On January 18th 1908 at 3:40pm, Jane Farvish, a 41 yr old woman of “generous proportions”, staggered into 54a Broadwick Street, a chemist shop known as Soho Drug Stores. On the door was a wooden sign which read "teeth extracted". Aided by her concerned husband Nathan and daughter Annie, she was weak, tired and breathless, having not slept for three nights owing to a severe tooth ache.
After a quick examination of her gums, the dentist, Isidor Zeifert, concluded she needed two teeth removed and something for the pain. But having ran out of gas, a common anaesthetic which also causes headaches, he opted for a more expensive analgesic - cocaine. Cocaine had been in surgical use in England since 1884 and, although still in use in 1908, was listed in 1905 under the Poisons Act.
So, having prepared a solution of roughly one-third of a grain of cocaine (60milligrams) in ten drops of water, he injected it into her gums and waited for the pain to subside. Which it did, quickly.
But within minutes, Jane was sweating profusely, her pulse was heavy and her breathing erratic. The dentist reassured her this was just a side-effect of the cocaine. Moments later, her face had become crooked and paralysed, she complained, her speech now slurred and barely audible, but again the dentist brushed off her concerns, impatiently huffing about how she was over-reacting, and set about removing her teeth with his plyers. As he twisted the second tooth free, Jane suffered a fit, so violent, she almost snapped the legs of the chair she sat in, until eventually she passed out.
As her terrified daughter Annie ran for the doctor at her father’s request, still the dentist protested his innocence, claiming that her comatose state was perfectly normal. "Don't be afraid”, he said, reassuring her husband, “your wife will be like this for about ten minutes, no more". But after three quarter of an hour, Jane had gone silent, she was still, and was cold to the touch.
Jane Farvish was pronounced dead at 6:40pm. Isidor Zeifert was charged with manslaughter at 8:10pm, and was tried at The Old Bailey on 3rd March 1908.
At his trial, the pathologist concluded that not only had Isidor Zeifert injected into his patient, more than double the safe dosage of cocaine, but also, having only checked the gums of this 41 year old woman of “ample measurements”, who’d arrived at his chemists; too weak to stand, too tired to stay awake and too breathless to walk unaided, he’d failed to check the state of her heart, which was standard practice when administering such a dangerous poison.
Jane Farvish died of cocaine poisoning, at the hands of Isidor Zeifert, her local dentist. He was a lethal mix of incompetence and arrogance, but worse than that, he wasn’t qualified. Not in England, and not in his native Russia, neither as a chemist, nor as a dentist. But then this was 1908, anyone could set themselves up with very little training, experience or qualifications. All you just needed was a rented room, a white coat and a sign on a door.
When the jury returned their verdict, for the unlawful manslaughter of Jane Farvish, the unqualified self-taught dentist and chemist, Isidor Zeifert was pronounced… not guilty. The judge recommended that “in future, when administering cocaine… that he be more careful”.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten quirky & unusual things to do in London” and featuring 18 murderers, 3 serial killers, across 21 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime historian, writer and tour guide of Murder Mile Walks.