The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder by Linda Stratmann
A “poisoning panic” gripped Britain in 1848, said Andrew Holgate in The Sunday Times. “Ripples of alarm” had spread across the country after newspapers reported a spate of “horrific cases” in Essex. One woman was said to have killed her husband and 14 children; another was put on trial for giving arsenic to her two sons before turning her attentions to her lover’s illegitimate child. But, as we learn from Linda Stratmann’s “extravagantly detailed history”, this was an era when poisoning was all too easy. For much of the 19th century, “fatal substances” were available for a trivial sum from any grocer. A penny twist of arsenic could be bought across the counter as rat poison, even by children; it was popular with killers, because it was “almost tasteless and odourless”. And convictions were hard to obtain. With poison so easy to administer in secret, it often proved difficult to “pin perpetrator to crime”. Small wonder, then, that poisoning – “silent, intimate, often undetected” – ranked as “one of the great fears” of Victorian Britain.
Those fears were well founded, said Craig Brown in The Mail on Sunday. The Times called it a “murder epidemic”: it reckoned up to 500 people a year were dying in Britain of “accidental or wilful” poisoning, and many more cases must have “passed unnoticed”. You have to “goggle at the inhumanity” of the killers, said David Shariatmadari in The Guardian. Some parents enrolled their children in “burial clubs”, a form of insurance to cover funeral costs, then poisoned them, to get the cash. The death toll was only to fall when scientists developed more efficient techniques for discovering poison in corpses, and sales of household poisons were at last restricted – a reform achieved despite fierce opposition from the Society of Chemists and Druggists.
Poisoning provoked “moral panic” not least because it “put a secret weapon” into the hands of those lower down the social order, said Melanie Reid in The Times: wives and servants. For good measure, victims often suffered a horrific death. Those given strychnine “spasmed so hard they broke their own backs”. With a wealth of such gruesome details, this is in some ways a “seriously nasty book”; it is “comprehensive” on the mechanics of poison. And it’s a shame that Stratmann – once a dispensing chemist herself, now a successful crime writer – devotes so little attention to the wider “social landscape” of poisoning. “For me, it became too much, corpse after dreadful corpse.”