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The Historical Investigation – Robert Salmon’s Crime Research Paper

For centuries, the humankind has been fascinated with crime. When the latest crime report is on the news, people share the story with their friends or relatives. This fascination was described in the Telegraph’s article written by Dean Burnett. He argues that since crime reporting has become an integral part of mainstream media and since crime topics have become subjects to entertainment the public seems to have an intense interest in such themes. By indirectly experiencing something connected with violence, theft, or conspiracy, a person is able to get an effective moral stimulation, not necessarily a positive one. On the other hand, there is curiosity as another driving factor of such fascination (Burnett 2014, par. 5).

Thus, this paper explores and investigates the crime committed by Robert Salmon in 1836. He was convicted of manslaughtering Mr. John M’Kenzie by prescribing him large quantities of medication that contained dangerous ingredients like cream of tartar.

The deceased John M’Kenzie was a Sea Captain induced to take the so-called Morison’s Pills as a laxative medication suggested by Mrs. Lane, the sempstress of his wife. As the health state of Mr. M’Kenzie worsened, Mr. Salmon was called for help. He advised increasing the dosage of the pills that caused to Mr. M’Kenzie’s health to deteriorate even further and led to his subsequent death (Ó Danachair 2009, p. 200). The examination conducted post-mortem had shown the evident signs of the prescribed medication being the primary cause of Mr. M’Kenzie’s life termination. It is also worth noting that the deceased had taken seventy-five Morison’s Pills within the day before his death (Bingham 2014, par. 4).

Case Examination

Since Mr. Salmon was convicted of the charge of manslaughter of Mr. M’Kenzie, it is important to give the definition of this type of crime and briefly explore it from the legal perspective. According to the Free Legal Dictionary (2007, par. 1), manslaughter is an ‘unjustifiable, inexcusable, intentional or unintentional killing of a human being without deliberation, premeditation, and malice’. Manslaughter is a specific crime that is not viewed as a lesser gravity than the act of murder which is usually intentional or premeditated. The primary differentiation between the two crimes is that the notion of malice is absent in the action of manslaughter while it is present in the action of murder.

Common-Law suggests that the offence that the act of manslaughter is divided into involuntary and voluntary. Voluntary manslaughter is an intentional killing of a person that is guided by some additional occasions that never excuse the killing of the person but might mitigate it in some occasions. The involuntary manslaughter is explained as a killing that was unintentional. Involuntary manslaughter is further divided into the unlawful-act manslaughter and the criminal-negligence manslaughter (Free Legal Dictionary 2007, par. 13).

The primary punishment for the act of manslaughter is imprisonment. The applicable statute of the particular states defines the exact time period which the offender should be imprisoned for. As a rule, the sentence for the act of involuntary manslaughter is lesser than that of the voluntary manslaughter. In the majority of criminal cases, the sentence imposed for unlawful-act manslaughter is lesser than that of the criminally negligent manslaughter (Legal Dictionary 2007, par. 13).

Court Proceeding Analysis

The following section of the paper will be dedicated to the examination of the actual court proceeding. The primary actors in the courtroom were Messrs. Bodkin and Clarkson, who conducted Mr. Salmon’s prosecution, Ann M’Kenzie, Mr. M’Kenzie’s widow, Thomas Daniel Allen, Mr M’Kenzie’s acquaintance, and other witnesses that will be revealed in the examination.

The proceeding opened with Ann M’Kenzie’s testimony who told the court about her husband’s health condition, about Miss Lane, who was working at their household and did some ‘needlework’ and also sold ‘Morison’s pills’ and suggested that Mr. M’Kenzie could take some to relieve his pain. As the health condition of her husband deteriorated and there was a new pain in his knee, Mrs M’Kenzie remembers that Mr Salmon came to her house saying that he had been sent by Miss Lane to see what was going on with Mr M’Kenzie. Mr Salmon advised to take more medication, and eventually, the pain will go away.

As known already, the medication only caused harm but no relief (Old Bailey Online n.d., par. 1). Mrs M’Kenzie was then asked questions about the number of the Morison’s Pills her husband had taken, about the price charged for them, the frequency of Mr Salmon’s calls and visits, and other details about the frequency and type of pills given to the diseased relevant to the case. Mrs M’Kenzie did not put any accusations forward about whether Mr Salmon was guilty or not ‘I do not know whether he has anything to do with medicine, except as the agent for Morison’s pills’ (Old Bailey Online n.d., par. 8).

Other witnesses for the prosecution of Mr Salmon, Thomas Daniel Allen and Henry Timber Gray, an acquaintance of the deceased, gave testimony about the health condition of Mr Salmon and the last time they saw him and the prosecuted Mr Salmon. Both witnesses stated that there was a significant difference between the appearance of Mr Salmon before and after he had started taking the Morison’s Pills.

A witness who was able to give a detailed analysis of the medication and the state of the diseased Mr Salmon called for testimony was William Spink Cumming, a surgeon, and an apothecary. The following statement was given concerning the state of Mr Salmon: ‘The moment I saw him he was extremely weak his eyes very much sunk, he breathed with great difficulty; and altogether his appearance was that of a man in a very hazardous state. I conversed with him he was not able to converse with me easily, he could not; he attempted to answer a question I put but was too exhausted’ (Old Bailey Online n.d., par. 17).

Furthermore, Mr. Cumming was present at the post-mortem examination of Mr Salmon and corroborated the assumption that the prescribed pills contained gamboge which is a strong laxative, cream of tartar which increases the loss of water in the body, and asafoetida that could cause nausea and vomiting. High quantities of these components could have caused the side effects that contributed to the subsequent death of the patient.

The expert witness called at the hearing was Mr Richard Phillips, a Chemistry Lecturer at the Hospital of St. Thomas who was given Morison’s Pills for proper examination. There were two types of pills prescribed, and they seemed to be mixed together, so it was hard to understand the difference between the two. The witness also confirmed the availability of all above-listed components, however, the proportion of them was low. Thus, if taken in smaller quantities, the pills could have been beneficial for the health of the patient. It was also stated that other patients who did experience some positive effects had previously taken the Morison’s Pill.

To conclude this section about the court proceeding, the verdict of Mr Salmon was the following ‘Recommended to mercy, in consequence of his not being the compounder of the deleterious pills in question’, fined two hundred pounds (Old Bailey Online n.d., par. 31). Since Mr Salmon did not indeed make the Morison’s Pills, the act of him being guilty is linked to involuntary manslaughter. His negligence in the prescription of the medicine to the patient led to irreparable consequences. Furthermore, there were no direct accusations of Mr Salmon being fully responsible for the death of Mr M’Kenzie as the administered pills did in fact, have some positive effects for other questioned witnesses.

This account of the manslaughter of Mr M’Kenzie can be found in the Sixth Volume of Newgate Calendar edited by Donal Ó Danachair and Published by the Ex-classics Project in 2009. There was no evidence found of whether the media of that time published anything about Mr Salmon’s trial.

Medical Negligence and Criminal Law

Nowadays doctors that pose any danger to the public are removed from medical practice or receive limited access to it. If comparing the medical practice of 1836 and of now, the difference is evident. The composition of medicine also has changed drastically in the course of history with the appearance of new technologies and innovations. The mistake Mr Salmon allowed to happen is quite rare in the modern sphere of medicine. This section briefly explores the fact of medical negligence and draws parallels with Mr Salmon’s case where applicable.

When speaking of the UK law, legal medical negligence requires the duty of care and the subsequent breaching of the duty. In the case of Mr Salmon, there was no established duty of care since Mr Salmon was not a doctor but a pharmacist and agent for Morison’s Pills. Criminal law is often used in the UK to assess the act of medical negligence since during the 1990s and onward the country has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of charges for manslaughter brought against the employees of the medical profession. Furthermore, half of the doctors charged with negligent manslaughter were junior doctors.

Gross negligence and reckless behaviour are the notions that lie in the core of the charge for manslaughter, and the primary signs of which are seeded in arrogance. Already at the level of an undergraduate, a person may start developing this characteristic. If not addressed in time, arrogance can reveal itself in court and negatively affect the entire career (Naylor 2002, p. 203).

The notion of duty of care was first introduced in 1932 by the Donoghue versus Stevenson case. During the case, Lord Atkin was able to identify the fact that there is a duty to take general care in order to avoid any injury to the ‘neighbour’ that can be foreseen. The case investigated an instance when a woman drank a bottle of ginger beer until she discovered a dead snail on the bottom of the bottle. This resulted in the woman terribly getting ill and the case being presented to the company that manufactured ginger beer to receive compensation, Thus, Lord Atkin was able to identify the fact that the manufacturing company had failed to provide a duty of care for the customers and had exhibited negligent behavior.

The act of breaching of the duty was identified to relate to a ‘neighbor’ that is a person that had been affected by the breaching of the duty. According to Richard Goldberg in his Medical Malpractice and Compensation in the UK (2012, p. 143), ‘While establishing a duty of care owed to the patient in clinical negligence is not generally problematic, the establishment of the other two requirements: that the doctor was in breach of his duty of care to the patient and that this breach caused the patient harm is problematic’.

On the other hand, the act of medical negligence is related to the law term ‘tort’ which means to hurt someone. The idea of a tort or hurt is an essential notion that lies in the core of the act of negligence. A connection and the relationship between doctor and a patient is a sensitive subject. When the patient visits the doctor or gets admitted to the hospital, a duty of care on the part of the doctor is immediately established.

Medical law academics have put forward an argument that every patient that has ever come across health care services was surrounded by the duty of care not only from the doctor but from other employees that must ensure that the duty of care is not breached. To illustrate, for instance, a patient that has a stroke in a corridor of a hospital must receive care from the first doctor that appears to be in close proximity or passing by (Bryden & Storey 2011, par. 5). If to compare with the case related to Mr Salmon, the outline of the duty of care is quite blurred since there was no established duty of care at the time of the trial as well at the time of an incident.

History of Medical Mistakes

Unlike today, doctors were encouraged to admit to their mistakes at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This was done in order to learn from the mistakes and make sure that similar mistakes do not occur in the future. In the majority of cases that had been conducted, it was concluded that there was no fault of the doctor. Furthermore, patients who accused their doctors of malpractice were punished which will be considered unfair and unethical in the modern time. On the other hand, the standards for doctors were increased due to the enhancement of cases connected with malpractice and the increase of expectations for the proper quality of medical care (Yu 2013, par. 3). In the past doctors were considered immaculate professionals that can do no harm and are to be trusted in any case while today patients demand high-quality health care services as well as scrutinize their doctors to find even the slightest details that can negatively affect their health.

The investigated case of Mr Salmon has shown that people connected with the medical practice were not judged in a harsh manner. On the contrary, they were often pardoned as medicine was considered a respected and reliable field that is integral to human existence. Despite the fact that Mr Salmon made a mistake in prescribing too many pills for the diseased Mr M’Kenzie, he was fined two hundred pounds without imprisonment. Even the wife of the patient who had suffered from the unfortunate incident the most did not blame Mr Salmon for being the responsible for the death of her husband as the Morison’s Pills were administered to many other people without any unfortunate consequences.


The analysis of the historical case of Mr Salmon’s trial had shown a significant difference in the way trials were conducted then and the way people are being prosecuted today. The notion of manslaughter was analyzed according to UK law withdrawing references to the case of Mr. Salmon. The fact that Mr. Salmon was related to the area of medicine did also make a difference in the outcome of the trial. The verdict is also drastically different to the verdict Mr. Salmon would have received in the modern days.

The death of a patient because of a medical mishap can lead to serious legal consequences that include imprisonment. Nowadays the notion of medical error is two-fold. For example, the fact that harm was caused to the patient in itself is not a reason for criminal punishment; however, a medical error should be treated in such a manner that it is not repeated in the future, especially on the part of the same doctor (Merry 2009, par. 14). The investigation was relevant because it had provided insights into the prosecution proceeding, outlined the primary witnesses and drew parallels with the modern times.

Reference List

Bingham, D 2014, The pills that cured all ills, Web.

Bryden, D & Storey, I 2011, , Web.

Burnett, D 2014, , Web.

Free Legal Dictionary 2007, , Web.

Goldberg, R 2011, Medical malpractice and compensation in the UK, Web.

Merry, A 2009, Web.

Naylor, R 2002, Medication errors: lessons for education and healthcare, Radcliffe Medical Press, Oxon.

Ó Danachair, D 2009, , Web.

Old Bailey Online n.d., Robert Salmon. Killing. Manslaughter 4th April 1836, Web.

Yu, G 2013, , Web.

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