Thomas Griffiths Wainewright: Artist, Author, and Suspected Poisoner

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794-1847) was a man of many professions. Writing was in his blood, with his grandfather and guardian being the founder of the Monthly Review. Wainewright himself began his literary profession writing for a variety of magazines and journals, including the Literary Pocket-Book, Blackwood’s Magazine, and The Foreign Quarterly Review. For years, he contributed articles on art and culture to the The London Magazine

He was also a gifted artist, being tutored by John Linnell (1792-1882) and Thomas Phillips (1770-1845). He painted a number of portraits, even having the pleasure of Lord Byron (1788-1824) sitting for him as a subject. Several of writer William Chamberlayne’s poems were illustrated by Wainewright, and his artwork was also exhibited at the Royal Academy in the early 1820s. He was truly an artistic and literary man. 

But he also had a dark side. 

On November 13, 1817, he married Eliza Frances Ward (1796-d. ?). Despite having a wife reliant on him, Wainewright was soon spending more than he was earning. He forged signatures in 1822 to get his hands on £2250 from a trust left to him by his grandfather. Only two years later, he again forged signatures to collect the remaining £3000. In total, he stole a total of £5250 from the trust. 

Portrait of a Young Man (Self-portrait) by suspected poisoner Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, c. 1825. Credit: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Forgery was only the beginning of his crimes. He soon started to dabble in more reprehensible criminal activities to bolster his income. Wainewright and his wife moved into his uncle George Edward Griffiths home in 1828. Not long after, Wainewright’s uncle was carried out in a coffin, and he inherited his home in Chiswick, Linden House. 

Next, in 1830, his mother-in-law, “old Mrs Abercromby,” was convinced to make her will more advantageous for her daughter, Mrs. Wainewright. Not long after, she passed away under mysterious circumstances. 

Then, Mrs. Wainewright’s two half-sisters moved in with them. Helen, one of the two half-sisters, took out various life policies on herself and made the Wainewrights the beneficiaries. These policies totaled an estimated £16,000. Even though she was twenty years old and healthy, Helen died from an unknown illness months later. 

This third death attracted suspicion from the life insurance companies. They refused to provide the money, and Wainewright got flighty. So flighty, he fled to France without his wife and son. He remained abroad for nearly six years. On returning to London in 1837 for a visit, he was arrested—but not for murder! 

Painting by Thomas Griffiths Wainewright of Edward Foss (1787-1870), under Sheriff of London and lawyer, c. 1816. Credit: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

While he had been in France, the Bank of England discovered evidence of Wainewright forging signatures to obtain money from his grandfather’s trust. He was charged with fraud. The courts found him guilty and sentenced him to transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).

Wainewright labored in a chain-gang while quartered in a prisoners’ barracks on Campbell Street. He was later transferred to Hobart Hospital to work as a wardsman. During this time, his health declined for reasons unknown. No doctor was able to diagnose him, and he was given certain liberties, such as painting. Between 1837 and 1847, he had a total of 56 sitters. Most of those who sat for him were for portraits that he gifted to the sitter for small kindnesses and favors. He died in 1847.

After his death, there were those who still suspected he poisoned at least three people. Literary characters were modeled after him by some of the brightest literary stars of the day, including Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even included Wainewright in one of his short stories, “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.” His legacy was made into that of a clever serial killer and poisoner, with some writers alleging he even carried strychnine concealed in a ring on his finger. However, several of his contemporaries also remembered him as kindhearted, introspective, and the model Regency era dandy with his downfall being his spending habits and lavish tastes. 

Portrait by Thomas Griffiths Wainewright of Edward Lord (1781-1859), Lieutenant Governor of Tasmania and merchantman. Credit: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

So was Thomas Griffiths Wainewright a serial killer? Did he poison his uncle, his mother-in-law, and his wife’s half-sister? That is all up for speculation, given there is little to no evidence, only mysterious circumstances surrounding their deaths. Yet a certain old sayng could be applied to Wainewright: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”

If he behaves like a killer, has victims dropping like flies around him like a killer, and flees abroad like a guilty killer, then he’s probably a killer. Thomas Griffiths Wainewright was most likely a serial killer. 


The Fatal Cup: Thomas Griffiths Wainewright and the strange deaths of his relations, Book by John Price Williams

THOMAS GRIFFITHS WAINEWRIGHT 1794 – 1847, The National Portrait Gallery

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794–1847) on Remembering the Past Australia

Wainewright the Poisoner: The Confession of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright by ANDREW MOTION, The New York Times

Wainewright, Thomas Griffiths (1794–1847) by V. W. Hodgman, Australian Dictionary of Biography

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