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  • The Wee History Blog

The Human Crocodile - Dr turned Murderer

Updated: Oct 31, 2021

In much the same way Gladiator shows were a popular form of entertainment in ancient Rome, those with a stomach to withstand gore would enjoy public hangings. The date, and victim, of the last public hanging in Scotland, is up for debate. Some point to Robert Smith's hanging in Dumfries whilst others believe Dr Edward William Pritchard, later known as 'The Human Crocodile' to be the last man to be hung in Scotland.

(Dr Pritchard, image; GlasgowLive)

Edward Pritchard was born in Hampshire around 1825. Not a huge amount is known about his early life, however, it does appear that he had briefly studied in London prior to joining the Navy. Mary Jane Taylor was the daughter of an Edinburgh-based silk merchant. The pair allegedly met in Portsmouth, marrying and having five children in total; two sons and three daughters. In 1860, the Pritchard family upped and moved to Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow - one of the posher and more desirable areas at the time.

Though the Pritchard family's life was far from idyllic; rumours and accusations of inappropriate behaviour towards his female patients seem to have run rampant. Further rumours regarding the Dr's alleged financial difficulties were also commonplace. In 1863, a fire ruined their home. The family maid, Elizabeth McGirn, whose room was in the attic was caught in the blaze, ultimately perishing. At the time, Pritchard's reputation took a nosedive, and it was suggested that he had begun an inappropriate relationship with his young maid. Rumours abounded that Elizabeth had revealed she was pregnant, prompting the cruel and calculating Dr to set fire to her bedroom with her inside. Conveniently, the only other person inside the house at the time of the fire was Dr Pritchard.

After the fire, the family chose to stay on Sauchiehall Street, moving to number 131 and set about hiring a new maid from Islay. Evidently, a leopard does not change its spots, as Pritchard quickly began an affair with her, and it wasn't long before she fell pregnant. Pritchard appears to have been infatuated. He arranged for her to have an abortion, but promised her that he would marry her in an instant if his wife died. However, it was only after Mary Jane uncovered the affair, that she fell ill. Pritchard acted as his wife's primary Doctor and diagnosed her with Gastric Fever.

Though Mary Jane's mother, Jane Taylor, arrived in Glasgow to help care for her daughter, her efforts proved fruitless and the Mary Jane died in the February of 1864. Pritchard signed the death certificate himself, citing her cause of death as the Gastric Fever he had diagnosed her with. By March of the same year, Jane Taylor had also died. With both his wife and mother-in-law dead, Pritchard was not only free to make good on his promise to marry the maid but also stood to inherit a large sum of money - a quick fix for his rumoured financial worries.

"No one who saw the intelligent...mild-looking individual seated in the dock ...could be prepared for anything like the ... villainy and diabolic cruelty which each day brought to light" - quote taken from a contemporary newspaper reporting on Pritchard's Trial.

Perhaps the rumours of foul play would have remained unsubstantiated, like the rumours surrounding the fire, had it not been for an anonymous note delivered to the procurator fiscal urging him to investigate the deaths of the 38-year-old Mary Jane Pritchard and 70-year-old Jane Taylor. Upon further investigation, it was uncovered that Edward Pritchard had been buying large doses of the poisons aconite and antimony. When the bodies of the two women were autopsied, their deaths were ruled as a result of poisoning.

However, Pritchard was not arrested until the day of his wife's funeral, where he allegedly sobbed and begged for the coffin to be opened so that he might kiss her face one last time. He was arrested at Glasgow Queen Street Train Station. The trial garnered huge amounts of public attention. The Dr was nicknamed 'The Human Crocodile' in reference to the old myth that crocodiles shed tears whilst eating humans. The term generally means fake or insincere tears, and in this instance refers to Pritchard sobbing at the funeral of his wife mere hours before his arrest for her murder.

The trial lasted only four days, and concluded with Pritchard being sentenced to death by hanging - some allege he was the last in Scotland to be executed this way. Pritchard was hung in Jail Square, near the modern High Court on July 28th, 1865 in front of a crowd exceeding 10,000.

Perhaps one of the most chilling aspects of this story is the inhuman insincerity Pritchard displayed at Mary Jane's funeral. Perhaps it's the preemptive way he planned the murder of his first maid Elizabeth, his wife and his mother-in-law. Or the countless other women he was rumoured to have abused. Perhaps it is these aspects of the story in particular that even 156 years later, make it so enduring, and chilling.

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