During my PhD research into Victorian domestic murder I became particularly interested in cases featuring women murderers, not least because of the huge amount of press attention they received. These four women, whether guilty or innocent — I’ll leave you to decide that one — all have something to tell us about the position of women in the nineteenth-century.
Madeleine Smith: death by chocolate
Madeleine Smith was a respectable middle-class young woman living in Scotland and ripe for the marriage market. In 1857 she became engaged at the age of 20, but was faced with a tricky dilemma: for the past two years she’d been carrying on a secret love affair with Emile L’Angelier, a lowly clerk whom her family would not approve of. What was worse, she’d written Emile 198 letters, some of which made no secret of the fact she’d had sex with him and thoroughly enjoyed it. Despite her desperate pleas for him to destroy or return her letters Emile was having none of it, so Madeleine made several purchases of arsenic, ostensibly to kill rats. After visiting Madeleine in secret on several occasions and enjoying a cup of hot chocolate made by her own fair hand, Emile fell violently ill and eventually died. The autopsy revealed 85 grains of arsenic in his stomach: enough to kill 40 men. The jury took just twenty-two minutes to return the particularly Scottish verdict of Not Proven. Essentially, they believed in Madeleine’s guilt, but felt the prosecution had not provided a sufficiently strong case to prove it. Madeleine walked free.
Christiana Edmunds: death by chocolate (again!)
In another chocolate-themed murder we come to Christiana Edmunds, that most vexing of things to Victorian society: an unmarried woman. She developed a passionate affection for the married Dr Beard; accounts differ as to whether or not he returned her interest. Her first attempt to secure Beard for herself was buying his wife a box of chocolate creams which she injected with strychnine. Fortunately Mrs Beard did not die. With the finger of blame pointing firmly at Christiana, she bought several more boxes of chocolates, laced them with strychnine and then returned them to the sweetshop as unwanted. She tried — and failed — to poison Mrs Beard a second time and also offered poisoned sweets to children on the streets, thereby causing the death of a 4-year-old boy, Sidney Barker. The miracle is that more people didn’t die. She was found guilty in 1871 of Sidney Barker’s murder and received the death sentence, which was commuted to life imprisonment due to an alleged history of insanity in the family. Christiana saw out the remainder of her days in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, dying there in 1907.
Adelaide Bartlett: death by chloroform
In April 1886 Adelaide Bartlett was tried for the murder of her husband, Edwin, the first time someone had been charged with death by chloroform. This was unusual enough in itself, but the case attracted huge press attention because of Adelaide and Edwin’s highly unconventional marriage. Edwin favoured a platonic union, although Adelaide did fall pregnant early on in their marriage, presumably not by divine intervention. Given that, among his many medical maladies, Edwin suffered from rotting teeth and possibly tapeworms, Adelaide may have been grateful for his absence from the marital bed. Whilst Edwin may have had little physical interest in his wife, he was delighted to surround her with male friends. One of whom, the Reverend George Dyson, was encouraged to kiss Adelaide in her husband’s presence. Edwin even went so far as to bequeath Adelaide to George, in the event of Edwin’s demise. Adelaide was clearly viewed as a possession by her husband, to be passed from one man to another, with very little say in the matter.
Initial charges implicating the Reverend Dyson in the murder were dropped at the start of the trial, and Adelaide was tried alone. Edwin’s autopsy revealed a significant quantity of liquid chloroform in his stomach. Adelaide admitted her husband had been keen to renew sexual relations with her, which had prompted her to wave a chloroform-laden handkerchief in front of his face to make him pass out. After a sensational trial that laid bare every intimate detail of her relationship with the Reverend, Adelaide was acquitted, largely because the prosecution couldn’t prove how such a large quantity of liquid chloroform had got into Edwin’s stomach without causing any damage to his throat or windpipe.
Florence Maybrick: death by fly-paper
At the age of 18, American-born Florence Chandler married James Maybrick after a ship-board romance. He was 23 years her senior and the marriage quickly proved to be a mistake. James had a number of mistresses and Florence also sought affection elsewhere, most notably with one Alfred Brierley. Learning of the affair, James threatened divorce. On 11 May 1889, he was found dead. His body contained small traces of arsenic, but not enough to prove fatal, and James was a well-known user of arsenic as an aphrodisiac and tonic, a more common practice with the Victorians than you might realise. When the Maybrick home was searched, it was rumoured to contain enough arsenic to kill at least fifty people, although the prosecution argued that Florence had laboriously soaked the arsenic from fly-papers and given it to James. Despite her openly conducting an affair with Brierley, Florence attracted huge public support with the total number of signatures across various petitions numbering nearly half a million. She was found guilty of James’s murder, but her death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
This piece appeared in www.history.co.uk