The Secret Poisoner: The Victorian Age of Poisoning by Linda Stratmann
What a great book! Very well organized and thoroughly researched, the book neatly lays out the progression of forensic toxicology in the 1800s, encompassing some truly outrageous poisonings in England, France and even in the United States. I don’t know what surprised me more, how many people got away with it, or how many people were found guilty of their crimes. Forensic toxicology was in its infancy during the nineteenth century and some of the techniques used to find poisons in the body after death were ingenious. Equally amazing was that many scientists would take samples from the stomach, intestines and vomit of the poison victim and taste a small amount. Good grief, that takes a lot of guts (pun intended.)
Warning: there are numerous references to animals being experimented on, so if you’re an animal lover, you may find it hard to read at times (I know I did.)
I think the hardest stories to read were the ones where women poisoned young children. The story of Sarah Chesham, who poisoned two of her sons (among others) with arsenic and got away with it, was particularly disturbing and will probably stay with me for awhile.
The upper room in which the boys slept projected several feet over a room occupied by Deards and, that night, he heard the two children groaning in pain. Next morning, as he sat at breakfast, the boys’ vomit poured between the cracks in the floorboards and on to his table and the floor. He knocked on the Cheshams’ door, but there was no answer. Later that day, he was astonished to see Sarah Chesham in the street. ‘Mrs Chesham, are you aware how bad your children are?’ he exclaimed, adding, ‘We can scarcely live in the house!’ Her reply was, ‘I will go home and alter it.’
Stratmann, The Secret Poisoner p 156
It’s also disturbing how easily people could purchase a variety of poisons, from arsenic, strychnine and cyanide from a grocer or a druggist, right up until the 20th century. While these poisons are still available today, they are regulated and very few consumer products still contain them.
Overall, The Secret Poisoner was a fascinating read, one that will appeal to fans of history, true crime and/or forensic science.