Statistically, most murders are committed by men, but the few that are committed by women, are often un-premeditated acts, perpetrated during a quarrel with a spouse or lover, when, in anger, a woman picks up a knife and lashes out. In those sorts of deaths, a woman can often raise a defense of provocation or even self-defense, resulting in a lesser charge of manslaughter. However, having said that, there are still a number women who deliberately set out in cold blood, to kill, and their victims are usually men.
Two historical cases that I have always found interesting are almost forgotten now, but when reviewed and discussed cause as much controversy and disagreement now as they did when they originally occurred back in Victorian times. Back then, the method of choice for a woman to murder her husband was poison and the poison most readily available was arsenic, which could be easily obtained by purchasing flypapers and soaking them in water to extract the poison. Or, back then anyone could just go into a chemist shop and buy arsenic, which women used as a skin beauty preparation, and simply sign a poison register.
The first case is that of Madeline Smith, an eighteen-year-old, single woman from a well-to-do Glasgow family, who was accused of poisoning her secret lover in Glasgow in 1857. Madeleine was one of five children of James and Elizabeth Smith, a well-off Glasgow family who had been sent away to boarding school in England for her education and then returned to the restraints of Victorian Glasgow society life which she found parochial and boring. She did go to family functions and formal balls that the family were invited to by their business friends, but found them tiresome and unfulfilling and longed for adventure and romance, which she eventually found on Sauchiehall Street.
One day while parading along Glasgow’s most fashionable street with her sister they were stopped by a man known to the family, Mr. Robert Baird, who introduced his himself and his companion, a man of 28 called Pierre Emile L’Angelier, who was well dressed and well-spoken and in conversation claimed to be French and to have Aristocratic ancestors. In fact, L’Angelier had arranged the ‘random’ meeting with the girls so that someone from their social class, Mr. Robert Baird, could introduce him to Madelaine, something Victorian society did not allow. Further, he was not French but from the Channel Islands and his father was a very down to earth nurseryman, a gardener, whilst L’Angelier was a lowly clerk earning ten shillings a week. Madelaine was looking for romance and L’Angelier was no doubt looking for a liaison that could possibly lift him up in society or culminate in a sexual relationship, or possibly both and his luck was in.
From that first introduction on Sauchiehall Street a passionate affair developed with the lovers meeting, mostly in L’Angelier’s lodgings and sometimes, when the family and the servants were absent, in Madeline’s family home at No. 7 Blythswood Square, until Madelaine’s Father James, discovered the friendship between his daughter and the penniless clerk, and with typical Victorian heavy-handiness, absolutely forbid his daughter from seeing the man ever again. By the standards of those times Madelaine must be considered a bit of a rebel, because once the heat had died down she continued to meet L’Angelier in secret locations and many nights he would come to the barred window, of her basement bedroom, where they would talk and Madelaine would sometimes bring him a mug of cocoa.
This went on for months until James Smith found a suitable husband for Madelaine and told her in no uncertain terms that she was going to get married. Now, this put Madelaine in a very difficult position, because she had not only promised her undying love to L’Angelier but promised to elope and marry him and, as it came out later had lost her virginity to him. A further complication for Madelaine was that she had written over 200 passionate love letters that she needed to get back. Unfortunately, L’Angelier turned out to be an absolute cad in this respect and not only refused to return the letters but insisted Madelaine should marry him and promised to expose their affair if she didn’t.
That was how things stood, until on the 23 of March 1857 when L’Angelier was found dead in his lodgings, from arsenic poisoning. At first, it was thought his death could have been an accidental overdose, as back then, people did take all sorts of medication containing poisons, but then police searching the room discovered Madelaine’s letters, 195 of them, giving the police the suspicion that Madelaine had a very good motive for murder. L’Angelier had also spoken to his Landlady about feeling ill and vomiting after visiting Madelaine and drinking her cocoa or eating chocolates she had given him and at autopsy, it was shown that he had enough arsenic in his stomach to kill 40 men, murder was suspected.
During the further investigation, they found that Madelaine had bought arsenic from the chemist and had signed the poison register. Then they further surmised that Madelaine had put that arsenic in cocoa that she gave L’Angelier on the evening before his death, allowing him just enough time to get back to his lodgings before he died. Miss Smith was charged with ‘Murder with malice aforethought’ and sent for trial. The content of her passionate letters were leaked to the press and Victorian morals were outraged and the feeling against her was very strong, so the trial was held away from Glasgow, in the High Court, in Edinburgh.
However, during the trial, the prosecution could not prove that anyone had seen L’Angelier at or near Madelaine’s house on the night in question and they could not prove that Madelaine did not use the arsenic she had bought, as she claimed, as a beauty skin treatment. Also, some of L’Angelier’s letters showing his cruel, blackmailing attitude towards Madelaine, were leaked and the attitude of the Scottish people changed, in Madelaine’s favour.
In the end, the jury returned the very sensible Scottish verdict of ‘Not Proven’ which in plain English means just what it says, she probably did it but the prosecution didn’t prove she had done it, so Madelaine walked free from the court. But of course in those moralistic times Madelaine, or her family, could not remain in polite Glasgow society and she never saw her former fiancé, who had promised to marry her right after the trial, ever again.
In fact, she first got as far as London, then Plymouth where she met and in 1861 married George Wardle and had two children, at the same time changing her first name to Lena. Lena and George separated in 1889 and George died in 1910 of quite normal circumstances it has to be said. In 1916 Lena immigrated to the USA where she met and married a man named Sheehy. In 1928 Lena Sheehy, alias Madelaine Lena Wardle, alias Madelaine Smith, died in the Bronx aged 92 and is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, Hastings on Hudson, New York. Rest in peace Madelaine.
Another case of a woman from those Victorian times who was charged with the ‘murder with malice aforethought,’ of her husband, that I still find extremely interesting was that of Adelaide Bartlett. Born in France of French and English parents, Adelaide de la Tremoille grew up speaking both French and English, until she was a teenager when the family moved to live in England.
In 1875 when Adeline was 19-years-old she married Edwin Bartlett a man ten years older than her. It seems to have been an arranged marriage and Edwin, who was a bit weird, a hypochondriac and believed in animal magnetism, appears to have had no interest in satisfying his young wife sexually. Within a year of her marriage, Adelaide had started an affair with her brother-in-law.
In 1885, Adelaide Bartlett became very friendly with the Reverend George Dyson, a Wesleyan Minister a few years younger than her and Edwin approved the relationship and even changed his will, leaving everything to Adelaide and naming Dyson as the executor. Then in October of that year, the Bartlett’s moved to new accommodation in Pimlico, London and shortly after Edwin became ill with what the Doctor diagnosed as sub-acute gastritis. Edwin had a number of real health problems including all his teeth rotting, tapeworms and a variety of other vague ailments all of which he was taking patent medicines for, so when on the 1st of January 1886, Edwin was found dead in his sleep it was at first considered he had somehow succumbed to his many maladies, or had perhaps, accidentally overdosed himself on his many medications, or as some recent indications suggested he had taken his own life.
However, Edwin’s father was suspicious of Adeline and her lover Reverend Dyson and demanded an autopsy and the autopsy revealed a large amount of chloroform in Edwin’s stomach. The matter went to a Coroners Court who returned a verdict of wilful murder by Madelaine and an ‘accomplice to murder charge’ against Dyson. Later the charge against Dyson was dropped in exchange for him testifying for the prosecution,
It transpired that Chloroform was rather reluctantly prescribed for Bartlett by his Doctor, Doctor Leach, but collected from the Chemist by Dyson at the request of Madeline who claimed she used it to nurse her husband. However, what sounded very suspicious was that Dyson went to four separate Chemist shops to collect a small portion of the prescription, thus negating the need to sign the poison register which he would have to have done if he had tried to collect the whole amount at one go.
Madelaine’s trial commenced on the 12th of April 1886, with the Attorney General leading the prosecution whilst Madelaine was represented by Sir Edward Clarke, one of the most brilliant barristers of his day, who demonstrated that the possibility of Edwin committing suicide was the most likely scenario.
The trial was long and complicated but in the very end came down to how the chloroform was administered. If ingested, chloroform would burn the mouth, throat, and larynx but no such burns were present in Edwin. If as the prosecution claimed Adelaide had fed the chloroform to Edwin in food or drink or even rendered him unconscious by breathing the vapors, then pouring the liquid down his throat, there would still have been burning of the throat, which there wasn’t and the prosecution could not suggest how the murderer (Adelaide) could have done it.
For the defense, Sir Edward Clarke suggested that Edwin had taken the dose himself, swallowing it down very quickly, which avoided the burning of the throat. In the end this fairly common sense explanation hound favour with the jury who found Adelaide Not Guilty. A rather similar verdict to Madelaine’s, ‘we know she did it but the case is not proven.’
What happened to Adelaide after the trial is shrouded in mystery, one rumour has her marrying Dyson while another has them never meeting again. What is fairly certain though is that Adelaide followed Madelaine’s example and eventually immigrated to America and settled in Connecticut, and did I hope, live happily ever after.
After the trial, a famous surgeon of those times Sir James Paget said; “Now that it’s all over and she has been found not guilty she should tell us, in the interest of science, how she did it.”
I have always enjoyed these two similar stories, not because two women got away with what was quite obviously murder, and if found guilty would have been hung by the neck until dead, but that a sort of natural, common sense, peoples justice prevailed, allowing two men who were not good examples manhood and gentlemanly behaviour to die, while the women who had suffered at their hands, after the ordeal of a trial walked free. Just seems right to me.