How Did She Get So Much Of It Into Him? A Victorian Murder Mystery
His death led to one of the most notorious murder trials of the nineteenth century. Because the individual accused of murdering him was a twenty-two year old woman, the daughter of a wealthy architect. Her name was Madeleine Smith, and she had been conducting a clandestine affair with the dead man for two years.
Her trial caused shock waves, not least because her love letters to the victim were read out in court. They were frank and unashamed, detailing the first time the couple had sex. Madeleine not only wrote about sex, she wrote that she enjoyed it, too. Newspapers were aghast - after the trial, many took the view that Emile, an older man and a foreigner, must have corrupted this young woman.
But that didn't answer the question: did she kill him?
At the end of the short trial, Madeleine was found 'not proven' and released. Despite the evidence of a note she'd sent Emile asking him to meet her, the prosecution couldn't prove that the two had met the night before he died. And despite the fact that she had purchased arsenic three times in the weeks before Emile's death, they couldn't prove that she had administered it to him. And despite the fact that Emile would often stop at her apartments on Blythswood square, tapping the railings to indicate he was there, when she would give him a cup of cocoa, the prosecution couldn't prove that the arsenic had been stirred into the hot drink. Chemists testified at the trial that sprinkling the poison into hot liquid would simply make it adhere into a sizeable lump, easily detected. One found that if you boiled the arsenic up with the chocolate, the poison would disperse into smaller lumps, but not enough to go unnoticed.
Four or five grains of arsenic is all it takes to kill a man. Doctors found, after an autopsy, that Emile had about 90 grains in his body at the time of death. Given the considerable purging that would have taken place, they estimated he'd ingested at least double that amount. Approximately half an ounce. The amount Madeleine bought each time she purchased arsenic from a local apothecary. If she did kill him, how on earth did she get so much of it into him?
It all looks pretty bad for Madeleine. When I started researching for my novel about her, I kept an open mind. Suicide? Suicide to frame her? Murder by another hand? Madeleine's sole motive was her desire to end the affair with Emile, which he was refusing to let her do. He had told her he would show her love letters to her father. Her response was terror and hysteria: she immediately sent the houseboy to purchase prussic acid, a well-known poison for suicides. But the apothecary wouldn't sell it to the young servant. What else was she to do?
Here's how the story began for me. In December 2010, the writer Emma Tennant rang me to say that she was working on a novel about Madeleine Smith and asked if I'd like to write it with her. I was more than happy to agree - I'd reviewed Eleanor Gordon and Gwyneth Nair's excellent history, Murder and Morality in Victorian Britain: The Story of Madeline Smith (Manchester UP), and knew something about her life after the trial. Emma suggested I tell Madeleine's side of the story, and I thought about having her tell it towards the end of her life, when she was living in New York.
I was finishing my novel Unfashioned Creatures at the time, and didn't get the chance to write anything when a year later, Emma rang again. We talked about it some more, and this spurred me on to write a few pages. Unfortunately, Emma then became seriously ill. I visited her in the summer of 2012. She had sent me 26 pages of the novel she had been working on, and I had sent her about 20 pages of my side of it. She had hoped to be able to do more, but after my visit she rang again to say she didn't think she could manage it. She gifted me her 26 pages (set at the time of the trial) to use as I saw fit.
By this time, I'd already thought more about Madeline's life after the trial. I wanted to write a section about her life in London, when she married George Wardle, the manager of William Morris's arts and crafts firm. And I wanted to write a section set in New York, the year before she died, set in 1927. When I became Writer-in-Residence at Gladstone's Library in May 2013, I managed to get a rough first draft written.
But I still hadn't solved the essential dilemma. Was Madeleine a murderer or wasn't she? I tried to tell myself it didn't matter, but it did. Either I was writing a story about a woman who had committed murder and got away with it, or I was writing about a women unjustly accused and suspected for the rest of her life. I had to make up my mind, and that also meant deciding how, if she was guilty, she could have done it.
Emma certainly thought she was guilty, and gave me a hint about how it could have been done. Janet Morgan, author of Agatha Christie: A Biography, also told me, when I chaired her at an event, that she was sure Madeleine was guilty. But Sue John at Glasgow Women's Library was quite convinced of her innocence, and biographers are divided, too.
It wasn't until I read through her letters (the crime writer Caro Ramsay very kindly gave me hard copy of the trial, and it is also available online as a pfd) - some of which I got to see at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, where a scarcely legible hand covers every scarp of the paper - that I made up my mind. I think it was the letter with her first response ot Emile's threats that convinced me. I believe her terror; I believe she thinks her father will throw her out on the street (given that she was sent away by her family after the trial would bear that fear out). I believe she is quite desperate, and out of her mind with panic.
There then remained the problem of - how? I've badgered my poor family and close friends about my particular theory, which will be revealed at the end of my novel.
But how do you think she might have done it?