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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...
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.
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?
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).
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. 3½ stars for me, so rounded up.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.
This book was provided to me in return for an honest and unbiased review
By Linda Stratmann
Murder by poison alarmed, enthralled, and in many ways encapsulated the Victorian age. Linda Stratmann's dark and splendid social history reveals the nineteenth century as a gruesome battleground where poisoners went head-to-head with authorities who strove to detect poisons, control their availability, and bring the guilty to justice. She corrects many misconceptions about particular poisons and documents how the evolution of issues such as marital rights and the legal protection of children impacted poisonings. Combining archival research with a novelist's eye, Stratmann charts the era's relationship and fascination with poisons, poisoners and their affects on society in Europe, but especially in England.
This is an extremely readable book, and is part history, part academic presentation, and part forensic textbook. For anyone fascinated by forensics, murder, murders and their weapons of choice, this is a thoroughly absorbing reading experience.
Although meticulously and thoroughly researched, this author has the eye for detail, and the voice for expression of a novelist, and the resulting combination kept me reading from the first page to the last, and enjoying the experience.
I will only say that if you are squeamish or have a sensitive digestive system, this might not be the book for you, since there are comprehensive details of the symptoms and actions of various poisons on the human body, and descriptions of autopsy results …that probably shouldn’t be read while, or just after, eating.
This aside, I can thoroughly recommend this incredibly informative, thorough, thought provoking, and yes, even entertaining book.