Some things never change. I know it’s a well-worn cliché, but it bears repeating, especially after I’ve just spent dozens of hours exploring the archives of infamy for the benefit of discerning true crime connoisseurs like yourself. What becomes quickly apparent is that there are certain features of crime and punishment that have always existed and probably always will — different eras, different tech, same human stories.
Today’s case took place all the way back in the Victorian Era, a time when showing a bit of ankle would cause a neighborhood scandal. Despite the gap in time and culture, I think you’ll agree there are plenty of recognizable features in this 160-year-old tale of passions both romantic and violent.
Middle-class Victorians Brits thought themselves very civilized — above all the vice of foreigners and poor people — so you can imagine the shock when one of their own, a wealthy young woman, found herself on the dock for murder. And I have to warn you, it gets so much worse than that.
I feel sick just thinking about it, but I have a responsibility to the truth, no matter how terrible it is. Anyone of a sensitive disposition should cover their ears now. Today’s episode features a case of… premarital sex.
What, you’re not shocked? Okay, maybe I hyped that up a little too much, but give me a break; I’ve had my head stuck into 19th-century news reports all day. And trust me, it was a much bigger deal back then.
See for yourself. Let me take you to the streets of Queen Victoria’s Britain all the way back in 1857, where we’ll explore the case of Madeleine Hamilton Smith. Just promise not to drink the water while we’re there — I don’t want you giving me cholera.
The story takes place in Glasgow — a place which was at the time famous for ship building and heavy industry. The shipyards and factories of the city regularly spewed out blankets of smog which would make modern Beijing’s air look positively crisp and clean in comparison.
Another effect of the city’s strong industrial pedigree was its social dynamics. The wealthy upper classes inhabited fancy townhouses in the west and center of town, in contrast to the poor factory workers and laborers who often endured poverty conditions on the outskirts. The class system, as was usually the case in the UK, was very acutely felt on these streets.
But as James Cameron taught us with Titanic, that sort of thing sets the stage for some compelling romantic drama, and that’s exactly how today’s case began. The lovers in question were Madeleine Smith and Pierre Emile L’Angelier. They first met in 1955, when she was just 20 years old, and he in his early thirties.
She was the well-educated daughter of a wealthy architect, heavily drilled in the proper conduct for a young Victorian lady. She had studied in London, at Mrs. Alice Gorton’s Academy for Young Ladies. As you can guess, they didn’t focus too much on STEM subjects — a woman’s education in those days focussed more on how to properly address suitors, and sew a tear in your husband’s waistcoat.
Madeleine wasn’t exactly the docile housewife type however. She played the part by going to all sorts of social functions with her family (which were just where rich people went to trade kids for social status), but underneath her polite manners she had a hidden rebellious streak. Her outlet for this was Pierre.
He had been raised on Jersey, an island in the English channel which is a dependency of the UK. Pierre’s parents were, unsurprisingly given the name, French. His father was a small-time seed merchant who sold mostly to the Francophone locals. In a bid to boost business and draw in English speaking clientele, Pierre’s father encouraged him into an apprenticeship and English studies. By the end young Pierre was pretty fluent.
Along the way, he won the friendship of a wealthy Scotsman, who offered him a job on his estate. Golden ticket in hand, Pierre traveled to Edinburgh for some preliminary training in Scottish botany (which is not slang for cannabis farming, I swear). During his training, however, his wealthy benefactor died, so without any money to travel home he ended up staying on at the plant nursery for another year.
It was 1852 when he moved to Glasgow, taking a job as a warehouse clerk. Things were going relatively well for Pierre by this point in the Scottish phase of his life: decent enough salary, good social life. But what he didn’t have, was a wife — a key part of the Victorian Dream. And not any old wife would have done for Pierre; he had ambitions to climb the social ladder.
It was the spring of 1855 when he first set eyes upon young Madeleine. This was before the days of pickup lines, so he needed to find some way to approach her. Eventually he discovered they had a mutual acquaintance — a middle-aged woman named Mary Perry who lived in Madeleine’s neighborhood.
Now the stage was set for the main act in the wild drama of Madeleine’s young life — and the final act in Pierre’s…
They began meeting each other in private, whenever possible. Madeleine would spend the evening with her family at their home in Blythswood Square, and then, after they had said goodnight, try to steal as many moments with her boyfriend as possible — visits to her bedroom window, sneaking to the bottom of the garden. Y’know, classic Shakespeare stuff.
During the day they arranged brief rendezvous at a nearby shop, and in quieter parts of the neighborhood. It’s understandable why Madeleine enjoyed the idea of a secret romance with an older foreigner — with a French accent no less! And as for Pierre — well, his new girlfriend was a good-looking 20-year-old with boatloads of cash. Need I say more?
But because of the scandalous class divide between the two, their relationship could never be made public. With limited in-person contact, they resorted instead to writing letters to each other pretty much every day. Pierre would slip his through Madeleine’s window, and she would post hers to his apartment.
They were pretty careful to make sure nobody found out; Madeleine burned the letters after reading for fear of her servants happening across them, whereas Pierre kept them all. But they were evidently not careful enough. Eventually Madeleine’s father wised up to the amorous Frenchman loitering around his garden in the evenings, and demanded she stop speaking to him immediately. It seemed like the end for their relationship, but Pierre convinced her he would find a way to make it work.
He asked Mary Perry to let them meet in secret at her place, and she agreed. So the clandestine meetings and secret letters continued. In fact, they didn’t just continue, they intensified. See, somewhere along the way — either at Miss Perry’s house or after sneaking into Madeleine’s bedroom — their relationship became physical.
The letters started to reflect that fact, with mentions of certain desires which were not befitting of any decent Victorian lad or lady. The eggplant emoji hadn’t been invented back then, but we can safely assume it would have been used.
Part of the reason neither Pierre nor Madeleine saw a problem with this is that they believed themselves essentially as good as married. Madeleine started referring to herself as “Mimi L’Angelier” and his “darling wife”. This wasn’t just make-believe; the two really did plan to marry, even though Madeleine’s rational side knew it could never happen. Regardless, the couple got engaged.
But as you’re well aware, if there were a happy ending in store for that union, then you wouldn’t be hearing about it on this show…
I bet you’re imagining a scenario in which Madeleine’s father finds out about the whole thing and challenges Pierre to a duel, or whatever people did in those days — but no, the truth is much stranger than that. See, after chasing Johnny Foreigner away from his daughter, Mr Smith was under the impression that she was single and ready to respectably mingle.
In the latter half of 1856, her parents decided it was time they shipped their daughter off to a husband. The man they chose was a neighbor, William Minnoch, who had established himself as a successful young merchant. After putting the idea to Mr Minnoch, the family traveled with him to their riverside summer house in the country to see if Madeleine would take to him.
At this point, Madeleine either decided that marrying within her class would be far more convenient, or that maybe old Pierre wasn’t really all that. Because in January 1857, she decided to accept Minnoch’s marriage proposal, meaning she had one official fiancé and one secret one. The romance novel lifestyle is all well and good until you’re dealing with a headache like that.
Obviously she wasn’t interested in a future with a secret husband, so something had to give. It was Pierre who got the dreaded au revoir, and he took to it about as badly as possible. I mean, we all act a bit crazy after a breakup, but he was downright spiteful.
Pierre refused to let Madeleine leave him. How did he achieve that? Well, remember I told you that he kept all of the letters she had sent him? Those were now a gold mine of blackmail material, filled with the sort of sordid pronouncements that make delicate ladies faint in Jane Austen novels.
When Madeleine wrote to him to break off their relationship, she asked that the letters be returned to her to destroy. She said:
Altogether, I think owing to coolness and indifference–nothing else–that we had better, for the future, consider ourselves as strangers.
I trust your honor as a gentleman that you will not reveal anything that may have passed between us. I shall feel obliged by your bringing me my letters and likeness on Thursday evening at seven.
P.S. You may be astonished at this sudden change–but for some time back you must have noticed a coolness in my notes. My love for you has ceased, […] I did once love you truly, fondly, but for some time back I have lost much of that love.
You’ll notice that she made no mention of her main guy in this letter to her side guy — that’s because Madeleine seems to have thought the whole thing would go more smoothly if she sold Pierre a simpler story. But smoothly, it did not go…
Pierre replied that he would be keeping the letters; what’s more, he would be keeping Madeleine too. If she went through with her plan to cut things off, he would go to her father with all of the letters she wrote him, and reveal every word. This was the old-school version of revenge porn, and it was equally as despicable. See what I mean? Same stories, different age.
Madeleine did the only thing she could do: she kept going on with the relationship. See, there weren’t any laws back then which could have protected her from that sort of thing — hell, it’s only fairly recently that we’ve gotten any protecting us from the digital equivalent.
Victorian society was, of course, much much further behind. If Madeleine had tried to call Pierre’s bluff, but he actually went through with it, her life would be torn to pieces. She would be shunned and shamed by everyone she knew, and face severe punishment from her family, if they would even speak to her at all.
So she wrote back asking to see Pierre as soon as possible. Her letters took on the same warm tone as before, and their usual schedule of secret meetings resumed. Rumors of the engagement reached Pierre’s ears, and Madeleine had to dismiss them as hearsay, insisting that she fully intended to marry him and no-one else. Her hands were well and truly tied.
Whether Pierre believed the lie or not, he didn’t care. Even if that wealthy posh boy had won her over, he had the letters. I’s unclear what his long-term plan was though— did he think he would marry her, and they’d grow old together with those papers sitting in a locked drawer as collateral? Or was he perhaps more of a short-term kind of guy?
Either way, he got what he wanted. Over the next couple of months, Pierre continued to go to Madeleine’s window for a chat, cup of cocoa, probably a few more intimate encounters. He started writing short entries in a diary shortly after Madeleine had sent her rejection letter, detailing his plan to extort affection from her.
In the pages which followed, he kept track of their various meetings and letters, as well as the rest of the goings on in his daily life. On several nights, he recounted feeling incredibly sick, with severe stomach pains. Food hygiene probably wasn’t the greatest in the 1800s, so it was nothing to seriously worry about.
Or at least it wouldn’t have been, if I had simply let up. But this happened twice within the first few months of the year, both times shortly after making a trip to the Smith household. The first had put Pierre out of commission for just one day, but he second left him confined to his bed from the 22nd of February until the end of the month. And then a month later, on the 23rd of March at around 2am, Pierre was in really bad shape. His landlady watched him come through the door clutching at his stomach in agony for the third time in less than two months, and asked what was wrong.
He said he had no idea — it was likely another bile issue — and leaned on her shoulder as they slowly made their way up the stairs. Things got even worse when Pierre was laying in bed, so his landlady decided to call a doctor, who arrived at 7am. The good doctor did the only thing doctors ever seemed to do in those days — he prescribed opium: water laced with a chemical called laudanum, to be precise.
But shockingly hard drugs don’t cure all ailments, and Pierre continued struggling for several hours, before eventually falling asleep. The doctor returned at 11am for a check up, and the landlady told him her tenant’s condition had improved.
The doctor however, with all his medical expertise, argued that it had actually worsened — dramatically… because the man was dead…
The Arrest and Trial
So, before we go any further let’s test your detective skills with a little quiz. Who had the motive to kill Pierre? Who had the means? Who had the opportunity? If you need me to tell you the answers, then you’re probably not cut out for police work.
The Glasgow police, on the other hand, answered them all fairly quickly. After searching through Pierre’s belongings, they came across a certain bundle of letters which pointed them in the direction of the Smith household. That’s your motive and opportunity right there. As for the means, the coroner had found huge amounts of arsenic in Pierre’s stomach — a strong poison which was used for various household functions back in those days.
While these details were being unearthed in Pierre’s rented room, Madeleine was out of town — her family had woken up to find that she fled towards their summer house on the Clyde. Her fiancé (the legit one, that is) went to find her, along with her brother Jack. They found her on a steamer boat alone. When they got to the summer house, he asked her why she was being all weird, and she cryptically replied that she had done something wrong, and she knew her parents would be angry with her.
All of the signs seemed to suggest that Madeleine was guilty, and she was arrested just 8 days after Pierre’s death. When searching through her belongings, the police also found evidence of arsenic purchases within the last few months.
Before the Glasgow courts could prepare for a trial, the court of public opinion had fast-tracked one through. The newspapers reported on the biggest scandal to hit Scottish high society in years, revealing as much of the sordid details as their readers’ delicate sensibilities would allow.
The Victorians loved a good media [shitstorm/frenzy] just as much as us, and commentators rose up on both sides to attack both Madeleine and Pierre. Some argued that Pierre was an evil manipulator and Madeleine his innocent victim. But the bulk ran with the angle that she was a depraved and wicked woman, further proven by the fact that she (shock) enjoyed sexual intercourse. As my treasured copy of the American Law Register February 1858 puts it: “Madeleine Smith was tried and condemned by the public from which the jury was selected before she was arraigned”.
The noise kicked up around the case was so great that a trial in the defendant’s hometown was out of the question. Proceedings were instead moved over to the high court in Edinburgh, starting in July 1857. Madeleine faced charges of poisoning Pierre with spiked drinks on three separate occasions, the third one resulting in his murder. The exact words from the indictment were “wickedly and feloniously administering arsenic,” which sounds much better than what I said.
And just like today when a rich young woman from a prestigious family ends up in court, Madeleine was represented by the very best lawyer money could buy. This was Mr John Inglis, who would go on to become the Solicitor General for Scotland. This case however, would always remain his most famous, and was surely one of his most difficult.
I mean, the evidence was stacked up in favor of the prosecution:
— The victim was blackmailing the defendant.
— The defendant purchased arsenic several times in the months the victim suffered poisoning.
— The defendant fled town following the victim’s death.
What’s more, Madeleine had already been so thoroughly disgraced that a character assassination by the prosecution would just be like digging up a grave and shooting at the coffin. As that same law journal from the time put it, she was seen as “a foul and determined homicide, because, having fallen into the corrupting hands of her lover before marriage, her passions had been both excited and gratified imprudently”.
Remember ladies, if you have sex before marriage, you will become a killer — it’s only a matter of time. Don’t give in to those impure lusts, or you might as well start stocking up on weaponry and worshiping the devil right now.
That’s not to say a bit of casual sex will make you a particularly good killer though; it certainly didn’t for Madeleine. The prosecution’s case featured all sorts of damning evidence, such as record books from the pharmacy where she had bought the arsenic. All retailers were required to keep log books of poison purchases for this exact reason, and there were transactions recorded on February 21st and March 6th under her name.
What’s more, they even brought forth Mary Perry, the one who introduced the couple, to testify against Madeleine. She recounted a conversation with Pierre from February 17th, when he had reportedly said:
“I cannot think why I was so unwell after getting that coffee and chocolate from her. […] If she were to poison me, I would forgive her.”
That sounds a little on-the-nose, but damning nonetheless. It also confirmed the prosecution’s argument that the cups of cocoa and coffee which Madeleine gave Pierre during their meetings would likely be the vector for this hypothetical poisoning.
The landlady revealed how Pierre had suffered two other serious bouts of illness, which according to the letters and diary coincided with late night visits to Madeleine’s house. The diary itself though, was ruled inadmissible as evidence. Inglis successfully argued that proper cross-examination was impossible given the current state of the diary’s owner, meaning it would be given unfair weight. It was a blow to the prosecution, but would it matter in the grand scheme of things?
Perhaps it wouldn’t have if everything else had gone their way, but that wasn’t the case. See, to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Pierre had in fact visited Madeleine each time he got ill, they needed the letters to clearly display the dates of their encounters. Since these were the old-timey equivalent of sexts, however, the couple weren’t exactly sticklers for formality.
The letters weren’t dated, so the postmarks on the envelopes were the only clues. As we know Pierre’s ones were all burned (and he never actually sent his in the post anyway). That just left Madeleine’s, and unfortunately a few crucial ones had postmarks which were too smudged or crossed out to read. Eventually it was revealed that a large amount of the letters were actually found without an envelope at all, and had just all been stuffed into an empty one by the police.
All the letters offered was some shock value to turn the jury against the loose woman they were supposed to pass judgement on. When summarizing the prosecution’s case, the presiding judge is reported as saying they were “written without any sense of decency, and in most licentious terms”. Slut shaming was a little more eloquent back in those days, but still clearly recognizable.
We keep hearing that these letters were packed with details that should appall anyone in their right mind. So what was actually in them? Cheeky flirting? Sexual requests? Play by play recaps of their more impressive sessions, complete with kama sutra diagrams and ratings for each? Well, let’s take a look at an example written by Madeleine:
“How do you keep warm in bed for […] I am not a bit warm. I often wish I had you with me. Would you not, sweet love, put your arms around your Mimi, fondly embrace her, and make her warm? Ah!, sweet one, I know you would […]”
Cuddling!? Cover your ears children!
Anyway, back to the timeline problem. In the absence of a reliable paper trail, eyewitnesses were needed. But as we know, the couple were well-versed in avoiding the prying eyes of their neighbors. Nobody had come forward to take the stand, so the prosecution couldn’t back up their chronology of events with anything other than the diary — which, as I said, was inadmissible.
One-man did reportedly come forward to tell the papers he had seen the couple meeting on the night before Pierre’s death, but this was unverified, and happened too late to be included in the trial anyway.
Even with these few setbacks, however, the odds remained stacked against Madeleine. Mounds of circumstantial evidence and stains on her character meant that she would more than likely find herself hanging from a rope before the year was out. The papers wrote that she sat in court with “sadness in her expression, but no trace of that anxiety and deep mental suffering to be expected in a woman charged with such a dreadful crime and with her life in such imminent danger”.
At the end of each day’s session, she had to endure a carriage ride back to the jailhouse, past gawking crowds who turned out to see the murderous gentlewoman from the papers. And in the mornings, she took the same journey in reverse, arriving at court for a fresh lineup of humiliations.
This included testimony from her ex-fiancé William Minnoch. I say ex because he understandably decided to break off the engagement once he found out 50% of Madeleine’s fiancees had died suspicious deaths. Even her own family took the stand to pick her life apart. They were backing her up, but still, the embarrassment must have been off the charts.
Her teenaged sister Janet told the jury how she hadn’t noticed Madeleine getting up on the night of the alleged third poisoning. The two shared a bed, and Pierre would only usually risk coming to the bedroom window if Madeleine’s father were away on business, meaning Janet would be sleeping with their mother. On the night of his death, however, that wasn’t the case.
The defense had plenty of witnesses like this lined up to try to turnt the tide in Madeleine’s favor. Some of them testified that Pierre had attempted suicide several times before. Others backed up one of the stranger parts of Madeleine’s alibi: that she had bought the arsenic to rub on her face for cosmetic purposes. That’s right, Inglis had licensed physicians take the stand to testify that rubbing arsenic on your face to look pretty was a legit thing. It was a very different time…
On the poison books, Madeleine had written that she would use it to kill rats, reportedly because she was self-conscious about buying it for her skin. She never used a fake name either, which suggests perhaps she didn’t foresee any real reason to hide her identity.
The testimony of the apothecary staff also revealed another little detail which would sow doubt in the minds of the jurors: the arsenic in Pierre’s stomach was reportedly the standard white, but the kind bought by Madeleine was colored.
That was standard practice back then, as it would be easy enough to confuse plain arsenic for flour or other common household substances. Since nobody wanted poison cake lawsuits on their hands, soot or indigo were often added to make the poison distinguishable. On all three occasions she purchased the arsenic — Feb 21st, Marc 6th, and March 18th — she had left with the soot-colored varieties.
Admittedly it may have been difficult to discern the exact variety given to Pierre, and the coroner even said that he hadn’t been asked to specifically check the color, and there was no guarantee it would have shown up. Regardless, the argument sowed a good bit of doubt among the panel.
These details, along with the prosecution being unable to lay out a concrete timeline, would prove to be the deciding factors in the whole affair. Eight days into the trial, the jury retired for just 30 minutes before returning to deliver their verdict. Pretty much everyone in the gallery expected Madeleine to hang, so when a verdict of “not proven” was announced, the whole place erupted.
The American Law Register reported that the jury, “with the knowledge of the verdict which was expected at their hands, were actually apprehensive, when they acquitted the prisoner, that they might, on this account, suffer violence on returning from the court, through the virtuous and indignant mob.” Yep, this was Victorian Scotland’s version of the OJ trial, and the jurors had genuine fear of retribution given how invested the public had become in the case.
In the courtroom, the judge even had to order some people grabbed out of the crowd and thrown into the dock for a scolding. Madeleine, meanwhile, was escorted out of the courtroom, and transported home to Glasgow.
Whether she had just won unlikely justice against a tide of public hate, or simply gotten away with murder, is up for you to decide.
Argument in Her Favor
Now, I understand that most of you are probably on the latter side of that fence. I mean, she looks pretty massively guilty on the face of things. But in the interest of fairness, we have to look a little closer at the arguments in her favor. And thankfully, there’s plenty for us to chew on; plenty which suggests that Madeleine might have just been the unlucky victim of Pierre’s accidental death, or worse — his spiteful suicide…
The first things to consider are simply circumstantial. Why, when all she really needed to do was destroy the letters, would Madeleine poison her lover? All that would do would guarantee that the letters would be found. She would have the exact same scandal on her hands, plus the murder charge.
If it really was a murder, it was a poorly conceived one, a fact made stranger still since she had plenty of time to come up with a better plan. At the end of the day, why not just set fire to his boarding house? I mean, I’m not condoning arson — let me make that very clear (those days are behind me). But, I guess I would take it over murder, if I had to choose.
And the mechanics of the murder itself are quite strange. I’m not sure how many of you like a spoonful of arsenic in your coffee, but I have it on good authority that it is not very pleasant. For Pierre to have ingested the huge amounts found in his body, Madeleine would have had to pack those late-night drinks pretty full of rat poison.
How then, did he not notice? Was her coffee always that bad that a touch of sooty poison actually improved the taste? It’s unlikely — not even [Starbucks/insert least favorite coffee shop] is that bad. On top of that, the coroner reported such huge amounts in Pierre’s system (somewhere north of 200 grains-worth) that he would have to have drank a lot of coffee to hit the dosage; apparently 20 grains is about the maximum which would have dissolved into each cup.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve smashed 10 cups of coffee in a row when deadlines were looming, but it’s pretty strange to imagine Pierre chilling with his girlfriend and knocking back cup after cup of disgusting poison brew. We know he had apparently mentioned the passing possibility of being poisoned to Miss Perry, so he’d have to be pretty dumb to accept that many drinks.
So if it would take so much stupidity to trick someone into swallowing that quantity of arsenic, what other solution could there be? Well, remember how I told you Madeleine was apparently a fan of rubbing arsenic solution on her skin? She wasn’t alone in this. In fact, the Victorians apparently saw arsenic as a magic solution to all life’s problems.
It was cheap and abundant — a byproduct of the metallurgy industry which drove the industrial revolution. In a bid to profit off their waste products, the mill owners pushed various nonsense applications which were backed up by doctors at the time. Imagine taking arsenic to cure your asthma, cure cancer, or to bring back the spark to your marriage.
That’s right, arsenic was a medically prescribed aphrodisiac! After a Victorian gentleman had taken care of all the rats in his basement, he’d snort the rest of the box and carry his wife up to the boudoir. Okay, maybe it wasn’t exactly like that, but just about as bizarre.
So we know that Victorian culture found plenty of pseudoscientific uses for the poison. It was even reported in an edition of Scientific American from 1869, that certain peoples in Austria were believed to regularly eat it to strengthen their bodies against illness. The superstition took hold in the UK, which is how one Mr Pierre Emile L’Angelier allegedly became a self-admitted consumer of the poison.
The idea then, is that perhaps Pierre was the victim of an accidental overdose. But why, on his deathbed, would he not reveal that to the doctor in hopes of dodging the reaper? And how would someone who was experienced in eating arsenic swallow such a catastrophically huge amount without seeking help?
This leads us to the second theory: perhaps it was no accident at all…
Now, it’s worth saying before we go any further that Pierre of course never lived to defend himself from these charges. Nonetheless, they aren’t just some recent theory; they were floated around in the papers and journals of the day as well.
And much of the theory revolves more around the evidence we don’t have rather than the evidence we do. That’s to say, there was nobody who could definitively prove that Madeleine and Pierre met on the nights preceding his bouts of sickness. The one piece of proof we have is the journal written by Pierre.
But can we trust him? It does seem a little odd that he never bothered writing about their meetings until after Madeleine attempted to break the whole thing off. And the fact that he made such an explicit mention of poisoning to Miss Perry, even identifying the drinks as the delivery method, stands out as perhaps a little too direct.
That’s why some believe that the journal was written by Pierre in order to provide a false account of events for the police to find. Likewise, his exposition-heavy conversation with Miss Perry was supposed to guide them in the direction of Madeleine. That might be why he actually asked for Miss Perry on the night of his final illness — she was the one who was to unwittingly ensure the police went after innocent Madeleine.
This plan would of course require Madeliene to be observed buying the poison, so some have put forward the idea that Pierre asked or encouraged Madeleine to make the purchases — perhaps a bit of a stretch. But then again, he did hold her entire life in his hands; he could probably have made all sorts of demands while he still held on to those letters.
Consider the fact also, that Madeleine’s first purchase of arsenic happened two days after Pierre’s first bout of sickness. Sure, we know that Victorians weren’t short on the stuff, so maybe she had a box at home. But add to it that a witness gave testimony which suggested Pierre himself — or someone who looked a lot like him — had purchased an unidentified white powder on the day of his death.
Even with all the pieces lined up like that, the entire theory rests on one thing: did Pierre have the motive and willpower to end his life solely out of spite? He must surely have understood that his blackmail gambit was only a temporary thing; it was daft to imagine he would ever be accepted as Madeleine’s husband. Suddenly his dreams of climbing the social ladder were made to look like a stupid, childish fantasy.
Because of this, he had alluded to several acquaintances that he wanted revenge on Madeleine for the humiliation. Moreover, the courtroom testimony revealed he was “of an impulsive vain character, and he often talked of committing suicide,” according to the American law journal. I mean, if people are going to pick apart the woman’s character in the case, then let’s do the same for the guy. We already know he had a spiteful streak in him, given the blackmail, and the law journal goes further to say:
“[T]here was evidence that L’Angelier was addicted to the practice of lying in different forms. He was a “vain, vaporing” person, fond of talking very freely, and ‘with great exaggeration about himself and his doings”
He was a dick, basically.
But was he enough of a dick to end his own life just to get back at his soon-to-be ex? It’s perhaps not as far-fetched a theory as it might seem at first glance. The defense team had brought forward a witness who revealed that Pierre had once stabbed himself when turned down by a woman, and that he was about as emotionally stable overall as that little episode suggested.
It’s easy to see why the jury was unable to decide one way or the other. Given the lack of evidence to back up the prosecution’s theory, this alternative carries just about as much weight — it’s simply a different interpretation of the same shaky, circumstantial evidence.
It could be that, despite his relative success in work and social life, Pierre was genuinely suicidal, and decided that losing his young lover to another man was the final straw. In a cleverly planned sequence of events, he set up a line of dominoes to make himself seem like the victim of murder — one last middle finger to Madeleine on his way out the door…
So, was it a shoddily executed murder by an inexperienced young killer, or a Gone Girl style plot to frame her? Make of it what you will. Of course, the simplest explanation is most often the right one, but there are too many stretches in both versions of events that it seems bizarre that either of them could be true at all. We could spend all day chasing our tails, but in the end we’ll never know.
What I can tell you about for sure though, is what happened to Madeleine following her acquittal. As you can imagine, with all of the papers climbing over each other to get at you, it’s quite hard to return to a normal life. And given the shame she had brought upon her family, it’s likely she didn’t feel too comfortable in her own home either.
So Madeleine attempted a disappearing act as best she could. She changed her first name to Lena and moved to London. There she married the artist George Wardle in July of 1861. He worked as the business manager to William Morris — who was basically a rockstar in the wild wild world of Victorian arts and crafts.
Their marriage lasted for quite a few years, and brought them a son named Thomas, but eventually things fell apart. Madeleine ended up moving to America, along with 90% of other people trying to flee their past in those days. She married once again, and settled down in New York City.
By the 1920s, everyone in the UK had pretty much forgotten the case. Madeleine was assumed to be long gone, which is why people were shocked when an edition of The Scotsman newspaper reported in 1926 that she was alive and well. I’m going to assume the headline was:
YOU’LL NEVER GUESS WHAT THESE CELEBRITIES ARE UP TO NOW! (NUMBER 9 WILL SHOCK YOU)
Just two years later, Madeleine passed away, under the name Lena Wardle Sheehy, aged 93. Her legacy lived on through various plays, books, films, and internet crime shows hosted by handsome English gentlemen for decades to come. Academics continue to be interested in the case as well, largely thanks to the sheer weight of vitriol heaped upon Madeleine at the time.
Whether she was guilty or not, the fact the papers laid into her doubly hard for the crime of basic human sexuality was massively telling about the culture of oh-so-moral Victorian Britain. Take a look at this quote from The Glasgow Sentinel, who called her: “one of those abnormal spirits that now and then rise up in society to startle and appall us.”
Whichever theory you believe, I bet you agree Madeleine was hardly the most vicious or terrible killer out there — not even close. Nowadays we save that level of condemnation for the Epsteins of the world, not young women with secret boyfriends…
And that’s all for the story of Madeleine Smith, a young woman whose romantic misstep led her towards a desperate and miscalculated murder. Or perhaps, a young woman whose romantic misstep put her on the receiving end of a terrible man’s suicidal spite. We’ll never know for sure.
It’s the sort of case that has all the familiar echoes of modern-day crimes, especially those where young women and their private lives are involved. Rest assured that next time something like this pops up in the news, you’ll see some very similar judgements thrown around. At any rate, we can perhaps look back on the case nowadays with a more sympathetic eye. At the very worst, Madeleine was a desperate victim of blackmail who made a terrible choice when trying to get out of it — she hardly belongs alongside Manson and Bundy.
If there’s one thing you should take away from today, it’s that a drop of arsenic a day keeps the doctor away. Couple it with an asbestos cracker, and a teaspoon of opium before bed, and you’ll never need to visit a clinic ever again.
(For legal reasons, I should point out that was all said sarcastically. The real takeaway is that Victorians, despite their prim and proper image, were absolutely mental.)
1 — Part of the reason Madeleine couldn’t escape the public eye after her trial was that strange verdict: ’not proven’. It’s a verdict that was unique to the Scottish legal system, and meant that she wasn’t guilty, but certainly not exonerated either. That ambiguity gave license for the rumor mills and gossipers to keep reprinting the story over and over.
2 — Back in 2018, some evidence was supposedly uncovered which might be enough to convince us of Madeleine’s guilt. True crime author Denise Mina was attending a book signing for her recent novel, when she met a couple of city archivists who claimed that some items from the case had recently been tested by their health and safety staff in preparation for an exhibition. The cup allegedly used to poison Pierre, showed traces of arsenic…
3 — Despite the journalistic investigations which tracked her down, there’s a solid chance that Lena Wardle Sheehy wasn’t actually Madeleine at all — the death certificate suggested that person was actually 30 years her junior. So we might never know what eventually came of her. Some say that she still roams the earth to this day, sprinkling arsenic into the cocoa of unsuspecting casanovas where’re she wanders… Actually, nobody says that — I just made it up on the spot, sorry.