Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2018

Blackmail, Sex and Lies – Kathryn McMaster

Historical Crime
4*s

There are few stories as old as that of forbidden love and perhaps that is in part why the question of whether Madeline Hamilton Smith really did murder her lover Pierre Emile L’Anglier in Victorian Glasgow or not, has stayed in public consciousness for over one hundred and sixty years.

In Blackmail, Sex and Lies Kathryn McMaster has created a fictionalised tale using the actual letters between the lovers Madeline and Emile, as he was known, as the backbone of the book.

Madeline was part of the upper-middle classes, the daughter of an architect, albeit a man whose origins were far humbler whilst Emile worked as a packing clerk for Huggins a cotton merchants which was not an acceptable match in the year 1855 which is when the two first came into contact with each other. From Kathryn McMaster’s description Emile didn’t display his less than acceptable status, being well-dressed and a bit of a flatterer with his French accent and tales of daring dos in battles in France. The latter is subject to scepticism since Emile L’Anglier actually moved to Glasgow from Jersey in the Channel Islands where he was born on 30 April 1823.

Madeline was a mere 19 years old when she first met and was charmed by the older Emile and the pair initially had clandestine meetings until the wagging tongues of the gossips in Glasgow meant that word reached her mother. Her father banned the young Madeline from meeting or talking to Emile ever again and had she heeded his warnings the tale of course would have been much different.

As it was at the age of twenty-one, Madeline found herself on trial for his murder, the method, good old arsenic, the means a cup of cocoa and the opportunity a meeting to avail herself of very compromising letters which she hoped he would return to her to save her reputation, particularly as she was now engaged to the far more suitable William Harper Minnoch.

The fictionalisation of the story was incredibly convincing, even to this reader who has read a fair few accounts of the alleged  Victorian poisoner. The letters are inserted throughout the text in italics, so although the author has pin-pointed a time where young Madeline realised that Emile actually wanted to marry her so desperately to elevate his social position, the letters with pet-names and seeming promises of devotion are read in the context of a young woman who begins to realise the error she has made.

The book also contains some pictures to illustrate the text so that we see the house where Madeline and Emile exchanged the dynamite love letters through the convenient placement of her bedroom window, the lodging house where Emile met his agonising death and the likeness Madeline had taken to send to her lover.

A crucial element to the fictionalisation of historical murders is to tell a good story and the author certainly managed that. This is the first book I’ve read where the length of time Madeline and Emile carried on their relationship was really bought home to me – one of them was certainly playing the long game. To my immense pleasure what happened post-trial isn’t overlooked either, with enough details given even at this point for further insight into Madeline’s character to be made. The author has created her characters, added a plausible plot based on historical fact and woven that together creating the events, some of which are mentioned in the letters and others that must be entirely of her imagination and yet, so believable.

Did Madeline Smith murder her lover? I don’t think we will ever know and although the author’s explanation is incredibly convincing, even she can’t absolutely rehabilitate this young woman who behaved shockingly given the mores of the time.

For those who buy the kindle version of Blackmail, Sex and Lies, there is an opportunity to receive the full transcripts of the letters sent in the main by Madeline, Emile’s return post not having survived. Those that had envelopes with postmarks (although there is some doubt about whether the letters were returned to the correct envelopes have the added details of when they were posted and delivered which is enlightening as to the efficiency of the Victorian postal service! This collection is a lovely postscript to the book.

This is the second book of the year in my Mount TBR Challenge 2018, and since I bought my copy of Blackmail, Sex and Lies in December 2017 is also worth another third of a book token!

First Published UK: 30 August 2017
Publisher: Drama Llama Press
No of Pages: 198
Genre: Historical Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Books I’ve read that reference Madeline Smith

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup
A Gallery of Poisoners by Adrian Vincent
The Poison Principle by Gail Bell
The Secret Poisoner by Linda Stratmann
Victorian Murderesses by Mary S. Hartman

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2017

Poison Panic – Helen Barrell

Non-Fiction
4*s

In the 1840s the level of literacy was still low across the United Kingdom, but stories of crimes committed didn’t need to be read by everyone for them to spread, especially when the crime was murder, even more so if committed by a woman and panic inducing when the means by which a person was slayed was poison.

In Essex the county was the unfortunate scene of the panic induced by tales told both orally and by the newspapers about a number of women put on trial for poisoning unwanted relations using arsenic. There were calls for regulations and a strong sense that there was a shadowy group of women who were acting in cahoots or at least devising a method to poison people and walk away from the horrific crime with no stain on their character.

Helen Barrell’s book, Poison Panic, delves into the facts, and the fiction, of these events using all available sources to examine the cases and to evaluate whether there was any sense of collusion between the women whose crimes feature here.
This book is jam-packed, not just with the details of the three women Sarah Chesham Mary May and Hannah Southgate whose crimes in rural Essex led to wariness about that gentle hand at home who was in charge of preparing the food, slipping some of the notorious white powder into the dish, but also on some of the social history. We learn just how rudimentary their homes were, the rats that plagued the household were hopefully kept at bay with arsenic, houses where one man’s struggle with the results of arsenic poisoning were more than a slight inconvenience for his downstairs neighbours and houses where money from a burial club might just make it worthwhile to bump of an unsuspecting relative?

I’m a fan of investigations into Victorian crimes and can only applaud Helen Barrell in her presentation of the interlinking stories in Essex. With plenty of pictures, including photographs, illustrations from the magazine Punch as well as the very useful maps that underpin how closely or conversely how far apart the women lived from each other in a time where transport for wives of agricultural labourers wasn’t an option. To give a little perspective the author uses information from her own family in the village of Wix to give some context to the scene of crime. The author uses the Census of 1841 to provide additional evidence as well as the newspapers of the time who went to the same sort of lengths they do nowadays to keep the reader’s attention. It is fascinating to see how years after the poisonings these stories were wheeled out, dusted down complete with inaccuracies and served up fresh for what was sometimes a whole new generation of readers years after the events.

All fascinating stuff but for me, having read quite a large amount about this particular crime over the last couple of years, it is good to have some real cases that directly influenced the government to act in bringing in laws surrounding the sale of poison. Not, as the author is keen to point out that those early laws would have stopped the three women investigated in this book getting their hands on the white stuff.

Poison Panic was the thirty-first read in my Mount TBR Challenge and I’d like to thank the author for a comprehensive visit to Essex to examine these arsenic poisonings in the 1840s.

mount-tbr-2017

 

First Published UK: 30 June 2016
Publisher: Pen and Sword History
No of Pages: 224
Genre: Non-Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2017, Book Review, Books I have read

The Doctor’s Wife is Dead – Andrew Tierney #20booksofsummer

Historical True Crime
4*s

On 1 May 1849 Ellen Langley dies in Nengh, County Tipperary the local women gather and stone the house she was living in. Meanwhile Doctor Langley tried to go about the business of removing Ellen’s body from the house; he did, she spent two days in the garden.

This is the account of one woman’s life, a fairly indistinct figure and her sad demise and one that serves as a commentary on how women were both viewed and treated at this time, with a focus on the laws in Ireland at the time. It is clear, for whatever reason, Ellen Langley had been cast aside by her husband and in 1849 that put her in a very precarious position indeed.

This was an interesting read although the explanation of the convoluted family relations slowed pace of the book with mini-biographies of countless kith and kin, fortunately there are some family trees at the start of the book to assist the reader.

Following these early explanations we then move onto the part of the book which was far more interesting, the inquest where Doctor Langley seems at pains to exonerate himself from the faintest whiff of suspicion of wrongdoing. As a Protestant man of social standing, a man who had attended inquests as an expert witness at previous murder trials (there was far more serious crime in County Tipperary at this time than I’d imagined) it is possible that the Doctor was just pre-empting any rumours, after all the fact that his marriage to Ellen had not been happy in the last few months was no secret. Or his efforts to appear innocent were those of a man who was trying to disguise his guilt?

One of the things that always strikes me about historical true crime is how much faster the wheels of justice tended to move in those days. Archaeologist Andrew Tierney has certainly dug deep to find the documents that detail the court proceedings and has resisted what surely must have been a big temptation to flesh Ellen out with more details than are actually available. As a result she remains a shadowy being which made me feel all the more compassionate for this woman who represents so many of her time.

You can’t have a historical account in Ireland without links the conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants and while this doesn’t overshadow the court case it is useful to have the context, if only to gain an understanding of social standing. Alongside that, Ellen died during the potato famine and the author paints a desperate picture of the effect this had on the local population, the contrast between the rich and the poor being readily apparent.

This is a worthy addition to my historical true crime collection and the arrogance and lack of compassion from some players in the court room, all men of course, women were not allowed at this time, was so blatant it defied belief at times, but there is a lot to keep the reader’s attention. And then we get to the ending, court case over, The Doctor’s Wife is Dead leaves us with a surprise discovery which left me shocked.

The Doctor’s Wife is Dead was my fourth read of my 20 Books of Summer  Challenge 2017

First Published UK: 23 February 2017
Publisher: Penguin
No of Pages: 282
Genre: True Crime – Historical
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads, Mount TBR 2017

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie – Kathryn Harkup

Non-Fiction
5*s

This book was an absolute delight to read combining my love of Agatha Christie’s novels with a wealth of information about the poisons she chose to dispose of her victims. For any of my potential dinner guests who may be wary, do not fear, the author warns us off using the poisons she carefully and concisely explains at various points throughout the book!

Any present-day poisoner wishing to use some of the methods suggested by Christie will be disappointed to discover that even these underhand methods are unlikely to be successful, as increased checks and balances have since been put in place.

A is for Arsenic features the fourteen poisons deployed by the Queen of Crime in her various books, some of course were used more than once! She starts the book off by talking about Agatha Christie’s time as a working in the dispensary in her local Torquay hospital during World War I and her training to become as an apothecary’s assistant. It was here that she her interest in poison began and coupled with some inspiration of real-life cases many of her books featured some hapless person falling victim to one or other of her chosen poisons.

Each chapter starts off with a piece about the book, or books that the particular poison starred in followed by a bit about the discovery, chemical make-up and tests for presence of the poison featured. We then move on to how the poison kills, without I’m pleased to confirm overly descriptive passages concerning the symptoms which can be quite grim in reality. It is here that Kathryn Harkup indicates how Agatha Christie spared her readers too. For those who are on the receiving end of the poison, next up is any antidote or at the very least what your doctor should do to help support life while the body gets rid of the poison. We are then treated to some real life cases including Glasgow socialite Madeline Smith who was suspected poisoning of poor old Pierre Emile L’Anglier who came from Jersey because she was worried about him showing her love letters to her parents but instead stood accused of putting some grains of arsenic in his cocoa.

Despite the sometimes complex chemistry which the author manages to explain without sounding condescending but does so clearly enough that I could follow most of it, the book is for the most part pure entertainment – here is another warning about why you should resist the lure of poison:

But before you rush to take out hefty life-insurance policies on your closest and wealthiest relatives, or start growing foxgloves in your garden, remember that the drug is detectable even in minute quantities.

with comments from the side lines when things get a bit heavy:

The elderly spinster consistently displays a worryingly detailed knowledge of pharmaceuticals and poison.

I have to admit I really enjoyed the final part of each chapter which returns to Agatha Christie’s novels including the victim, the suspects and the potential methods employed to deliver the poison to the right person, at the right time.

Fortunately the murderer confesses, and even goes on to explain how the deed was done, the poison was added to Mrs Horton’s tea by one of her visitors. Arsenic trioxide is poorly soluble in cold water, but is much more soluble in hot water. By dissolving the arsenic in tea the killer was able to ensure that no suspicious gritty powder was left at the bottom of the cup.

I started by making a list of the books featured that I felt I simply must read right away, and then realised I would need to read Agatha Christie back to back for weeks to get through them all!! Well there are worse things I could be reading!

Finally as with any good reference guide non-fiction book, there are notes throughout each chapter and a handy table of all the novels and the methods of killing along with a bibliography at the end of the book. What more could a girl, fascinated by poisoners ask for?

This was my eighth read of 2017 towards my Mount TBR challenge as I bought this book in September 2016, and what a brilliant buy it was!

mount-tbr-2017
 

First Published UK: 2015
Publisher: Bloomsbury Sigma
No of Pages:  320
Genre: Non-Fiction 
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2016, Book Review, Books I have read

The Poison Principle – Gail Bell #20booksofsummer

Book 1

Non-Fiction 4*s
Non-Fiction
4*s

Here is the very first of the books I’ve read in my 20 Books of Summer 2016! To find out about the rest of the books on my list, I have dedicated a page which if all goes according to plan will include the entire list of my book reviews by 5 September 2016.

And what a start to the challenge – this is one of those fascinating books where you don’t know quite what you are about to learn from one page to the next. If you too love learning more about poisons and those who administer them, you can’t go wrong with this book. Even for those of you who don’t have quite the same niche interest as me, there is plenty to ponder on the literary side, those myths, fairy tales through Shakespeare and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and taking in a few other’s along the way.

The backbone of the book is the discovery the author made that her paternal Grandfather had poisoned two of his young sons in their Australian home in 1927. The author started to unravel the truth behind this family tale in 1980 by contacting her Grandmother’s sister who one afternoon agreed to be interviewed and told her the facts, the background to the perpetrator William Macbeth, and what life was like for the family at the time, and afterwards.

The book does read a little like a stream of consciousness but fortunately that stream is one of knowledge coupled with intelligence so it maintains a loose kind of structure. Along the way we learn about the origins of some of the popular poisons, famous poisoners which include those who used this method as suicide, forensics and even a poisoned circus elephant gets a place in this eclectic read.

My interest in poisoners has me fairly well-versed in the most infamous of this group including Crippen, Florence Maybrick, Madeline Smith amongst a whole host of others and I got to know some new ones too with the mini case histories the author provides us with. Gail Bell also looks at the notion that poisoning was a woman’s crime, sneaky and devious and using the traditional woman’s nurturing hand to provide poison rather than sustenance. She examines the statistics which bear out the truth that most non-accidental poisonings are against family members. As you can tell there is a lot to enjoy and discover but perhaps as a pay-off there is little that goes too deeply below the surface which I have to confess suited me perfectly – this is perhaps a friendlier read than the more learned book that The Secret Poisoner was and fortunately doesn’t include the gut-wrenching descriptions of poisons doing their work in the human body. What Bell does give us is a look at what action different poisons take on the body, a physiological study rather than one of the symptoms which again, I use the word again, was fascinating!

I have to confess that the subject matter took a turn for the truly bizarre when the author gave some of the characters, including Cleopatra, an imaginary rescue through quick action of those around them, for me the book could have lost these imaginations.

By the end of this meandering look at a whole range of poisoners both real and literary, we find out the truth of what happened to the poor Macbeth boys. A sad tale indeed for the whole family, including the author’s father who was fostered out to a rural farm to carry out chores for his bed and board.

I’d like to say a big thank you to Hayley of Rather Too Fond of Books who took the time to suggest this one to me following my review of The Secret Poisoner – that’s the best aspect of book blogging – I would never have come across this book, published in 2002 by Macmillan without such a recommendation.

To see what everyone else is reading look out for #20booksofsummer on twitter or go and check out the list of participants at Cathy 746 and of course the lovely Cathy herself, who came up with this challenge!

Posted in Weekly Posts

This Week in Books (June 1)

This Week In Books

Lypsyy Lost & Found my Wednesday post gives you a taste of what I am reading this week. A similar meme is run by Taking on a World of Words

Well it’s June 1 2016 which can mean only one thing; I am starting my month of reading books from my own bookshelves, including some that I’ve picked for 20 Books of Summer 2016

So I’m about to start The Poison Principle by Gail Bell as recommended to me by Hayley of Rather Too Fond of Books following this year’s random interest in poisoners!

The Poison Principle

Blurb

When Dr William Macbeth poisoned two of his sons in 1927, his wife and sister hid the murders in the intensely private realm of family secrets. Like the famous poisoner Dr Crippen, Macbeth behaved as if he were immune to consequences; unlike Crippen, he avoided detection and punishment. Or did he?
As time passed, the story of Dr William Macbeth, well-dressed poisoner, haunted and divided his descendants. Macbeth’s granddaughter Gail Bell, who grew up with the story, spent ten years reading the literature of poisoning in order to understand Macbeth’s life. A chemist herself, she listened for echoes in the great cases of the 19th and 20th centuries, in myths, fiction and poison lore.
This intricate story, with a moving twist at the end, is a book about family guilt and secrets, and also an exploration of the nature of death itself – as Bell turns to her grandfather’s poisonous predecessors, from Cleopatra, Madame Bovary and Napoleon, as well as looking at Harold Shipman. Amazon

I have just finished My Husband’s Son by Deborah O’Connor, a psychological thriller, that thrills!

My Husband's Son

You can read the synopsis and a couple of excerpts in yesterday’s post

Next up.. and I hope you appreciate how difficult this post is to write, as I haven’t scheduled my choices as normal, the spreadsheet is still there but it simply has a list of books so chaos and disorder reign… will be Bloody Women by the wonderful Helen FitzGerald. Bloody Women has been on my kindle since February 2014 so it deserves to be read especially as I’ve enjoyed the three books I’ve already read by this author; The Cry, The Exit and Viral

Bloody Women

Blurb

Returning to Scotland to organise her wedding, Catriona is overcome with the jitters.
She decides to tie up loose ends before settling permanently in Tuscany, and seeks out her ex-boyfriends.
Only problem is, they’re all dead. Goodreads

What are you reading this week? Do share in the comments envelope below!

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Secret Poisoner – Linda Stratmann

Non-Fiction 4*s
Non-Fiction
4*s

Well this is the book you want to read if you are interested, as I am, in poisoners through time and The Secret Poisoner concentrates mainly on those who made it to trial in the nineteenth century.

This isn’t just a book about the alleged poisoners and their possible victims though, it is about the birth of the expert witness, the different poisons available to both the typical poisoner; the wife, the servant or the offspring in hope of money but also those most feared of poisoners the medical men who did away with their patients under the guise of healing them and the judges who sentenced the perpetrators of this ‘cowardly crime’

There were various reasons for committing this particular crime and although the book doesn’t go into much detail as to the cause this book captures four cases that detail servants with a grudge against their employers, six poisoners who wanted to do away with inconvenient spouses or relatives and seven people who committed the crime for financial gain and these are just those who used the most common poison of the early nineteenth century, arsenic. The description of the death by this particular poison is gut-wrenching, although not as bad as for the poor victims!

The book also touches on the use of other poisons too, in particular laudanum which was the most common poison used on children, sometimes as an accidentally large dose to keep the little one quiet, but far more disquieting was those parents who used this drug to access the insurance taken out on their offspring’s lives.

This is a comprehensive book, with information about the scientists who devised tests for detecting poison in the body of the deceased, these tests were often demonstrated in court by the experts, many of whom it appeared were playing their own game of one-upmanship sometimes with disastrous consequences. Sadly the descriptions of the tests themselves had me no more interested than I was many moons ago in my chemistry lessons, but I understood enough to get the gist (I think!)

We also learn how frightened poisoning left the population at this time with stories in the press gleefully pouring out the details of the trials to their readers. In response to the public clamouring for action, the Pharmaceutical Society wrote a report to ensure that the sale of poisons became more regulated:

“In their united eagerness, their report may well have over-egged the poisoned pudding, making arsenic murder appear far more common than it actually was.”

Although this took a shockingly long time to make it into law finally

“On 17 February 1851, it was announced that parliament would introduce a measure to restrict the sale of arsenic.”

The author doesn’t ‘over-egg’ her own pudding though, pointing out that;

“After the passing of the 1851 Arsenic Act, no further legislation for the control of poisons was considered for some time. While available statistics show an increase in the number of poison murders bought to trial in the 1840s and 1850s, poison as a method of murder still remained rare compared to the various forms of physical violence.”

This book covers poisoners predominantly in the United Kingdom and France, although some Americans make an appearance towards the end of the book. Some of the crimes detailed were familiar, such as that of Glaswegian, Madeline Smith who I met in the Victorian Murderesses book by Mary S. Hartman who was accused of murdering her secret lover Pierre Emile L’Angeier who died from arsenic poisoning in 1857, of particular interest to me as the victim originally hailed from Jersey.

I don’t think there is a more comprehensive look at this particular type of crime and this book is quite dense, I certainly don’t recommend it as light reading, nor is it for those who easily feel queasy, believe me I’ve only lightly touched upon some of the unpleasant descriptions in-between these pages! The danger of course with the sheer volume of research packed into the book is that the crimes described can begin to merge into one, and as a result I did feel that it wasn’t always clear how this related to the laws being passed to prevent it, nor the increased chance of discovery due to the clever scientists. Despite that mild criticism which is easily overcome by not trying to pack this into a beginning to end reading experience, it was a simply fascinating read, particularly as the author rounds of her book with brief descriptions of some modern poisoners!

I’d like to say a big thank you to the publishers Yale University Press, London for allowing me to read a copy of this book, this review is my thank you to them. If you want to know anything at all about nineteenth century poisoners then The Secret Poisoner was published on 22 March 2016 so you can fill your boots with Linda Stratmann’s meticulous research.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Mrs Maybrick – Victoria Blake

Non-Fiction 4*s
Non-Fiction
4*s

I can’t write this review without stating how attractive this little book is being small and almost square it is really quite sweet, unlike its contents of course! So much so that I instantly felt an urge to collect others in this series on appearances alone and then I read it, and if the others are as well researched and clearly set out as this one, well I will need to fill an entire shelf with them!

I chose this book on the advice of the author when she mentioned Florence Maybrick in the comments section of my review of The Last Woman Hanged, the subject of that study was Louisa Collins who was accused of murdering two husbands in New South Wales in 1889. Florence Maybrick underwent her trial for the murder of her husband James Maybrick in August of the same year, the poison was the same, arsenic. I knew a little about Florence’s trial from the splendid read which was Victorian Murderesses but wanted to see what Victoria Blake would add. Quite a lot it would seem and even better at the end of the book she presents the arguments for and against on whether Florence was guilty as charged. I like a woman who stands by her research and the author didn’t disappoint putting her hat into the ring – which one you’ll have to read the book and find out for yourself.

Within the 100 plus pages the information is densely packed with information including the background to the case, the state of the Maybrick’s marriage, the scheming servants and the two-faced friends all get as thorough examination as the facts will allow. The book has two sets of plates full of pictures of not only the key players in this drama but some of the documents used to convict Florence too.

It is interesting to read that there were many women who wrote to the papers about Florence Maybrick as they did for Louisa Collins on the other side of the world only months earlier. The same complaints were made in that Florence was being tried by and judged by men, women not being allowed to vote at this time, let alone sit on a jury! There also appears to have been some similar conviction on the part of the doctors and the police that Florence was guilty giving weight to the feeling that the trial wasn’t fair and the doubts about the poison, and whether it was poison raged just as fiercely in Liverpool in 1889 as they had in Australia. Perhaps the fears of the population that those weaker than them could easily procure the means to kill them in extreme agony had a part to play in both women’s trials or perhaps this was seen to be an easy way to get out of a marriage in a time when options were limited? Either way this makes for fascinating and informative reading.

Learn more about Victoria Blake on her blog here

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Last Woman Hanged – Caroline Overington

Non-Fiction 4*s
Non-Fiction
4*s


On 8 January 1889, Louisa Collins, a 41-year-old mother of ten children, became the first woman hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol and the last woman hanged in New South Wales.


Caroline Overington has researched the story behind Louisa Collin’s four, yes you read that correctly, four trials for murder. One of the three trials was in relation to the deaths of her first husband Charles Andrews in January 1887, the cause according to the doctor who signed his death certificate was Acute Gastritis, three were in relation to her second husband Michael Collins the man she married just three months after the demise of the first. Michael Collins died on 8 July 1888 of what the post mortem indicated was arsenic poisoning.

This book not only takes us through the suffering of both men as they writhed for days in agony with stomach pain but the job of the somewhat incompetent hangman – Nosey Bob, those who presided over the trials and most importantly the clamour of women’s voices to commute the death sentence passed when Louisa was finally declared guilty in respect of the death of Michael.

As with all these reconstructions of historical crimes one of the main questions is was Louisa guilty of the crime that meant ‘that she hanged from the neck until she was dead.’ It’s certainly far from clear cut, but that isn’t the main thrust of the book which is far more about women’s rights at a time they were treated as children. Louisa hanged on order of laws made by parliament of which she had no say in. She lived a life forever in the fear of abject poverty; if her husband didn’t work, she, and her children, wouldn’t eat and there was no way out of the never-ending cycle of child-birth, the last of Louisa’s babies had recently died when just a few months old.

Louisa isn’t the most sympathetic of characters, but once the death sentence had been passed those women who did have a voice, through their husbands and fathers, began clamouring for the sentence to be commuted. Although some of these were unconvinced of her guilt, by no means all were. There was after all the unpalatable truth that whilst thirty-six men had been unable to reach a consensus of guilt, Louisa was hung on the verdict of the final trial. Al of this carried out in the space of a few short months with a dwindling population of suitable jurors. Quite why there was so much will to retry this woman until the verdict of guilt was reached is unclear,but e can assume that powerful men were clearly determined that their presumption of guilt was the right one.

There is a fair amount regarding the politics of New South Wales at the time of the trials which to be honest meant little to me sitting as I do well over one hundred years later on the other side of the world, but they sound very similar to politics everywhere with the distinction that Australia was at this time trying to move away from being a penal colony to a fully-fledged independent country.

This was a fascinating read although at times I felt that I was bludgeoned by the repletion of information that this was a man’s world and Louisa had no say in the laws. I understand the argument but if Louisa did set about to murder two husbands in such an agonising fashion, she probably understood that if her crimes were discovered that the law was going to act. After all hanging wasn’t a rarity, although in New South Wales the last women prisoner had her sentence commuted.

The afterword takes us through the next few years where due to their vociferous campaigning Australian women were the first in the world to get the vote and spread the word to the rest of the world, including Britain. We also catch up with what happened to Louisa’s children and other key members of the case. A satisfactory ending to a book which gives a factual account of Louisa’s life and trials while bringing to the forefront a fight that would live long after her body had been cut down from the scaffold.

Last Woman Hanged is from my own collection of books, chosen not for the historical factor of this true crime but following my read of the author’s I Came to Say Goodbye which I thoroughly enjoyed.

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.