arsenic, Blythswood Square, Bridge of Allan, Damocles, genealogy, High Court of Justiciary, Lord Handyside, Madeleine Smith, Mary Magdalen, Mt Hope Cemetery, Not Proven, Pierre L'Angelier, Prussic acid, Rhu, Rossetti, Sauchiehall Street, The Glasgow Sentinel
You’ve been very quiet these last few days, Candia, remarked
Clammie. What have you been up to?
Oh, this and that. Digging about in my genealogical tree.
Found any murderers? she laughed.
Actually- yes and no. My great-aunt times goodness knows what was the
best friend of Madeleine Smith, the alleged arsenic poisoner of Victorian
infamy. She gave evidence at her trial, though she was innocent of any
involvement. She had been with Madeleine when she bought the poison.
Her name was Mary Buchanan.
Interestingly, the Lord of the Court of Session was Lord Handyside,
someone else on my father’s tree- related, but not so closely.
Wow! So what have you written about all this?
The following, I said, passing over my typewritten sheets.
I was glad that I had chosen to wear my straw bonnet, with the pure white trimmings, the one which sits at the back of my head and which enhances my profile so effectively. As I passed through the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh, the crowd parted and I felt the vibrations of the verdict: Not Proven, ringing in my ears. The glass phial of smelling salts, which I had had no recourse to during my nine day trial, fell out of my purse and it smashed. I disdainfully ground it into
powder beneath my heel.
So, I had been “cleared” of the attempted murder of my erstwhile lover, Pierre Emile L’Angelier and I had ousted the Indian Mutiny from the pages of the press. Taking my brother Jack’s arm, the only relative who was willing to be seen in my presence, I turned on that same heel and, returning Lord Handyside’s stare with compound interest, stepped into the street.
At least I would not be returning to the gloomy gable ends and gaslight of Glasgow, nor the over fervent protestations from my nervous fiancé. Now he has stated honestly that he wishes to withdraw his former proposal.
It was the ninth of July, 1857 and I had been supposedly cleared of guilt. However, even my legal defender had joked, in rather poor taste, I felt, that he would rather dance than dine with me.
It does not seem so long ago that I was gossiping with Mary Buchanan of Cardross, my best friend, at Mrs. Alice Gorton’s Academy for Young Ladies, near London. Then we exchanged confidences, remedies for depilation and recipes for whitening our complexions. We had vowed to be each other’s bridesmaids. I wonder if Mary will “cut” me now. Will she be amused by the press describing me in titillating fashion as a “burning passionate Juliet of decent society, fresh from the school-room”?
Yes, I suppose we were indulged, but my father was trying to be the architect of my destiny, as well as pursuing that literal profession throughout his working week. I was wilful and headstrong, I admit, but how can I be blamed for falling for the flattery of romantic avowals of such passion and intense devotion?
Emile seemed exotic to me then, albeit entirely unsuitable socially. Papa was planning a match for me and was furious that I was engaged in a correspondence with a warehouse clerk, let alone keeping clandestine appointments with him.
Naturally, prohibition only fanned the blaze of our desire. You would not believe the initiative and Machiavellian scheming that I employed in order to smuggle Emile into our house in Blythswood Square, after dark. Our middle-aged neighbour, Miss Perry was drawn into the preparations for our assignments, but, to tell the truth, the cunning machinations eventually proved to be more stimulating than the relationship itself. I sought to extinguish the ardency of our torrid affair. The embers reduced to ashes and should have been swept up efficiently by our housemaid’s dustpan and brush and have been scattered unceremoniously on some unhealthy rose garden, to strengthen the weaker horticultural specimens.
My self-esteem had been nourished sufficiently by then and the older man who was being presented to me was the more attractive option- especially financially. I decided to drop Emile. I may have deceived my family, but I could no longer deceive myself.
It is said that Adam was deceived, but Eve bore greater guilt, because she was clear in her decision to yield to temptation. I would say that we shared our blameworthiness. Emile unreasonably refused to return my letters and I admit to a certain lack of tact in my request: “as there is coolness on both sides, our engagement had better be broken.”
When the post-mortem revealed eighty-two grains of arsenic in Emile’s stomach, I volunteered the information that I had acquired such a substance as a cosmetic enhancer, though I confess that I had lied to the apothecary. I had informed him that I wished to employ it for rodent extermination. My parents would never have permitted me to utilise it for vanity’s sake and my sister, Bessie, would have told tales.
Bessie would not support me in court. She has always been envious of me, ever since we met Emile together in Sauchiehall Street. She probably told Papa about our rendezvous, the little rat.
Emile always preferred me to her; he thought her choice of dress and headgear vulgar and her personality vapid. She was happy to pay calls with mother and to simper for Papa’s merchant friends at interminable supper parties. Emile and I had a lot in common: we were both the eldest of five children and longed for adventure.
Ah, Emile, was it your very white fingers that attracted me- so elegant and unlike the reddened, horny, calloused knuckles of those podgy colleagues of Papa’s? Eventually those pale digits metamorphosed into worms that insinuated themselves into the core of my being, thrusting with greed to possess, not only my body, but my birthright itself. Your avarice for Papa’s approval was the torsion that twisted into your own guts and not any concoction of mine.
For a time I was your slave, and I tried to improve my temper, just to please you, silly jade that I was! Yet even “The Glasgow Sentinel” suggested that I was the seducer as much as the seduced.” It had the impertinence to imply that once my veil of modesty had been thrown aside- and from the first it had been a flimsy one-I then revealed myself as a woman of libidinous passion, an abnormal spirit that rose up to startle and revolt the general public. Still others have wondered whether I am the most fortunate of criminals, or the most unfortunate of women.
The judge was repelled by my candour regarding our shared embraces. Small wonder that Papa refused to leave his room and was driven to sell our beautiful house in Rhu, to avoid scandal. What happened to my little pug? I do miss it, though I used to provoke it intentionally on many occasions. The nasty “Examiner” said that if the trial had been for poisoning a dog, my indifference could not have been greater. What do they know?
I was frank with my lover, telling him of my courtship with Mr. Minnoch and how he accompanied me to concerts and suchlike. I repeatedly confronted Emile with the fact that he no longer loved me. It was to our mutual convenience that he should honestly bow out. Yet he would not release me from our situation and I entered a period of emotional turbulence and vacillation. I felt Papa’s wrath as an impending Dies Irae, or a sword of Damocles hanging over us. I had supped with horrors long enough.
If I had premeditated Emile’s demise, then why would I have sent a messenger, quite openly, to make the purchase of some Prussic acid and why would I have signed The Poison Books on subsequent occasions, with my own name? I appeal to you, dear reader: am I the most unfortunate of women, or the most fortunate criminal?
The powder I purchased was stained with dye and the physician who performed the autopsy did not detect any such colouring agent. Odd that I should later take up with someone who made their fortune through the manufacture and processing of such dyestuffs! All of this after my ex- fiancé disentangled himself from what was considered to be my Black Widow embrace.
Emile, your self-dramatising was impressive. Death by cocoa. How very enterprising of you to blame your end on the corruption of such an innocuous beverage! You were eager enough to drink the laudanum-laced potion provided by your careless doctor and no one knows what you might have ingested in Bridge of Allan, though I grant that the Poison Books there bore no trace of your signature.
So I sat for nine days, as unresponsive as I had been when discovered in the summerhouse, staring out to The Firth of Clyde. Edinburgh broiderers pricked out their sewing in the gallery, like Madame Defarges before the guillotine, yet the feeling in the east was more supportive of me than in the west, the Glasgow/ Edinburgh opposition even evident in court. Fifteen jurymen could not come to any consensus. The foreman kept clearing his throat, as if something was choking him. I kept thinking of the hundreds of written proposals of marriage that I had received in the East Jail. Later in life I had to turn down offers from Hollywood to take part in films of my supposed life.
I watched those women sticking in their needles and later I joined Janey Morris and her circle in many sewing bees. Rossetti even depicted me as Mary Magdalen, but I only played the penitent in paint and remained true to myself as Madeleine. My faithful brother came to my wedding and scattered white grains of rice over us. He visited our home in Bloomsbury; he adored our children, Tom and Kitten.
When that union was over, I was a veritable widow and I married a much younger man in the United States, remaining an enigma to the end, with my puzzling death certificate. The spider had spun its own web for nearly a century. I was buried in Mt Hope Cemetery, they say: a triumph, or a travesty?
When winter comes with a vengeance I think of Pierre Emile L’Angelier, my angel/ demon and the soft caresses of snowflakes remind me of our sensual lovemaking. Then I say to myself: “I do not regret that-never did, and never shall.”