The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder by Linda Stratmann

I’ve read quite a few books about murders (including by poison) and found this book fascinating.  While my focus in the past has been on particular cases, this book looks at the popularity of poisoning, and why, as a mode of murder in the 19th century.

The Secret Poisoner by Linda Stratmann

‘Poison murders are, with few exceptions, usually planned and rarely the result of an altercation or a sudden fit of temper, as is so often the case with crimes of violence.’

Murder by poisoning in the Victorian age was comparatively easy.  Poison, in various forms, was both cheap and readily available.  In this book, using particular cases, Linda Stratmann writes about the availability of poison, about advances in detecting poison, and about developing controls over the availability and sale of poison.

It was, as Ms Stratmann points out, difficult to prove the act of poisoning even if the cause of death seemed clear.  Identifying the cause of death wasn’t always easy: some poisonings would not have been identified, others would have been (mis) diagnosed as cholera.  With poisoning, unlike most other forms of murder, it is possible that the cause of death could be considered natural.

But who are the poisoners?  Given that the murderer needs both the ability to obtain poison and the opportunity to administer it, the closeness generally required in preparing food or administering medicine would provide opportunity for introducing poison.  Women poisoners, according to analysis for the period between 1750 and 1914, are most likely to be the mother, wife, other family member or servant of the victim.  Men are most likely to be husband, father, medical attendant, lover, son or friend.

I found this book fascinating, especially reading about the advances in detecting the presence of poison.   It’s not for the squeamish: there’s a lot of detail provided.   I’d not previously read about some of the cases Ms Stratmann has included in her book.  Consider Christiana Edmunds, a spinster living in Brighton, who became obsessed with her doctor, and in 1870 tried to kill his wife with poisoned chocolates.  Her attempt failed, but she tried to divert suspicion onto the chocolate sellers, Maynard’s, by leaving packets of their chocolate creams (laced with strychnine) around Brighton.  She was eventually apprehended, but not until after a four year old boy, Sidney Albert Barker, had died.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Yale University Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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