Dorothy L. Sayers and the Woman Criminal

Having written the last word of my paper and just about completed the Scalar portion of my project, I look back on all the notes I’ve taken and all that I’ve learned this summer.

Having carefully studied both the press accounts of historical poisoners, Madeleine Smith, Florence Maybrick, and Adelaide Bartlett, and compared them to the plight of Harriet Vane in Sayers’ Strong Poison, I’ve focused on two key elements in all of these cases, this being the way the woman’s physical appearance is described, and the amount of agency the woman shows in her relationships with her lover or husband.

Madeleine Smith

One interesting thing I noticed was the way in which Harriet Vane differed from her predecessors in terms of the way she is described. Throughout Strong Poison, Sayers describes a lot of her characters in great detail, such as Vane’s elderly judge, whose “parrot-face and parrot-voice were dry, like his old, heavily-veined hands. His scarlet robe clashed harsh with the crimson roses,” (Sayers 1), and another character, Norman Urquhart, who is said to have “neat dress, thick, smooth, dark hair, and general appearance of brisk and businesslike respectability,” (Sayers 123-24).

Curiously, Vane is not heavily described at all throughout this novel. One of Wimsey’s friends comments that she is “not even that pretty” (Sayers 18) and Wimsey’s mother says that Vane is “not strictly good-looking,” (Sayers 33), and there is little else. This in sharp contrast from the press accounts of the three accused poisoners mentioned above. In the papers, everything from their eye color to the material of their dress is described. In one case, when the woman’s face was covered by a veil, the papers commented in detail on her chin. Thus, Harriet Vane breaks the tradition in one key way here: the story focuses less on her appearance than on the woman herself, and the circumstances in which she has found herself.

Adelaide Bartlett

The second I focused on was the amount of agency that was showed by each woman in her relationship with her lover or husband. Smith and Bartlett are both freed, though they are the most likely to be guilty. According to an analysis by Mary S. Hartman, Madeleine Smith, afraid of being found out, “grasped at a dramatic solution to her dilemma,” in other words, murder (Hartman 81). And of Bartlett, Hartman states that, “When [Adelaide’s] tale is abandoned, the conclusion that Adelaide Bartlett willed and carried out her husband’s death is unavoidable,” (Hartman 198). Both of these ladies show very little agency in their relationships with their lovers and/or husband, and the press does not give them any. Smith pretends to be the victim of seduction and Bartlett the victim of a corrupt husband, thus putting the focus on their victims rather than themselves.

Mr. and Mrs. Maybrick

Florence Maybrick, on the other hand, is much less likely to be guilty of murder, and she shows far more agency in her adulterous relationship with her lover, even apologizing for it in court. Harriet Vane too, shows more authority in her relationship with her lover than Bartlett and Smith do. Neither one tries to hide their illicit relationships, or blame them on someone else. These two ladies, one of whom is innocent, and one probably was innocent, were both nearly condemned to death, whereas Smith and Bartlett are not. Thus, I think Sayers, through her portrayal of Vane is says something about the portrayal of accused woman. Not only is sexual deviancy used as evidence of the woman’s guilt in a crime, but also the amount of agency the woman shows in her sexual affairs.

Through Harriet Vane, Sayers contributes much in the way of separating a woman’s perceived guilt or innocence from the public bias against various aspects of her life. Vane is never punished. In fact, she goes on to be the heroine of a later novel, Gaudy Night.

There are still multiple things that could be better explored. A comparison of the social class of these women may be interesting to look at. Another direction would be to look at the portrayal of other women who poison or are accused of poisoning in fiction and the press. I plan to continue to study these cases here in depth, comparing the language used in each of the four Harriet Vane novels to the press accounts of historical that are mentioned in each of these novels.

One thing is certain. I have come a long way from that book shop in Oxford, and I cannot wait to see where Sayers’s works take me next.


For those who would like to see the digital portion of my project, which exhibits the full extent of my research this summer, just clink the link below:



“Adelaide Bartlett.” From

Hartman, Mary S. Victorian Murderesses: A True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes. Schocken Books, 1977.

“Madeleine Smith Profile.” From

“Mr. and Mrs. Maybrick.” From

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

Dorothy L. Sayers

As I’ve gone through my research this summer, I realized that no blog on Strong Poison would be complete without a brief post on the novel’s vibrant and talented author.

Bronze statue of Dorothy L. Sayers by John Doubleday. The statue is across the road from her home at 24 Newland Street, Witham, Essex.

Dorothy L. Sayers is considered one of the Queens of Crime of the Golden Age. Though Sayers was well known for her research and her interest in true crime, Strong Poison is an exception in that it seems heavily influenced by true criminal cases. Sayers was fond of mentioning true crime cases in her works that were similar to the plot of the novel, as Sharyn McCrumb points out in her essay, “Where the Bodies are Buried,” when it came to creating her novels, “there is little to indicate that she was influenced by any actual case.” (McCrumb, 87). The only other exception would be a short story, “In the Teeth of Evidence,” which she adapted from a murder on Guy Fawkes Night in 1930 (Edwards, 177).

Sayers, as McCrumb points out, was less inclined to ground her stories in true crime, and indeed, some of the methods of murder in her stories and novels, though well-researched, are not altogether practical. The method of murder in Unnatural Death for example has been denounced by most critics and medical experts (McCrumb, 89). However, there is nod ought that “Dorothy Sayers applied that ‘terrific vitality’ to studying what we now loosely call ‘forensics’. She admired the expertise of Bernard Spilsbury… and prided herself on accurate depiction of scientific homicide investigation.” (Edwards, 177). Sayers showed a great interest in real-life murders, and that is especially evident in Strong Poison. Including Madeleine Smith and Florence Maybrick, there are five true crime cases mentioned in the novel, perhaps more that I missed, most of which included poison as the weapon.

Strong Poison does draw a lot from the cases Madeleine Smith and Florence Maybrick, and the case of Harriet Vane shares many similarities from both. However, these similarities are only surface-level detail. Sayers treats Harriet Vane as a unique and vibrant character in a set of circumstances far different from these other women mentioned in the novel, rather than emulating the usual stereotypical woman poisoner of past fiction.

That in itself, I think, more than anything, makes a statement about the treatment of female criminals of the time, in the press and in fiction. Sayers treats Harriet Vane like a person, rather than a category or a stereotype, and despite the rather extravagant (and perhaps a little unrealistic) plot, there is much more to be said of Harriet Vane than her being a mere love interest or author’s mouthpiece.


“Dorothy L. Sayers.” Obtained from

Edwards, Martin. The Golden Age of Murder. Collins Crime Club, 2016.

McCrumb, Sharyn.“Where the Bodies are Buried: The Real Murder Cases in the Crime Novels of Dorothy L. Sayers.” Dorothy L. Sayers: The Centenary Celebration, edited by Alzina Stone Dale, Walker and Company, 1993, pp. 87-98.

The Bermondsey Horror

Part of my project this summer has including utilizing the archives of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum and the OSU Libraries Rare Books & Manuscripts Library. I have found a lot of cool artifacts, like collected volumes of the sensation stories known as the Mysteries of London, several volumes of The Strand (the magazine in which the Sherlock Holmes stories were first published), and volumes of the American Illustrated Police News. Some of my favorite artifacts so far are a set of three Victorian cards, each of which features a prominent character in a case known as The Bermondsey Horror.

Maria Manning, who stands charged for the murder of Patrick O’Connor. Photo taken and posted with the permission of the Ohio State University Libraries Rare Books & Manuscripts Library. Please do not repost in any way.

On August 9, 1849, Patrick O’Connor went to the house of Maria and Frederick Manning for dinner, at Maria’s invitation. His body would be discovered by police days later, buried under the floor of the Mannings’ house, along with Maria’s bloodstained dress. Maria and Frederick, who had fled separately after taking most of O’Connor’s possessions, were later arrested and charged with the murder. At their trial, husband and wife blamed each other for the murder. Mr. Manning’s lawyer gave Maria the role of the mastermind, as she was the one who had extended the invitation to O’Connor, who had known about his possessions, and had lied about O’Connor being at her house for dinner that fatal night. Mr. Manning was accused of acting out of jealousy. However, the jury charged both with the murder and the couple was hanged together.

Frederick Manning, who stands charged for the murder of Patrick O’Connor. Photo taken and posted with the permission of the Ohio State University Libraries Rare Books & Manuscripts Library. Please do not repost in any way.

Patrick O’Connor, victim of Frederick and Maria Manning. Photo taken and posted with the permission with the Ohio State University Libraries Rare Books & Manuscripts Library. Please do not repost in any way.

The Bermondsey Horror captured the imaginations of the Victorians. People flocked to their execution, paying good money for seats with a good view. Charles Dickens, who attended the Mannings’ execution, wrote in a letter to The Times, “that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun,” thus condemning the practice of public executions. Rumors arose that because of the black satin dress which Maria wore when she was hung, the material was effectively boycotted and went out of style. As Albert Borotwitz points out in his book on the Mannings, “the reports of the death of black satin have been greatly exaggerated” (Borotwitz 296). Nevertheless, Maria especially struck a fascinating figure and was often depicted in that heavy black dress, as seen in the cards above.

The illustrations above, though unusual in their high quality, are fairly typical in their depictions of these criminals. Maria wears her black satin dress buttoned to her chin and carries the gloves she wore in the trial. Both she and Frederick are looking directly at the viewers, a deliberate move often use to make criminals appear more sinister, though I think Frederick’s thick eyebrows also play a role in his intimidating stare.

These ‘murder cards’ are part of a longer Victorian obsession with cards of all kinds. Cards played a large role especially in upper class society, which used them to denote status, introductions, and send messages like holiday greetings, invitations, condolences, and even flirtation. Collectible cards like the ones above were cheap and easy to find, and were often used to provoke conversation. These particular cards would have most likely been sold alongside of criminal broadsides, single newspaper sheets that would display a few illustrations, along with a description of the murder, ‘confessions’ of the criminals, or even poems that the criminals had ‘written’ while in prison. The point of these items would be to deter people from crime, though as Dickens pointed out, they tended to make a spectacle of these grim crimes more than warn people away.

The theme of crime and public hangings as a spectacle was not merely limited to the Mannings either. In 1840, William Makepeace Thackeray attended the hanging of Courvoisier, a servant who was found guilty of murdering his master. Like Dickens, Thackeray’s account of a public hanging was more of a description of the mob than of the hanging itself, condemning the practice altogether. Thackeray is fascinated by the good humor of the crowd, the fact that up until a little before the time that Courvoisier is supposed to be hanged, “scarcely a word had been said about [him]” (7). Instead, the execution is treated by the spectators like a show, and many of those they had spoken to “had seen many executions,” and none of them “ever thought about it after a bit,” (Thackeray, 7).

Public executions became a sort of pastime in Victorian London, an event to be sold by the press and marveled at by the people. Rather than inspire “terror, and a general expression of disgust and fear,” Thackeray, before Dickens wrote on the Mannings’ execution, makes it clear that “The punishment had grown to be a joke,” in the minds of those who attended such events (Thackeray, 7). The Mannings’ execution and these cards are part of a larger tradition of criminal tourism and obsession with crime that had begun in the Victorian Era and would eventually lead to the creation of the genre of crime fiction.



Borotwitz, Albert. The Woman Who Murdered Black Satin. Ohio State University Press, 1981.

“Charles Dickens to The Times – I stand Astounded and Appalled.” Farnam Street, Accessed 15 June 2019.

Rusch, Barbara. “The Secret Life of Victorian Cards.” ABAA, Accessed 13 June 2019

“English Crime and Execution Broadsides.” Harvard Library, Accessed 13 June 2019

Thackeray, William Makepeace. “Going to See a Man Hanged.” Frasers Magazine for Town and Country, Ex-Classics, Accessed 17 July 2019.

*A huge thanks is due to the Ohio State University Libraries Rare Books & Manuscripts Library for their support, and to Dr. Samuel Saunders for answering all of my questions about Victorian ephemera. The ephemera pictured above are the property of the Ohio State University Libraries, Rare Books & Manuscripts Library, and are featured in this article with their permission.

The Accused and the Guilty: Female Agency as Criminal

In England in the late 1880s, two criminal cases would stir up a sensation that rivaled the Madeleine Smith trial: the trials of Adelaide Bartlett and Florence Maybrick, both for the murder of their husbands. Occurring within a few years of each other, these two cases would be numbered in the press among other sensational poisoning cases.

These two cases share many similarities. Both Florence and Adelaide were accused of murdering their husbands via poison. In Bartlett’s case, it was chloroform; in Maybrick’s, it was the ever-popular arsenic. Both women were accused of adultery, and both occupied a fairly upper-middle class position in society. And, like Smith, the beauty and composure of these two ladies was stressed by the press. However, of these two cases, one woman was set free and the other was given the death sentence. And, according to Mary S. Hartman’s book, a very helpful and informative read, the condemned woman was probably the least likely to be guilty of the cases I have looked at so far.

“Adelaide Bartlett Trial,” Link to source in Bibliography

Adelaide Bartlett’s trial is probably one of the most confusing and surprising trials in all of history. Even the prosecution and the defense had trouble untangling all of the very odd details that surrounded the murder of Adelaide’s husband, Edwin Bartlett. On the first day of the year 1886, Bartlett was found dead by his wife who called for help. A brief investigation initially resulted in the arrest of Adelaide and a friend of the Bartletts, Reverend George Dyson, the latter who was found to have bought chloroform for Adelaide. However, the charges against Dyson were dropped, and Adelaide was the only one in the docks. In confidence to one of Edwin’s doctors, Adelaide told an incredible story about her husband’s ‘odd’ ideas of marriage and sex, who then testified about Edwin in court. Using her story, Adelaide gave room for her defense to cast her into, “the socially acceptable, passive, and dependent role,” of a devoted wife who was corrupted by the strange ideas of her morally ambiguous husband (Hartman, 199). She was acquitted by the jury, to the relief of the public.

Florence Maybrick was not so lucky. Arrested on the suspicion of poisoning her husband, James Maybrick, with arsenic, she found herself against suspicious brother-in-laws, and a household that was not loyal to her. Florence, after discovering her husband was having an affair, ventured on a love affair of her own with another man. Despite the fact that the doctors couldn’t definitely say that arsenic had caused Maybrick’s death, and the revelation that Maybrick was an abusive husband and a known arsenic eater, Maybrick was found guilty of his murder and sentenced to death. Despite the overwhelming popular support for Florence, the defense could not secure any sympathy for her from the already biased judge and the jury. The sentence was later changed to life in prison.

“The Trial of Florence Maybrick,” Link to source in Bibliography

In each of the chapters on these two women, Hartman makes it clear that of the two, Adelaide was, like Madeleine Smith, very likely to have been guilty of the crime of which she was accused. In contrast, Florence Maybrick’s guilt or innocence is much less certain. However, I believe that, as in the Vane and Smith cases, the question of agency plays a big role in the verdicts and sympathy of Adelaide and Florence.

Adelaide, as Hartman points out, commanded sympathy “as the helpless victim of a husband who had corrupted her mind by throwing her into the arms of another man.” (Hartman, 188). Not unlike Smith, Adelaide allows the press and her defense to turn her into a victim of another man’s corruption–in effect, taking her agency away in the matter. Like Smith, any blame is taken away from her, so even if there is some suspicion that she did kill her husband, she did so, like Smith, out of self-defense. Changing attitudes about sex and marriage also help garner sympathy, but a big part of the trial is the question of how odd and corrupt was Edwin Bartlett. Once attention and agency are taken away from Bartlett, the press and her defense council are free to make her into the sympathetic victim.

Not so with Maybrick. Though her defense tried to point out that her activity was not in the least suspicious–the arsenic she obtained was in full view, her husband was known to take arsenic on occasion, and so on–the fact of her very clear agency in her love affair served to ensure her guilt in the eyes of a very biased judge, and the jury of her trial. The Western Daily Press in one article under “The Maybrick Case” points out that Florence wasn’t really found guilty for murder, she was found guilty of adultery. And Florence even went on the stand and made a statement in her own defense, a move that her defense council hoped would gain more sympathy for her. Florence shows in the trial far more agency in her life than does Bartlett or Smith. It’s clear from the outset that she instigated the affair with her lover, once even renting out hotel rooms under her in-laws’ names. And she is the only one, of these three women at least, who speaks in her own defense. In fact, Florence is much more like Harriet Vane in this effect. Though the public showed to be in support of her, the press is more divided. In a list of statements in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, most of them think that Florence is clearly capable of murder if she is capable of cheating on her husband, but while a few believe she was only found guilty because of the affair.

This then, may be the reason why Florence Maybrick, though she is the least likely to be guilty, is the only one who was found guilty in trial. She doesn’t give away any agency when she apologizes for her involvement with her lover. Bartlett and Smith allowed their agency to be taken away and placed on the men in their lives; Florence didn’t do that, and neither does Harriet Vane in Strong Poison. I think then, there may be something to be said about the role of female agency in these trials, and the way these women are consequently portrayed, as well as the verdict they receive. A woman of agency, so far as I have found in these trials, is a guilty woman in the eyes of the judge and the press.

There are, of course, plenty more things to look at. It would be very interesting, for one thing, to see how much agency other fictional murderesses and female criminals are given by their authors. Conan Doyle’s female criminals, for instance, seem to have a surprising amount of agency in their crimes. I think it would also be very interesting to look at the role of agency in murder pairs: women who murder alongside their husbands, lovers, or other partners. The Mannings would be one such famous case. Also, further study on other female murderers across history and culture would be very interesting. I’ve seen some old press articles on American murderesses and I think it may be neat to compare the portrayal of female criminals not just within England, but also across various countries around the world.


“Adelaide Bartlett Trial.”

Hartman, Mary S. Victorian Murderesses: A True history of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes. Schoken Books, 1977.

“The Maybrick Case.” The Western Daily Press, Yeovil, England, British Library Newspapers Part V: 1746-1950, Friday, August 16, 1889, Issue 731, pp. 8.

“Mrs. Maybrick.” Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, Sunderland, England, British Library Newspapers Part III:1741-1950, Thursday, August 8, 1889, Issue 4920, pp. 3.

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

“The Trial of Florence Maybrick.”

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.