Robbery by means of chloroform

By Karen Horn, RPS Librarian and Matthew Johnston, RPS Museum

chloroform-bottleOver 200 people visited the Society over London Open House weekend this year.

They all took a look at the RPS Museum and its varied collection, which includes chloroform bottles from the 1940s.

There are lots of stories about the misuse of chloroform which persist up to the present day, some of which are pretty far-fetched.

In the early days of its use as an anaesthetic, reports in the Victorian media led to worries about its potential for misuse by criminals.  Several cases were brought to the courts in which people claimed to have been drugged whilst minding their own business in the street.  One of these accounts, originally published in The Times, was summarised by the Pharmaceutical Journal in February 1850 (please click the image to enlarge):

The PJ stated that for chloroform to have this effect in this way was highly unlikely.  Neither was it likely that a patient would be able to steal chloroform from an operating theatre, nor have the expertise required for its successful administration.  In fact, the PJ remained unconvinced that chloroform had been used in the first place.

In a letter to the London Medical Gazette that same year, physician Dr John Snow blamed newspaper accounts for giving rise to the idea that it could be used by highwaymen and pickpockets for robberies, for these accounts had alluded to its administration by means of a handkerchief.  Snow was an expert on chloroform, being one of the first to use  it as an anaesthetic, even designing a mask for its safe administration.

snowinhalerAs worries over the use of chloroform increased, a clause was proposed for the new Prevention of Offences Act 1851, which stated:

“If any person shall unlawfully apply or administer, or attempt to apply or administer, to any other person any chloroform, laudanum, or other   stupefying [sic] or overpowering drug, matter or thing … every such offender shall be guilty of felony.” (PJ, April 1851, p.487)

The clause ended by declaring that anyone found to be using it in suspect ways would be “…liable at the discretion of the court to be transported for life, or, for any term not less than seven years.”

John Snow opposed the clause.  His views were endorsed by the PJ which argued that ‘other stupefying or overpowering drugs’ already included chloroform, and so there was no need to single it out and play on people’s unsubstantiated fears. Despite the protestations of Dr Snow, the bill was enacted on 3rd July 1851, chloroform clause and all.

Although chloroform was replaced by safer anaesthetics in the 20th century, its prevalence in popular culture means that fears regarding its use by criminals are still very much alive.

A piece about high profile robberies allegedly carried out through the use of chloroform appeared in The Daily Telegraph last year, with Formula 1 driver Jenson Button and footballer Patrick Vieira claiming to be victims. In response, the Royal College of Anaesthetists’ were very clear that the idea was pretty much impossible, taking the same view as John Snow but well over a century later.

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