EDITOR’S NOTE: At the height of the 2000 elections, our Dear Misanthrope sensed the need for relief from 24/7 Goredom, and came through with this classic column recounting the infamous 1857 Glasgow murder trial of Madeleine Smith. Nobody can match Florence for Victorian tale-telling, and this beaut from the October 23, 2000 issue of NR is one of her best. Enjoy.
Of course, this column, and hundreds more–indeed, each and every one Miss King wrote for the back page of NR–are faithfully collected in STET, Damnit, The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991 to 2002. You may order copies of the big, beautiful book (securely!) here.
IF you’re sick of politics too, here’s an “October surprise.” For sheer escapism nothing beats a classic British murder case, so let’s time-travel to Glasgow in 1857 for a front-row seat at Regina v. Madeleine Smith.
She was 21 when she was tried for the arsenic murder of her lover, Emile L’Angelier. He was 34, a tousle-haired, liquid-eyed French adventurer who had taken part in the Revolution of 1848, making him in modern terms an ex-Vietnam War protester and hippie has-been.
That and his job as a clerk in a Glasgow factory office made him an unacceptable suitor for a rich socialite like Madeleine. She came from a family of architects; her father was renowned in the field and her maternal grandfather was David Hamilton, designer of the Royal Exchange.
She had been prepared for the life of an upper-crust society hostess at a select English finishing school, where she acquired all the fashionably useless accomplishments. Her academic learning was sparse, but she did pick up one valuable fact: Arsenic, all the girls said, did wonders for the complexion when used as an astringent, producing that deathly pallor so prized by Victorian ladies.
After graduation, she returned home and marked time, waiting to marry. Her father already had a husband picked out for her, a friend of his named William Minnoch. Little is known about him, but the name alone inspired one commentator on the case to conjure him up as “ginger whiskers and tedium.” I conjure up Mr. Minnoch as that sterling impediment of indigestible rectitude known as “good husband material.” It’s possible that the thought of spending the rest of her life with him drove Madeleine around the bend and into L’Angelier’s arms. Considering the deconstructive effect of unflagging male virtue on female nerves, Mr. Minnoch emerges as an accessory before the fact.
Under normal Victorian conditions it would have been impossible for Emile even to meet Madeleine, but he was a social climber and a tireless practitioner of what we call “networking.” By making himself agreeable, doing little favors, and stroking everyone who crossed his path, he finally met somebody who knew somebody who knew a friend of Madeleine’s sister. A carefully calibrated meeting took place on the street when the Smith girls were out walking, and he was formally introduced to her.
Emile came late at night and stood at the window of Madeleine’s street-level room, talking with her while she served hot cocoa on the sill. She was able to bring him into the house a couple of times thanks to her mutual-aid pact with one of the maids-Madeleine looked the other way when the maid’s boyfriend slipped in-but nothing happened, so to speak, because her sister shared her room.
The act that the High Court of Justiciary would call “connexion” took place when Emile followed her to the Smiths’ summer home in Rowallen and they had at it in the garden, the orchard, the riverbank, everywhere but in the house. This daughter of architecture liked her sex alfresco.
She also liked to write letters. All Victorians did, but there is nothing Victorian about Madeleine’s. They were more like today’s phone sex. “I am much excited tonight,” she wrote. “It is a pleasure, and no one can deny that. It is but human nature.” She even described finding blood on herself.
Her splendor in the grass was short-lived. Like many a woman before and since, she soon discovered an unpleasant truth about men: As soon as they’ve had you, they try to boss you around.
Emile started criticizing everything about her: clothes, friends, habits, her letters, even her sexual submission. He turned into a prude, condemning her for yielding to him and making her promise not to do it again. His object was a rich wife, or, in lieu of that, money and improved status; his method was to break her down until she was putty in his hands. But he went too far when he threatened to show her letters to her father. Deciding to fight back, Madeleine went to the chemist’s.
After a cocoa-on-the-windowsill date, Emile became ill. Two more sessions at Madeleine’s bar did the trick: He was found dead with 82 grains of arsenic in his stomach (4 to 6 is enough). The police searched his room and found stacks of Madeleine’s letters, all “crossed” in the fashion of the time: After finishing a page, she turned it sideways and wrote across her own words. One crime writer has suggested that reading them drove Emile to suicide.
Madeleine’s icy poise in the dock, even while her letters were read aloud, was grudgingly admired. Her raven-haired beauty and pale complexion didn’t hurt either. The Crown had to show that Emile saw her the night before his death, but she was saved by a smudged postmark and an all-male jury, who brought the dour Scottish verdict of “Not Proven,” the Presbyterian way of saying “We know you did it, but . . .”
She was free, and only 21. What happened to her? A recent book, Murder in Victorian Scotland by Douglas MacGowan, tells us she moved to London, married the designer George Wardle, and lived in raffish Bloomsbury, where she charmed George Bernard Shaw and, according to Sacheverell Sitwell, posed for Rosetti. She also invented the place mat, inspired perhaps by her windowsill snacks. She got on with the Socialist set but we can bet she was contemptuous of them: They were theory, she was action.
In 1910 she emigrated to America where her son, Thomas Wardle, had settled. Then 75, she married 49-year-old William A. Sheehy, who died in 1926. Madeleine died two years later and is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., under the name Lena Wardle Sheehy. She was 92. The good die young, except Mr. Minnoch, who became president of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce.
Madeleine Smith, R.I.P. A cad took the fuzz off her peach and she took the lining off his stomach. Some women just don’t need the vote.