Exploring the darker side of chemicals in Victorian life

Poison, detection, and the Victorian imagination 

Ian Burney 

Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press | 2006 | 193pp | ?40.00 (HB) | ISBN 9780719073762 

Reviewed by Tony Stubbings

In mid-Victorian days, as more chemicals and their toxic effects became known, poisoning enjoyed a heyday, especially among women seeking to rid themselves of unwanted spouses and lovers. One only has to think of Madeleine Smith, the famous Scottish poisoner, who in 1855 rid herself of her French lover Emile L’Angelier using cocoa laced with arsenic - even though the prosecution in Scotland could not present enough forensic evidence to prove it and the jury passed a ’not proven’ verdict. 

Fortunately, toxicology, forensic science and medical jurisprudence were improving all the time, pioneered by such men as Robert Christison and Alfred Taylor. As a result, it became more difficult to avoid detection.  

Not that the legal system, or the general public, embraced the new applications of science with great enthusiasm. Ian Burney, in this well-researched book, outlines the struggle between those who continued to experiment with chemical methods of attempting (and perhaps succeeding) in murder, those who sought to detect their crimes by ever more sophisticated analytical methods of detection, and an anxious and sceptical public and legal profession.  

Poisoning, especially when applied chronically, has always been a crime mostly confined to use within close family circles and so this book explores the dark recesses of Victorian social and family life, both in fact and as portrayed in fiction like that of Charles Dickens. 

The book mentions many case studies, but centres principally on the issues surrounding the famous 1856 case of William Palmer, a rogue doctor, forger, gambler, adulterer and serial murderer. Palmer was the archetypal Victorian poisoner and his strychnine poisoning case which ended in his execution raised many questions over the position of expert scientific witness within the legal system which continue to this day. 

This book is not an easy read and could not be described as aimed at the general public, but it will be enjoyed by those interested in the relationship between science (especially chemistry) and the law, medicine and the social sciences, and by those who love exploring the dark corners of Victorian life. 

Of course, even though forensic science and toxicology have advanced beyond recognition since those dark Victorian days, people continued throughout the 20th century to seek to remove their victims through the use of poisons. The recent case of the Alexander Litvinenko poisoning with polonium-210 serves to highlight how poisoners will continue to explore new areas of chemistry in order to commit the ’undiscoverable’ crime.