The Trial of a Lady Poisoner: Contrasts and Comparisons

In the summer of 1857, the United Kingdom was flooded with newspaper stories about a young lady, Madeleine Smith, arrested and tried for the murder of a poor clerk, Emilie L’Angelier. Smith was accused on three accounts; two attempts of poisoning with the intent to murder (as L’Angelier had been mysteriously sick twice before his death) and one charge of murder. After a trial that last more than a week, Smith was acquitted on one charge of Not Guilty and two charges of Not Proven, the latter being something rather unique to the Scottish judicial system.

And this despite the incredible amount of circumstantial evidence against her.

Sketch of the Trial of Madeleine Smith. Link to source under Bibliography.

In my previous post, I described the analysis I had done in the Vane case and some future direction I planned to take following that. In this post, I relate my findings so far as well as the directions these findings have taken me.

Over the past weeks, I’ve found many similarities between the real Madeleine Smith case and the fictional Harriet Vane case. Both women had lovers outside of the bonds of marriage, with whom they were connected for about two years. Both women were accused, in the trials, of poisoning said lovers after quarreling with the men on multiple occasions before finally succeeding in killing them, and both were accused of using arsenic as their weapon. Why Smith is acquitted and Vane is not was something I found particularly interesting to explore over the past couple weeks, especially as Sayers includes two specific references to Smith in Strong Poison.

Having carefully read several newspaper accounts of Smith’s case and the more recent analysis of her trial in the book, Victorian Murderesses by Mary S. Hartman, I noticed, besides some minor details, three very specific ways that Sayers caused the Harriet Vane trial to deviate from Smith’s: class, appearance, and female agency.

Throughout the Madeleine Smith trial, the press largely sympathized with Smith, praising her for her composure throughout the trial, and if they thought she might be guilty, likening her to a ‘fallen woman’ who had tried to release herself from the tyrannical hold of a seducer. I found only a few accounts that criticized Smith, and even these were more critical of her lover than the accused woman herself. Where the fictional Harriet Vane gained no sympathy from the spectators, other than, of course, Lord Peter Wimsey, Madeleine Smith had support not just from the press, but seemingly the whole United Kingdom, seeing as the audience at the trial cheered when she was acquitted. The case became a sensation, a household name, and an event to which later cases of poisoning were compared, real and fictional as we see in Sayers’s Strong Poison.

The first striking thing about the newspaper accounts of Smith’s trial was the amount of space dedicated to describing the woman’s appearance. Multiple articles describe in detail everything they can about her physical appearance from each article of clothing she wears, to the shape fo her face and the color of her eyes. Others stress her behavior, how “her features express great intelligence and energy of character,” and the composure that she maintains during the entirety of the trial without seeming to tire (Reynolds’s Paper). This I found especially interesting when compared to Harriet Vane, who was “not even that pretty,” (Sayers, 18), and when she is described, has a face that borders on being masculine, with “Her eyes, like dark smudges under the heavy square brows,” (Sayers, 1).

Madeleine Smith Profile. Link to source under Bibliography.

Then of course there is Smith’s societal class, which the papers make clear is fairly high, perhaps middle to upper-middle. Around the time that she is arrested, the press stresses that “The thought that a highly and virtuously bred young lady could destroy her lover is too appalling for belief…” (The Examiner). Vane is not even close to being in the same class. When she was not much older than Smith, her parents both died, forcing her to support herself on her detective novels (Sayers, 4).

Where Smith had beauty and class standing to protect her, Vane clearly has neither. She is poor, older, and not particularly beautiful, which are most likely deliberate choices made by Sayers in her creation of the accused criminal-turned-sleuth. Even more deliberate however, is the way Sayers portrays Vane as compared to the way the press portrays Smith.

As I said before, the press largely sympathizes with Smith throughout the summer of 1857. Though Smith’s guilt or innocence is up in the air, L’Angelier is clearly portrayed as her guilty, conniving seducer. No matter whether Smith poisoned him or not, and as Hartman points out it is very likely she did, the press clearly takes away any agency Smith has in this affair and the events following. If she didn’t poison him, then she is being unjustly dragged to court. If she did then either she was a desperate ‘fallen woman’ who was trying to get out of a bad situation, or she was turned into a cold, calculating murderer due to the influence of her evil lover. The newspapers took away any agency she had in the affair and consequent murder of L’Angelier, and as Hartman’s analysis implies, Smith was more than happy to take on the role provided for her (Hartman, 82).

Vane on the other hand, refuses to let any agency be taken from her. Sayers makes it clear in the summing up of her character’s trial that Vane chose to walk into the relationship with Boyes, and she chose to walk out of it (Sayers,4-5,6-7). The judge himself is clearly surprised by Vane’s annoyance and refusal of her lover’s marriage proposal and clearly implies that he thinks her foolish for this reaction (Sayers, 7).

This idea of the role of female agency, and the portrayal of female agency, especially caught my attention, especially because it seems a very deliberate thing for Sayers to put in. After all, agency plays a large part in the later Vane books, and is even part of the larger subjects of marriage as well as female education and employment, in her novel Gaudy Night.

Obviously, there are multiple topics to be explored. Firstly, how interested was Sayers in true crime and Madeleine Smith’s trial in particular? Despite clear differences, there are so many parallels between Smith and Vane that it’s more likely than not that she knew about Smith’s case. Secondly, the role of that verdict, “Not Proven,” was something fairly unique to the Scottish judiciary system, and it may be interesting to see what role the ability to make a verdict of ‘Not Proven’ played in Smith’s case (interestingly, it is rather similar to the outcome of the Vane trial, in which the jury are unable to agree on a verdict, thus giving Wimsey time to prove Vane’s innocence). I also plan to continue studying Adelaide Bartlett and Florence Maybrick, as well as a few fictional poisoners. Thanks to the book, Chemical Crimes by Cheryl Blake Price, I’ve discovered several fictional female poisoners that I think would be fascinating to study.

Other avenues of research could look at the role of age and education (specifically knowledge about medicine and poisons) play in poisoning trials, as education on medicine played a role in the Adelaide Bartlett case. I have also, for the most part, avoided the important role of race in the Smith Trial. I do not mean to downplay the importance of race in the portrayal of Smith and L’Angelier, but I will simply not be focusing on it in my research, as there is already plenty of great work done on the use of racial stereotypes in trials and periodical articles of those trials.


“Latest Intelligence. The Examiner, London, British Library Newspapers, Part I:1800-1900, Saturday, April 4, 1857, Issue 2566.

“Madeleine Smith Profile.”


Price, Cheryl Blake. Chemical Crimes: Science & Poison in Victorian Crime Fiction. The Ohio State University Press, 2019.

Sayers, Dorothy L. Strong Poison. Hodder & Stoughton, 2016.

“The Trial of Miss M. Smith at Edinburgh for Poisoning.” Reynolds’s Newspaper, London, British Library Newspapers, Part I:1800-1900, Sunday, July 5, 1857, Issue 360.

Arsenic, Periodicals, and the Female Offender

The book shop looks deceptively small on the outside. Dusty windows, old-fashioned architecture that recalls a time from a century earlier. A group of tourists walk past on the opposite side of the quiet street. There aren’t many cars, but there are plenty of walls made of smooth stone, warm from the sun.
Inside, the shop expands into multiple rooms and floors full of books, like something out of a Harry Potter movie. Which is appropriate considering that part of the movie was filmed just down the road.
I’m on a study abroad trip, and I should probably be composing my next project in my head, seeing as I’m supposed to be presenting later that week. But the book shop calls to me. I’ve been in about ten of them by this point in my trip, and I will find ten more by the time I go home.
When I ask the guy behind the counter about Dorothy L. Sayers, he immediately lights up. I follow him to huge table dedicated to the works Sayers and her fictional creation, Lord Peter Wimsey. The cashier recommends a few of his favorite Sayers novels, then leaves me to pick my poison.

The view above Oxford!

Posted by Whitney Kneffler on Sunday, May 27, 2018

This trip, and the many novels and stories I read, were what inspired me to embark on my current project. The novel I bought that day in Oxford was Sayers’s Strong Poison, in which the detective is faced with the daunting task of helping Harriet Vane, a woman wrongly accused of murdering her lover. What struck me about this novel was that it started not during the investigation, as many detective stories do, but at the summing up of Vane’s trial, just before she’s about to be either convicted or acquitted. Using the judge’s summary and the comments of those in the audience, including several newspaper reporters, Sayers sets the tone of the novel. I was curious by this odd beginning. On one hand, this is a nice way to set up the entire case for the reader, right at the beginning, but I wondered especially about the comments by the reporters, and why so much attention was paid to them.

This is what ultimately led me to my current research. Thanks to the support of the OSU Libraries and the Undergraduate Research Office, I am spending the summer of 2019 working on my current project, studying newspaper articles on a few real women living in Britain who were accused of murder between 1850 and 1930, the latter being the year that Strong Poison was published. My goal is to compare the portrayal of these real women to the portrayal of the fictional Harriet Vane by the characters that observe her throughout the novel. I am studying the way they are described before, during and especially after, the trial, looking at what about these women that the periodicals highlight, and how the accounts of these women are similar and different to the way Sayers has her characters portray Vane.

My copy of Dorothy L. Sayer’s novel, which I bought in Oxford, England. Cited below. Photo Credit: Whitney Kneffler

Much of my research over the past two weeks has been brushing up on my knowledge of Harriet Vane, and what Judith Flanders, in her fascinating book The Invention of Murder terms, “the poison panic” of the 1840s, a time when the British public was oddly obsessed with poison trials and being poisoned (Flanders, 245). As Flanders points out, though, “poisoning was frightening because it involved intimacy.” (Flanders, 183). And arsenic, the poison which Harriet Vane is accused of using on her lover in Strong Poison, was the part of the driving force between the Poison Panic, because it was found in dozens of household items, and it was very cheap (Flanders, 232). In her book, Chemical Crimes, Cheryl Blake Price tries to untangle the gendered nature of the poisoner as portrayed in fiction and sensationalized by periodicals. Poison could be looked at as an equalizing force across gender, class, and age. Though not all fictional poisoners were portrayed as women, many fictional female criminals were women, and poison thus has a persistent reputation as being the murderesses (Price, 9). Poison required only a little knowledge, and access to a person, and thus could be utilized by anyone. Hence, why the newspapers, as Flanders notes, laid so much stress on women poisoners, especially working-class women poisoners (Flanders, 234).

Armed with this background of the figure of the female poisoner, I looked at Harriet Vane’s trial and her presence throughout the novel. There were a few specific things that the other characters stressed about her, especially when it came to her guilt or innocence, these being Vane’s appearance, her sexual freedom, and her class in society.

Throughout the novel, whether it is reporters or Wimsey’s own relatives, Vane’s appearance is constantly commented on. Under this fairly vague term, ‘appearance’ I include not only the person’s physical attributes/description, but also the character’s behavior, as that also has much to do with how a person appears. Near the beginning, one of Wimsey’s friends, a little annoyed that the case is dragging on so long, comments that “the girl’s not even pretty,” (Sayers, 18). The judge notes in his summary of the case that Vane didn’t ask after her lover, or attend his funeral, (Sayers, 24). Vane’s appearance is very much used by those in the audience to determine her guilt or innocence. One unnamed girl comments, “Of course she did it. You could see it in her face. Hard, that’s what I call it, and she never once cried or anything.” (Sayers, 34-35).

Then there is Vane’s sexual freedom. Prior to this trial, Vane had lived briefly with her lover, Philip Boyes, outside of the traditional bonds of marriage, a man who wrote extensively on ideas such as “free love” (Sayers, 3). Her relationship with Boyes is emphasized in the case, because it was later the result of a quarrel that Vane had with him. Boyes offered to marry Vane, but rather than take up this offer, which the judge thinks would have been best, Vane is annoyed by his proposal, and feels that Boyes “made a fool of her.” (Sayers, 7) Even though this quarrel is the only motive presented for the murder, something in the judge’s tone implies that while he thinks this is not really a good proposed motive for murder, he thinks that there is something rather wrong with Vane to begin with, seeing as the “remarkable” cause of the quarrel was that Boyes made an “honorable” proposal to marry her.

Finally, there is the matter of Vane’s societal class. Vane’s parents died when she was 23, leaving her to “make her own way in the world,” and since that time, she has “worked industriously to keep herself, and… made herself independent,” by writing detective stories (Sayers, 4). Though she has a popular career that even Wimsey’s mother follows (Sayers, 34), Vane is certainly not of an upper class, and may not even quite reach the middle class. In much of my preliminary studies on a few real cases of female poisoners, the sympathy or antipathy of the newspapers certainly seems to depend heavily on the woman’s class, especially in the case of Madeleine Smith, who I’ve been currently researching, and who is also mentioned in this novel (Sayers, 145).

Having done this brief study of Harriet Vane, I now plan to turn to a few real women who were accused of murder by poison. Madeleine Smith seemed an obvious choice, as she was explicitly mentioned in Strong Poison. However, I am not just looking for the link of poison in all of these women’s cases, but also the way they are described by the newspapers, in terms of the three things above: appearance, sexual freedom, and class. Smith, like Vane, was accused of poisoning her lover with arsenic, and she and her lover also had an ‘illicit’ connection. Adelaide Bartlett is another interesting case with many similarities to Smith and Vane, not just in the method of poisoning, but also in her sexual freedom and societal class. I hope to be able to have more information on each of these women, and one other accused murderess soon, in order to be able to do a comparison of their portrayals to each other, and also to Harriet Vane.


Flanders, Judith.”Panic.” The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Fiction, Thomas Dunne Books, 2011, pp. 183-247.

Price, Cheryl Blake. Chemical Crimes: Science & Poison in Victorian Crime Fiction. The Ohio State University Press, 2019.

Sayers, Dorothy L. Strong Poison. Hodder & Stoughton, 2016.

All photos in this page were taken by myself. Further photographs from my study abroad can be found on my Facebook page.