Monday, May 21, 2012

Poisons and the Victorian Murderess

by Megan S.
"Many cases might be adduced in corroboration of the alleged cold-blooded, callous cruelty of the female murderess, the savage determination with which she carries out her fell purpose; no difficulties deter her, she can wait and watch for opportunity concealing her devilish intention under a smiling face, till at last she administers poison and strikes the blow with a nice calculation of effect."
- Major Arthur Griffiths, Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons
"Female Criminals," 1895
Victorian poisons via Chris John Beckett
The Victorian Murderess.  Nothing was so scandalous, so horrifying, so titillating in Great Britain during the mid 1800s to the dawn of the 20th century like the apparent dramatic rise of women poisoners.  The very paragons of virtue in Victorian society were responsible for killing hapless men across England, Wales, and Scotland, all the while wearing beatific smiles upon their faces.  Newspapers published every twist and turn of the cases against the murderesses - the courtroom dramas, the women's wanton desires and sexual deviancies, and even step-by-step details of how to prepare and administer the poisons.  The public was so appalled that even Parliament passed a law to limit access to the poisoners weapons of choice.

So what did these modern-day Lucrezia Borgias use to murder their unsuspecting foes?

Arsenic


Arsenic was omnipresent in Victorian England.  The chemical could be found in everything from beauty products to rat poisons to fly paper.  Because it was easy to obtain, it was a common weapon of choice for poisoners and it was often administered through food.  The evidence of the crime, however, was difficult to cover up.  Traces of arsenic could be detected in a body well after death.

A large dose of arsenic could dispatch a victim within hours of ingesting.  Symptoms included vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, excessive sweating and garlic-scented breath.  If the target managed to survive a large dose past the seizures and shock stage, the victim often died of kidney failure days later.

Antimony

Antimony, like arsenic, was an easily obtained deadly element.  In medieval times, the metal was used as a cure for constipation but, in the Victorian era, women commonly used it to control a husband's alcoholism.  In small doses, antimony made the recipient sick.

Antimony was administered via ingestion and caused vomiting, kidney, and liver failure.  In the famous poisoning case of lawyer Charles Bravo, his unnaturally calm demeanor as he died over the course of several days was a side-effect of the chemical.

Strychnine


Strychnine, a plant-based chemical, could be found in rat poison and in the commonly prescribed nux vomica, a medication used to treat a number of ailments.  Even in small doses, the poison could be deadly.  The white, odorless, bitter-tasting powder was administered via ingestion and was hidden in chocolates in the case of Christiana Edmunds. 

Strychnine interfered with a victim's central nervous system.  The recipient's body would be wracked with painful spasms until, eventually, the muscles tired and the victim could no longer breathe.  In large doses, the victim may have experienced respiratory failure and brain death within a half hour.

A Dose of Reality

I thought it would be interesting to research the rise of the lady poisoner in the Victorian era.  It had always seemed so scandalous and intriguing when I read about it in novels but, after digging through current and historic academic journal articles on the topic for this post, the truth of the matter made me sad.  The women on trial were often as much the victim as the men they supposedly killed. 

One must put the stories of the rise of lady poisoners into perspective.  First, the test to forensically detect arsenic was developed in 1836.  So, while it may have seemed like cases of arsenic poisoning sky rocketed at the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign, it is more likely that the new test shed light on an already established problem.

Next, the disparity between how crimes committed by the two sexes was perceived by the public played a large role in the scandals. Men's crimes were often chalked up to being committed during the heat of passion (and, therefore, more understandable) while female poisoners were cold and calculating because their crimes required forethought.  Of the approximately 1000 cases of Victorian spousal murders, men committed over 90 percent of the crimes, often killing their wives by beating or stabbing them to death.  In 20 of the spousal murder cases, men were accused of poisoning their wives.  Compare those numbers to the spousal murderers committed by women. There were only 40 cases of women poisoning their husbands tried in the 70 year span and only 60 percent of those were convicted.  That means only 2.4 percent of all cases tried in almost three-quarters of a century lead to a conviction of a female poisoner.   The statistics are startlingly unimpressive for all the hype over the supposed epidemic. 

The prosecution of the cases themselves must then be considered.  There was no need to establish motive for a conviction.  What was often on trial was a woman's virtue.  In the case of Madeline Smith, the sexually explicit letters she wrote to her murdered ex-lover were cited as evidence.  Even the judge himself believed it was important to ascertain whether the letters "exhibit[ed] such a degree of ill-regulated, disorderly, distempered, licentious feelings as to show that this is a person quite capable of cherishing any object to avoid disgrace and exposure and of taking any revenge which such treatment might excite in the mind of a woman driven nearly to madness..." There was no need to actually prove the woman committed the crime, just that she was unclean.

Finally and most importantly, the motivation for such crimes like self-defense were often ignored.  A physically abused wife or a woman who truly fears for her life can hardly be considered cold-blooded and callous. In an 1876 cold case solved only nine years ago, Florence Bravo poisoned her husband because he demanded she have sex with him.  She was afraid a fourth pregnancy would kill her because the first two had resulted in miscarriages which made her gravely ill. (The third was aborted.) Women had no right to deny their husbands sex during that time and Florence, along with other women, may have seen poisoning as the only way to protect themselves.

I began researching this post with the same mindset as the Victorian public.  I wanted to read about something scandalous and titillating but what I found was the sad tale of reality.  It wasn't a story of Victorian era femme fatales as much as it was a few dozen women who failed to meet the exacting standards of the idealized female.


More information about Victorian female poisoners can be found here:

"Female Criminals" by Arthur Griffiths, published in The North American Review, Vol. 161, No. 465 (Aug., 1895), pp. 141-152

"Circe in Crinoline: Domestic Poisonings in Victorian England" by George Robb, published in The Journal of Family History, Vol. 22 No. 2, (April 1997) pp. 176 -190

"Poisonous Plots: Women Sensation Novelists and Murderesses in the Victorian Period" by Rana Helfield, published in the Victorian Review, Vol. 21 No. 2 (Winter 1995) pp. 161 - 188
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9 comments:

  1. I think murder is always a lot more fun in murder mysteries than it is in reality. And your research may have been disappointing, but it made for a fun, unexpected read this afternoon!

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    1. Thanks so much, Wyndes! I like getting to flex the old research muscles once in a while.

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  2. This is why I prefer steampunk. The actual past is just depressing.

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    1. It's why I like fantasy and science fiction. I get to have strong heroines who do the right thing and kick wrong doer butt.

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  3. Any murder tends to end up sad, if you look closely enough. Doesn't matter if it's yesterday or a hundred years ago. There's only drama when it's a story, all that fades when you get that it's a life. This is one of my arguments with a lot of fiction - they never quite treat death as the big deal it is, the show stopper.

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    1. It's one of the reasons I like Joss Whedon so much. His treatment of death and loss is much more realistic, even in fantastic settings. Buffy's The Body Is one of the best episodes of television I've ever seen. Even as I type this, I'm getting all teary-eyed.

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  4. I have a question. Where did you get access to the last two articles? I'm doing a paper on Victorian murderesses for a Lit class, and I'm trying to find more sources.

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    1. If I remember correctly, the first was through JSTOR and the second through EBSCO. Your university's library should have access to both

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    2. Thank you so much. (And I'm late in replying as I had other things due first. Same person, different account cause Google.)

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