Currently, I am working on a new short story, and I am pulling inspiration from a number of places. I have become inspired by Thornseat Lodge, a hunting lodge in Yorkshire, as the setting for the story. I almost wrote a blog post about the crumbling, Victorian era residence, but I found another source of inspiration much more interesting for a blog post. This is the scandalous trial of Madeleine Smith.
You see, Madeleine Smith was not a conventional Victorian era miss. She was a young, beautiful woman living in Glasgow, Scotland, but she did not live by society’s dictates. She broke the rules of chastity and convention when, in 1855, she started an affair with a man by the name of Pierre Emile L’Angelier. A rather sensual name, if you think about it.
Madeleine was young and in love. Passionately in love. Her affair with L’Angelier was torrid, and also secret. Her parents did not know about her lover, because he was socially beneath her as an apprentice nurseryman. Madeleine’s parents would’ve never accepted his suit for her hand. This is evidenced in the fact that her parents rejected the idea when, at one point, she brought up the possibility of marrying him, which was met with swift rejection and condescension.
Still, her affair remained secret. The lovers met often at her bedroom window, and at night. The two also exchanged passionate, and scandalous, letters. Letters filled with longing and idealization. On one of their meetings, the two even consummated their affair. Madeleine had lost her virginity to Pierre, and this was apparent in the letters the two exchanged.
If her parents ever discovered the truth, she could have been disowned and thrown out of the family’s home. And, what would have happened, then? Opportunities were limited, already, for women without a whiff of scandal attached to their reputations. Honest work would be nearly impossible to find for a fallen woman. A woman of dubious morals. In essence, a woman who was not a virgin.
Of course, Madeleine wanted to keep the affair a secret, and she was able to for two years. Until, in 1857, her father found a suitable match for her. One of his friends, a William Harper Minnoch, who was an upper-middle class man.
Seeing her future mapped out for her, Madeleine tried to retrieve those passionate letters from Pierre. However, he refused to return their correspondence. Rather, he blackmailed her. Either she married him, or he would show those letters to her fiancé. Madeleine decided there was another option.
She was observed by witnesses visiting a druggist’s office…ordering arsenic. She signed her name as “M.H. Smith.” She gave him a cocoa on one of their clandestine meetings. Cocoa laced with arsenic. Pierre Emile L’Angelier died on March 23, 1857. Clearly, the lesson here is to never blackmail a woman into marrying you.
After dying from arsenic poisoning, Pierre’s lodgings were searched through. Madeleine’s letters were discovered, anyway, and she was arrested and charged with his murder. During her trial, she was viewed as an innocent woman, incapable of the crime. However, the evidence pointed to her, considering she had a motive and was spotted purchasing arsenic, a handful of times, before Pierre’s death. She was given a verdict of “Not Proven,” which is a verdict that can only be given in Scotland.
Madeleine Smith lived a full, and free, life. In 1861, she married an artist and had two children. She participated in the Fabian Society, and even served coffee at the meetings. She was surprisingly able to handle the beverages, because she was known by her married name, and few knew of her dramatic past. Luckily, no one died of arsenic poisoning. She moved to New York City after separating with her husband in 1889. She married a second time in 1916.
She lived a rather unremarkable life after her affair and murder charges. However, her legacy remains a source of plays and novels, including myself. I am basing a character on her and her fascinating past, and I hope you can see why. Her choice of weapon, although common, is interesting when you consider what she served it in–cocoa, of all things!
Johnson, B. (n.d.). Famous Victorian Poisoners. Retrieved from http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Victorian-Poisoners/
MacGowan, D. (2011, March 5). The Trial of Madeleine Smith. Retrieved from https://www.historicmysteries.com/the-trial-of-madeleine-smith/
Madeleine Smith and her poisonous tale. (2005, November 23). Retrieved from http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/madeleine-smith-and-her-poisonous-tale-1-465286
The Strange Affair of Madeleine Smith: Victorian Scotland’s Trial of the Century by Douglas MacGowan