The Secret Poisoner by Linda Stratmann

50 ways to kill your lover…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

 

the secret poisonerLiberally illustrated by true tales of crimes from the Victorian era, the book’s real focus is on advances and developments in the science of detection and the prosecution of poisoning cases. In each chapter, Stratmann looks at one aspect of these and gives one or more examples to show their impact in practice.

Stratmann opens with the case of Eliza Fenning, a maidservant hanged for the attempted poisoning of her employers. This case came to be seen as a major miscarriage of justice, highlighting the inadequacies of the justice system as it related to poisoning cases. Cases were dependant on proof of two things – that the victim had in fact been poisoned, and that the accused had deliberately administered the poison. The science at the time was so weak that proof of the first part was almost entirely dependent on observation of the victim’s symptoms, and the second was complicated by the fact that poisons were readily available without any safeguards, and in fact were often used in small doses as medicines.

Arsenic was the poison most often suspected in the early days of the period, and at this time women were the ones most likely to be accused of using it. Although the focus of the book is on the science, Stratmann also touches on the social conditions behind many of the cases she discusses. Arsenic was easily obtainable and simple to use, and its use as a rat poison meant that there was nothing particularly suspicious about women buying it. At the time, divorce was difficult, especially for the poor, and especially for women. While men could divorce an unfaithful wife, a woman could only divorce her husband for much worse things; for example, if he was violent or deserted her. Married women had no property rights – whereas a widow could inherit her husband’s property. So the temptation to do away with a brutal (or sometimes just boring) husband was always there…

Eliza Fenning... before the hanging!
Eliza Fenning… before the hanging!

But it wasn’t only inconvenient husbands who could be disposed of with relative ease. During this period, the Government changed the law so that an unmarried mother could no longer get maintenance from her child’s father through the court. Add to this the rise of ‘burial clubs’ – an insurance scheme where payouts greater than the cost of the funeral would be made on the death of the insured – and it’s hardly surprising there was a rise in the number of cases of infanticide amongst the poor. Stratmann makes two interesting points about these cases – firstly, that women murdering their children tended to use laudanum rather than arsenic because it was a ‘kinder’ death, causing less suffering to the victim; and, secondly, that juries, who probably had a good understanding of the impossible poverty some women found themselves in, tended to take a more sympathetic and lenient view of such cases than we might expect from Victorian men.

Stratmann makes the point that, although there were indeed many poisoning cases in the period, much of the hysteria around the apparent prevalence of poisoning was due in large part to the effect of ‘moral panic’, as the media and special interest groups whipped up fear amongst the populace for their own advantage. The new Pharmacists Association and the forerunner of the British Medical Association saw panic over poisons as a means to boost recognition of their own professions as the best people to sell and control drugs, while nothing sells more newspapers than a horrific murder and, preferably, a good public hanging to follow.

The trial of Dr Palmer, the Rugeley Poisoner
The trial of Dr Palmer, the Rugeley Poisoner

As the science of detection gradually improved and the Government slowly began to take measures to make the purchase of arsenic a little harder, the focus changed somewhat to vegetable alkaloids, such as the infamous strychnine. Since these poisons were harder to get hold off and in some cases required a bit of knowledge to use effectively, the ‘moral panic’ pendulum swung and it was now men who were seen as the main poisoners, especially well-educated, respectable men. Again Stratmann raises some interesting points here, such as the reluctance of doctors called in to such cases to suggest poisoning because of the elevated social positions of the ‘suspects’. She gives us examples of cases where a wife would be slowly poisoned, with her attending physicians suspecting poison for days, even weeks, before death but doing nothing constructive to stop it. The British class system at play as usual – isn’t it great?

Death mask of Dr William Palmer... after the hanging!
Death mask of Dr William Palmer… after the hanging!

Meantime, the science was improving but unfortunately the egos of the scientists were growing alongside. Now both prosecution and defence would call ‘expert witnesses’ who would battle it out in court, more interested sometimes in their own reputations than in the guilt or innocence of the accused. This had the double effect of making it next to impossible for jury members to decide on scientific points they didn’t understand, while undermining public faith in science in general. In some of the examples Stratmann cites here, I was frankly glad I hadn’t been on the jury, as both sides set out to destroy the reputation of the other. She also compares the British system to the French, where the court would appoint its own expert, thus avoiding this kind of courtroom confrontation (but also meaning that perhaps too much reverence and faith was placed on one man’s opinion).

Linda Stratmann
Linda Stratmann

So, interesting stuff. Unfortunately overall, I found the interesting bits were pretty deeply submerged under a lot of scientific stuff I didn’t really understand and didn’t think was explained clearly enough for the layperson. Also, there are far too many examples of cases given, all complete with very similar gruesome descriptions of vomiting, bodily excretions, autopsies and horrific scientific experimentation, mainly on dogs. All the cases eventually merged into one mass of yuckiness – a few cases more carefully chosen would have been much more effective, in my opinion. By the final few chapters, I was skipping over the cases, and the science, I must admit, to get to the little bits of interest to me. In the end, I felt it was all too detailed and had too much repetition of points already made. However, it is undoubtedly a thoroughly researched and well written book which will be a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the science, justice system or social conditions of the time.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

66 thoughts on “The Secret Poisoner by Linda Stratmann

  1. There’s always such a balance, isn’t there, FictionFan, between providing rich information, and giving so much detail (scientific and otherwise) that it ends up being off-putting. I find the topic fascinating (Hmm….what does that say about me, I wonder… 😉 ). And it sounds as though this is a thoroughly researched and well-supported book, which I always respect. Hmmm……I may be looking into this.

    • Yes, and of course every reader’s tolerance level is going to be different, which makes it even harder. But I did find all the cases in this one began to merge into one after a while – it appears poisoners were fairly unimaginative. The ones who got caught, anyway…! An interesting read overall, though. 🙂

  2. I imagine this one would make for a better reference work than casual reading. Of course, the experimentation on dogs — regardless whether it’s in the name of science — would cause me to bypass it! Thanks for an outstanding review — woo hoo, another one I don’t have to read!

    • The dog stuff really was pretty horrific – I guess she couldn’t have avoided telling about it, since it happened, but reading about it was tough. Overall, it was an interesting read, but not one that I wholeheartedly enjoyed…

  3. Hm, media frenzies and special interest groups in Victorian England? Not much has changed, has it?!? Overall, this reminds me of The Poisoner’s Handbook, which has the same subject matter, but focuses on the US and the creation of the modern medical examiner. Poisoners had to get a little more creative once people could prove that there was poison in the corpse.

    • Ha! I know! I kept thinking of modern cases whenever she was talking about the media, or warring expert witnesses etc. Nothing ever changes! I haven’t read The Poisoner’s Handbook, but yes, it does sound similar. She touched on cases in the US and Europe but this one was mainly focused on the UK. Every time the poisoner did something stupid that got him/her caught, I kept wondering how many people got away with it… it seemed to mainly be stupidity that gave them away…

  4. How could you possibly mess up a poisoning! *shakes head* And look at her. Just sitting there in her cap like she doesn’t even care! I bet she doesn’t. The beast.

    Seems like an interesting–if Yucekth–book. Now, now, you can’t kill a chap just because he’s boring!

    • Be warned – I now know about a hundred different ways to dispose of anyone who annoys me… *waits for the Prof to give her chocolates* Poor girl! I bet she cared when they put the noose round her neck and…

      It was both interesting and yucketh, but I think yucketh won in the end. Not one to read while eating, for sure! I can’t? *sullen face* Spoilsport!

      • You do? Cool! Wait. You do not! Do you? Do you really do? It would be cool if you did. And dropped the latch! I wonder if her neck broke or she strangled. Probably, her neck broke.

        Nah! It’s just not righteous of you. And you want to be righteous right?

        • I do! I really do! Really! But I’d never poison you. Unless…

          I can actually tell you the answer to that! “It was a short drop, only about eighteen inches, so Eliza did not die of a broken neck but by strangulation, the crowds looking on with an awful fascination. She was said to have struggled only briefly, and it is possible that, hidden by the platform from the public gaze, Langley (the hangman) swung his weight from her legs to grant her a speedier death.” Bet you wish you’d lived in those days!

          Oh, I suppose so *mutters*. But righteous is so dull sometimes…

          • *professorish eye* How’d you learn all this? In Boot Camp? In the Circus (Roman one)? At BUS’s house? Unless?! I’m definitely not safe around you. Definitely.

            Yucketh and an ew. Goodness. Imagine that! I’m not sure it was nice that Langley helped out. Imagine the rope burns when she got down! Definitely not nice. Definitely.

            *laughing lots and lots* Watch out for the Hammer of God…

            • *glares* Are you suggesting I am old enough to have been in the Roman Circus, sir?? I shall set the lions on you… *squeezes sponges* I learned from books! Bet you wish you’d read some now! No, no, you’re perfectly safe! Until…

              *laughs* I’m thinking when you’re being strangled to death perhaps rope burns don’t seem so bad… It’s not nearly as bad as what Elizabeth I used to do to her enemies though… *shudders*

              *laughs lots* Why do I think it might be you that’s wielding it…?!!

            • Sponges! Humph. I was around in the Roman Circus days! At least you could have the decency to be there, too! Dadblameit. I read so much, I can’t read anymore. It’s like an…epidemic!

              Ooo…what’d she do? Take out their intestines?

              Oh I don’t think I could pick it up. If I ever found it. I’ll search, tho. High and low. Low and high.

            • Yes, but you’re so much older than me! I’d have had to have a special little baby chariot made for me, and where would we have found horses small enough? It must be that your brain is too full of other stuff… like your encyclopaedic knowledge of ’70s music…

              *nods wide-eyed* She used to insist that they were cut down from the noose before they became unconscious, so they could feel the whole disembowelling – and then see their insides being burned in front of them before they finally died! I’m considering changing my mind about being a Queen…

              Good! That should give me time to make my escape…

            • I’m sure babies weren’t allowed to have fun in the Circus. You know, now that I think on it, I don’t think women were allowed either. Haha. I’m so special, the sudden. I was the only professor in the Circus. That’s cool.

              Goodness. How horrid is that. I hope she got her neck chopped off. Or in two. Whichever is worse.

              You can run but you can’t hide! I fought the la and the la won!

            • Nah, women were given the offer but when they heard about the whole lion-eating-people business they decided it was a job for the boys! They did use to help with the whole thumbs-down business though! So, did you tame the lions by playing them Yes albums?

              Sadly not – she died of old age. There’s no justice in life! But it must have been fun if all those headless corpses were waiting for her in the afterlife…!!

              You mean you lost?? Nah, can’t be!

            • Ohhhhhhhhhh….I see. Well, I just raced around the thingy. I didn’t fight the lions. That was for the chaps that were bronze beasts. I just sat back and watched, I think. Yes! I love Yes. Did I tell you that before?

              There is no justice in life, is there… Well, I bet they are. I bet she’s still screaming.

              Oh no, when the la wins, the professor wins.

            • I bet you were Androcles! Now I think of it, he may have been my first hero… *laughs* It may have come up in conversation once or twice… usually just before I say “You’re weird!”…

              Ah, but she was doing it in the name of the Reformation… Knoxy’s probably handling her defence…

              *befuddled face* You’re deliberately trying to baffle and confuddle me, aren’t you?!

            • Androcles! What an…interesting name. Bet he looked like Hercules. Whatever he looked like. I’m not weird! Just…odd, I suppose.

              Her defense, you mean. No ‘c’, see. I do hope you see, double-see. Knox? Nah. He wouldn’t be.

              Haha. And I really thought it made sense, too

            • Don’t you know the story of Androcles? I bet he wasn’t as muscly as Hercules. *laughs* Hmm… I think I prefer weird people to odd people, you know, you know – weird is fun…

              *shakes head sadly* Poor Amerisa!

              That’s the bit that’s worrying…!!

            • You know, I don’t think I know it…is he the fellow that went too close to the sun? *grumbles about fairness* Yes isn’t weird! I’m old, remember. Very older old.

              Now you’re feeling bad. Roller-coaster.

              *laughs* Maybe I am insane…!

            • No he’s the escaped slave who took shelter in a cave only to discover a lion in there. But the lion was in great pain from a thorn stuck in its foot. So Androcles pulled it out and the lion became his friend. A few years later, Androcles was captured and made to face the lions in the circus. But it turned out that his lion was amongst them, and it wouldn’t let him be harmed. So the emperor released them both and they all lived happily ever after. Or something. It’s a long, long time ago since I heard that story… Yes is weird even for old people!

  5. I think this book would send me into a tirade about the injustice, hubris, etc….of partriarchal societies and how women have borne a disproportionate share of burden due to poverty and oppression. As it is, it sounds like the science tends to dilute the overall effect, burying “the story” under technical info not sufficiently explained. Not sure I could get through this the way you did. I hope you’re now reading something far more enjoyable.

    • Indeed! Especially at that time, women just had no rights at all – in fact, married women especially. Unmarried or widowed women were actually better off from a legal standpoint, making it kinda understandable why so many of them might have been tempted to dispose of their husbands! Yes, chemistry was never my strong suit, but I felt it would have been better to either have left out the details or explained them more simply. I’m reading about Elizabeth I now – so beheadings and disembowellings rather than poisoning. Much better! 😉

  6. Very interesting… Someone mentioned this but it does remind me of The Poisoner’s Handbook. I wonder how it compares… Suspiciously my husband received this as a “gift” one Christmas from my brother! It has since made its way to Goodwill where some other poor soul will receive a stiff drink.

    (This reminds me of poor Bates in Downton Abbey. I’m binge watching this, however, and don’t know the outcome! Perhaps HE’s the brute!)

    • I haven’t read that, but yes, it does sound like the same kind of thing, only with the focus on the UK system. Hahaha! You must give his partner a copy of American Psycho in exchange…

      (Ooh, would you believe I haven’t watched Downton Abbey? I think I’m the only Brit – perhaps the only human – who hasn’t. If I’d known there was a murderous brute in it, I wouldn’t have been able to resist…!)

      • What?! How very un-British of you! I’d bet all my books you’d love Downton! There are plenty of good-looking chaps in there for the ladies to fawn over… I love Maggie Smith so much I’m beginning to quote her…

        American Psycho… YES! Perfect! Christmas is now taken care of. My sister-in-law will appreciate it, no doubt!

        • I know! I’m surprised I haven’t been expelled from the country yet! I did watch the first few episodes but something must have happened and I missed a couple, and then just never caught up. One day I shall do a boxset splurge. Love Maggie Smith – such a great actress! I recently re-watched her in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, when she was also in her own prime – marvellous stuff!

  7. This is so not the day for anything technical……… D’Hont………….wibble, wibble wibble…….

  8. ….Or, to add to your list of people for whom the book might be most interesting, those planning on doing away with their nearest and dearest by means of noxious, toxic substances!

  9. One of those great non-fiction reviews reviews that gives loads of well-packaged information while also making me feel less guilty about how many factual books in the world I’m never going to get round to rwading – thank you!

    • Thank you! Haha! Yes, I too like reading other people’s factual reviews as an alternative to ploughing through the entire book sometimes. Given that about 2500 new history books alone come out each month, I reckon we all have to share… 😉

  10. Sounds like there is a lot of good in this but it might just take time to get to it? It’s a balance with historical/ true crime sometimes to marry the context to the subject matter.

    • Yes, it was a bit overstuffed with examples, I thought, especially since so many of them were very similar. Amazing how many spouses turn to arsenic really… thank goodness for easy divorce! 😉

  11. The picture of poor Eliza Fenning is horribly like the sketch of Jane Austen by her sister.
    The new, darker page suits the subject matter too! This book sounds too technical and grisly (horrible combination!) for me.

    • Ooh, so it is! Maybe those caps and hairdos made all women look the same…

      Yay! You noticed! I’ve been toying with changing my theme for about two years, so I decided finally to just do it!

  12. Reading about of justice systems scares me. Didn’t you sissy read about Salem witch trials recently, too? Then again, I read modern justice and I don’t really feel any better.

    • Urg!!! I said reading about the justice system scares me. Didn’t you recently read about the Salem witch trials? Then again, I read modern justice books, like Missoula, and I really don’t feel any better.

      • No, not me – though I have read about Salem in the past. Yes, when reading these books about times gone by, the thing that strikes me most often is how little things have changed in some ways. Expert witnesses are still fighting it out in court… look at OJ!

  13. Fascinating subject! In fact, it makes me wonder why this is so fascinating to me (and obviously others). I think, for me, it’s crazy to think that it used to be a thing to kill someone with poison and possibly get away with it. I didn’t know about the children, though. That is so sad, and must have been gut-wrenching for the mothers who did it.
    I’m glad you summed it up all so nicely for me, so that won’t have to wade through all the more scientific stuff. It would be interesting to read a book that was based only on a few well-chosen cases – I agree!

    • I often think that when reading crime fiction too – and I get kinda upset if there’s no murder. It’s a strange thing… and a bit worrying… 😉

      The bits about the mothers murdering their children were so sad, though she didn’t try to sensationalise them in any way. What surprised me was that the all-male juries of the time showed some understanding for the women who found themselves in these impossible positions.

      Yes, I think this one is just a bit too detailed and long for most casual readers. But it was still interesting!

    • Indeed! I must check if Amazon sells bulk orders of laudanum… Haha! Yes, it all got a bit much, especially since I like to read while eating and I could pretty much gurantee that as soon as I picked up my fork, someone would start… ahem… excreting!

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