Death by Arsenic
A brief history of women, poison, and murder in 19th century Britain
Arsenic. Now that’s a dangerous substance we don’t think about very much anymore. We are definitely more concerned with asbestos in our walls, parabens in our shampoo, or aspartame in our chewing gum.
While arsenic is, thankfully, not so relevant in our own lives today, this was not the case in 19th century Britain. It could be found in wallpaper, toys, laundry detergent, cosmetics, medicine, clothing, headdresses, and even socks — leading a Times journalist to ask: what could “possibly be trusted if socks may be dangerous?”¹
You just couldn’t escape it. Have a problem with rats? Buy some arsenic from your local druggist. Looking to enhance your beauty and improve your complexion? Dr. Campbell’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers should do the trick for those pesky blemishes. Need to kill your husband? Well, don’t look much further because arsenic is your poison of choice.
For one, it was extremely easy to acquire, especially before the Arsenic Act of 1851. It was cheap and just about anyone could purchase it, including children. Having arsenic in your kitchen was not uncommon or suspicious, it was often the best defense against rats. It didn’t help that it looked an awful lot like sugar and was sometimes kept in unmarked containers — many an accidental poisoning was the result of an unintended substitution.
When administered in small doses over a long period of time, arsenic poisoning was very difficult to detect. The symptoms — gastrointestinal pain, diarrhoea, vomiting, and dehydration — mimicked many common illnesses. It might look like the victim was growing sicker with age or ill health, or suffering from cholera in acute poisoning cases.
Being colourless and tasteless, it was easy to add to food or drink without arousing suspicion. This created a general paranoia around the female poisoner, as this article in The Leader demonstrates:
“If you feel a deadly sensation within, and grow gradually weaker, how do you know that you are not poisoned? If your hands tingle, do you not fancy that it is arsenic?”²
There were many reasons a woman might resort to murder — an unhappy marriage, a lover, to collect life insurance. Divorce was difficult, if not impossible, to obtain for most of the population. Not only was there a stigma around it, but it was also a very expensive process. As an article from the Douglas Jerrold’s newspaper pointed out: “A decree of the House of Lords is an expensive matter; but poison is dirt cheap.”³
The likelihood of death by poison was low, however, the popular press tended to exaggerate its pervasiveness, creating a paranoia that ultimately implicated women. They were almost barred from purchasing arsenic entirely — a clause in the Arsenic Act wanted to restrict the purchase of arsenic to adult males only but was rejected.
However, women were more likely to be murdered by their husbands than vice versa — men committed more than ninety percent of spousal murders.⁴ Yet, women received harsher sentences. Killing a husband was considered petty treason punishable by death because a husband-wife relationship was akin to a king-subject one. On the other hand, a man who murdered his wife in 1847 could receive just nine months of hard labour. By comparison, stealing half a guinea was punishable by transportation for ten years.⁵ Maybe this was because:
“Moral faults in a man were too often regarded as venial; but in the case of the woman it was the unforgivable sin.”⁶
This arsenic scare was not totally unlike the earlier witch scares of the 16th and 17th centuries: “poisoning has become epidemic; the witchcraft, as it were, of modern times.”⁷ The female poisoner was described as “diabolical,” “masculine,” “savage,” and was metaphorically stripped of her femininity in the eyes of society.
Being poor and a poisoner was probably the worst of crimes. The middle and upper-class female poisoner was treated very differently by the press and the judicial system than a working-class woman. The case of Madeleine Smith illustrates this best. Madeleine was a young lady from a wealthy family who was accused of poisoning her lover, Emile L’Angelier, with arsenic.
While Madeleine had her critics, for the most part, the public loved her. The popular opinion was that she was an unfortunate victim, manipulated by a lower-class man: “Madeleine fell to the old, old tale which has served every seducer since the beginning of the world.”⁸
Although she was most likely guilty, Madeleine won over the sympathy of the public and the jury. When her verdict was announced as “Not Proven,” great cheers erupted from the crowd. In contrast, Eliza Fenning, a servant girl who was most likely framed for attempting to poison her employers with arsenic-laced dumplings, was executed because her employers pursued the case and their word, over hers, had a clear advantage.
The majority of known female murderers were from the lower classes. These women often had more of a reason to kill, whether it was for money, to escape an unhappy marriage, or out of desperation to stay alive — their circumstances were harsh and arsenic was easy. While she was condemned as immoral and even inhuman, the female poisoner was also wholly exploited by the popular press and the judiciary system. She was used to sell papers, to stand as an example, and to entertain a public hungry for scandal. She was caricatured and debased. She was even turned into wax figurines and displayed at Madame Tussaud’s. She was tried for murder but her greatest crime, in the eyes of contemporaries, was subversion.
¹ “The Discovery Not Long Since that one Might be Poisoned,” The Times, January 7, 1869, 9.
² “The Poisoner in the House,” The Leader, December 15, 1855, p. 1199.
³ “Poisoning Made Easy,” Douglas Jerrold’s Newspaper, September 9, 1848, 1169.
⁴ James C. Whorton, The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 34.
⁵ Judith Knelman, Twisting in the Wind: The Murderess and the English Press (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 88.
⁶ The Times, August 6, 1889, quoted in Bridget Walsh, Domestic Murder in Nineteenth Century England: Literary and Cultural Representations (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2014), 36.
⁷ “Poisoning Made Easy,” Douglas Jerrold’s Newspaper, 1169.
⁸“The Mystery of Madeleine Smith,” Famous Crimes, Issue 38, 266.