“...Wainewright became such a notorious figure for much of the nineteenth century-at once predictable and astonishing, appealing and appalling.”- Andre Motion, Wainewright the Poisoner
Another proof of the 19th century fascination with murder in general and serial murderers in particular is Thomas Griffiths Wainewirght. The appeal of information about these criminals stretched across time and geographic boundaries. Often serial killers became international celebrities. Like that of Jack the Ripper, Thomas Wainewright’s story received attention internationally. Wainewright was an active killer in Britain but his story was included in a book of the lives of famous criminals, Lives of twelve bad men: original studies of eminent scoundrels by various hands published in New York in 1894 (Seccombe). Here I will be discussing Wainewright, but the book itself illustrates this fascination. It included stories of killers from 1536 through 1880.That the book was published in 1894, years after Wainewright’s death, shows the fascination with serial killers even beyond the mystery and this was not the only one, as is evidenced by references in this book to deficiencies or aspects of other biographies of Thomas Wainewright. In fact the author of the 1894 book commented on the abundance of rumors and unsubstantiated deaths attributed the Wainewright. His identity was known and the book detailed even minute details of Wainewright’s life, rendered fascinating by the acts of murder he committed. That was not the first or only work, and certainly not the last. The Sunday Times of London ran an advertisement for yet another book on Wainewright, The Prince of Poisoners, in 1932. Apparently his legend as a serial killer, like that of Jack the Ripper, was subject to expansion beyond substantiated facts. As the author said, “the reputation of an established poisoned is evidently of the most elastic kind, and people credit him with a mysterious disappearance as glibly as they father a belated joke upon Douglas Jerrold (Seccombe 314).” Several accounts credited him with more murders than can be substantiated, including one story about insurance crime schemes in the London Daily Mail from 1906. Interest in his writings and life increased greatly after his crimes became public knowledge. A piece in The Sunday Times of London from 1880 mentioned his crimes and recent publication of some of his essays.
Thomas Wainewright as a serial killer and public phenomenon was radically different in character than Jack the Ripper. His crimes were financially motivated, at least at first. His chosen method of killing was poison and his victims were familiar to him. The first victim was his elderly uncle, the second his mother-in-law, and the third his sister-in-law (Seccombe 304-308). Like Jack the Ripper, stories of his crimes were subjects of entertainment and fascination from their discovery to long after his death. However Wainewright was different as a killer in almost every way. His murders were discovered only after they were completed, not in the midst of the spree. His identity was known and they were crimes of financial “need” rather than the passionate and sexual crimes of Jack the Ripper, and they were committed against people with whom he had a personal relationship.
Wainewright was an author and an artist. Part of the appeal of his story was his small cache of fame from his works and even more from the caliber of his friendship and associations with the first rate British literati and artists of his day.
Wainewright’s acts as a killer happened long before they received significant attention. After the first three murders, Wainwright fled to France for five years. It was during this time the rumors about his crimes proliferated. After his return to England, he was tried and sentenced at Old Bailey for forgery in 1837 and exiled to Van Diemen’s Land (Motion xv-xvi).
Modus Operandi: Wainewright was a poisoner by murder method. He killed those around him when his financial need became great enough and he had set up the circumstance for financial gain. There are theories that he used multiple poisons on at least one occasion, the murder of his sister-in-law, to make the death and preceding sickness appear natural (Seccombe).
Victims: Confirmed victims include his uncle, mother-in- law, and sister in law in that order. However rumors floated of other killings by Wainewright though none were confirmed or even seem to fit well with his typical style and motivation.
Wainewright was tried and convicted of forgery in his insurance fraud schemes in 1835. He died in 1852, never having been charged with murder (The Daily Mail, 1906).