The Crime Writers’ Association

The Victorian Fear of Poison Murder

In the nineteenth century the prospect of being poisoned was a very real fear, and the poisoner has frequently been denounced as the worst kind of criminal. Poison is secret and treacherous, administered by someone close to the victim, hidden in food, or disguised as medicine. Poisoners were seen as cruel and cold hearted, calmly watching their victims suffer and die. Following some sensational reporting in the press this fear escalated into a national panic, in which it was believed that wholesale poison murder was common. Poisons were sold cheaply and without restriction and were difficult or even impossible to detect in the murder victim. Symptoms of poisoning often mimicked disease, so there was a good chance of the killer getting away with the crime. The nineteenth century therefore saw a prolonged battle against this perceived and probably overestimated threat, during which the law placed increasing restrictions on the sale of poisons, and chemists devised tests to improve detection. Every time that society congratulated itself on solving the problem, however, poisoners looked for ways to get around the new obstacles and often succeeded. One of the keynote trials of the century was that of Eliza Fenning, a cook who was hanged in 1815 for the attempted murder of her employers. Held up as an example of martyred innocence ever since,

Eliza’s fate weighed heavily on future juries and led to many a prisoner being given the benefit of the doubt The nineteenth century also saw the establishment of the modern science of forensic toxicology and the rise of the expert courtroom witness. This role led to celebrity and honours for some, but when law and science clashed in court and experts disagreed, a single case could ruin a distinguished man’s reputation and career. Nowadays poison murder is rare, but if we can no longer buy arsenic from a grocer, we can obtain still more deadly substances over the internet.

Linda Stratmann is a former chemist’s dispenser, and author of thirteen non-fiction books mainly about true crime, but also including a history of chloroform, a study of the Illustrated Police News and an acclaimed biography of the Marquess of Queensberry. The Secret Poisoner chronicles the efforts of science and the law to tackle poison murder in the nineteenth century. Her fiction series the Frances Doughty mysteries, is set in 1880s Bayswater and features a determined young female sleuth. Her Mina Scarletti fiction series is set in 1870s Brighton featuring a writer of ghost stories who exposes the activities of fraudulent spirit mediums.

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