid out, then he could have used it as a precedent to get the others paid out as well. While the case was pending Thomas decided to go to France, possibly to avoid his creditors or perhaps because he was worried his previous fraud might be uncovered. There were later rumours that he went because a married woman he was having an affair with had moved to France, but there’s nothing to really substantiate that. Eliza and Griffiths stayed in London, anyway. Significantly Thomas travelled under a false name: “Theodore G Williams”. He probably thought this made him safer. This would turn out to be entirely incorrect.
Thomas stayed in France for years, as his case against the insurance companies dragged on. In the meantime Madalina married Ben Wheatley, with Eliza as a witness. Eliza herself lived in relative poverty, struggling to raise Griffiths as effectively a single mother. Thomas was poor too, and supported himself in France with art and the few rich patrons he could persuade to let him stay with them. But worse was to come. If he had moved to France to avoid the consequences of his fraud, he had made a mistake. His being in France was about to expose him.
Edward Foss was Thomas Griffiths Wainewright’s cousin and the subject of one of his paintings. He was also one of the two surviving trustees responsible for Thomas’ inheritance, and he became curious when he found out that Eliza was living in poverty in London. Was the money being sent to France instead? He asked at the Bank of England, and found out that there was no money. He and Robert Wainewright (the other trustee, who was Thomas’ uncle) called at the bank and were shown the powers of attorney that had been used to drain the trust fund. Of course they knew the signatures were forgeries. They were able to prove this by showing that the alleged witnesses did not exist. Once they did that, things escalated quickly.
The governor of the bank wrote to the Home Secretary. Since the trust fund had been in national bonds, this fraud had national (and international) implications. Enough for them to forget that they had no extradition treaty with France. What they did have were the insurance companies, who had kept close tabs on Thomas. So a government agent and an insurance company agent headed to France, where they planned to arrest Thomas. However they were stopped by the local British consul, who told them that would be illegal.
Instead it took a month of back and forth between the British and French governments until they figured out a possible solution. The French police arrested Thomas for entering the country on a false passport, planning to then hand him over to the British. But this was 1835 by now, and the statute of limitations for that charge had passed. In the end it turned out that the British government could not touch Thomas, as long as he stayed in France. But he didn’t.
In 1837 the Wainewright’s case against the Imperial Insurance Company was finally thrown out of court. In June of that year Thomas was arrested in London. Why he was back there, and how the police found out about, is a mystery. We know that an acquaintance of his offered to sell him out to the bank, but we don’t know if they took him up on it. There were stories that he’d come back to follow a woman he was having an affair with. The police report made it sound like he had been discovered by chance, but the policeman in question was a City of London policeman (who investigate financial crimes) who wouldn’t have had jurisdiction without prior arrangement. Whatever devious means were involved, after six years on the run Thomas was finally captured.
Many literary types came to visit Thomas Griffiths Wainewright in prison, the beginning of his legend. He was one of them who had crossed the line, and though he was never charged with murder many of them claimed later that he had admitted guilt to them. Charles Dickens (who didn’t know him) saw him on a visit to the jail and would later write a story about the case. It became a way to tinge yourself slightly with infamy, to make yourself by association a dangerous character.
Thomas originally pleaded not guilty to the four charges of forgery and fraud against him in his trial. Since two carried the death penalty, that’s not surprising. Then there was a backroom deal of some kind brokered. The two capital charges were dropped, and Thomas pleaded guilty to the two lesser charges of obtaining money by fraud. Since the death penalty for forgery was about to be removed, and since Thomas was well-known, the Bank of England might not have wanted the bad publicity that his death might bring. The insurance companies also pushed for this, since they knew his guilty plea would hurt Madalina’s case against them. So Thomas was sentenced to be transported to Australia “for the term of his natural life”.
Thomas did not want to go to Australia. He had not realised how harsh the sentence for the crimes he pleaded guilty to was, and he did whatever he could to get out of it. He made an appeal to the Home Secretary for mercy, which was pretty standard. What was less standard was his offer to the insurance companies to give them a full confession of the events around Helen’s insurance and death if they got him a full pardon from the government. His letter claimed that two other people would be implicated. Since it’s usually thought that Eliza was the one who actually poisoned her sister, she was probably one of those people. Who the other one was nobody knows. Because despite this audacious offer the Home Secretary did not intervene, and Thomas Griffiths Wainewright was taken to Australia in the summer of 1837 as a convict.
Like all convicts sent to Tasmania, Thomas was set to work on the roads at the start of his sentence. This heavy manual labour was considered to be a proving ground for the convict’s temperament, and those who bore up under it might be given better work related to their qualifications. He spent two years breaking rocks, which he was not physically well suited to. When he made a petition based on ill-health he was transferred to work in the convict hospital. He was a good enough worker in the hospital that one of the doctors wrote a letter in support of his application for a pardon. (The application was denied.)
In 1842 Thomas was transferred to the Colonial Hospital (which was much nicer than the Convict Hospital) where he was both an outpatient and an orderly. By now his talent was well-known, and he drew many portraits for people. Sometimes he was paid for this, sometimes he did it in exchange for favours or better treatment. The most influential of his subjects was Sir John Franklin, Lieutenant-Governor of the colony. He also painted some art for art’s sake, including mythological scenes like those he had done in London decades earlier. In 1845 he was granted a “ticket of leave”, which freed him from mandatory convict labour and allowed him to make his own living. Two years later, in 1847, he had a stroke. He died at the age of 53, still claiming his innocence to the end.
His last letter to the Home Secretary had all but admitted that Helen had been poisoned, and had promised to point the finger at the poisoner. It’s pretty clear that he intended to name his wife Eliza, who is considered to be the most likely suspect. Bulwer-Lytton definitely thought she was the killer, and he was not alone. In that light, the convenient deaths of George Griffiths and Frances Abercromby also seem a lot like they could have been murders. But if Eliza did murder her sister (and her mother, and her husband’s uncle) then she got away with it. When Thomas left her she was forced to live in poverty, but after his conviction the Bank of England were forced to replace the shares Thomas had stolen through his fraud. When he died she started to receive the income on those shares again, and in the 1850s she moved with Griffiths and his wife to Canada.
Even before his death, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright had become an almost mythical figure in the London literary scene. Partially responsible for this is Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who had written a novel in 1846 called “Lucretia, or the Children of the Night”. This was a thinly disguised fictional version of the Wainewright case, which pinned most of the blame on Eliza. Bulwer-Lytton was aided in this by having access (illegally) to all of Thomas’ papers and possessions from France, which had been seized by the insurance company. This was only the beginning of the Wainewright legend, though. Charles Dickens also wrote a story based on the event, while twenty years after his death the Melbourne Spectator described him as:
…not intemperate, but grossly sensual; with the intellect of a Pericles and the passions of a satyr. He used to take a dram of opium every day; and it was to procure this indulgence that he practised painting.
There is no evidence that Thomas was an opium addict, nor is there any evidence (despite what the paper also claimed) that he had tried to poison two people in Tasmania. Evidence didn’t matter now though. In London Thomas Griffiths Wainewright had become a symbol of the murderer who could lurk behind the mask of the genial host; while in Australia he had been transformed into a pantomime villain. Who he really was, and what had really happened in “the Wainwright case”, were as always irrelevant to the story people preferred to tell.
Images via wikimedia except where stated.