Murder most foul (or perhaps not)

A couple of years ago, I became fascinated by the Madeleine Smith case – not by the story itself, involving as it did sex and murder among the middle classes of 1850’s Glasgow, but how it was reported world wide.

Madeleine was accused of poisoning her lover by putting arsenic in his cocoa.

She wasn’t the first to do so, nor was she the last, but she was one of the first to be reported in newspapers around the world, in part due to the development of the electric telegraph – although of course the Madeleine Smith case happened before Australia was connected to the rest of the world by telegraph.

She wasn’t the first – the murders perpetrated by Sarah Chesham, aka Arsenic Sally, in the early 1850’s in Essex were reported reasonably widely in Australia.

Other earlier murders less so. For example, Ursula Lofthouse, who murdered her husband in 1835, and was incidentally the last woman to be hanged in York, appears not to rate a mention, despite the case being reported widely in Yorkshire at the time.

However, the use of arsenic by women to dispose of unwanted husbands and lovers was certainly common currency by the 1850’s, and is the reason that sales of poisons became restricted in the late 1850’s in England, and a little later in Victoria and New South Wales.

It didn’t stop it happening though. Louisa Collins, the last woman to be hanged in NSW, managed to poison both her husband and lover, probably to get an insurance payout.

What is interesting though, when you read the newspaper reports of the time is how careful the authorities were in Victorian times to determine the cause of death, usually having autopsies performed by two separate doctors, and often having tests for poisons performed by two analysts.

Just as in the case of the attempted rape of Catherine Morton in Beechworth in 1858, where the victim was blindfolded and given bottles of different substances to smell to confirm the use of chloroform, there seems to have been an attempt by the authorities to use objective scientific methods to obtain a conviction rather solely relying on witness statements.

Of course this could work against them – in the case of Louisa Collins, her husband was a wool processor and employed arsenic in his work – and it was possible to argue for accidental poisoning.

I was curious to see if I could find reports of similar scientific tests being used in murders in the Beechworth area during the gold rush period. Arsenic is often found in gold deposits and is still a hazard in the washout from old mine tailings, so I would have expected to find cases of suspected accidental poisonings which turned out to be murder or attempted murder.

Well, I didn’t find any, but I did find a sensational case from the 1880’s. The fullest report can be found in the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express of 16 July 1886, and a rather shorter version made it into the Press in Christchurch in New Zealand.

Essentially, the murder victim’s body had been burnt, perhaps to get rid of the evidence, and the alleged perpetrator, Harriet Stevens,  claimed that she had a small taxidermy business and consequently had a legitimate use for arsenic. She also claimed that the victim’s house had been struck by lightning at the time of his death and that was why the body had been burned.

Despite two of her previous partners having died in mysterious circumstances, the evidence was not enough to convict Harriet Stevens of the murder of John Plum.

Incidentally her (last) husband John Stevens appears to have been an equally dubious character, but nowhere near as bad as Harriet Stevens …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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