Professor Doremus Exhibiting the Chemical Apparatus used in Detecting the Existence of Poison at
the Trial of the Rev. George B. Vosburgh at Jersey City, May 22, 1878
Professor R. Ogden Doremus, M.D., about 1880
Professor R. Ogden Doremus, M.D., about 1880
Professor R. Ogden Doremus, M.D., about 1880
Doremus had a long and distinguished career as a toxicologist and professor of chemistry in and around New York City. In the 1850s he equipped the first chemical laboratory for medical students in the United States, at New York Medical College, and began performing toxicological analyses in criminal cases. He was said to be an excellent speaker who easily connected with students, jurors and the general public.
NYU School of Medicine Archives, Frederick L. Ehrman Medical Library
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Making Toxicology Visible: the Vosburgh poisoning case

In May of 1878, Reverend George Vosburgh, the charismatic young pastor of Jersey City's Madison Avenue Baptist Church, was indicted on charges of attempting to poison his wife Harriet. It was alleged that he repeatedly administered overdoses of tartar emetic (a commonly prescribed medicine whose active ingredient was the toxic metal antimony).

Throughout the winter of 1877–78, the Vosburghs' marriage had been failing. The Reverend was angry that his wife had not given him any children, had undergone two abortions without his approval, and had accepted a ring from a "barman." In the midst of the quarrels between the Reverend and his wife, Mrs. Vosburgh fell gravely ill. James Sickles, her brother, suspected that the Reverend, while attending his wife at her sickbed, was slowly poisoning her. Sickles collected samples from drinks that the Reverend had served his wife, and also a sample of her urine, and brought them to the laboratory of Dr. R. Ogden Doremus, professor of chemistry at Bellevue Medical College. Doremus found evidence of antimony in every sample.

During the trial, the professor brought his apparatus into the courtroom and performed three toxicological tests before the jury. Doremus's demonstration on the witness stand was novel and impressive. It was featured in reports in daily and weekly newspapers, and several illustrated newspapers. For a time, it seemed to sway the jury and the public.

But the Reverend's politically-connected defense team cast doubt on the prosecution's case by calling disputing experts, attacking the chain of custody (Sickles couldn't prove where his samples came from), and by constructing alternative (albeit contradictory) explanations for what had occurred. At the same time, a visibly recovered and fashionably-dressed Mrs. Vosburgh sat by her husband during the trial and refused to testify.

The jury found Vosburgh not guilty, despite the courtroom chemical analysis. After his acquittal, Vosburgh resumed his ministry, but he and his wife separated. A few months later, additional evidence was brought forth in the press, indicating that Vosburgh had treated his wife badly and had in fact attempted to poison her. Public support for him faded and he was forced to resign his ministry.