Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

Victorian Murderesses – Mary S. Hartman

Historical Crime 5*'s
Historical Crime
5*’s

There is something quite fascinating about women who murder, and judging by the amount of contemporary reporting of the details about the cases featured in this book, nothing much has changed over time. In this book the author has selected an Englishwoman and a Frenchwoman for each chapter based upon the circumstances, rather than the method of their crimes. All the women featured are from the middle-classes and a certain amount of conjecture is used to paint a picture of this class of women from the details of their cases the reasoning of the author being that these women’s lives weren’t documented or studied in the way of the lower classes and so using these cause celebres can give us a glimpse behind the drawing room curtains of their lives. I’m not completely convinced by this argument but for some of the broader details it works, for instance the chapters that touch upon contraceptive gives us an idea of how widespread or acceptable this was in Victorian England for the middle-classes.

The beauty of this book is threefold; the details of the crimes committed the resulting investigation and if appropriate trial, the popular opinion at the time of the guilt or innocence of those accused using contemporary media and lastly the particular social issues that may have led these women to act outside the law and kill another person. Each case presented was interesting and appeared to be well-researched, although one of the downsides of reading this kind of book on the kindle is that following the notes as you go along is very time-consuming so I tended to wait until I’d finished a chapter to catch-up on these. The fact that there were two women per chapter means that the reader does need to concentrate once the initial setting of the scene has happened, as the author switches between the two subjects to compare and contrast the difference between the two societies in a number of different spheres, including popular opinion and expectations.

The author states in the preface:

These accused daughters, wives and mothers have little to teach any would-be twentieth-century practitioner about the art of murder; nearly all of them bungled badly in the ac, and those who got away with it relied upon methods that required special circumstances and relations between the sexes which no longer obtain.

And that is precisely what makes this study so interesting, women can no longer act coy in the witness box, but they could, and were expected to, in Victorian England and so many of the more salacious details are hinted at rather than baldly stated both at the trial and the resultant reporting.

The cases cover the years 1840-1890’s and the subjects covered are:
Marie Lafarge and Euphemie Lacoste which covers the use of arsenic in matriomony
Madeline Smith and Angelina Lemoine who were both between school and marriage when they were accused of killing their lovers
Celestine Doudet and Constance Kent who were both spinsters when they murdered
Florence Bravo and Henriette Francey the so called new women who were defying the old order of society
Gabrielle Fenayrou and Adelaide Bartlett both wives of shopkeepers who were reported to have committed adultery
Florence Maybrick and Claire Reymond who were allegedly victims of the double standards held at the time.

I found this book both interesting and informative although the language at time is quite dry, this is a study rather than a book for entertainment but one that I will be seeking a physical copy of on my bookshelf to supplement my Victorian crime selection.

This book was originally published back in 1976 but has been re-released in 2014 for a new generation of readers by Dover Publications who were kind enough to give me a copy of this book in return for my honest review.

My recommended further reading:

The Suspicion of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale – Constance Kent is the chief suspect in the The Murder at Road Hill House and features in chapter three of this book.
Death at the Priory by James Ruddick – The murder of Charles Bravo is the subject of this non-fiction book which explores all the possible culprits to this horrific murder by poison. (chapter four in this book)
A Very British Murder by Lucy Worsley – an excellent look at the fascination that we have with a ‘good murder’ and the reporting that fed this desire.

Author:

A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

29 thoughts on “Victorian Murderesses – Mary S. Hartman

    1. I really enjoyed this and quite liked the fact that this wasn’t a simple re-telling of the events but rather compared to the differences between England and France and tracked the changes in society through the years covered. It was a scholarly type of book but that didn’t make it any less interesting but I do like to warn others of potential negatives in my reviews.

    1. This is why having electronic review books doesn’t always work for me… I want it sitting on my shelf so that I know where to go for more information in years to come – this is probably why my bookshelves are overflowing too!

      1. I’m the same – for any reference books, esp my large history collection, I like a physical copy, as it’s so much easier to flip around. I do have some on my Kindle too, rather naughtily, and totally unknown to Mr Crimeworm! (my book collection is a source of constant contention, hence him buying me the Kindle Fire!)

    1. It does seem less ghoulish to read crimes from the distant past than those happening now and you are so right the details that are revealed here and considered salacious are put into the context of these women’s lives.

    1. Oh how fantastic, I found it revealed such a lot of details about the lives of these women and although I wasn’t always totally convinced by the links to the wider middle-class society it certainly added depth to the time period.

  1. Sounds like another fascinating one. I like the idea of it not all being about British murders, which we probably already know a bit about. None of the French names ring bells for me.

    1. I hadn’t heard of any of the French ones at all! It was a clever idea to show that the movement towards a more equal society was more advanced in England than France which meant that different judgements were made by their peers.

  2. Doubtless it’s the author’s error, but can I just point out that Madeline Smith is SCOTTISH, not English! Apparently her home, in Blythswood Square, later became a lawyer’s office, and had one room, used for storage, which many of the staff refused to enter!

      1. I’m amazed she wasn’t convicted – don’t know if this was due to her being of a better “class” than him. Can’t recall the verdict – was it not guilty, or “that bastard Scottish verdict” (according to Sir Walter Scott, I think) of not proven?

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