Not so long ago I covered the case of Carlyle Harris, a medical student who terminated his relationship (and his girlfriend) with a lethal dose of morphine. Harris’s case had repercussions long after his execution and not only for Harris and those who knew him. The Harris case was a sensation in the New York media and further afield and one of his severest critics was a fellow medical professional, Doctor Robert Buchanan.
Like Harris, Buchanan was an outwardly respectable medical professional. Like Harris, he disposed of an inconvenient spouse with a lethal dose of morphine. Like Harris, he had a clever means (or so he thought) of avoiding being found out by the authorities. But unlike Harris, Buchanan was foolish enough to sit in saloons bragging about how Harris was a bungler and how he, Buchanan, would have done a much cleverer job. It was Buchanan’s mouth that would seal his fate.
The eminently respectable professional man wasn’t quite as respectable as many people thought. Buchanan was a heavy drinker with a marked fondness for brothels in his spare time. New York at the time had a great many brothels and it was in one of them that he met Anna Sutherland. Not content to settle for a mere prostitute, Buchanan started an affair with Sutherland who was a brothel madam. In line with his inflated ego, no mere working girl was good enough for him.
There was, however, a small problem. In love triangles there usually is, and it’s usually that one member happens to be married to another with the lover as third wheel. Buchanan was married and his wife seemingly had as little idea about his extra-curricular activities as many of his friends and acquaintances. This, unfortunately for Buchanan and Anna Sutherland, didn’t last. In fact it exploded in quite spectacular fashion when Buchanan divorced his wife in 1890.
In those less liberal times a professional man divorcing wasn’t always fondly regarded by his social circle. In Buchanan’s case it was even less fondly regarded when, having set up home with known madam Anna Sutherland, he also installed her as the receptionist at his medical practice. This didn’t endear her to Buchanan’s patients. Sutherland was a blowsy, crude and vulgar individual and, as such, not the kind of person you’d expect to find behind your doctor’s reception desk. Being known for prostitution probably didn’t help either. Patients began transferring to other doctors. Those who hadn’t already transferred were openly threatening to do so. With a dwindling list of paying customers and his taste for expensive living, Buchanan knew trouble was fast approaching. Anna, whom Buchanan had secretly persuaded to make a will leaving him the sole beneficiary and to make out an insurance policy for $50,000 (also with Buchanan as sole beneficiary), was becoming a problem.
And the good doctor had some terminal ideas for how to solve it…
In 1892 Buchanan announced that he was going to visit the Scottish city of Edinburgh, known for its medical schools and producing some fine doctors. And he would be travelling alone. Four days before he was due to sail Anna Sutherland was suddenly (and conveniently for Buchanan) taken seriously ill. Buchanan announced he was cancelling his trip to stay take care of his sick wife which (in homicidal fashion) was exactly what he did. Anna Sutherland died shortly afterward, apparently of a cerebral hemorrhage. Buchanan inherited her money and property and pocketed the $50,000 from the insurance company. And then it all started to go horribly wrong.
All hadn’t been well in the Buchanan marriage. Sutherland (according to Buchanan) was insufferable, crude and he was going to get rid of her no matter what it took. Words that would come back to haunt him at his murder trial. Sutherland had threatened to leave him which would have seen him lose the inheritance and insurance payout he really needed and divorce would be messy, public and perhaps leave him worse off financially than he was at the time. If he was going to get rid of his wife then he’d have to find a lucrative way to do it.
At the time of Harris’s trial, sentence and execution Buchanan had been doing the rounds of his favourite haunts mocking Harris for his incompetence. Harris had been exposed because morphine poisoning affects the victim’s eyes, leaving them with pinpoint pupils, a cardinal sign of a morphine overdose. If Harris had dripped atropine into his victim’s eyes then the pupils would have dilated back to their normal size, Buchanan told his bar-room cronies, and so he might well never have been caught. Unfortunately, one of the people who heard this brazen bar-room chatter was a reporter working for the New York World. Reporters love bar-room gossip because it often leads to juicy stories and Buchanan’s recklessness did exactly that.
The reporter remembered Buchanan’s words and, when Sutherland died, did some digging. He soon found that Buchanan had had financial difficulties before Sutherland’s untimely death, that he enjoyed brothels and that he was the sole beneficiary of her death. He also found that, less than a month ater Sutherland’s death, the good doctor was so grief-stricken that he’d remarried his first wife (who was presumably more forgiving than most wives in similar circumstances). The reporter involved his police contacts, whose investigations revealed that Buchanan also had ready access to morphine. After further investigations into his personal history and the discovery of morphine in his wife’s body, Buchanan was arrested and charged with capital murder.
His trial was a sensation and a first in forensic history. At first there was no direct evidence linking Buchanan to his wife’s untimely death. But, at trial, the prosecution made sure they found some. Recalling Buchanan’s comments involving atropine investigators had performed an autopsy proving that she died of morphine poisoning. The question was, was Buchanan’s theory about masking the evidence with atropine sound? And was the circumstantial evidence strong enough to make a jury decide his guilt? It was, on both counts.
The prosecution brought a stray cat into the courtroom and, before a moderately disgusted audience, killed the poor creature with a lethal dose of morphine and then proved Buchanan’s theory. Before the court they dripped atropine into the animal’s eyes, proving conclusively that Buchanan’s atropine theory entirely correct, though not to Buchanan’s delight as it made a huge impression on the jury. Worse was to follow.
Buchanan might have been a clever murderer and a moderately-able doctor. That didn’t make him anything other than an awful witness under cross-examination. He came across as self-obsessed, whining, evasive and, worst of all for a man facing a possible death sentence, the prosecutor trapped him repeatedly in lie after lie. When giving evidence he did at least as much to convict himself as the prosecution did. And convicted he was. On April 25, 1893 the jury brought in their verdict. Guilty as charged, with no recommendation for mercy.
With his guilt decided by a jury Buchanan faced a mandatory death sentence and the judge duly passed one. He was transported to Sing Sing Prison under heavy guard to go through his appeals. They failed. The courts saw no legal reason to interfere in his case and the Governor wasn’t interested, either. Robert Buchanan was doomed. As a Canadian his counsel had even appealed to the British Ambassador to try and intercede on Buchanan’s behalf, claiming that it was the Ambassador’s duty as Buchanan was a British subject (Canada being part of what was then the British Empire). The Ambassador refused. Regardless of Buchanan’s nationality, this was a murder case in a foreign land and Buchanan broke American laws. As such, felt the Ambassador, Buchanan should face American justice. And face it he did.
On July 2, 1895 the sorry saga reached its end. Buchanan, who had been so keen to mock Carlyle Harris even while Harris was sat in the death house’ awaiting execution, had spent a couple of years trying to avoid the same fate. He’d failed. He’d been cruel enough to mock Harris’s fate. Vicious enough to murder his wife and cold-bloodedly try to evade punishment. He’d been evasive, dishonest, whiny and self-obsessed when he self-destructed under cross-examination. Now, with all hope lost, he must have realised as he watched the clock remorselessly ticking away his last hours, that perhaps he wasn’t as clever as he’d though he was. If he did, it was a little late for that.
At the appointed hour Buchanan was taken from his per-execution cell in the Sing Sing ‘death house.’ It was only twenty yards or so between his cell in the ‘Dancehall’ and a seat on ‘Old Sparky’ and Buchanan, to be fair, walked it firmly and in silence. As he sat down before the assembled witnesses and the straps and electrodes were applied, he still maintained a stony silence. With his prisoner strapped firmly down and the electrodes secured, ‘State Electrician’ Edwin Davis awaited the Warden’s signal.
Two minutes after the Warden nodded his head, Doctor Robert Buchanan, medic, professional man, egotist, liar, fraud and murderer, was finally pronounced dead. It would have been of no comfort at all to him to know that New York’s papers reported his execution as the most efficient and simple in Sing Sing’s grim history. Still, whether he liked it or not, Buchanan died far more quickly and cleanly than his unfortunate wife.