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Chloroform – Fear, Crime and (Pain) Relief

The fear of the effects of chloroform goes back to the earliest days of its use in the late 1840s. This fear manifested itself in many ways. First, there was the surgeon who feared that the chloroforming would not be successful, especially after the first recorded death attributed to chloroform in England on January,1848.

Chloroform bottle from our collection.

Then there was of course patients' fear. Despite the pain relief that chloroform offered during surgery and other medical interventions, unconsciousness was seen as a danger by the patient who was afraid of a fatal outcome.

Lastly, there was the general public's fear about what could happen if such a powerful agent was abused by criminals.

This common fear of chloroform coming into the wrong hands and being used for robberies and rapes was most likely a combination of patient experience and reports in the media at the time about this new agent. Although unconsciousness had replaced the fear of pain, it was in itself a cause for worry as it made the patient vulnerable and unable to control the situation while they were under.

Writers and the film industry still use this underlying fear of what would happen in the state of unconsciousness to their advantage. Everyone has probably seen the drugging of victims in TV shows such as Colombo. The victim is followed by the attackers, who wet a handkerchief with chloroform from a bottle, which is then placed over the nostrils of the target from behind. Unconsciousness is immediate, and the crime is committed. Even to this day, ‘sleeping gasses’ are known to be used in crimes ranging from small robberies to larger house burglaries.

Looking at the 19th century, it is John Snow, who also produced and published the first clinical evaluations of ether and chloroform, who gave answers to these common fears. In "The alleged use of chloroform by thieves" published in the London Medical Gazette on 26 February 1850, he states:

In two recent cases of robbery it has been asserted that chloroform was used to render the victims insensible; and although no real evidence has appeared of such having been the fact, yet the statement has gained great publicity through the newspapers, and the sentences on the prisoners have apparently been rendered more severe by the allegation.

These two cases of robbery, as well as a number of other cases of the use of chloroform, were later referenced by Snow in an open letter to Lord Campbell regarding the inclusion of chloroform in the proposed "Prevention of Offences Bill".

In late 1849, the first criminal use of chloroform was reported. A young man and his sweetheart were returning from a dance at a public house, and, after luring her into a passage, he tried to drug her with a handkerchief over her mouth. The girl screamed while struggling free and was heard by a policeman in the neighbouring street, who rushed to her assistance. He picked up the discarded bottle and arrested the young man. And yet, the story later concluded with the accused marrying the girl while out on remand!

Let's return to the two cases of robbery that Snow wrote about. The first of these took place in 1850. Elizabeth Smith and Margaret Higgins accosted Mr Hamill on Thrall Street in Whitechapel. Hamill recalled a person approaching from the left and simultaneously felt a rag or handkerchief over the lower half of his face. He was unconscious instantly and, in the morning, woke gradually on a dirty bed in a dirty flat.

Later, Higgins claimed that the man she was living with had stolen the chloroform from the London Hospital after an operation. But the Medical Officers at the London Hospital stated that no chloroform at their premises had gone missing or had been given to an outpatient. Both women were sentenced to 15 years of transportation.

In the same month, Charlotte Wilson robbed an unnamed gentleman in the Borough near London Bridge. As they were walking down the road together, he reported to have suddenly felt a handkerchief across his face. He tore it away, ran into the public house nearby, and ordered a Brandy.

A policeman observed the rag over the victim’s face, the pair having a drink in the public house after, and, ten minutes later, the woman leaving the premises with a hat and scarf. The victim was found to be unconscious at this stage. In Court later, a non-medical witness gave evidence that he was confident that the unconsciousness had not resulted from alcohol, but rather from an agent such as chloroform. Court and Jury agreed, and the offender was sentenced to ten years of transportation.

But these cases are not so straightforward.

Both of the cases show that chloroform, though blamed, cannot have played the role that it was later attributed. As Snow rightly points out in his explanation to Lord Campbell, chloroform would have been detected by the victim in the streets. No person would be able to inhale chloroform unknowingly without recognising that something was amiss.

First of all, papers at the time said that chloroform had a ‘fruity odour’, but this is misleading. Its effect on nostrils and airways is much more pungent, like ether which came before it, and would have been noticed by a victim. Snow writes:

When administered gradually, Chloroform can be breathed easily enough, by a person willing and anxious to take it; but he has to draw his breath many times before he becomes unconscious. During all this interval he has a perfect perception of the impression of the vapour on his nose, mouth, and throat, as well as of other sensations which it causes [...]

Additionally, as the medical journal Lancet reminded the popular press in 1865, not only was chloroform difficult to apply, it was also slow to take effect on a non-consenting person. On average it took around 5 minutes for unconsciousness to be sufficient, and chloroform needed to be continuously applied to maintain an unconscious state over any length of time.

Snow concluded that the stupefying or overpowering agents most frequently used in this country were ardent spirits, wine, and beer. So let’s finish on a case of alleged liquid application of chloroform:

At the trial of Johannah Driscoll at the Central Criminal Court in December last year [1850], for a robbery committed in a house of ill fame, it was alleged that Chloroform might have been put into some gin taken by the prosecutor. Chloroform, however, although very soluble in rectified spirit of wine, does not mix easily with potable spirits, and when dissolved imparts to them such a very hot and sweet taste, that no one could take them without being aware of the adulteration.

So relax - chloroform will not catch you unawares.


Further Reading

Snow J. 1850: “The alleged use of chloroform by thieves.” London Medical Gazette, (26 February 1850): 327. 

Snow J. 1851: “Chloroform and its use by thieves”. London Medical Gazette. (28 March 1851): 571. 

Snow J. 1851: “Letter to the Right Honourable Lord Campbell, Lord Chief Justice of the Court of Queen's Bench, on the clause respecting Chloroform in the proposed "Prevention of Offences Bill.”” London Journal of Medicine, (1 April 1851): 353-56. 

Payne J.P. 1998. “The criminal use of chloroform.” Anaesthesia 53, 685-690.


To cite this post : Iris Millis, “Chloroform – Fear, Crime and (Pain) Relief", Museum Highlights (blog on oldoperatingtheatre.com), February 5th, 2019. [On line] 


Iris Millis is currently a museum officer at the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. She has previously worked for the Anaesthesia Museum and Bodyworlds. She is member of the History of Anaesthesia Society and the John Snow Society. Follow her on Twitter, @historical_iris.

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