The people of the Victorian era had a very specific fear: poison murder.
This fear was driven partly by obsessive newspaper coverage of sensational poisoning cases, but as Linda Stratmann makes clear in her new history, The Secret Poisoner, it also played perfectly upon the anxieties of the age. Thanks to the lax regulations of the era, deadly poisons were easily available to wives, servants, even children. And did you really trust your doctor? What if your good friend with the heavy gambling losses had taken out an insurance policy on your life?
In her book, Stratmann recaps the very public cases that created the perception there was a vast poison murder problem—as well as inspiring the occasional copycat. She also traces the development of toxicology as a science, a process often driven by fierce professional rivalries. We chatted about some of what she learned; our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Why were the people of the 19th century so preoccupied with poison and with secret poisoners? You say in the book that deaths by physical violence always outnumbered deaths by poisoning.
Poison murder was very much feared, well, for several reasons. First of all, you could be murdered by your nearest and dearest. Now that was scary, you see. You might not be the sort of person who’d go out and get drunk and get into a fight, but you could still be poisoned by your cook. You could fear absolutely anybody, even people who ought to be powerless, like servants or your wife or your children. The other thing that people really feared about poison was the fact that poison attacks you from within. You can’t run away from it. You can’t fight back.
They often said that poison murder was the worst, the cruelest kind of murder, but it was seen as upsetting the whole framework of society. Because wives, servants, they were supposed to be powerless—people have their position in life and that didn’t change. And all of a sudden, here was a powerful weapon that anybody, even children, could use. And that was very disturbing for them.
Also there was a lot of poison available, and relatively freewheeling rules about things like death certificates, right?
Yes! It wasn’t until the 1850s that there was any kind of control over the sale of poisons. Anybody, even a child, could go into a shop—a grocer’s shop, not even a chemist’s shop—and buy enough poison to kill dozens of people. And the reason for this was that poor people needed to have cheap medicine, cheap cleaning materials, they needed means of keeping down vermin, mice and rats. If all these things were strictly controlled, they wouldn’t be able to obtain them. That was the argument. It was not until well into the 20th century that there was, finally, control over things like weed killers and vermin killers.
What were the big poisons that people pictured when they thought about poison murder? Largely arsenic?
Yes, arsenic was used for murder probably more often than any other. It was very freely available, it was cheap, it was pretty much tasteless. As long as you could get it to dissolve in something, somebody could take it without realizing they’d taken any poison. So it was very useful from that point of view. That’s what made it so dangerous. It was sold, initially, just as a white powder, so it could go into anything. Put it in a rice pudding, nobody would notice. And it wasn’t until later in the century they said, “We’ve got to stop this,” and they actually used to dye it blue or whatever, so you would notice something.
Only later on, some of the more sophisticated poisons came in, like strychnine and cyanide and aconite and those things. They weren’t so often used.
Arsenic was the focus of the beginning of the toxicology field, right? The discipline that would become toxicology spent decades developing technologies to find arsenic.
Yes. Arsenic, because it was so often used, was a focus to begin with: How are you going to find arsenic in a dead body or indeed in anything that might remain—being delicate about this—from someone who had merely been unwell? But arsenic of course is a metallic poison so you could take a sample of some things, say a suspect foodstuff, and you could destroy all the organic matter and you’d be left with the arsenic. But it wasn’t until about 1836 we had a really reliable way of testing for arsenic.
Then there was the big problem—organic poisons. You’ve got a suspect piece of bread or cake or something, you destroy the organic material, and you destroy the poison as well. People said, “Well, we’re never going to be able to do this.” They really thought it was impossible. Then there was one very important case when somebody committed a murder using nicotine, and it was a Belgian scientist who thought, well, I really need to solve this puzzle, and he did it. That was a huge turning point in toxicology, when someone was actually able to separate an organic poison from organic matter.
It was really interesting reading the book how primitive their methods were, but how far you could get doing an autopsy even then. If you took somebody’s stomach apart in the right frame of time, you could find the arsenic.
The thing that scares me when I read about the autopsy reports—and it’s obvious when you read the account of it—the doctors are doing this just with their bare hands. Which would be unthinkable nowadays, incredibly dangerous. They would say, “Oh yes, I put my fingers into the stomach contents,” and you go, Oh my heavens.
It was quite primitive by our standards, although forensic toxicology as we know it really had its origins at the beginning of the 19th century with the French toxicologist—well, he was actually Spanish—Orfila. He produced this wonderful two-volume book, and that really was the launch of the modern study of toxicology, and people built on that work over the century. Not that he couldn’t be wrong occasionally, but it was very much more scientific and less superstitious than it had been in the previous century.
It was also interesting in that there was clearly no sense of the chain of evidence. In your book, you give instances of murderers actually attending the autopsies of their victims.
Exactly! If you were a doctor and you had murdered somebody, then you could actually take part in the autopsy on your own victim, and if you were really lucky, you could nudge something and spill the evidence, or try and get rid of the samples. It was rather strange.
The chain of evidence, some of the ways the samples were handled, they just wouldn’t be allowed in a court nowadays, because they’d gone through so many hands. There was one case where a policeman had taken charge of a packet of arsenic, went to the pub, had a few drinks, and was passing it around all the other people and showing it to them.
What role did the penny press or the press in general play in all this?
I think the press was actually very important. At the beginning of the century, you didn’t have the penny newspaper. Then gradually newsprint became cheaper, you had more newspapers printed, you had them distributed, you had better adult literacy, and of course sensational cases sold newspapers. Many newspapers were quite happy to print rumors rather than actually sticking to the truth. So what you’ve got then was this sudden thought—Oh heavens, there’s this terrible outbreak of poison murder. And it probably wasn’t any worse than it ever had been before, but it was just more widespread. And people became afraid that maybe the few cases that came to court, these may be just the tip of the iceberg. Because there were so many deaths that, it was very hard to attribute a cause of death. And so people thought that poison murder was much more common than it actually was.
You mention the idea in the book of a moral panic about poison murder.
Absolutely. I mean this happened in little villages in Essex. There was one or two murder cases, and the rumor started to spread that actually, there was almost this poisoning industry going on in all these little villages in Essex, that women were known poisoners and you’d go to them for advice and they’d tell you how to get rid of your awful husband. And in the end, there were actually very few prosecutions, but there were rumors that it was just rife. And it was, I think, rather overdone.
It did have a function, because as a result of this panic over what was happening there, particularly with arsenic, there were questions asked in Parliament and legislation was brought in to control the sale of arsenic, at long last.
They probably accidentally helped with the problem of accidental poisoning.
There was a lot of accidental poisoning. I don’t deal with it very much in the book, but certainly you’d get a packet of something, this white powder, and people would think oh it’s salt or baking powder or something, and their whole family would be poisoned, because it was actually arsenic and it wasn’t labeled.
You mention the fear that there were these local women telling women how to murder their awful husband. Part of what’s going on here is the fear that these supposed-to-be-dependents, women, children, servants, could kill you at your dinner table—but it seems like at the same time there’s this recognition that women have awful husbands and there’s nothing they can do about it.
Yes, there was substantial amounts of dreadful domestic violence at this time, and really the courts didn’t do very much about it. You do occasionally see cases coming to court, but so much just went unreported and tolerated.
Up until about the middle of the century, the usual perception of the poisoner was that it was a woman from the laboring classes, she wouldn’t be terribly well educated, she would kill her husband or she might kill other relatives if she’d insured them first, and she was using arsenic. That was the popular picture of what the murderer was. Then later on in the century, you suddenly got some very high-profile cases where this concept of the educated middle-class male poisoner who killed for inheritance or things like that [came in], and he was using rather more scientific methods. That was just the public perception, and there’s some truth in both of those.
That’s a very stark shift—it’s almost like a shift from Regency cartoons to Sherlock Holmes. What drove that shift?
What was behind it was a number of very high-profile cases that were all over the newspapers in the 1850s. Again, newspapers driving public perception.
I think people know a lot about William Palmer, who was a doctor and insured people and murdered them, used strychnine quite a lot. He had gambling debts he had to face. And so here you have a medical doctor who’s hanged for murder, which was quite shocking really. The doctor was someone of status who you were supposed to trust.
And then there were other cases—people perceived strychnine as something that you could use and they tried to copy Palmer. Not usually with any success from the point of view of getting away with it.
It’s so news-driven. We don’t think of this happening in the 19th century, but there were many newspapers and they were widely read.
Were there any cases that stood out to you as very prototypical or especially remarkable?
If I had to pick one case out of this that I found the most fascinating, it was one I hadn’t really come across before: the Great Burdon slow poisoning case, which has so many interesting features of the classic Victorian crime. You’ve got the husband tried for the murder of his wife, but she died slowly over two months and the arsenic was given to her in an enema. Very, very unusual—not completely unknown, but very unusual. And he was acquitted, and nobody was ever actually successfully condemned for that crime.
Now, I’ve reexamined some of the facts in that case, and I think that the prosecution was, shall we say, a bit blinkered. Looking at it with a more modern eye, I think I know who the culprit was. Her three medical attendants suspected that she was being poisoned, and because of their professional status, didn’t dare tell anybody, and they didn’t have tests done until far too late. By the time they’d established that she’d been poisoned with arsenic, she was dead. Took her two months to die. There was quite a lot of uproar over that. It’s a really, really interesting case that I think ought to be better known about.
So you don’t think the husband did it?
No, I don’t think the husband did it.
Who do you think did it?
Ah, you have to read the book to find out!
I guess it could be any number of people, right? That’s the thing about poison murder!
Well, yes, this is the whole thing. It’s very rare with a poison murder that somebody actually sees somebody administering the poison. It very occasionally happens, but usually it’s done when no one else is around. It could have been maybe half a dozen other people might have had access to whatever it was that carried the poison. And that’s why in so many of the cases people were acquitted, even though with the surrounding circumstances you think Oh, I’m pretty sure they’re guilty. But it couldn’t be proved in court, and they gave them the benefit of the doubt.
The book challenged some of my stereotypes about Victorian law courts—that idea everybody was sent to the gallows or transported. It seems like from your book a lot of times juries would ask for mercy or clemency.
What was interesting was that, when a woman had committed a murder and it was obvious that she was in terrible distress—there was one woman who’d been not only abandoned by the man she was living with, but he’d turned up one day when she was out, took all her furniture and everything, and just went off with it, and she came back to a completely empty house and was left totally destitute. People could see that this a woman in total desperation. And so unfortunately she gave laudanum to her child and took it herself, but she pulled through. But the courts realized this was not a hard-hearted killer, this was a woman driven to the edge of despair. So they were actually quite lenient on her. And there are cases like that.
On the other hand, there’s cases of other people killing in cold blood, who are villains of the deepest dye as far as I’m concerned!
When did this age of the poison murder panic end, and why?
It came to a close really about the end of the 19th century. By that time we had proper death certificates, we had doctors legally that were required to provide a cause of death. You had better autopsy methods, better toxicology and so on, so you could actually get to the cause of death a lot better. And then statistics were provided which showed that actually the numbers of poison murders were far less than was actually believed. If you haven’t got the information, it’s easy to panic and think, Oh, this is a terrible danger. But it actually wasn’t as bad as people thought.
Well that’s a relief.
Yes. Well, we still do get poison cases today, but they’re far rarer.