Sexuality, lies and arsenic: how the ‘king of poisons’ lost its crown

Kate Griffin, author of the Kitty Peck fictions set in the criminal underworld of Victorian London, analyzes the nineteenth century origins of toxicology

Poison is a deliciously evil term. Say it now purse your lips and savour the shape, if not the savour, of those sleek, fat vowels filling your mouth. Quite thrilling, isnt it?

The Victorians couldnt get enough of it, metaphorically speaking. Nothing appealed more to an increasingly literate public than lurid newspaper reports of assassination trials involving poison, especially if the suspect was female. And if the suspect was female and attractive sales would rocket.

Take the case of 22 -year-old Madeline Smith. In 1857, this beautiful and well-connected Glasgow socialite was accused of murdering a humble clerk called Pierre Emile LAngelier. Her weapon of option was a mug of chocolate laced with arsenic.

The nation was gripped, scandalised and titillated by reports of her trial, which included windowsill trysts, pre-marital sex and a cache of passionate letters.

It was a standard story of a poor boy aiming his sights too high. When Madeline became engaged to a friend of her wealthy parent, LAngelier threatened to disclose their correspondence. A short time later he was dead and the road of proof led back to the steamy letters and the steaming mug in Madelines hands.

Poor LAngeliers symptoms as reported by his landlady stomach ache, sweating, spasms and sickness were common in an age when cholera was rife, but they were also suspicious enough to warrant a postmortem. Unfortunately for Madeline, the toxicology report presented at his trial included the exact number of arsenic grains detected in his stomach amid the remaining his last night-time beverage.

Fortunately, however, she was wealthy enough to be defended by a brilliant proponent, John Inglis. His assertion that there was simply not sufficient proof to convict his client( combined with the fact that the public was charmed by the suspects pretty face and apparently sweet nature) meant that the jury eventually returned a( Scottish) verdict of not proven.

Madeline went free. Four years later she marriage Pre-Raphaelite artist George Wardle, a business partner of William Morris, which perhaps clues at her bohemian nature and beauty.

Its easy to see that even today, the case of Madeline Smith would have been a tabloid page-turner, but beneath the glisten of sex, society and deadly chocolate, theres an interesting scientific phase. More than 150 years ago, a detailed toxicology report corroborating the presence of arsenic in LAngeliers stomach was submitted as evidence in a court of law.

Although poison was viewed as a particularly cool and calculatingly feminine assassination weapon, it was not only women who chose to administer it. Contrary to those floridly sensational reports in the cramped columns of Victorian newspapers, plenty of men preferred poison as their technique of dispatch. It was a crime of fashion.

Arsenic, known since Roman times as the King of Poisons, was easily available to both sexualities. Once pay was made, all that was needed to complete the transaction was the buyers signature in the Poison Book kept in every chemist and hardware shop. People bought arsenic in sum as rat poison, and chemists didnt ask questions when women bought it for cosmetic use to improve their complexion.

The sexual frisson of the Madeline Smith case was perhaps an anomaly. A great number of Victorian poisoning instances revolved around the far less inducing topic of life insurance; in fact, the development of the life insurance industry in the first half of the 19 th century corresponded to a rise in poisoning instances. Effectively, anyone with a policy had a price on their head that an unscrupulous relative could claim if they were prepared to commit murder. In France, arsenic actually became known as poudre de succession inheritance powder.

It was easy to procure, easy to administer, but difficult to prove. And for that reason the social sciences of toxicology became increasingly important especially to insurers. Although exams for the presence of arsenic had been developed since the late 18 th century, until 1836 the latter are unreliable.

Its likely that we know that LAngeliers stomach contained 70 grains of arsenic because it had been subjected to the Marsh test.

In London in 1832, one John Bodle was accused of murdering his grandfather by putting arsenic in his coffee. During the trial, the prosecution called on James Marsh, a Scottish chemist working at the Royal Arsenal, to try to see the presence of poison in the contents of the old man stomach. He performed the then standard exam of passing hydrogen sulphide through the suspect liquid, which produced a distinctive yellow precipitate indicating arsenic.

The problem was that the precipitate did not keep well. By the time it was presented to the court the sample had deteriorated. The jury was not persuaded and Bodle was exonerated.

When Bodle later was recognized that he had killed his grandfather after all, Marsh who had always believed him to be guilty was infuriated and committed to ensuring that in future justice would be done. Basing his is currently working on previous notions, in 1836 he developed a glass apparatus capable not only of the detection of minute traces of arsenic, but also of measuring its quantity.

And here we come to the case of another beautiful woman.

The first publicly documented use of the Marsh test, indeed, the first time forensic toxicology was ever introduced as evidence in a court case, occurred in Tulle, France, in 1840 with the infamous affair of Madame Marie LaFarge.

Like Madeline Smith, Marie, a descendant of King Louis XIII, was well-connected. Her arranged wedding to Charles Pouch LaFarge, a robustly coarse human, was a matter of expedience Charles required fund to repair his ramshackle estate, and, at 23, Marie required a husband. The union was not a success.

The house into which Charles installed his aristocratic bride days after their wedding in August 1839 was damp and rat-infested. In fine gothic tradition it stood within the ruins of a former monastery. To induce matters worse, Marie was appalled by her peasant in-laws, who, in turn, distrusted her.

Less than five months later Charles was dead and Marie was suspected of having poisoned him. The proof centred on a Christmas cake, nuggets of venison, truffles and a small, mysterious malachite box, the powdery contents of which Marie had been considered to stir into her husbands festive eggnog.

With Charles not quite cold on his death bed the entire LaFarge family wept foul and pretty, grieving Marie became a Europe-wide celebrity.

When she entered the assize tribunal of Tulle for the first time on September 3, 1840, garmented in mourning and carrying a small bottle of smelling salts in her quivering hand, spectators were immediately divided into pro- and anti-Marie factions. Like the case of Madeline Smith 17 years later, the LaFarge affair became the stuff of newspaper gold.

The circumstantial proof stacked against Marie was great. In November 1839, she had bought arsenic from a local chemist, saying it was to kill the rats infesting their home. She had sent cake to her husband while he was attending to business matters in Paris, and, moreover, their maid swear that she had often considered her mistress mixture a white powder into his drinking.

Exams were carried out on the remaining the food and drink that Charless suspicious relatives had retained. The food was found to be positive for arsenic employing the old methods as well as the new Marsh test( the eggnog alone contained enough to poison ten people ), but when LaFarges body was exhumed the local chemists assigned to the lawsuit were not able to see poison.

It was at this point that respected chemist Mathieu Orfila, an acknowledged authority on the Marsh test, was called( ironically by the defence) to examine the results. He performed the test again and demonstrated that it had been carried out incorrectly. This time round, Orfila was able to prove conclusively the presence of arsenic in LaFarges exhumed body.

Amid uproar in tribunal, Marie was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour at Montpellier gaol, although the latter part of the sentence was subsequently commuted. Twelve years later in June 1852, suffered by tuberculosis, she was released. She died in November that same year, protesting her innocence to the last.

It was a controversial case to Maries bitter end. One of the first trials to be followed by the public through daily newspaper reports, it divided the country and became an international cause celebre . It was also notable for the fact that Marie LaFarge was the first person convicted, largely, on direct forensic toxicological proof. Indeed, the notoriety and success of the LeFarge conviction meant that Orfila went on to be recognised as the founder of the social sciences of toxicology.

Extensive coverage in the French press gave the field of forensic toxicology the publicity and legitimacy it deserved and the Marsh test was hailed as a wonder of modern science. In fact, the test itself attracted so much interest that for a while “its become” something of a fairground attraction. Demonstrations were conducted in salons, public lectures and even in popular melodramas recreating the LaFarge case.

More importantly, the existence of a proved, dependable exam served as a deterrent. Assassination by arsenic became rarer because, at last, it left a detectable trace at the crime scene. The King was dead.

It is an interesting echo that some 20 years later Charles Dickens chose to give the name Madame DeFarge to his murderous tricoteuse in A Tale of Two Cities.

Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders and its sequel, Kitty Peck and the Child of Ill-Fortune are published by Faber and Faber

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