Thursday, November 8, 2007



Being a Series of Accounts of the Lives and Deeds of
Notorious Women, Murderesses, Cheats, Cozeners,
on whom Justice was Executed, and of others who,
Accused of Crimes, were Acquitted at least in Law;
Drawn from Authenticated Sources
I had a thought to call this book Pale Hands or Fair Hands
Imbrued--so easy it is to fall into the ghastly error of
Apart, however, from the desire to avoid pedant or puerile
humour, re-examination of my material showed me how near I had
been to crashing into a pitfall of another sort. Of the ladies
with whose encounters with the law I propose to deal several were
assoiled of the charges against them. Their hands, then--unless
the present ruddying of female fingernails is the revival of an
old fashion--were not pink-tipped, save, perhaps, in the way of
health; nor imbrued, except in soapsuds. My proposed
facetiousness put me in peril of libel.
Interest in the criminous doings of women is so alive and avid
among criminological writers that it is hard indeed to find
material which has not been dealt with to the point of
exhaustion. Does one pick up in a secondhand bookshop a pamphlet
giving a verbatim report of a trial in which a woman is the
central figure, and does one flatter oneself that the find is
unique, and therefore providing of fresh fields, it is almost
inevitable that one will discover, or rediscover, that the case
has already been put to bed by Mr Roughead in his inimitable
manner. What a nose the man has! What noses all these
rechauffeurs of crime possess! To use a figure perhaps something
unmannerly, the pigs of Perigord, which, one hears, are trained
to hunt truffles, have snouts no keener.
Suppose, again, that one proposes to deal with the peccancy of
women from the earliest times, it is hard to find a lady, even
one whose name has hitherto gleamed lurid in history, to whom
some modern writer has not contrived by chapter and verse to
apply a coat of whitewash.
Locusta, the poisoner whom Agrippina, wanting to kill the Emperor
Claudius by slow degrees, called into service, and whose
technique Nero admired so much that he was fain to put her on his
pension list, barely escapes the deodorant. Messalina comes up
in memory. And then one finds M. Paul Moinet, in his historical
essays En Marge de l'histoire, gracefully pleading for the lady
as Messaline la calomniee--yes, and making out a good case for
her. The Empress Theodora under the pen of a psychological
expert becomes nothing more dire than a clever little whore
disguised in imperial purple.
On the mention of poison Lucretia Borgia springs to mind. This
is the lady of whom Gibbon writes with the following ponderous
In the next generation the house of Este was sullied by a
sanguinary and incestuous race in the nuptials of Alfonso I with
Lucretia, a bastard of Alexander VI, the Tiberius of Christian
Rome. This modern Lucretia might have assumed with more
propriety the name of Messalina, since the woman who can be
guilty, who can even be accused, of a criminal intercourse with a
father and two brothers must be abandoned to all the
licentiousness of a venal love.
That, if the phrase may be pardoned, is swatting a butterfly with
a sledge-hammer! Poor little Lucretia, described by the
excellent M. Moinet as a ``bon petit coeur,'' is enveloped in the
political ordure slung by venal pamphleteers at the masterful men
of her race. My friend Rafael Sabatini, than whom no man living
has dug deeper into Borgia history, explains the calumniation of
Lucretia in this fashion: Adultery and promiscuous intercourse
were the fashion in Rome at the time of Alexander VI. Nobody
thought anything of them. And to have accused the Borgia girl,
or her relatives, of such inconsiderable lapses would have been
to evoke mere shrugging. But incest, of course, was horrible.
The writers paid by the party antagonistic to the Borgia growth
in power therefore slung the more scurrile accusation. But there
is, in truth, just about as much foundation for the charge as
there is for the other, that Lucretia was a poisoner. The answer
to the latter accusation, says my same authority, may take the
form of a question: WHOM DID LUCRETIA POISON? As far as history
goes, even that written by the Borgia enemies, the reply is,
Were one content, like Gibbon, to take one's history like snuff
there would be to hand a mass of caliginous detail with which to
cause shuddering in the unsuspecting reader. But in mere
honesty, if in nothing else, it behoves the conscientious writer
to examine the sources of his information. The sources may
be--they too frequently are--contaminated by political rancour
and bias, and calumnious accusation against historical figures
too often is founded on mere envy. And then the rechauffeurs,
especially where rechauffage is made from one language to
another, have been apt (with a mercenary desire to give their
readers as strong a brew as possible) to attach the darkest
meanings to the words they translate. In this regard, and still
apropos the Borgias, I draw once again on Rafael Sabatini for an
example of what I mean. Touching the festivities celebrating
Lucretia's wedding in the Vatican, the one eyewitness whose
writing remains, Gianandrea Boccaccio, Ferrarese ambassador, in a
letter to his master says that amid singing and dancing, as an
interlude, a ``worthy'' comedy was performed. The diarist
Infessura, who was not there, takes it upon himself to describe
the comedy as ``lascivious.'' Lascivious the comedies of the
time commonly were, but later writers, instead of drawing their
ideas from the eyewitness, prefer the dark hints of Infessura,
and are persuaded that the comedy, the whole festivity, was
``obscene.'' Hence arises the notion, so popular, that the
second Borgia Pope delighted in shows which anticipated those of
the Folies Bergere, or which surpassed the danse du ventre in
A statue was made by Guglielmo della Porta of Julia Farnese,
Alexander's beautiful second mistress. It was placed on the tomb
of her brother Alessandro (Pope Paul III). A Pope at a later
date provided the lady, portrayed in `a state of nature,' with a
silver robe--because, say the gossips, the statue was indecent.
Not at all: it was to prevent recurrence of an incident in which
the sculptured Julia took a static part with a German student
afflicted with sex-mania.
I become, however, a trifle excursive, I think. If I do the
blame lies on those partisan writers to whom I have alluded.
They have a way of leading their incautious latter-day brethren
up the garden. They hint at flesh-eating lilies by the pond at
the path's end, and you find nothing more prone to sarcophagy
than harmless primulas. In other words, the beetle-browed
Lucretia, with the handy poison-ring, whom they promise you turns
out to be a blue-eyed, fair-haired, rather yielding little
darling, ultimately an excellent wife and mother, given to piety
and good works, used in her earlier years as a political
instrument by father and brother, and these two no worse than
masterful and ambitious men employing the political technique
common to their day and age.
% II
Messalina, Locusta, Lucretia, Theodora, they step aside in this
particular review of peccant women. Cleopatra, supposed to have
poisoned slaves in the spirit of scientific research, or perhaps
as punishment for having handed her the wrong lipstick, also is
set aside. It were supererogatory to attempt dealing with the
ladies mentioned in the Bible and the Apocrypha, such as Jael,
who drove the nail into the head of Sisera, or Judith, who cut
off the head of Holofernes. Their stories are plainly and
excellently told in the Scriptural manner, and the adding of
detail would be mere fictional exercise. Something, perhaps,
might be done for them by way of deducing their characters and
physical shortcomings through examination of their deeds and
motives--but this may be left to psychiatrists. There is room
here merely for a soupcon of psychology--just as much, in fact,
as may afford the writer an easy turn from one plain narrative to
another. You will have no more of it than amounts, say, to the
pinch of fennel that should go into the sauce for mackerel.
Toffana, who in Italy supplied poison to wives aweary of their
husbands and to ladies beginning to find their lovers
inconvenient, and who thus at second hand murdered some six
hundred persons, has her attractions for the criminological
writer. The bother is that so many of them have found it out.
The scanty material regarding her has been turned over so often
that it has become somewhat tattered, and has worn rather thin
for refashioning. The same may be said for Hieronyma Spara, a
direct poisoner and Toffana's contemporary.
The fashion they set passed to the Marquise de Brinvilliers, and
she, with La Vigoureux and La Voisin, has been written up so
often that the task of finding something new to say of her and
her associates looks far too formidable for a man as lethargic as
In the abundance of material that criminal history provides about
women choice becomes difficult. There is, for example, a
plethora of women poisoners. Wherever a woman alone turns to
murder it is a hundred to one that she will select poison as a
medium. This at first sight may seem a curious fact, but there
is for it a perfectly logical explanation, upon which I hope
later to touch briefly. The concern of this book, however, is
not purely with murder by women, though murder will bulk largely.
Swindling will be dealt with, and casual allusion made to other
But take for the moment the women accused or convicted of
poisoning. What an array they make! What monsters of iniquity
many of them appear! Perhaps the record, apart from those set up
by Toffana and the Brinvilliers contingent, is held by the Van
der Linden woman of Leyden, who between 1869 and 1885 attempted
to dispose of 102 persons, succeeded with no less than
twenty-seven, and rendered at least forty-five seriously ill.
Then comes Helene Jegado, of France, who, according to one
account, with two more working years (eighteen instead of
sixteen), contrived to envenom twenty-six people, and attempted
the lives of twelve more. On this calculation she fails by one
to reach the der Linden record, but, even reckoning the two extra
years she had to work in, since she made only a third of the
other's essays, her bowling average may be said to be
incomparably better.
Our own Mary Ann Cotton, at work between 1852 and 1873, comes in
third, with twenty-four deaths, at least known, as her bag. Mary
Ann operated on a system of her own, and many of her victims were
her own children. She is well worth the lengthier consideration
which will be given her in later pages.
Anna Zwanziger, the earlier `monster' of Bavaria, arrested in
1809, was an amateur compared with those three.
Mrs Susannah Holroyd, of Ashton-under-Lyne, charged in September
of 1816 at the Lancashire Assizes with the murder by poison of
her husband, her own son, and the infant child of Anna Newton, a
lodger of hers, was nurse to illegitimate children. She was
generally suspected of having murdered several of her charges,
but no evidence, as far as I can learn, was brought forward to
give weight to the suspicion at her trial. Then there were
Mesdames Flanagan and Higgins, found guilty, at Liverpool Assizes
in February 1884, of poisoning Thomas Higgins, husband of the
latter of the accused, by the administration of arsenic. The
ladies were sisters, living together in Liverpool. With them in
the house in Skirvington Street were Flanagan's son John, Thomas
Higgins and his daughter Mary, Patrick Jennings and his daughter
John Flanagan died in December 1880. His mother drew the
insurance money. Next year Thomas Higgins married the younger of
the sisters, and in the year following Mary Higgins, his
daughter, died. Her stepmother drew the insurance money. The
year after that Margaret Jennings, daughter of the lodger, died.
Once again insurance money was drawn, this time by both sisters.
Thomas Higgins passed away that same year in a house to which
what remained of the menage had removed. He was on the point of
being buried, as having died of dysentery due to alcoholism, when
the suspicions of his brother led the coroner to stop the
funeral. The brother had heard word of insurance on the life of
Thomas. A post-mortem revealed the fact that Thomas had actually
died of arsenic poisoning; upon which discovery the bodies of
John Flanagan, Mary Higgins, and Margaret Jennings were exhumed
for autopsy, which revealed arsenic poisoning in each case. The
prisoners alone had attended the deceased in the last illnesses.
Theory went that the poison had been obtained by soaking
fly-papers. Mesdames Flanagan and Higgins were executed at
Kirkdale Gaol in March of 1884.
Now, these are two cases which, if only minor in the wholesale
poisoning line when compared with the Van der Linden, Jegado, and
Cotton envenomings, yet have their points of interest. In both
cases the guilty were so far able to banish ``all trivial fond
records'' as to dispose of kindred who might have been dear to
them: Mrs Holroyd of husband and son, with lodger's daughter as
makeweight; the Liverpool pair of nephew, husband, stepdaughter
(or son, brother-in-law, and stepniece, according to how you look
at it), with again the unfortunate daughter of a lodger thrown
in. If they ``do things better on the Continent''--speaking
generally and ignoring our own Mary Ann--there is yet temptation
to examine the lesser native products at length, but space and
the scheme of this book prevent. In the matter of the Liverpool
Locustas there is an engaging speculation. It was brought to my
notice by Mr Alan Brock, author of By Misadventure and Further
Evidence. Just how far did the use of flypapers by Flanagan and
Higgins for the obtaining of arsenic serve as an example to Mrs
Maybrick, convicted of the murder of her husband in the same city
five years later?
The list of women poisoners in England alone would stretch
interminably. If one were to confine oneself merely to those
employing arsenic the list would still be formidable. Mary
Blandy, who callously slew her father with arsenic supplied her
by her lover at Henley-on-Thames in 1751, has been a subject for
many criminological essayists. That she has attracted so much
attention is probably due to the double fact that she was a girl
in a very comfortable way of life, heiress to a fortune of
L10,000, and that contemporary records are full and accessible.
But there is nothing essentially interesting about her case to
make it stand out from others that have attracted less notice in
a literary way. Another Mary, of a later date, Edith Mary Carew,
who in 1892 was found guilty by the Consular Court, Yokohama, of
the murder of her husband with arsenic and sugar of lead, was an
Englishwoman who might have given Mary Blandy points in several
When we leave the arsenical-minded and seek for cases where other
poisons were employed there is still no lack of material. There
is, for example, the case of Sarah Pearson and the woman Black,
who were tried at Armagh in June 1905 for the murder of the old
mother of the latter. The old woman, Alice Pearson (Sarah was
her daughter-in-law), was in possession of small savings, some
forty pounds, which aroused the cupidity of the younger women.
Their first attempt at murder was with metallic mercury. It
rather failed, and the trick was turned by means of
three-pennyworth of strychnine, bought by Sarah and mixed with
the old lady's food. The murder might not have been discovered
but for the fact that Sarah, who had gone to Canada, was arrested
in Montreal for some other offence, and made a confession which
implicated her husband and Black. A notable point about the case
is the amount of metallic mercury found in the old woman's body:
296 grains--a record.
Having regard to the condition of life in which these Irishwomen
lived, there is nothing, to my mind, in the fact that they
murdered for forty pounds to make their crime more sordid than
that of Mary Blandy.
Take, again, the case of Mary Ansell, the domestic servant, who,
at Hertford Assizes in June 1899, was found guilty of the murder
of her sister, Caroline, by the administration of phosphorus
contained in a cake. Here the motive for the murder was the
insurance made by Ansell upon the life of her sister, a young
woman of weak intellect confined in Leavesden Asylum, Watford.
The sum assured was only L22 10s. If Mary Blandy poisoned her
father in order to be at liberty to marry her lover, Cranstoun,
and to secure the fortune Cranstoun wanted with her, wherein does
she shine above Mary Ansell, a murderess who not only poisoned
her sister, but nearly murdered several of her sister's
fellow-inmates of the asylum, and all for twenty odd pounds?
Certainly not in being less sordid, certainly not in being more
There is, at root, no case of murder proved and accepted as such
which does not contain its points of interest for the
criminological writer. There is, indeed, many a case, not only
of murder but of lesser crime, that has failed to attract a lot
of attention, but that yet, in affording matter for the student
of crime and criminal psychology, surpasses others which, very
often because there has been nothing of greater public moment at
the time, were boomed by the Press into the prominence of causes
There is no need then, after all, for any crime writer who wants
to fry a modest basket of fish to mourn because Mr Roughead, Mr.
Beaufroy Barry, Mr Guy Logan, Miss Tennyson Jesse, Mr Leonard R.
Gribble, and others of his estimable fellows seem to have swiped
all the sole and salmon. It may be a matter for envy that Mr
Roughead, with his uncanny skill and his gift in piquant sauces,
can turn out the haddock and hake with all the delectability of
sole a la Normande. The sigh of envy will merge into an
exhalation of joy over the artistry of it. And one may turn,
wholeheartedly and inspired, to see what can be made of one's own
catch of gudgeon.
``More deadly than the male.''
Kipling's line about the female of the species has been quoted,
particularly as a text for dissertation on the female criminal,
perhaps rather too often. There is always a temptation to use
the easy gambit.
It is quite probable that there are moments in a woman's life
when she does become more deadly than the male. The probability
is one which no man of age and experience will lack instance for
making a fact. Without seeking to become profound in the matter
I will say this: it is but lightly as compared with a man that
one need scratch a woman to come on the natural creature.
Now, your natural creature, not inhibited by reason, lives by
theft, murder, and dissimulation. It lives, even as regards the
male, but for one purpose: to continue its species. Enrage a
woman, then, or frighten her into the natural creature, and she
will discard all those petty rules invented by the human male for
his advantage over, and his safety from, the less disciplined
members of the species. All that stuff about `honour,'
`Queensberry rules,' `playing the game,' and what not will go by
the board. And she will fight you with tooth and talon, with
lies, with blows below the belt--metaphorically, of course.
It may well be that you have done nothing more than hurt her
pride--the civilized part of her. But instinctively she will
fight you as the mother animal, either potentially or in being.
It will not occur to her that she is doing so. Nor will it occur
to you. But the fact that she is fighting at all will bring it
about, for fighting to any female animal means defence of her
young. She may not have any young in being. That does not
affect the case. She will fight for the ova she carries, for the
ova she has yet to develop. Beyond all reason, deep, instinct
deep, within her she is the carrier of the race. This instinct
is so profound that she will have no recollection in a crisis of
the myriads of her like, but will think of herself as the race's
one chance to persist. Dangerous? Of course she's dangerous--as
dangerous as Nature! Just as dangerous, just as self-centred, as
in its small way is that vegetative organism the volvox, which,
when food is scarce and the race is threatened, against possible
need of insemination, creates separate husband cells to starve in
clusters, while `she' hogs all the food-supply for the production
of eggs.
This small flight into biology is made merely for the dim light
it may cast on the Kipling half-truth. It is not made to explain
why women criminals are more deadly, more cruel, more deeply lost
in turpitude, than their male colleagues. But it may help to
explain why so many crime-writers, following Lombroso, THINK the
female more deadly.
There is something so deeply shocking in the idea of a woman
being other than kind and good, something so antagonistic to the
smug conception of Eve as the ``minist'ring angel, thou,'' that
leaps to extremes in expression are easy.
A drunken woman, however, and for example, is not essentially
more degraded than a drunken man. This in spite of popular
belief. A nymphomaniac is not essentially more degraded than a
brothel-haunting male. It may be true that moral sense decays
more quickly in a woman than in a man, that the sex-ridden or
drink-avid woman touches the deeps of degradation more quickly,
but the reasons for this are patent. They are economic reasons
usually, and physical, and not adherent to any inevitably weaker
moral fibre in the woman.
Women as a rule have less command of money than men. If they
earn what they spend they generally have to seek their
satisfactions cheaply; and, of course, since their powers of
resistance to the debilitating effects of alcohol are commonly
less than those of men, they more readily lose physical tone.
With loss of health goes loss of earning power, loss of caste.
The descent, in general, must be quicker. It is much the same in
nymphomania. Unless the sex-avid woman has a decent income, such
as will provide her with those means whereby women preserve the
effect of attractiveness, she must seek assuagement of her
sex-torment with men less and less fastidious.
But it is useless and canting to say that peccant women are worse
than men. If we are kind we say so merely because we are more
apprehensive for them. Safe women, with but rare exceptions, are
notably callous about their sisters astray, and the ``we'' I have
used must be taken generally to signify men. We see the danger
for erring women, danger economic and physical. Thinking in
terms of the phrase that ``a woman's place is the home,'' we
wonder what will become of them. We wonder anxiously what man,
braver or less fastidious than ourselves, will accept the burden
of rescuing them, give them the sanctuary of a home. We see them
as helpless, pitiable beings. We are shocked to see them fall so
There is something of this rather maudlin mentality, generally
speaking, in our way of regarding women criminals. To think, we
say, that a WOMAN should do such things!
But why should we be more shocked by the commission of a crime by
a woman than by a man--even the cruellest of crimes? Take the
male and female in feral creation, and there is nothing to choose
between them in the matter of cruelty. The lion and the lioness
both live by murder, and until gravidity makes her slow for the
chase the breeding female is by all accounts the more dangerous.
The she-bear will just as readily eat up a colony of grubs or
despoil the husbandry of the bees as will her mate. If, then,
the human animal drops the restraints imposed by law, reverting
thereby to the theft, murder, and cunning of savagery, why should
it be shocking that the female should equal the male in
callousness? Why should it be shocking should she even surpass
the male? It is quite possible that, since for physiological
reasons she is nearer to instinctive motivation than the male,
she cannot help being more ruthless once deterrent inhibition has
been sloughed. But is she in fact more dangerous, more deadly as
a criminal, than the male?
Lombroso--vide Mr Philip Beaufroy Barry in his essay on Anna
Zwanziger--tells us that some of the methods of torture employed
by criminal women are so horrible that they cannot be described
without outraging the laws of decency. Less squeamish than
Lombroso or Mr Barry, I gather aloud that the tortures have to do
with the organs of generation. But male savages in African and
American Indian tribes have a punishment for adulterous women
which will match anything in that line women have ever achieved,
and men in England itself have wreaked perverted vengeance on
women in ways indescribable too. Though it may be granted that
pain inflicted through the genitals is particularly sickening,
pain is pain all over the body, and must reach what might be
called saturation-point wherever inflicted. And as regards the
invention of sickening punishment we need go no farther afield in
search for ingenuity than the list of English kings. Dirty Jamie
the Sixth of Scotland and First of England, under mask of
retributive justice, could exercise a vein of cruelty that might
have turned a Red Indian green with envy. Moreover, doesn't our
word expressing cruelty for cruelty's sake derive from the name
of a man--the Marquis de Sade?
I am persuaded that the reason why so many women murderers have
made use of poison in their killings is primarily a simple one, a
matter of physique. The average murderess, determined on the
elimination of, for example, a husband, must be aware that in
physical encounter she would have no chance. Then, again, there
is in women an almost inborn aversion to the use of weapons.
Once in a way, where the murderess was of Amazonian type,
physical means have been employed for the slaying.
In this regard Kate Webster, who in 1879 at Richmond murdered and
dismembered Mrs Julia Thomas, springs to mind. She was, from all
accounts, an exceedingly virile young woman, strong as a pony,
and with a devil of a temper. Mr Elliot O'Donnell, dealing with
her in his essay in the ``Notable British Trials'' series, seems
to be rather at a loss, considering her lack of physical beauty,
to account for her attractiveness to men and to her own sex. But
there is no need to account for it. Such a thing is no
I myself, sitting in a taberna in a small Spanish port, was once
pestered by a couple of British seamen to interpret for them in
their approaches to the daughter of the house. This woman, who
had a voice like a raven, seemed able to give quick and snappy
answers to the chaff by frequenters of the taberna. Few people
in the day-time, either men or women, would pass the house if
'Fina happened to be showing without stopping to have a word with
her. She was not at all gentle in manner, but children ran to
her. And yet, without being enormously fat, 'Fina must have
weighed close on fifteen stone. She had forearms and biceps like
a coal-heaver's. She was black-haired, heavy-browed,
squish-nosed, moled, and swarthy, and she had a beard and
moustache far beyond the stage of incipiency. Yet those two
British seamen, fairly decent men, neither drunk nor brutish,
could not have been more attracted had 'Fina had the beauty of
the Mona Lisa herself. I may add that there were other women
handy and that the seamen knew of them.
This in parenthesis, I hope not inappropriately.
Where the selected victim, or victims, is, or are, feeble-bodied
you will frequently find the murderess using physical means to
her end. Sarah Malcolm, whose case will form one of the chief
features of this volume, is an instance in point. Marguerite
Diblanc, who strangled Mme Reil in the latter's house in Park
Lane on a day in April 1871, is another. Amelia Dyer, the
baby-farmer, also strangled her charges. Elizabeth Brownrigg
(1767) beat the feeble Mary Clifford to death. I do not know
that great physical difference existed to the advantage of the
murderess between her and her older victim, Mrs Phoebe Hogg, who,
with her baby, was done to death by Mrs Pearcy in October 1890,
but the fact that Mrs Hogg had been battered about the head, and
that the head had been almost severed from the body, would seem
to indicate that the murderess was the stronger of the two women.
The case of Belle Gunness (treated by Mr George Dilnot in his
Rogues March[1]) might be cited. Fat, gross-featured, far from
attractive though she was, her victims were all men who had
married or had wanted to marry her. Mr Dilnot says these victims
``almost certainly numbered more than a hundred.'' She murdered
for money, using chloral to stupefy, and an axe for the actual
killing. She herself was slain and burned, with her three
children, by a male accomplice whom she was planning to dispose
of, he having arrived at the point of knowing too much. 1907 was
the date of her death at La Porte, U.S.A.
[1] Bles, 1934.
It occurs when the female killer happens to be dramatical-minded
that she will use a pistol. Mme Weissmann-Bessarabo, who, with
her daughter, shot her husband in Paris (August 1920), is of this
kind. She and the daughter, Paule-Jacques, seem to have seen
themselves as wild, wild women from the Mexico where they had
sometime lived, and were always flourishing revolvers.
I would say that the use of poison so much by women murderers has
reason, first, in the lack of physique for violent methods, but I
would put alongside that reason this other, that women poisoners
usually have had a handy proximity to their victims. They have
had contact with their victims in an attendant capacity. I have
a suspicion, moreover, that a good number of women poisoners
actually chose the medium as THE KINDEST WAY. Women, and I might
add not a few men, who would be terribly shocked by sight or news
of a quick but violent death, can contemplate with relative
placidity a lingering and painful fatal illness. Propose to a
woman the destruction of a mangy stray cat or of an incurably
diseased dog by means of a clean, well-placed shot, and the
chances are that she will shudder. But--no lethal chamber being
available--suggest poison, albeit unspecified, and the method
will more readily commend itself. This among women with no
murderous instincts whatever.
I have a fancy also that in some cases of murder by poison, not
only by women, the murderer has been able to dramatize herself or
himself ahead as a tender, noble, and self-sacrificing attendant
upon the victim. No need here, I think, to number the cases
where the ministrations of murderers to their victims have
aroused the almost tearful admiration of beholders.
I shall say nothing of the secrecy of the poison method, of the
chance which still exists, in spite of modern diagnosis, that the
illness induced by it will pass for one arising from natural
causes. This is ground traversed so often that its features are
as familiar as those of one's own house door. Nor shall I say
anything of the ease with which, even in these days, the
favourite poison of the woman murderer, arsenic, can be obtained
in one form or another.
One hears and reads, however, a great deal about the sense of
power which gradually steals upon the poisoner. It is a
speculation upon which I am not ready to argue. There is,
indeed, chapter and verse for believing that poisoners have
arrived at a sense of omnipotence. But if Anna Zwanziger (here I
quote from Mr Philip Beaufroy Barry's essay on her in his Twenty
Human Monsters), ``a day or two before the execution, smiled and
said it was a fortunate thing for many people that she was to
die, for had she lived she would have continued to poison men and
women indiscriminately''; if, still according to the same writer,
``when the arsenic was found on her person after the arrest, she
seized the packet and gloated over the powder, looking at it, the
chronicler assures us, as a woman looks at her lover''; and if,
``when the attendants asked her how she could have brought
herself calmly to kill people with whom she was living--whose
meals and amusements she shared--she replied that their faces
were so stupidly healthy and happy that she desired to see them
change into faces of pain and despair,'' I will say this in no
way goes to prove the woman criminal to be more deadly than the
male. This ghoulish satisfaction, with the conjectured feeling
of omnipotence, is not peculiar to the woman poisoner. Neill
Cream had it. Armstrong had it. Wainewright, with his reason
for poisoning Helen Abercrombie--``Upon my soul I don't know,
unless it was that her legs were too thick''--is quite on a par
with Anna Zwanziger. The supposed sense of power does not even
belong exclusively to the poisoner. Jack the Ripper manifestly
had something of the same idea about his use of the knife.
As a monster in mass murder against Mary Ann Cotton I will set
you the Baron Gilles de Rais, with his forty flogged, outraged,
obscenely mutilated and slain children in one of his castles
alone--his total of over two hundred children thus foully done to
death. I will set you Gilles against anything that can be
brought forward as a monster in cruelty among women.
Against the hypocrisy of Helene Jegado I will set you the
sanctimonious Dr Pritchard, with the nauseating entry in his
diary (quoted by Mr Roughead) recording the death of the wife he
so cruelly murdered:
March 1865, 18, Saturday. Died here at 1 A.M. Mary Jane, my own
beloved wife, aged thirty-eight years. No torment surrounded her
bedside [the foul liar!]--but like a calm peaceful lamb of God
passed Minnie away. May God and Jesus, Holy Ghost, one in three,
welcome Minnie! Prayer on prayer till mine be o'er; everlasting
love. Save us, Lord, for Thy dear Son!
Against the mean murders of Flanagan and Higgins I will set you
Mr Seddon and Mr Smith of the ``brides in the bath.''
% IV
I am conscious that in arguing against the ``more deadly than the
male'' conception of the woman criminal I am perhaps doing my
book no great service. It might work for its greater popularity
if I argued the other way, making out that the subjects I have
chosen were monsters of brutality, with arms up to the shoulders
in blood, that they were prodigies of iniquity and cunning,
without bowels, steeped in hypocrisy, facinorous to a degree
never surpassed or even equalled by evil men. It may seem that,
being concerned to strip female crime of the lurid preeminence so
commonly given it, I have contrived beforehand to rob the ensuing
pages of any richer savour they might have had. But I don't,
myself, think so.
If these women, some of them, are not greater monsters than their
male analogues, monsters they still remain. If they are not,
others of them, greater rogues and cheats than males of like
criminal persuasion, cheats and rogues they are beyond cavil.
The truth of the matter is that I loathe the use of superlatives
in serious works on crime. I will read, I promise you, anything
decently written in a fictional way about `master' crooks,
`master' killers, kings, queens, princes, and a whole peerage of
crime, knowing very well that never yet has a `master' criminal
had any cleverness but what a novelist gave him. But in works on
crime that pretend to seriousness I would eschew, pace Mr Leonard
R. Gribble, all `queens' and other honorifics in application to
the lost men and women with whom such works must treat. There is
no romance in crime. Romance is life gilded, life idealized.
Crime is never anything but a sordid business, demonstrably poor
in reward to its practitioners.
But, sordid or not, crime has its human interest. Its
practitioners are still part of life, human beings, different
from law-abiding humanity by God-alone-knows-what freak of
heredity or kink in brain convolution. I will not ask the
reader, as an excuse for my book, to view the criminal with the
thought attributed to John Knox:
``There, but for the Grace of God, goes ----'' Because the
phrase might as well be used in contemplation of John D.
Rockefeller or Augustus John or Charlie Chaplin or a man with a
wooden leg. I do not ask that you should pity these women with
whom I have to deal, still less that you should contemn them.
Something between the two will serve. I write the book because I
am interested in crime myself, and in the hope that you'll like
the reading as much as I like the writing of it.
In her long history there can have been few mornings upon which
Edinburgh had more to offer her burghers in the way of gossip and
rumour than on that of the 1st of July, 1600. In this `gate' and
that `gate,' as one may imagine, the douce citizens must have
clustered and broke and clustered, like eddied foam on a spated
burn. By conjecture, as they have always been a people apt to
take to the streets upon small occasion as on large, it is not
unlikely that the news which was to drift into the city some
thirty-five days later--namely, that an attempt on the life of
his Sacred Majesty, the High and Mighty (and Rachitic) Prince,
James the Sixth of Scotland, had been made by the brothers
Ruthven in their castle of Gowrie--it is not unlikely that the
first buzz of the Gowrie affair caused no more stir, for the time
being at any rate, than the word which had come to those
Edinburgh folk that fine morning of the first day in July. The
busier of the bodies would trot from knot to knot, anxious to
learn and retail the latest item of fact and fancy regarding the
tidings which had set tongues going since the early hours.
Murder, no less.
If the contemporary juridical records, even what is left of them,
be a criterion, homicide in all its oddly named forms must have
been a commonplace to those couthie lieges of his Slobberiness,
King Jamie. It is hard to believe that murder, qua murder, could
have been of much more interest to them than the fineness of the
weather. We have it, however, on reasonable authority, that the
murder of the Laird of Warriston did set the people of ``Auld
Reekie'' finely agog.
John Kincaid, of Warriston, was by way of being one of
Edinburgh's notables. Even at that time his family was
considered to be old. He derived from the Kincaids of Kincaid,
in Stirlingshire, a family then in possession of large estates in
that county and here and there about Lothian. His own property
of Warriston lay on the outskirts of Edinburgh itself, just above
a mile from Holyroodhouse. Notable among his possessions was one
which he should, from all accounts, dearly have prized, but which
there are indications he treated with some contumely. This was
his wife, Jean Livingstone, a singularly beautiful girl, no more
than twenty-one years of age at the time when this story opens.
Jean, like her husband, was a person of good station indeed. She
was a daughter of the Laird of Dunipace, John Livingstone, and
related through him and her mother to people of high
consideration in the kingdom.
News of the violent death of John Kincaid, which had taken place
soon after midnight, came quickly to the capital. Officers were
at once dispatched. Small wonder that the burghers found
exercise for their clacking tongues from the dawning, for the
lovely Jean was taken by the officers `red-hand,' as the phrase
was, for the murder of her husband. With her to Edinburgh, under
arrest, were brought her nurse and two other servingwomen.
To Pitcairn, compiler of Criminal Trials in Scotland, from
indications in whose account of the murder I have been set on the
hunt for material concerning it, I am indebted for the
information that Jean and her women were taken red-hand. But I
confess being at a loss to understand it. Warriston, as
indicated, stood a good mile from Edinburgh. The informant
bringing word of the deed to town, even if he or she covered the
distance on horseback, must have taken some time in getting the
proper authorities to move. Then time would elapse in quantity
before the officers dispatched could be at the house. They
themselves could hardly have taken the Lady Warriston red-hand,
because in the meantime the actual perpetrator of the murder, a
horse-boy named Robert Weir, in the employ of Jean's father, had
made good his escape. As a fact, he was not apprehended until
some time afterwards, and it would seem, from the records given
in the Pitcairn Trials, that it was not until four years later
that he was brought to trial.
A person taken red-hand, it would be imagined, would be one found
in such circumstances relating to a murder as would leave no
doubt as to his or her having ``airt and pairt'' in the crime.
Since it must have taken the officers some time to reach the
house, one of two things must have happened. Either some
officious person or persons, roused by the killing, which, as we
shall see, was done with no little noise, must have come upon
Jean and her women immediately upon the escape of Weir, and have
detained all four until the arrival of the officers, or else Jean
and her women must have remained by the dead man in terror, and
have blurted out the truth of their complicity when the officers
Available records are irritatingly uninformative upon the arrest
of the Lady Warriston. Pitcairn himself, in 1830, talks of his
many ``fruitless searches'' through the Criminal Records of the
city of Edinburgh, the greater part of which are lost, and
confesses his failure to come on any trace of the actual
proceedings in this case, or in the case of Robert Weir. For
this reason the same authority is at a loss to know whether the
prisoners were immediately put to the knowledge of an assize,
being taken ``red-hand,'' without the formality of being served a
``dittay'' (as who should say an indictment), as in ordinary
cases, before the magistrates of Edinburgh, or else sent for
trial before the baron bailie of the regality of Broughton, in
whose jurisdiction Warriston was situated.
It would perhaps heighten the drama of the story if it could be
learned what Jean and her women did between the time of the
murder and the arrest. It would seem, however, that the Lady
Warriston had some intention of taking flight with Weir. One is
divided between an idea that the horse-boy did not want to be
hampered and that he was ready for self-sacrifice. ``You shall
tarry still,'' we read that he said; ``and if this matter come
not to light you shall say, `He died in the gallery,' and I shall
return to my master's service. But if it be known I shall fly,
and take the crime on me, and none dare pursue you!''
It was distinctly a determined affair of murder. The loveliness
of Jean Livingstone has been so insisted upon in many Scottish
ballads,[2] and her conduct before her execution was so saintly,
that one cannot help wishing, even now, that she could have
escaped the scaffold. But there is no doubt that, incited by the
nurse, Janet Murdo, she set about having her husband killed with
a rancour which was very grim indeed.
[2] A stanza in one ballad runs:
``She has twa weel-made feet;
Far better is her hand;
She's jimp about the middle
As ony willy wand.''
The reason for Jean's hatred of her husband appears in the dittay
against Robert Weir. ``Forasmuch,'' it runs, translated to
modern terms,
as whilom Jean Livingstone, Goodwife of Warriston, having
conceived a deadly rancour, hatred, and malice against whilom
John Kincaid, of Warriston, for the alleged biting of her in the
arm, and striking her divers times, the said Jean, in the month
of June, One Thousand Six Hundred Years, directed Janet Murdo,
her nurse, to the said Robert [Weir], to the abbey of
Holyroodhouse, where he was for the time, desiring him to come
down to Warriston, and speak with her, anent the cruel and
unnatural taking away of her said husband's life.
And there you have it. If the allegation against John Kincaid
was true it does not seem that he valued his lovely wife as he
ought to have done. The striking her ``divers times'' may have
been an exaggeration. It probably was. Jean and her women would
want to show there had been provocation. (In a ballad he is
accused of having thrown a plate at dinner in her face.) But
there is a naivete, a circumstantial air, about the ``biting of
her in the arm'' which gives it a sort of genuine ring. How one
would like to come upon a contemporary writing which would throw
light on the character of John Kincaid! Growing sympathy for
Jean makes one wish it could be found that Kincaid deserved all
he got.
Here and there in the material at hand indications are to be
found that the Lady of Warriston had an idea she might not come
so badly off on trial. But even if the King's Majesty had been
of clement disposition, which he never was, or if her judges had
been likely to be moved by her youth and beauty, there was
evidence of such premeditation, such fixity of purpose, as would
no doubt harden the assize against her.
Robert Weir was in service, as I have said, with Jean
Livingstone's father, the Laird of Dunipace. It may have been
that he knew Jean before her marriage. He seems, at any rate, to
have been extremely willing to stand by her. He was fetched by
the nurse several times from Holyrood to Warriston, but failed to
have speech with the lady. On the 30th of June, however, the
Lady Warriston having sent the nurse for him once again, he did
contrive to see Jean in the afternoon, and, according to the
dittay, ``conferred with her, concerning the cruel, unnatural,
and abominable murdering of the said whilom John Kincaid.''
The upshot of the conference was that Weir was secretly led to a
``laigh'' cellar in the house of Warriston, to await the
appointed time for the execution of the murder.
Weir remained in the cellar until midnight. Jean came for him at
that hour and led him up into the hall. Thence the pair
proceeded to the room in which John Kincaid was lying asleep. It
would appear that they took no great pains to be quiet in their
progress, for on entering the room they found Kincaid awakened
``be thair dyn.''
I cannot do better at this point than leave description of the
murder as it is given in the dittay against Weir. The editor of
Pitcairn's Trials remarks in a footnote to the dittay that ``the
quaintness of the ancient style even aggravates the horror of the
scene.'' As, however, the ancient style may aggravate the reader
unacquainted with Scots, I shall English it, and give the
original rendering in a footnote:
And having entered within the said chamber, perceiving the said
whilom John to be wakened out of his sleep by their din, and to
pry over his bed-stock, the said Robert came then running to him,
and most cruelly, with clenched fists, gave him a deadly and
cruel stroke on the jugular vein, wherewith he cast the said
whilom John to the ground, from out his bed; and thereafter
struck him on his belly with his feet; whereupon he gave a great
cry. And the said Robert, fearing the cry should have been
heard, he thereafter, most tyrannously and barbarously, with his
hand, gripped him by the throat, or weasand, which he held fast a
long time, while [or until] he strangled him; during the which
time the said John Kincaid lay struggling and fighting in the
pains of death under him. And so the said whilom John was
cruelly murdered and slain by the said Robert.[3]
[3] And haifing enterit within the faid chalmer, perfaving the
faid vmqle Johnne to be walknit out of his fleip, be thair dyn,
and to preife ouer his bed ftok, the faid Robert cam than rynnand
to him, and maift crewallie, with thair faldit neiffis gaif him
ane deidlie and crewall straik on the vane-organe, quhairwith he
dang the faid vmqle Johnne to the grund, out-ouer his bed; and
thaireftir, crewallie ftrak him on bellie with his feit;
quhairvpoun he gaif ane grit cry: And the faid Robert, feiring
the cry fould haif bene hard, he thaireftir, maift tyrannouflie
and barbarouflie, with his hand, grippit him be the thrott or
waifen, quhilk he held faft ane lang tyme quhill he wirreit him;
during the quhilk tyme, the faid Johnne Kincaid lay ftruggilling
and fechting in the panes of daith vnder him. And fa, the faid
vmqle Johnne was crewallie murdreit and flaine be the faid
It will be seen that Robert Weir evolved a murder technique
which, as Pitcairn points out, was to be adopted over two
centuries later in Edinburgh at the Westport by Messrs Burke and
% II
Lady Warriston was found guilty, and four days after the murder,
on the 5th of July, was taken to the Girth Cross of Holyrood, at
the foot of the Canongate, and there decapitated by that machine
which rather anticipated the inventiveness of Dr Guillotin--``the
Maiden.'' At the same time, four o'clock in the morning, Janet
Murdo, the nurse, and one of the serving-women accused with her
as accomplices were burned on the Castle Hill of the city.
There is something odd about the early hour at which the
executions took place. The usual time for these affairs was much
later in the day, and it is probable that the sentence against
Jean ran that she should be executed towards dusk on the 4th of
the month. The family of Dunipace, however, having exerted no
influence towards saving the daughter of the house from her fate,
did everything they could to have her disposed of as secretly and
as expeditiously as possible. In their zeal to have done with
the hapless girl who, they conceived, had blotted the family
honour indelibly they were in the prison with the magistrates
soon after three o'clock, quite indecent in their haste to see
her on her way to the scaffold. In the first place they had
applied to have her executed at nine o'clock on the evening of
the 3rd, another unusual hour, but the application was turned
down. The main idea with them was to have Jean done away with at
some hour when the populace would not be expecting the execution.
Part of the plan for privacy is revealed in the fact of the
burning of the nurse and the ``hyred woman'' at four o'clock at
the Castle Hill, nearly a mile away from the Girth Cross, so--as
the Pitcairn Trials footnote says-``that the populace, who might
be so early astir, should have their attentions distracted at two
opposite stations . . . and thus, in some measure, lessen the
disgrace of the public execution.''
If Jean had any reason to thank her family it was for securing,
probably as much on their own behalf as hers, that the usual way
of execution for women murderers should be altered in her case to
beheading by ``the Maiden.'' Had she been of lesser rank she
would certainly have been burned, after being strangled at a
stake, as were her nurse and the serving-woman. This was the
appalling fate reserved for convicted women[4] in such cases, and
on conviction even of smaller crimes. The process was even
crueller in instances where the crime had been particularly
atrocious. ``The criminal,'' says the Pitcairn account of such
punishment, ``was `brunt quick'!''
[4] Men convicted of certain crimes were also subject to the same
form of execution adulterating and uttering base coins (Alan
Napier, cutler in Glasgow, was strangled and burned at the stake
in December 1602) sorcery, witchcraft, incantation, poisoning
(Bailie Paterson suffered a like fate in December 1607). For
bestiality John Jack was strangled on the Castle Hill (September
1605), and the innocent animal participator in his crime burned
with him.
Altogether, the Dunipace family do not exactly shine with a good
light as concerns their treatment of the condemned girl. Her
father stood coldly aside. The quoted footnote remarks:
It is recorded that the Laird of Dunipace behaved with much
apathy towards his daughter, whom he would not so much as see
previous to her execution; nor yet would he intercede for her,
through whose delinquency he reckoned his blood to be for ever
Jean herself was in no mind to be hurried to the scaffold as
early as her relatives would have had her conveyed. She wanted
(poor girl!) to see the sunrise, and to begin with the
magistrates granted her request. It would appear, however, that
Jean's blood-relations opposed the concession so strongly that it
was almost immediately rescinded. The culprit had to die in the
grey dark of the morning, before anyone was likely to be astir.
In certain directions there was not a little heart-burning about
the untimely hour at which it was manoeuvred the execution should
be carried out. The writer of a Memorial, from which this piece
of information is drawn, refrains very cautiously from mentioning
the objectors by name. But it is not difficult, from the colour
of their objections, to decide that these people belonged to the
type still known in Scotland as the `unco guid.' They saw in the
execution of this fair malefactor a moral lesson and a solemn
warning which would have a salutary and uplifting effect upon the
``Will you,'' they asked the presiding dignitaries, and the
blood-relations of the hapless Jean, ``deprive God's people of
that comfort which they might have in that poor woman's death?
And will you obstruct the honour of it by putting her away before
the people rise out of their beds? You do wrong in so doing; for
the more public the death be, the more profitable it shall be to
many; and the more glorious, in the sight of all who shall see
But perhaps one does those worthies an injustice in attributing
cant motives to their desire that as many people as possible
should see Jean die. It had probably reached them that the Lady
Warriston's repentance had been complete, and that after
conviction of her sin had come to her her conduct had been sweet
and seemly. They were of their day and age, those people,
accustomed almost daily to beheadings, stranglings, burnings,
hangings, and dismemberings. With that dour, bitter, fire-andbrimstone
religious conception which they had through Knox from
Calvin, they were probably quite sincere in their belief that the
public repentance Jean Livingstone was due to make from the
scaffold would be for the ``comfort of God's people.'' It was
not so often that justice exacted the extreme penalty from a
young woman of rank and beauty. With ``dreadful objects so
familiar'' in the way of public executions, it was likely enough
that pity in the commonalty was ``choked with custom of fell
deeds.'' Something out of the way in the nature of a dreadful
object-lesson might stir the hearts of the populace and make them
conscious of the Wrath to Come.
And Jean Livingstone did die a good death.
The Memorial[5] which I have mentioned is upon Jean's
`conversion' in prison. It is written by one ``who was both a
seer and hearer of what was spoken [by the Lady Warriston].''
The editor of the Pitcairn Trials believes, from internal
evidence, that it was written by Mr James Balfour, colleague of
Mr Robert Bruce, that minister of the Kirk who was so
contumacious about preaching what was practically a plea of the
King's innocence in the matter of the Gowrie mystery. It tells
how Jean, from being completely apathetic and callous with regard
to religion or to the dreadful situation in which she found
herself through her crime, under the patient and tender
ministrations of her spiritual advisers, arrived at complete
resignation to her fate and genuine repentance for her misdeeds.
[5] The Memorial is fully entitled: A Worthy and Notable
Memorial of the Great Work of Mercy which God wrought in the
Conversion of Jean Livingstone Lady Warristoun, who was
apprehended for the Vile and Horrible Murder of her own Husband,
John Kincaid, committed on Tuesday, July 1, 1600, for which she
was execute on Saturday following; Containing an Account of her
Obstinacy, Earnest Repentance, and her Turning to God; of the Odd
Speeches she used during her Imprisonment; of her Great and
Marvellous Constancy; and of her Behaviour and Manner of Death:
Observed by One who was both a Seer and Hearer of what was
Her confession, as filleted from the Memorial by the Pitcairn
Trials, is as follows:
I think I shall hear presently the pitiful and fearful cries
which he gave when he was strangled! And that vile sin which I
committed in murdering my own husband is yet before me. When
that horrible and fearful sin was done I desired the unhappy man
who did it (for my own part, the Lord knoweth I laid never my
hands upon him to do him evil; but as soon as that man gripped
him and began his evil turn, so soon as my husband cried so
fearfully, I leapt out over my bed and went to the Hall, where I
sat all the time, till that unhappy man came to me and reported
that mine husband was dead), I desired him, I say, to take me
away with him; for I feared trial; albeit flesh and blood made me
think my father's moen [interest] at Court would have saved me!
Well, we know what the Laird of Dunipace did about it.
``As to these women who was challenged with me,'' the confession
goes on,
I will also tell my mind concerning them. God forgive the nurse,
for she helped me too well in mine evil purpose; for when I told
her I was minded to do so she consented to the doing of it; and
upon Tuesday, when the turn was done, when I sent her to seek the
man who would do it, she said, `` I shall go and seek him; and if
I get him not I shall seek another! And if I get none I shall do
it myself!''
Here the writer of the Memorial interpolates the remark, ``This
the nurse also confessed, being asked of it before her death.''
It is a misfortune, equalling that of the lack of information
regarding the character of Jean's husband, that there is so
little about the character of the nurse. She was, it is to be
presumed, an older woman than her mistress, probably nurse to
Jean in her infancy. One can imagine her (the stupid creature!)
up in arms against Kincaid for his treatment of her ``bonny
lamb,'' without the sense to see whither she was urging her young
mistress; blind to the consequences, but ``nursing her wrath''
and striding purposefully from Warriston to Holyroodhouse on her
strong plebeian legs, not once but several times, in search of
Weir! What is known in Scotland as a `limmer,' obviously.
``As for the two other women,'' Jean continues,
I request that you neither put them to death nor any torture,
because I testify they are both innocent, and knew nothing of
this deed before it was done, and the mean time of doing it; and
that they knew they durst not tell, for fear; for I compelled
them to dissemble. As for mine own part, I thank my God a
thousand times that I am so touched with the sense of that sin
now: for I confess this also to you, that when that horrible
murder was committed first, that I might seem to be innocent, I
laboured to counterfeit weeping; but, do what I could, I could
not find a tear.
Of the whole confession that last is the most revealing touch.
It is hardly just to fall into pity for Jean simply because she
was young and lovely. Her crime was a bad one, much more
deliberate than many that, in the same age, took women of lower
rank in life than Jean to the crueller end of the stake. In the
several days during which she was sending for Weir, but failing
to have speech with him, she had time to review her intention of
having her husband murdered. If the nurse was the prime mover in
the plot Jean was an unrelenting abettor. It may have been in
her calculations before, as well as after, the deed itself that
the interest of her father and family at Court would save her,
should the deed have come to light as murder. Even in these
days, when justice is so much more seasoned with mercy to women
murderers, a woman in Jean's case, with such strong evidence of
premeditation against her, would only narrowly escape the
hangman, if she escaped him at all. But that confession of
trying to pretend weeping and being unable to find tears is a
revelation. I can think of nothing more indicative of terror and
misery in a woman than that she should want to cry and be unable
to. Your genuinely hypocritical murderer, male as well as
female, can always work up self-pity easily and induce the
streaming eye.
It is from internal evidences such as this that one may conclude
the repentance of Jean Livingstone, as shown in her confession,
to have been sincere. There was, we are informed by the
memorialist, nothing maudlin in her conduct after condemnation.
Once she got over her first obduracy, induced, one would imagine,
by the shock of seeing the realization of what she had planned
but never pictured, the murder itself, and probably by the
desertion of her by her father and kindred, her repentance was
``cheerful'' and ``unfeigned.'' They were tough-minded men,
those Scots divines who ministered to her at the last, too stern
in their theology to be misled by any pretence at finding grace.
And no pretty ways of Jean's would have deceived them. The
constancy of behaviour which is vouched for, not only by the
memorialist but by other writers, stayed with her until the axe
``She was but a woman and a bairn, being the age of twenty-one
years,'' says the Memorial. But, ``in the whole way, as she went
to the place of execution, she behaved herself so cheerfully as
if she had been going to her wedding, and not to her death. When
she came to the scaffold, and was carried up upon it, she looked
up to ``the Maiden'' with two longsome looks, for she had never
seen it before.''
The minister-memorialist, who attended her on the scaffold, says
that all who saw Jean would bear record with himself that her
countenance alone would have aroused emotion, even if she had
never spoken a word. ``For there appeared such majesty in her
countenance and visage, and such a heavenly courage in her
gesture, that many said, `That woman is ravished by a higher
spirit than a man or woman's!' ''
As for the Declaration and Confession which, according to custom,
Jean made from the four corners of the scaffold, the memorialist
does not pretend to give it verbatim. It was, he says, almost in
a form of words, and he gives the sum of it thus:
The occasion of my coming here is to show that I am, and have
been, a great sinner, and hath offended the Lord's Majesty;
especially, of the cruel murdering of mine own husband, which,
albeit I did not with mine own hands, for I never laid mine hands
upon him all the time that he was murdering, yet I was the
deviser of it, and so the committer. But my God hath been always
merciful to me, and hath given me repentance for my sins; and I
hope for mercy and grace at his Majesty's hands, for his dear son
Jesus Christ's sake. And the Lord hath brought me hither to be
an example to you, that you may not fall into the like sin as I
have done. And I pray God, for his mercy, to keep all his
faithful people from falling into the like inconvenient as I have
done! And therefore I desire you all to pray to God for me, that
he would be merciful to me!
One wonders just how much of Jean's own words the
minister-memorialist got into this, his sum of her confession.
Her speech would be coloured inevitably by the phrasing she had
caught from her spiritual advisers, and the sum of it would
almost unavoidably have something of the memorialist's own
fashion of thought. I would give a good deal to know if Jean did
actually refer to the Almighty as ``the Lord's Majesty,'' and
hope for ``grace at his Majesty's hands.'' I do not think I am
being oversubtle when I fancy that, if Jean did use those words,
I see an element of confusion in her scaffold confession--the
trembling confusion remaining from a lost hope. As a Scot, I
have no recollection of ever hearing the Almighty referred to as
``the Lord's Majesty'' or as ``his Majesty.'' It does not ring
naturally to my ear. Nor, at the long distance from which I
recollect reading works of early Scottish divines, can I think of
these forms being used in such a context. I may be--I very
probably am--all wrong, but I have a feeling that up to the last
Jean Livingstone believed royal clemency would be shown to her,
and that this belief appears in the use of these unwonted
However that may be, Jean's conduct seems to have been heroic and
unfaltering. She prayed, and one of her relations or friends
brought ``a clean cloath'' to tie over her eyes. Jean herself
had prepared for this operation, for she took a pin out of her
mouth and gave it into the friend's hand to help the fastening.
The minister-memorialist, having taken farewell of her for the
last time, could not bear the prospect of what was about to
happen. He descended from the scaffold and went away. ``But
she,'' he says,
as a constant saint of God, humbled herself on her knees, and
offered her neck to the axe, laying her neck, sweetly and
graciously, in the place appointed, moving to and fro, till she
got a rest for her neck to lay in. When her head was now made
fast to ``the Maiden'' the executioner came behind her and pulled
out her feet, that her neck might be stretched out longer, and so
made more meet for the stroke of the axe; but she, as it was
reported to me by him who saw it and held her by the hands at
this time, drew her legs twice to her again, labouring to sit on
her knees, till she should give up her spirit to the Lord!
During this time, which was long, for the axe was but slowly
loosed, and fell not down hastily, after laying of her head, her
tongue was not idle, but she continued crying to the Lord, and
uttered with a loud voice those her wonted words, ``Lord Jesus,
receive my spirit! O Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of
the world, have mercy upon me! Into thy hand, Lord, I commend my
soul!'' When she came to the middle of this last sentence, and
had said, ``Into thy hand, Lord,'' at the pronouncing of the word
``Lord'' the axe fell; which was diligently marked by one of her
friends, who still held her by the hand, and reported this to me.
% IV
On the 26th of June, 1604, Robert Weir, ``sumtyme servande to the
Laird of Dynniepace,'' was brought to knowledge of an assize. He
was ``Dilaitit of airt and pairt of the crewall Murthour of umqle
Johnne Kincaid of Wariestoune; committit the first of Julij, 1600
Verdict. The Assyse, all in ane voce, be the mouth of the said
Thomas Galloway, chanceller, chosen be thame, ffand, pronouncet
and declairit the said Robert Weir to be ffylit, culpable and
convict of the crymes above specifiet, mentionat in the said
Dittay; and that in respect of his Confessioun maid thairof, in
Sentence. The said Justice-depute, be the mouth of James
Sterling, dempster of the Court, decernit and ordainit the said
Robert Weir to be tane to ane skaffold to be fixt beside the
Croce of Edinburgh, and there to be brokin upoune ane Row,[6]
quhill he be deid; and to ly thairat, during the space of xxiiij
houris. And thaireftir, his body to be tane upon the said Row,
and set up, in ane publict place, betwix the place of Wariestoune
and the toun of Leyth; and to remain thairupoune, ay and quhill
command be gevin for the buriall thairof. Quhilk was pronouncet
for dome.
[6] A `row' is a wheel. This is one of the very few instances on
which the terrible and vicious punishment of `breaking on a
wheel' was employed in Scotland. Jean Livingstone's accomplice
was, according to Birrell's Diary, broken on a cartwheel, with
the coulter of a plough in the hand of the hangman. The exotic
method of execution suggests experiment by King Jamie.
% V
The Memorial before mentioned is, in the original, a manuscript
belonging to the Advocates' Library of Edinburgh. A printed copy
was made in 1828, under the editorship of J. Sharpe, in the same
city. This edition contains, among other more relative matter, a
reprint of a newspaper account of an execution by strangling and
burning at the stake. The woman concerned was not the last
victim in Britain of this form of execution. The honour, I
believe, belongs to one Anne Cruttenden. The account is full of
gruesome and graphic detail, but the observer preserves quite an
air of detachment:
IVELCHESTER: 9th May, 1765. Yesterday Mary Norwood, for
poisoning her husband, Joseph Norwood, of Axbridge, in this
county [Somerset], was burnt here pursuant to her sentence. She
was brought out of the prison about three o'clock in the
afternoon, barefoot; she was covered with a tarred cloth, made
like a shift, and a tarred bonnet over her head; and her legs,
feet, and arms had likewise tar on them; the heat of the weather
melting the tar, it ran over her face, so that she made a
shocking appearance. She was put on a hurdle, and drawn on a
sledge to the place of execution, which was very near the
gallows. After spending some time in prayer, and singing a hymn,
the executioner placed her on a tar barrel, about three feet
high; a rope (which was in a pulley through the stake) was fixed
about her neck, she placing it properly with her hands; this rope
being drawn extremely tight with the pulley, the tar barrel was
then pushed away, and three irons were then fastened around her
body, to confine it to the stake, that it might not drop when the
rope should be burnt. As soon as this was done the fire was
immediately kindled; but in all probability she was quite dead
before the fire reached her, as the executioner pulled her body
several times whilst the irons were fixing, which was about five
minutes. There being a good quantity of tar, and the wood in the
pile being quite dry, the fire burnt with amazing fury;
notwithstanding which great part of her could be discerned for
near half an hour. Nothing could be more affecting than to
behold, after her bowels fell out, the fire flaming between her
ribs, issuing out of her ears, mouth, eyeholes, etc. In short,
it was so terrible a sight that great numbers turned their backs
and screamed out, not being able to look at it.
It is hardly likely when that comely but penniless young Scot
Robert Carr, of Ferniehurst, fell from his horse and broke his
leg that any of the spectators of the accident foresaw how
far-reaching it would be in its consequences. It was an
accident, none the less, which in its ultimate results was to put
several of the necks craned to see it in peril of the hangman's
That divinely appointed monarch King James the Sixth of Scotland
and First of England had an eye for manly beauty. Though he
could contrive the direst of cruelties to be committed out of his
sight, the actual spectacle of physical suffering in the human
made him squeamish. Add the two facts of the King's nature
together and it may be understood how Robert Carr, in falling
from his horse that September day in the tilt-yard of Whitehall,
fell straight into his Majesty's favour. King James himself gave
orders for the disposition of the sufferer, found lodgings for
him, sent his own surgeon, and was constant in his visits to the
convalescent. Thereafter the rise of Robert Carr was meteoric.
Knighted, he became Viscount Rochester, a member of the Privy
Council, then Earl of Somerset, Knight of the Garter, all in a
very few years. It was in 1607 that he fell from his horse,
under the King's nose. In 1613 he was at the height of his power
in England.
Return we for a moment, however, to that day in the Whitehall
tilt-yard. It is related that one woman whose life and fate were
to be bound with Carr's was in the ladies' gallery. It is very
probable that a second woman, whose association with the first
did much to seal Carr's doom, was also a spectator. If Frances
Howard, as we read, showed distress over the painful mishap to
the handsome Scots youth it is almost certain that Anne Turner,
with the quick eye she had for male comeliness and her less need
for Court-bred restraint, would exhibit a sympathetic volubility.
Frances Howard was the daughter of that famous Elizabethan seaman
Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk. On that day in September she
would be just over fifteen years of age. It is said that she was
singularly lovely. At that early age she was already a wife,
victim of a political marriage which, in the exercise of the
ponderous cunning he called kingcraft, King James had been at
some pains to arrange. At the age of thirteen Frances had been
married to Robert Devereux, third Earl of Essex, then but a year
older than herself. The young couple had been parted at the
altar, the groom being sent travelling to complete his growth and
education, and Frances being returned to her mother and the
semi-seclusion of the Suffolk mansion at Audley End.
Of the two women, so closely linked in fate, the second is
perhaps the more interesting study. Anne Turner was something
older than the Countess of Essex. In the various records of the
strange piece of history which is here to be dealt with there are
many allusions to a long association between the two. Almost a
foster-sister relationship seems to be implied, but actual detail
is irritatingly absent. Nor is it clear whether Mrs Turner at
the time of the tilt-yard incident had embarked on the business
activities which were to make her a much sought-after person in
King James's Court. It is not to be ascertained whether she was
not already a widow at that time. We can only judge from
circumstantial evidence brought forward later.
In 1610, at all events, Mrs Turner was well known about the
Court, and was quite certainly a widow. Her husband had been a
well-known medical man, one George Turner, a graduate of St
John's College, Cambridge. He had been a protege of Queen
Elizabeth. Dying, this elderly husband of Mistress Turner had
left her but little in the way of worldly goods, but that little
the fair young widow had all the wit to turn to good account.
There was a house in Paternoster Row and a series of notebooks.
Like many another physician of his time, George Turner had been a
dabbler in more arts than that of medicine, an investigator in
sciences other than pathology. His notebooks would appear to
have contained more than remedial prescriptions for agues,
fevers, and rheums. There was, for example, a recipe for a
yellow starch which, says Rafael Sabatini, in his fine romance
The Minion,[7] ``she dispensed as her own invention. This had
become so widely fashionable for ruffs and pickadills that of
itself it had rendered her famous.'' One may believe, also, that
most of the recipes for those ``perfumes, cosmetics, unguents and
mysterious powders, liniments and lotions asserted to preserve
beauty where it existed, and even to summon it where it was
lacking,'' were derived from the same sources.
[7] Hutchinson, 1930.
There is a temptation to write of Mistress Turner as forerunner
of that notorious Mme Rachel of whom, in his volume Bad
Companions,[8] Mr Roughead has said the final and pawky word.
Mme Rachel, in the middle of the nineteenth century, founded her
fortunes as a beauty specialist (?) on a prescription for a
hair-restorer given her by a kindly doctor. She also `invented'
many a lotion and unguent for the preservation and creation of
beauty. But at about this point analogy stops. Both Rachel and
her forerunner, Anne Turner, were scamps, and both got into
serious trouble--Anne into deeper and deadlier hot water than
Rachel--but between the two women there is only superficial
comparison. Rachel was a botcher and a bungler, a very cobbler,
beside Anne Turner.
[8] Edinburgh, W. Green and Son, Ltd., 1930.
Anne, there is every cause for assurance, was in herself the best
advertisement for her wares. Rachel was a fat old hag. Anne,
prettily fair, little-boned, and deliciously fleshed, was neat
and elegant. The impression one gets of her from all the
records, even the most prejudiced against her, is that she was a
very cuddlesome morsel indeed. She was, in addition,
demonstrably clever. Such a man of talent as Inigo Jones
supported the decoration of many of the masques he set on the
stage with costumes of Anne's design and confection. Rachel
could neither read nor write.
It is highly probable that Anne Turner made coin out of the notes
which her late husband, so inquisitive of mind, had left on
matters much more occult than the manufacture of yellow starch
and skin lotions. ``It was also rumoured,'' says Mr Sabatini,
``that she amassed gold in another and less licit manner: that
she dabbled in fortune-telling and the arts of divination.'' We
shall see, as the story develops, that the rumour had some
foundation. The inquiring mind of the late Dr Turner had led him
into strange company, and his legacy to Anne included connexions
more sombre than those in the extravagantly luxurious Court of
King James.
In 1610 the elegant little widow was flourishing enough to be
able to maintain a lover in good style. This was Sir Arthur
Mainwaring, member of a Cheshire family of good repute but of no
great wealth. By him she had three children. Mainwaring was
attached in some fashion to the suite of the Prince of Wales,
Prince Henry. And while the Prince's court at St James's Palace
was something more modest, as it was more refined, than that of
the King at Whitehall, position in it was not to be retained at
ease without considerable expenditure. It may be gauged,
therefore, at what expense Anne's attachment to Mainwaring would
keep her, and to what exercise of her talent and ambition her
pride in it would drive her. And her pride was absolute. It
would, says a contemporary diarist, ``make her fly at any pitch
rather than fall into the jaws of want.''[9]
[9] Antony Weldon, The Court and Character of King James (1651).
% II
In his romance The Minion, Rafael Sabatini makes the first
meeting of Anne Turner and the Countess of Essex occur in 1610 or
1611. With this date Judge A. E. Parry, in his book The Overbury
Mystery,[10] seems to agree in part. There is, however, warrant
enough for believing that the two women had met long before that
time. Anne Turner herself, pleading at her trial for mercy from
Sir Edward Coke, the Lord Chief Justice, put forward the plea
that she had been ``ever brought up with the Countess of Essex,
and had been a long time her servant.''[11] She also made the
like extenuative plea on the scaffold.[12] Judge Parry seems to
follow some of the contemporary writers in assuming that Anne was
a spy in the pay of the Lord Privy Seal, the Earl of Northampton.
If this was so there is further ground for believing that Anne
and Lady Essex had earlier contacts, for Northampton was Lady
Essex's great-uncle. The longer association would go far in
explaining the terrible conspiracy into which, from soon after
that time, the two women so readily fell together--a criminal
conspiracy, in which the reader may see something of the ``false
nurse'' in Anne Turner and something of Jean Livingstone in
Frances Howard, Lady Essex.
[10] Fisher Unwin, 1925.
[11] State Trials (Cobbett's edition).
[12] Antony Weldon.
It was about this time, 1610-1611, that Lady Essex began to find
herself interested in the handsome Robert Carr, then Viscount
Rochester. Having reached the mature age of eighteen, the lovely
Frances had been brought by her mother, the Countess of Suffolk,
to Court. Highest in the King's favour, and so, with his
remarkably good looks, his charm, and the elegant taste in attire
and personal appointment which his new wealth allowed him
lavishly to indulge, Rochester was by far the most brilliant
figure there. Frances fell in love with the King's minion.
Rochester, it would appear, did not immediately respond to the
lady's advances. They were probably too shy, too tentative, to
attract Rochester's attention. It is probable, also, that there
were plenty of beautiful women about the Court, more mature, more
practised in the arts of coquetry than Frances, and very likely
not at all `blate'--as Carr and his master would put it--in
showing themselves ready for conquest by the King's handsome
Whether the acquaintance of Lady Essex with Mrs Turner was of
long standing or not, it was to the versatile Anne that her
ladyship turned as confidante. The hint regarding Anne's skill
in divination will be remembered. Having regard to the period,
and to the alchemistic nature of the goods that composed so much
of Anne's stock-in-trade at the sign of the Golden Distaff, in
Paternoster Row, it may be conjectured that the love-lorn Frances
had thoughts of a philtre.
With an expensive lover and children to maintain, to say nothing
of her own luxurious habits, Anne Turner would see in the
Countess's appeal a chance to turn more than one penny into the
family exchequer. She was too much the opportunist to let any
consideration of old acquaintance interfere with working such a
potential gold-mine as now seemed to lie open to her pretty but
prehensile fingers. Lady Essex was rich. She was also ardent in
her desire. The game was too big for Anne to play single-handed.
A real expert in cozening, a master of guile, was wanted to
exploit the opportunity to its limit.
It is a curious phenomenon, and one that constantly recurs in the
history of cozenage, how people who live by spoof fall victims so
readily to spoofery. Anne Turner had brains. There is no doubt
of it. Apart from that genuine and honest talent in
costume-design which made her work acceptable to such an
outstanding genius as Inigo Jones, she lived by guile. But I
have now to invite you to see her at the feet of one of the
silliest charlatans who ever lived. There is, of course, the
possibility that Anne sat at the feet of this silly charlatan for
what she might learn for the extension of her own technique. Or,
again, it may have been that the wizard of Lambeth, whom she
consulted in the Lady Essex affair, could provide a more
impressive setting for spoof than she had handy, or that they
were simply rogues together. My trouble is to understand why, by
the time that the Lady Essex came to her with her problem, Anne
had not exhausted all the gambits in flummery that were at the
command of the preposterous Dr Forman.
The connexion with Dr Forman was part of the legacy left Anne by
Dr Turner. Her husband had been the friend and patron of Forman,
so that by the time Anne had taken Mainwaring for her lover, and
had borne him three children, she must have had ample opportunity
for seeing through the old charlatan.
Antony Weldon, the contemporary writer already quoted, is
something too scurrilous and too apparently biased to be
altogether a trustworthy authority. He seems to have been the
type of gossip (still to be met in London clubs) who can always
tell with circumstance how the duchess came to have a black baby,
and the exact composition of the party at which Midas played at
`strip poker.' But he was, like many of his kind, an amusing
enough companion for the idle moment, and his description of Dr
Forman is probably fairly close to the truth.
``This Forman,'' he says,
was a silly fellow who dwelt in Lambeth, a very silly fellow, yet
had wit enough to cheat the ladies and other women, by pretending
skill in telling their fortunes, as whether they should bury
their husbands, and what second husbands they should have, and
whether they should enjoy their loves, or whether maids should
get husbands, or enjoy their servants to themselves without
corrivals: but before he would tell them anything they must write
their names in his alphabetical book with their own handwriting.
By this trick he kept them in awe, if they should complain of his
abusing them, as in truth he did nothing else. Besides, it was
believed, some meetings were at his house, wherein the art of the
bawd was more beneficial to him than that of a conjurer, and that
he was a better artist in the one than in the other: and that you
may know his skill, he was himself a cuckold, having a very
pretty wench to his wife, which would say, she did it to try his
skill, but it fared with him as with astrologers that cannot
foresee their own destiny.
And here comes an addendum, the point of which finds confirmation
elsewhere. It has reference to the trial of Anne Turner, to
which we shall come later.
``I well remember there was much mirth made in the Court upon the
showing of the book, for, it was reported, the first leaf my lord
Cook [Coke, the Lord Chief Justice] lighted on he found his own
wife's name.''
Whatever Anne's reason for doing so, it was to this scortatory
old scab that she turned for help in cozening the fair young
Countess. The devil knows to what obscene ritual the girl was
introduced. There is evidence that the thaumaturgy practised by
Forman did not want for lewdness--as magic of the sort does not
to this day--and in this regard Master Weldon cannot be far
astray when he makes our pretty Anne out to be the veriest
Magic or no magic, philtre or no philtre, it was not long before
Lady Essex had her wish. The Viscount Rochester fell as
desperately in love with her as she was with him.
There was, you may be sure, no small amount of scandalous chatter
in the Court over the quickly obvious attachment the one to the
other of this handsome couple. So much of this scandalous
chatter has found record by the pens of contemporary and later
gossip-writers that it is hard indeed to extract the truth. It
is certain, however, that had the love between Robert Carr and
Frances Howard been as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, jealousy
would still have done its worst in besmirching. It was not, if
the Rabelaisian trend in so much of Jacobean writing be any
indication, a particularly moral age. Few ages in history are.
It was not, with a reputed pervert as the fount of honour, a
particularly moral Court. Since the emergence of the lovely
young Countess from tutelage at Audley End there had been no lack
of suitors for her favour. And when Frances so openly exhibited
her preference for the King's minion there would be some among
those disappointed suitors who would whisper, greenly, that
Rochester had been granted that prisage which was the right of
the absent Essex, a right which they themselves had been quite
ready to usurp. It is hardly likely that there would be complete
abnegation of salty gossip among the ladies of the Court, their
Apollo being snatched by a mere chit of a girl.
What relative happiness there may have been for the pair in their
loving--it could not, in the hindrance there was to their free
mating, have been an absolute happiness --was shattered after
some time by the return to England of the young husband. The
Earl of Essex, now almost come to man's estate, arrived to take
up the position which his rank entitled him to expect in the
Court, and to assume the responsibilities and rights which, he
fancied, belonged to him as a married man. In respect of the
latter part of his intention he immediately found himself balked.
His wife, perhaps all the deeper in love with Rochester for this
threat to their happiness, declared that she had no mind to be
held by the marriage forced on her in infancy, and begged her
husband to agree to its annulment.
It had been better for young Essex to have agreed at once. He
would have spared himself, ultimately, a great deal of
humiliation through ridicule. But he tried to enforce his rights
as a husband, a proceeding than which there is none more absurd
should the wife prove obdurate. And prove obdurate his wife did.
She was to be moved neither by threat nor by pleading. It was,
you will notice, a comedy situation; husband not perhaps amorous
so much as the thwarted possessor of the unpossessable--wife
frigid and a maid, as far, at least, as the husband was
concerned, and her weeping eyes turned yearningly elsewhere. A
comedy situation, yes, and at this distance almost farcical--but
for certain elements in it approaching tragedy.
Badgered, not only by her husband but by her own relatives,
scared no doubt, certainly unhappy, unable for politic reasons to
appeal freely to her beloved Robin, to whom might Frances turn
but the helpful Turner? And to whom, having turned to pretty
Anne, was she likely to be led but again to the wizard of
Dr Forman had a heart for beauty in distress, but dissipating the
ardency of an exigent husband was a difficult matter compared
with attracting that of a negligent lover. It was also much more
costly. A powder there was, indeed, which, administered secretly
by small regular doses in the husband's food or drink, would soon
cool his ardour, but the process of manufacture and the
ingredients were enormously expensive. Frances got her powder.
The first dose was administered to Lord Essex just before his
departure from a visit to his wife at Audley End. On his arrival
back in London he was taken violently ill, so ill that in the
weeks he lay in bed his life was despaired of. Only the
intervention of the King's own physician, one Sir Theodore
Mayerne, would appear to have saved him.
Her husband slowly convalescing, Lady Essex was summoned by her
family back to London. In London, while Lord Essex mended in
health, she was much in the company of her ``sweet Turner.'' In
addition to the house in Paternoster Row the little widow had a
pretty riverside cottage at Hammersmith, and both were at the
disposal of Lady Essex and her lover for stolen meetings. Those
meetings were put a stop to by the recovery of Lord Essex, and
with his recovery his lordship exhibited a new mood of
determination. Backed by her ladyship's family, he ordered her
to accompany him to their country place of Chartley. Her
ladyship had to obey.
The stages of the journey were marked by the nightly illness of
his lordship. By the time they arrived at Chartley itself he was
in a condition little if at all less dangerous than that from
which he had been rescued by the King's physician. His illness
lasted for weeks, and during this time her ladyship wrote many a
letter to Anne Turner and to Dr Forman. She was afraid his
lordship would live. She was afraid his lordship would die. She
was afraid she would lose the love of Rochester. She begged Anne
Turner and Forman to work their best magic for her aid. She was
afraid that if his lordship recovered the spells might prove
useless, that his attempts to assert his rights as a husband
would begin again, and that there, in the heart of the country
and so far from any refuge, they might take a form she would be
unable to resist
His lordship did recover. His attempts to assert his rights as a
husband did begin again. The struggle between them, Frances
constant in her obduracy, lasted several months. Her obstinacy
wore down his. At long last he let her go.
If the fate that overtook Frances Howard and Rochester, and with
them Anne Turner and many another, is to be properly understood,
a brief word on the political situation in England at this time
will be needed--or, rather, a word on the political personages,
with their antagonisms.
Next in closeness to the King's ear after Rochester, and perhaps
more trusted as a counsellor by that ``wise fool,'' there had
been Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, for a long time First
Secretary of State. But about the time when Lady Essex finally
parted with her husband Cecil died, depriving England of her
keenest brain and the staunchest heart in her causes. If there
had been no Rochester the likeliest man in the kingdom to succeed
to the power and offices of Cecil would have been the Earl of
Northampton, uncle of Lord Suffolk, who was the father of Lady
Essex. Northampton, as stated, held the office of Lord Privy
The Howard family had done the State great service in the past.
Its present representatives, Northampton and Suffolk, were
anxious to do the State great service, as they conceived it, in
the future. They were, however, Catholics in all but open
acknowledgment, and as such were opposed by the Protestants, who
had at their head Prince Henry. This was an opposition that they
might have stomached. It was one that they might even have got
over, for the Prince and his father, the King, were not the best
of friends. The obstacle to their ambitions, and one they found
hard to stomach, was the upstart Rochester. And even Rochester
would hardly have stood in their way had his power in the Council
depended on his own ability. The brain that directed Robert Carr
belonged to another man. This was Sir Thomas Overbury.
On the death of Cecil the real contenders for the vacant office
of First Secretary of State--the highest office in the land--were
not the wily Northampton and the relatively unintelligent
Rochester, but the subtle Northampton and the quite as subtle,
and perhaps more spacious-minded, Thomas Overbury. There was, it
will be apprehended, a possible weakness on the Overbury side.
The gemel-chain, like that of many links, is merely as strong as
its weakest member. Overbury had no approach to the King save
through the King's favourite. Rochester could have no real
weight with the King, at least in affairs of State, except what
he borrowed from Overbury. Divided, the two were powerless. No,
more than that, there had to be no flaw in their linking.
The wily Northampton, one may be certain, was fully aware of this
possible weakness in the combination opposed to his advancement.
He would be fully aware, that is, that it was there potentially;
but when he began, as his activities would indicate, to work for
the creation of that flaw in the relationship between Rochester
and Overbury it is unlikely that he knew the flaw had already
begun to develop. Unknown to him, circumstance already had begun
to operate in his favour.
Overbury was Rochester's tutor in more than appertained to
affairs of State. It is more than likely that in Carr's wooing
of Lady Essex he had held the role of Cyrano de Bergerac, writing
those gracefully turned letters and composing those accomplished
verses which did so much to augment and give constancy to her
ladyship's love for Rochester. It is certain, at any rate, that
Overbury was privy to all the correspondence passing between the
pair, and that even such events as the supplying by Forman and
Mrs Turner of that magic powder, and the Countess's use of it
upon her husband, were well within his knowledge.
While the affair between his alter ego and the Lady Essex might
be looked upon as mere dalliance, a passionate episode likely to
wither with a speed equal to that of its growth, Overbury, it is
probable, found cynical amusement in helping it on. But when, as
time went on, the lady and her husband separated permanently, and
from mere talk of a petition for annulment of the Essex marriage
that petition was presented in actual form to the King, Overbury
saw danger. Northampton was backing the petition. If it
succeeded Lady Essex would be free to marry Rochester. And the
marriage, since Northampton was not the man to give except in the
expectation of plenty, would plant the unwary Rochester on the
hearth of his own and Overbury's enemies. With Rochester in the
Howard camp there would be short shrift for Thomas Overbury.
There would be, though Rochester in his infatuation seemed blind
to the fact, as short a shrift as the Howards could contrive for
the King's minion.
In that march of inevitability which marks all real tragedy the
road that is followed forks ever and again with an `if.' And we
who, across the distance of time, watch with a sort of Jovian
pity the tragic puppets in their folly miss this fork and that
fork on their road of destiny select, each according to our
particular temperaments, a particular `if' over which to shake
our heads. For me, in this story of Rochester, Overbury, Frances
Howard, and the rest, the point of tragedy, the most poignant of
the issues, is the betrayal by Robert Carr of Overbury's
friendship. Though this story is essentially, or should be, that
of the two women who were linked in fate with Rochester and his
coadjutor, I am constrained to linger for a moment on that point.
Overbury's counsel had made Carr great. With nothing but his
good looks and his personal charm, his only real attributes, Carr
had been no more than King James's creature. James, with all the
pedantry, the laboured cunning, the sleezy weaknesses of
character that make him so detestable, was yet too shrewd to have
put power in the hands of the mere minion that Carr would have
been without the brain of Overbury to guide him. Of himself Carr
was the `toom tabard' of earlier parlance in his native country,
the `stuffed shirt' of a later and more remote generation. But
beyond the coalition for mutual help that existed between
Overbury and Carr, an arrangement which might have thrived on a
basis merely material, there was a deep and splendid friendship.
`Stuffed shirt' or not, Robert Carr was greatly loved by
Overbury. Whatever Overbury may have thought of Carr's mental
attainments, he had the greatest faith in his loyalty as a
friend. And here lies the terrible pity in that `if' of my
choice. The love between the two men was great enough to have
saved them both. It broke on the weakness of Carr.
Overbury was aware that, honestly presented, the petition by Lady
Essex for the annulment of her marriage had little chance of
success. But for the obstinacy of Essex it might have been
granted readily enough. He had, however, as we have seen, forced
her to live with him as his wife, in appearance at least, for
several months in the country. There now would be difficulty in
putting forward the petition on the ground of non-consummation of
the marriage.
It was, nevertheless, on this ground that the petition was
brought forward. But the non-consummation was not attributed, as
it might have been, to the continued separation that had begun at
the altar; the reason given was the impotence of the husband.
Just what persuasion Northampton and the Howards used on Essex to
make him accept this humiliating implication it is hard to
imagine, but by the time the coarse wits of the period had done
with him Essex was amply punished in ridicule for his primary
Sir Thomas Overbury, well informed though he usually was, must
have been a good deal in the dark regarding the negotiations
which had brought the nullity suit to this forward state. He had
warned Rochester so frankly of the danger into which the scheme
was likely to lead him that they had quarrelled and parted. If
Rochester had been frank with his friend, if, on the ground of
their friendship, he had appealed to him to set aside his
prejudice, it might well have been that the tragedy which ensued
would have been averted. Enough evidence remains to this day of
Overbury's kindness for Robert Carr, there is enough proof of the
man's abounding resource and wit, to give warrant for belief that
he would have had the will, as he certainly had the ability, to
help his friend. Overbury was one of the brightest intelligences
of his age. Had Rochester confessed the extent of his commitment
with Northampton there is little doubt that Overbury could and
would have found a way whereby Rochester could have attained his
object (of marriage with Frances Howard), and this without
jeopardizing their mutual power to the Howard menace.
In denying the man who had made him great the complete confidence
which their friendship demanded Rochester took the tragically
wrong path on his road of destiny. But the truth is that when he
quarrelled with Overbury he had already betrayed the friendship.
He had already embarked on the perilous experiment of straddling
between two opposed camps. It was an experiment that he, least
of all men, had the adroitness to bring off. He was never in
such need of Overbury's brain as when he aligned himself in
secret with Overbury's enemies.
It is entirely probable that in linking up with Northampton
Rochester had no mind to injure his friend. The bait was the
woman he loved. Without Northampton's aid the nullity suit could
not be put forward, and without the annulment there could be no
marriage for him with Frances Howard. But he had no sooner
joined with Northampton than the very processes against which
Overbury had warned him were begun. Rochester was trapped, and
with him Overbury.
For the success of the suit, in Northampton's view, Overbury knew
too much. It was a view to which Rochester was readily
persuaded; or it was one which he was easily frightened into
accepting. From that to joining in a plot for being rid of
Overbury was but a step. Grateful, perhaps, for the undoubted
services that Overbury had rendered him, Rochester would be eager
enough to find his quondam friend employment. If that employment
happened to take Overbury out of the country so much the better.
At one time the King, jealous as a woman of the friendship
existing between his favourite and Overbury, had tried to shift
the latter out of the way by an offer of the embassy in Paris.
It was an offer Rochester thought, that he might cause to be
repeated. The idea was broached to Overbury. That shrewd
individual, of course, saw through the suggestion to the
intention behind it, but he was at a loss for an outlet for his
talents, having left Rochester's employ, and he believed without
immodesty that he could do useful work as ambassador in Paris.
Overbury was offered an embassy--but in Muscovy. He had no mind
to bury himself in Russia, and he refused the offer on the ground
of ill-health. By doing this he walked into the trap prepared
for him. Northampton had foreseen the refusal when he promoted
the offer on its rearranged terms. The King, already incensed
against Overbury for some hints at knowledge of facts liable to
upset the Essex nullity suit, pretended indignation at the
refusal. Overbury unwarily repeated it before the Privy Council.
That was what Northampton wanted. The refusal was high contempt
of the King's majesty. Sir Thomas Overbury was committed to the
Tower. He might have talked in Paris, or have written from
Muscovy. He might safely do either in the Tower--where gags and
bonds were so readily at hand.
Did Rochester know of the springe set to catch Overbury? The
answer to the question, whether yes or no, hardly matters. Since
he was gull enough to discard the man whose brain had lifted him
from a condition in which he was hardly better than the King's
lap-dog, he was gull enough to be fooled by Northampton. Since
he valued the friendship of that honest man so little as to
consort in secret with his enemies, he was knave enough to have
been party to the betrayal. Knave or fool--what does it matter?
He was so much of both that, in dread of what Sir Thomas might
say or do to thwart the nullity suit, he let his friend rot in
the Tower for months on end, let him sicken and nearly die
several times, without a move to free him. He did this to the
man who had trusted him implicitly, a man that--to adapt
Overbury's own words from his last poignant letter to
Rochester--he had ``more cause to love . . . yea, perish for . .
. rather than see perish.''
It is not given to every man to have that greater love which will
make him lay down his life for a friend, but it is the sheer
poltroon and craven who will watch a friend linger and expire in
agony without lifting a finger to save him. Knave or fool--what
does it matter when either is submerged in the coward?
% IV
Overbury lay in the Tower five months. The commission appointed
to examine into the Essex nullity suit went into session three
weeks after he was imprisoned. There happened to be one man in
the commission who cared more to be honest than to humour the
King. This was the Archbishop Abbot. The King himself had
prepared the petition. It was a task that delighted his
pedantry, and his petition was designed for immediate acceptance.
But such was Abbot's opposition that in two or three months the
commission ended with divided findings.
Meantime Overbury in the Tower had been writing letters. He had
been talking to visitors. As time went on, and Rochester did
nothing to bring about his enlargement, his writings and sayings
became more threatening Rochester's attitude was that patience
was needed. In time he would bring the King to a more clement
view of Sir Thomas's offending, and he had no doubt that in the
end he would be able to secure the prisoner both freedom and
honourable employment.
Overbury had been consigned to the Tower in April. In June he
complained of illness. Rochester wrote to him in sympathetic
terms, sending him a powder that he himself had found beneficial,
and made his own physician visit the prisoner.
But the threats which Overbury, indignant at his betrayal by
Rochester, made by speech and writing were becoming common
property in the city and at Court One of Overbury's visitors who
had made public mention of Overbury's knowledge of facts likely
to blow upon the Essex suit was arrested on the orders of
Northampton. In the absence of the King and Rochester from
London the old Earl was acting as Chief Secretary of State--thus
proving Overbury to have been a true prophet. Northampton issued
orders to the Tower that Overbury was to be closely confined,
that his man Davies was to be dismissed, and that he was to be
denied all visitors. The then Lieutenant of the Tower, one Sir
William Wade, was deprived of his position on the thinnest of
pretexts, and, on the recommendation of Sir Thomas Monson, Master
of the Armoury, an elderly gentleman from Lincolnshire, Sir
Gervase Elwes, was put in his place.
From that moment Sir Thomas Overbury was permitted no
communication with the outer world, save by letter to Lord
Rochester and for food that was brought him, as we shall
presently see, at the instance of Mrs Turner.
In place of his own servant Davies Sir Thomas was allowed the
services of an under-keeper named Weston, appointed at the same
time as Sir Gervase Elwes. This man, it is perhaps important to
note, had at one time been servant to Mrs Turner.
The alteration in the personnel of the Tower was almost
immediately followed by severe illness on the part of the
prisoner. The close confinement to which he was subjected, with
the lack of exercise, could hardly have been the cause of such a
violent sickness. It looked more as if it had been brought about
by something he had eaten or drunk. By this time the conviction
he had tried to resist, that Rochester was meanly sacrificing
him, became definite. Overbury is hardly to be blamed if he came
to a resolution to be revenged on his one-time friend by bringing
him to utter ruin. King James had been so busy in the Essex
nullity suit, had gone to such lengths to carry it through, that
if it could be wrecked by the production of the true facts he
would be bound to sacrifice Rochester to save his own face. Sir
Thomas had an accurate knowledge of the King's character. He
knew the scramble James was capable of making in a difficulty
that involved his kingly dignity, and what little reck he had of
the faces he trod on in climbing from a pit of his own digging.
By a trick Overbury contrived to smuggle a letter through to the
honest Archbishop Abbot, in which he declared his possession of
facts that would non-suit the nullity action, and begged to be
summoned before the commission.
Overbury was getting better of the sickness which had attacked
him when suddenly it came upon him again. This time he made no
bones about saying that he had been poisoned.
Even at the last Overbury had taken care to give Rochester a
chance to prove his fidelity. He contrived that the delivery of
the letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury should be delayed
until just before the nullity commission, now augmented by
members certain to vote according to the King's desire, was due
to sit again. The Archbishop carried Overbury's letter to James,
and insisted that Overbury should be heard. The King, outward
stickler that he was for the letter of the law, had to agree.
On the Thursday of the week during which the commission was
sitting Overbury was due to be called. He was ill, but not so
ill as he had been. On the Tuesday he was visited by the King's
physician. On the Wednesday he was dead.
Now, before we come to examine those evidences regarding
Overbury's death that were to be brought forward in the series of
trials of later date, that series which was to be known as ``the
Great Oyer of Poisoning,'' it may be well to consider what effect
upon the Essex nullity suit Overbury's appearance before the
commission might have had. It may be well to consider what
reason Rochester had for keeping his friend in close confinement
in the Tower, what reason there was for permitting Northampton to
impose such cruelly rigorous conditions of imprisonment.
The nullity suit succeeded. A jury of matrons was impanelled,
and made an examination of the lady appellant. Its evidence was
that she was virgo intacta. Seven out of the twelve members of
the packed commission voted in favour of the sentence of nullity.
The kernel of the situation lies in the verdict of the jury of
matrons. Her ladyship was declared to be a maid. If in the
finding gossips and scandal-mongers found reason for laughter,
and decent enough people cause for wonderment, they are hardly to
be blamed. If Frances Howard was a virgin, what reason was there
for fearing anything Overbury might have said? What knowledge
had he against the suit that put Rochester and the Howards in
such fear of him that they had to confine him in the Tower under
such miserable conditions? In what was he so dangerous that he
had to be deprived of his faithful Davies, that he had to be put
in the care of a Tower Lieutenant specially appointed? The
evidence given before the commission can still be read in almost
verbatim report. It is completely in favour of the plea of Lady
Essex. Sir Thomas Overbury's, had he given evidence, would have
been the sole voice against the suit. If he had said that in his
belief the association of her ladyship with Rochester had been
adulterous there was the physical fact adduced by the jury of
matrons to confute him. And being confuted in that, what might
he have said that would not be attributed to rancour on his part?
That her ladyship, with the help of Mrs Turner and the wizard of
Lambeth, had practised magic upon her husband, giving him powders
that went near to killing him? That she had lived in seclusion
for several months with her husband at Chartley, and that the
non-consummation of the marriage was due, not to the impotence of
the husband, but to refusal to him of marital rights on the part
of the wife because of her guilty love for Rochester? His
lordship of Essex was still alive, and there was abundant
evidence before the court that there had been attempt to
consummate the marriage. Whatever Sir Thomas might have said
would have smashed as evidence on that one fact. Her ladyship
was a virgin.
What did Sir Thomas Overbury know that made every one whose
interest it was to further the nullity suit so scared of
him--Rochester, her ladyship, Northampton, the Howards, the King
Sir Thomas Overbury was much too cool-minded, too intelligent, to
indulge in threats unless he was certain of the grounds, and
solid upon them, upon which he made those threats. He had too
great a knowledge of affairs not to know that the commission
would be a packed one, too great an acquaintance with the
strategy of James to believe that his lonely evidence, unless of
bombshell nature, would have a chance of carrying weight in a
court of his Majesty's picking. And, then, he was of too big a
mind to put forward evidence which would have no effect but that
of affording gossip for the scandal-mongers, and the giving of
which would make him appear to be actuated by petty spite. He
had too great a sense of his own dignity to give himself anything
but an heroic role. Samson he might play, pulling the pillars of
the temple together to involve his enemies, with himself, in
magnificent and dramatic ruin. But Iachimo--no.
In the welter of evidence conflicting with apparent fact which
was given before the commission and in the trials of the Great
Oyer, in the mass of writing both contemporary and of later days
round the Overbury mystery, it is hard indeed to land upon the
truth. Feasible solution is to be come upon only by accepting a
not too pretty story which is retailed by Antony Weldon. He says
that the girl whom the jury of matrons declared to be virgo
intacta was so heavily veiled as to be unidentifiable through the
whole proceedings, and that she was not Lady Essex at all, but
the youthful daughter of Sir Thomas Monson.
Mrs Turner, we do know, was very much a favourite with the ladies
of Sir Thomas Monson's family. Gossip Weldon has a funny, if
lewd, story to tell of high jinks indulged in by the Monson women
and Mrs Turner in which Symon, Monson's servant, played an odd
part. This Symon was also employed by Mrs Turner to carry food
to Overbury in the Tower. If the substitution story has any
truth in it it might well have been a Monson girl who played the
part of the Countess. But, of course, a Monson girl may have
been chosen by the inventors to give verisimilitude to the
substitution story, simply because the family was friendly with
Turner, and the tale of the lewd high jinks with Symon added to
make it seem more likely that old Lady Monson would lend herself
to such a plot.
If there was such a plot it is not at all unlikely that Overbury
knew of it. If there was need of such a scheme to bolster the
nullity petition it would have had to be evolved while the
petition was being planned--that is, a month or two before the
commission went first into session. At that time Overbury was
still Rochester's secretary, still Rochester's confidant; and if
such a scheme had been evolved for getting over an obstacle so
fatal to the petition's success it was not in Rochester's nature
to have concealed it from Overbury, the two men still being fast
friends. Indeed, it may have been Overbury who pointed out the
need there would be for the Countess to undergo physical
examination, and it may have been on the certainty that her
ladyship could not do so that Overbury rested so securely--as he
most apparently did, beyond the point of safety--in the idea that
the suit was bound to fail. It is legitimate enough to suppose,
along this hypothesis, that this substitution plot was the very
matter on which the two men quarrelled.
That Overbury had knowledge of some such essential secret as this
is manifest in the enmity towards the man which Lady Essex
exhibited, even when he lay, out of the way of doing harm, in the
Tower. It is hard to believe that an innocent girl of twenty,
conscious of her virgin chastity, in mere fear of scandal which
she knew would be baseless, could pursue the life of a man with
the venom that, as we shall presently see, Frances Howard used
towards Overbury through Mrs Turner.
% V
As a preliminary to his marriage with Frances Howard, Rochester
was created Earl of Somerset, and had the barony of Brancepeth
bestowed on him by the King. Overbury was three months in his
grave when the marriage was celebrated in the midst of the most
extravagant show and entertainment.
The new Earl's power in the kingdom was never so high as at this
time. It was, indeed, at its zenith. Decline was soon to set
in. It will not serve here to follow the whole process of decay
in the King's favour that Somerset was now to experience. There
was poetic justice in his downfall. With hands all about him
itching to bring him to the ground, he had not the brain for the
giddy heights. If behind him there had been the man whose
guidance had made him sure-footed in the climb he might have
survived, flourishing. But the man he had consigned to death had
been more than half of him, had been, indeed, his substance.
Alone, with the power Overbury's talents had brought him,
Somerset was bound to fail. The irony of it is that his downfall
was contrived by a creature of his own raising.
Somerset had appointed Sir Ralph Winwood to the office of First
Secretary of State. In that office word came to Winwood from
Brussels that new light had been thrown on the mysterious death
of Sir Thomas Overbury. Winwood investigated in secret. An
English lad, one Reeves, an apothecary's assistant, thinking
himself dying, had confessed at Flushing that Overbury had been
poisoned by an injection of corrosive sublimate. Reeves himself
had given the injection on the orders of his master, Loubel, the
apothecary who had attended Overbury on the day before his death.
Winwood sought out Loubel, and from him went to Sir Gervase
Elwes. The story he was able to make from what he had from the
two men he took to the King. From this beginning rose up the
Great Oyer of Poisoning. The matter was put into the hands of
the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Edward Coke.
The lad Reeves, whose confession had started the matter, was
either dead or dying abroad, and was so out of Coke's reach. But
the man who had helped the lad to administer the poisoned
clyster, the under-keeper Weston, was at hand. Weston was
arrested, and examined by Coke. The statement Coke's bullying
drew from the man made mention of one Franklin, another
apothecary, as having supplied a phial which Sir Gervase Elwes
had taken and thrown away. Weston had also received another
phial by Franklin's son from Lady Essex. This also Sir Gervase
had taken and destroyed. Then there had been tarts and jellies
supplied by Mrs Turner.
Coke had Mrs Turner and Franklin arrested, and after that Sir
Gervase was taken as an accessory, and on his statement that he
had employed Weston on Sir Thomas Monson's recommendation Sir
Thomas also was roped in. He maintained that he had been told to
recommend Weston by Lady Essex and the Earl of Northampton.
The next person to be examined by Coke was the apothecary Loubel,
he who had attended Overbury on the day before his death. Though
in his confession the lad Reeves said that he had been given
money and sent abroad by Loubel, this was a matter that Coke did
not probe. Loubel told Coke that he had given Overbury nothing
but the physic prescribed by Sir Theodore Mayerne, the King's
physician, and that in his opinion Overbury had died of
consumption. With this evidence Coke was very strangely
content--or, at least, content as far as Loubel was concerned,
for this witness was not summoned again.
Other persons were examined by Coke, notably Overbury's servant
Davies and his secretary Payton. Their statements served to
throw some suspicion on the Earl of Somerset.
But if all the detail of these examinations were gone into we
should never be done. Our concern is with the two women
involved, Anne Turner and the Countess of Somerset, as we must
now call her. I am going to quote, however, two paragraphs from
Rafael Sabatini's romance The Minion that I think may explain why
it is so difficult to come to the truth of the Overbury mystery.
They indicate how it was smothered by the way in which Coke
rough-handled justice throughout the whole series of trials.
On October 19th, at the Guildhall, began the Great Oyer of
Poisoning, as Coke described it, with the trial of Richard
Thus at the very outset the dishonesty of the proceedings is
apparent. Weston was an accessory. Both on his own evidence and
that of Sir Gervase Elwes, besides the apothecary's boy in
Flushing, Sir Thomas Overbury had died following upon an
injection prepared by Loubel. Therefore Loubel was the
principal, and only after Loubel's conviction could the field
have been extended to include Weston and the others. But Loubel
was tried neither then nor subsequently, a circumstance regarded
by many as the most mysterious part of what is known as the
Overbury mystery, whereas, in fact, it is the clue to it. Nor
was the evidence of the coroner put in, so that there was no real
preliminary formal proof that Overbury had been poisoned at all.
Here Mr Sabatini is concerned to develop one of the underlying
arguments of his story--namely, that it was King James himself
who had ultimately engineered the death of Sir Thomas Overbury.
It is an argument which I would not attempt to refute. I do not
think that Mr Sabatini's acumen has failed him in the least. But
the point for me in the paragraphs is the indication they give of
how much Coke did to suppress all evidence that did not suit his
Weston's trial is curious in that at first he refused to plead.
It is the first instance I have met with in history of a prisoner
standing `mute of malice.' Coke read him a lecture on the
subject, pointing out that by his obstinacy he was making himself
liable to peine forte et dure, which meant that order could be
given for his exposure in an open place near the prison, extended
naked, and to have weights laid upon him in increasing amount, he
being kept alive with the ``coarsest bread obtainable and water
from the nearest sink or puddle to the place of execution, that
day he had water having no bread, and that day he had bread
having no water.'' One may imagine with what grim satisfaction
Coke ladled this out. It had its effect on Weston.
He confessed that Mrs Turner had promised to give him a reward if
he would poison Sir Thomas Overbury. In May she had sent him a
phial of ``rosalgar,'' and he had received from her tarts
poisoned with mercury sublimate. He was charged with having, at
Mrs Turner's instance, joined with an apothecary's boy in
administering an injection of corrosive sublimate to Sir Thomas
Overbury, from which the latter died. Coke's conduct of the case
obscures just how much Weston admitted, but, since it convinced
the jury of Weston's guilt, the conviction served finely for
accusation against Mrs Turner.
Two days after conviction Weston was executed at Tyburn.
The trial of Anne Turner began in the first week of November. It
would be easy to make a pathetic figure of the comely little
widow as she stood trembling under Coke's bullying, but she was,
in actual fact, hardly deserving of pity. It is far from
enlivening to read of Coke's handling of the trial, and it is
certain that Mrs Turner was condemned on an indictment and
process which to-day would not have a ghost of a chance of
surviving appeal, but it is perfectly plain that Anne was party
to one of the most vicious poisoning plots ever engineered.
We have, however, to consider this point in extenuation for her.
It is almost certain that in moving to bring about the death of
Overbury she had sanction, if only tacit, from the Earl of
Northampton. By the time that the Great Oyer began Northampton
was dead. Two years had elapsed from the death of Overbury. It
would be quite clear to Anne that, in the view of the powerful
Howard faction, the elimination of Overbury was politically
desirable. It should be remembered, too, that she lived in a
period when assassination, secret or by subverted process of
justice, was a commonplace political weapon. Public executions
by methods cruel and even obscene taught the people to hold human
life at small value, and hardened them to cruelties that made
poisoning seem a mercy. It is not at all unlikely that, though
her main object may have been to help forward the plans of her
friend the Countess, Anne considered herself a plotter in high
affairs of State.
The indictment against her was that she had comforted, aided, and
abetted Weston--that is to say, she was made an accessory. If,
however, as was accused, she procured Weston and Reeves to
administer the poisonous injection she was certainly a principal,
and as such should have been tried first or at the same time as
Weston. But Weston was already hanged, and so could not be
questioned. His various statements were used against her
unchallenged, or, at least, when challenging them was useless.
The indictment made no mention of her practices against the Earl
of Essex, but from the account given in the State Trials it would
seem that evidence on this score was used to build the case
against her. Her relations with Dr Forman, now safely dead, were
made much of. She and the Countess of Essex had visited the
charlatan and had addressed him as ``Father.'' Their reason for
visiting, it was said, was that ``by force of magick he should
procure the then Viscount of Rochester to love the Countess and
Sir Arthur Mainwaring to love Mrs Turner, by whom she had three
children.'' Letters from the Countess to Turner were read. They
revealed the use on Lord Essex of those powders her ladyship had
been given by Forman. The letters had been found by Forman's
wife in a packet among Forman's possessions after his death.
These, with others and with several curious objects exhibited in
court, had been demanded by Mrs Turner after Forman's demise.
Mrs Turner had kept them, and they were found in her house.
As indicating the type of magic practised by Forman these objects
are of interest. Among other figures, probably nothing more than
dolls of French make, there was a leaden model of a man and woman
in the act of copulation, with the brass mould from which it had
been cast. There was a black scarf ornamented with white
crosses, papers with cabalistic signs, and sundry other exhibits
which appear to have created superstitious fear in the crowd
about the court. It is amusing to note that while those exhibits
were being examined one of the scaffolds erected for seating gave
way or cracked ominously, giving the crowd a thorough scare. It
was thought that the devil himself, raised by the power of those
uncanny objects, had got into the Guildhall. Consternation
reigned for quite a quarter of an hour.
There was also exhibited Forman's famous book of signatures, in
which Coke is supposed to have encountered his own wife's name on
the first page.
Franklin, apothecary, druggist, necromancer, wizard, and born
liar, had confessed to supplying the poisons intended for use
upon Overbury. He declared that Mrs Turner had come to him from
the Countess and asked him to get the strongest poisons
procurable. He ``accordingly bought seven: viz., aqua fortis,
white arsenic, mercury, powder of diamonds, lapis costitus, great
spiders, cantharides.'' Franklin's evidence is a palpable tissue
of lies, full of statements that contradict each other, but it is
likely enough, judging from facts elicited elsewhere, that his
list of poisons is accurate. Enough poison passed from hand to
hand to have slain an army.
Mention is made by Weldon of the evidence given by Symon, servant
to Sir Thomas Monson, who had been employed by Mrs Turner to
carry a jelly and a tart to the Tower. Symon appears to have
been a witty fellow. He was, ``for his pleasant answer,''
dismissed by Coke.
My lord told him: ``Symon, you have had a hand in this poisoning
``No, my good lord, I had but a finger in it, which almost cost
me my life, and, at the best, cost me all my hair and nails.''
For the truth was that Symon was somewhat liquorish, and finding
the syrup swim from the top of the tart as he carried it, he did
with his finger skim it off: and it was believed, had he known
what it had been, he would not have been his taster at so dear a
Coke, with his bullying methods and his way of acting both as
judge and chief prosecutor, lacks little as prototype for the
later Judge Jeffreys. Even before the jury retired he was at
pains to inform Mrs Turner that she had the seven deadly sins:
viz., a whore, a bawd, a sorcerer, a witch, a papist, a felon,
and a murderer, the daughter of the devil Forman.''[13] And
having given such a Christian example throughout the trial, he
besought her ``to repent, and to become the servant of Jesus
Christ, and to pray Him to cast out the seven devils.'' It was
upon this that Anne begged the Lord Chief Justice to be merciful
to her, putting forward the plea of having been brought up with
the Countess of Essex, and of having been ``a long time her
servant.'' She declared that she had not known of poison in the
things that were sent to Sir Thomas Overbury.
[13] State Trials.
The jury's retirement was not long-drawn. They found her guilty.
Says Weldon:
The Wednesday following she was brought from the sheriff's in a
coach to Newgate and there was put into a cart, and casting money
often among the people as she was carried to Tyburn, where she
was executed, and whither many men and women of fashion followed
her in coaches to see her die.
Her speeches before execution were pious, like most speeches of
the sort, and ``moved the spectators to great pity and grief for
her.'' She again related ``her breeding with the Countess of
Somerset,'' and pleaded further of ``having had no other means to
maintain her and her children but what came from the Countess.''
This last, of course, was less than the truth. Anne was not so
indigent that she needed to take to poisoning as a means of
supporting her family. She also said ``that when her hand was
once in this business she knew the revealing of it would be her
In more than one account written later of her execution she is
said to have worn a ruff and cuffs dressed with the yellow starch
which she had made so fashionable, and it is maintained that this
association made the starch thereafter unpopular. It is
forgotten that with Anne the recipe for the yellow starch
probably was lost. Moreover, the elaborate ruff was then being
put out of fashion by the introduction of the much more
comfortable lace collar. In any case, ``There is no truth,''
writes Judge Parry,
in the old story[14] that Coke ordered her to be executed in the
yellow ruff she had made the fashion and so proudly worn in
Court. What did happen, according to Sir Simonds d'Ewes, was
that the hangman, a coarse ruffian with a distorted sense of
humour, dressed himself in bands and cuffs of yellow colour, but
no one heeded his ribaldry; only in after days none of either sex
used the yellow starch, and the fashion grew generally to be
[14] Probably started by Michael Sparke (``Scintilla'') in Truth
Brought to Light (1651).
Pretty much, I should think, as the tall `choker' became detested
within the time of many of us. After Mrs Turner Sir Gervase
Elwes was brought to trial as an accessory. The only evidence
against him was that of the liar Franklin, who asserted that Sir
Gervase had been in league with the Countess. It was plain,
however, both from Weston's statements and from Sir Gervase's
own, that the Lieutenant of the Tower had done his very best to
defeat the Turner-Essex-Northampton plot for the poisoning of
Overbury, throwing away the ``rosalgar'' and later draughts, as
well as substituting food from his own kitchen for that sent in
by Turner. ``Although it must have been clear that if any of
what was alleged against him had been true Overbury's poisoning
would never have taken five months to accomplish, he was
sentenced and hanged.''[15]
[15] Sabatini, The Minion.
This, of course, was a glaring piece of injustice, but Coke no
doubt had his instructions. Weston, Mrs Turner, Elwes, and,
later, Franklin had to be got out of the way, so that they could
not be confronted with the chief figure against whom the Great
Oyer was directed, and whom it was designed to pull down, Robert
Carr, Earl of Somerset --and with him his wife. Just as much of
the statements and confessions of the prisoners in the four
preliminary trials was used by Coke as suited his purpose. It is
pointed out by Amos, in his Great Oyer of Poisoning, that a large
number of the documents appertaining to the Somerset trial show
corrections and apparent glosses in Coke's own handwriting, and
that even the confessions on the scaffold of some of the
convicted are holographs by Coke. As a sample of the suppression
of which Coke was guilty I may put forward the fact that
Somerset's note to his own physician, Craig, asking him to visit
Overbury, was not produced. Yet great play was made by Coke of
this visit against Somerset. Wrote Somerset to Craig, ``I pray
you let him have your best help, and as much of your company as
he shall require.''
It was never proved that it was Anne Turner and Lady Essex who
corrupted the lad Reeves, who with Weston administered the
poisoned clyster that murdered Overbury. Nothing was done at all
to absolve the apothecary Loubel, Reeves's master, of having
prepared the poisonous injection, nor Sir Theodore Mayerne, the
King's physician, of having been party to its preparation. Yet
it was demonstrably the injection that killed Overbury if he was
killed by poison at all. It is certain that the poisons sent to
the Tower by Turner and the Countess did not save in early
instances, get to Overbury at all--Elwes saw to that--or Overbury
must have died months before he did die.
According to Weldon, who may be supposed to have witnessed the
trials, Franklin confessed ``that Overbury was smothered to
death, not poisoned to death, though he had poison given him.''
And Weldon goes on to make this curious comment:
Here was Coke glad, how to cast about to bring both ends
together, Mrs Turner and Weston being already hanged for killing
Overbury with poison; but he, being the very quintessence of the
law, presently informs the jury that if a man be done to death
with pistols, poniards, swords, halter, poison, etc., so he be
done to death, the indictment is good if he be but indicted for
any of those ways. But the good lawyers of those times were not
of that opinion, but did believe that Mrs Turner was directly
murthered by my lord Coke's law as Overbury was without any law.
Though you will look in vain through the reports given in the
State Trials for any speech of Coke to the jury in exactly these
terms, it might be just as well to remember that the
transcriptions from which the Trials are printed were prepared
UNDER Coke's SUPERVISION, and that they, like the confessions of
the convicted, are very often in his own handwriting.
At all events, even on the bowdlerized evidence that exists, it
is plain that Anne Turner should have been charged only with
attempted murder. Of that she was manifestly guilty and,
according to the justice of the time, thoroughly deserved to be
hanged. The indictment against her was faulty, and the case
against her as full of holes as a colander. Her trial was
`cooked' in more senses than one.
It was some seven months after the execution of Anne Turner that
the Countess of Essex was brought to trial. This was in May. In
December, while virtually a prisoner under the charge of Sir
William Smith at Lord Aubigny's house in Blackfriars, she had
given birth to a daughter. In March she had been conveyed to the
Tower, her baby being handed over to the care of her mother, the
Countess of Suffolk. Since the autumn of the previous year she
had not been permitted any communication with her husband, nor he
with her. He was already lodged in the Tower when she arrived
On a day towards the end of May she was conveyed by water from
the Tower to Westminster Hall. The hall was packed to
suffocation, seats being paid for at prices which would turn a
modern promoter of a world's heavyweight-boxing-championship
fight green with envy. Her judges were twenty-two peers of the
realm, with the Lord High Steward, the Lord Chief Justice, and
seven judges at law. It was a pageant of colour, in the midst of
which the woman on trial, in her careful toilette, consisting of
a black stammel gown, a cypress chaperon or black crepe hood in
the French fashion, relieved by touches of white in the cuffs and
ruff of cobweb lawn, struck a funereal note. Preceded by the
headsman carrying his axe with its edge turned away from her, she
was conducted to the bar by the Lieutenant of the Tower. The
indictment was read to her, and at its end came the question:
``Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset, how sayest thou? Art
thou guilty of this felony and murder or not guilty?''
There was a hushed pause for a moment; then came the low-voiced
answer: ``Guilty.''
Sir Francis Bacon, the Attorney-General--himself to appear in the
same place not long after to answer charges of bribery and
corruption--now addressed the judges. His eloquent address was a
commendation of the Countess's confession, and it hinted at royal
In answer to the formal demand of the Clerk of Arraigns if she
had anything to say why judgment of death should not be given
against her the Countess made a barely audible plea for mercy,
begging their lordships to intercede for her with the King. Then
the Lord High Steward, expressing belief that the King would be
moved to mercy, delivered judgment. She was to be taken thence
to the Tower of London, thence to the place of execution, where
she was to be hanged by the neck until she was dead--and might
the Lord have mercy on her soul.
The attendant women hastened to the side of the swaying woman.
And now the halbardiers formed escort about her, the headsman in
front, with the edge of his axe turned towards her in token of
her conviction, and she was led away.
% VI
It is perfectly clear that the Countess of Somerset was led to
confess on the promise of the King's mercy. It is equally clear
that she did not know what she was confessing to. Whatever might
have been her conspiracy with Anne Turner it is a practical
certainty that it did not result in the death of Thomas Overbury.
There is no record of her being allowed any legal advice in the
seven months that had elapsed since she had first been made a
virtual prisoner. She had been permitted no communication with
her husband. For all she knew, Overbury might indeed have died
from the poison which she had caused to be sent to the Tower in
such quantity and variety. And she went to trial at Westminster
guilty in conscience, her one idea being to take the blame for
having brought about the murder of Overbury, thinking by that to
absolve her husband of any share in the plot. She could not have
known that her plea of guilty would weaken Somerset's defence.
The woman who could go to such lengths in order to win her
husband was unlikely to have done anything that might put him in
jeopardy. One can well imagine with what fierceness she would
have fought her case had she thought that by doing so she could
have helped the man she loved.
But Frances Howard, no less than her accomplice Anne Turner, was
the victim of a gross subversion of justice. That she was guilty
of a cruel and determined attempt to poison Overbury is beyond
question, and, being guilty of that, she was thoroughly deserving
of the fate that overcame Anne Turner, but that at the last she
was allowed to escape. Her confession, however, shackled
Somerset at his trial. It put her at the King's mercy. Without
endangering her life Somerset dared not come to the crux of his
defence, which would have been to demand why Loubel had been
allowed to go free, and why the King's physician, Mayerne, had
not been examined. To prevent Somerset from asking those
questions, which must have given the public a sufficient hint of
King James's share in the murder of Overbury, two men stood
behind the Earl all through his trial with cloaks over their
arms, ready to muffle him. But, whatever may be said of
Somerset, the prospect of the cloaks would not have stopped him
from attempting those questions. He had sent word to King James
that he was ``neither Gowrie nor Balmerino,'' those two earlier
victims of James's treachery. The thing that muffled him was the
threat to withdraw the promised mercy to his Countess. And so he
kept silent, to be condemned to death as his wife had been, and
to join her in the Tower.
Five weary years were the couple to eat their hearts out there,
their death sentences remitted, before their ultimate banishment
far from the Court to a life of impoverished obscurity in the
country. Better for them, one would think, if they had died on
Tower Green. It is hard to imagine that the dozen years or so
which they were to spend together could contain anything of
happiness for them--she the confessed would-be poisoner, and he
haunted by the memory of that betrayal of friendship which had
begun the process of their double ruin. Frances Howard died in
1632, her husband twenty-three years later. The longer lease of
life could have been no blessing to the fallen favourite.
There is a portrait of Frances Howard in the National Portrait
Gallery by an unknown artist. It is an odd little face which
appears above the elaborate filigree of the stiff lace ruff and
under the carefully dressed bush of dark brown hair. With her
gay jacket of red gold-embroidered, and her gold-ornamented grey
gown, cut low to show the valley between her young breasts, she
looks like a child dressed up. If there is no great indication
of the beauty which so many poets shed ink over there is less
promise of the dire determination which was to pursue a man's
life with cruel poisons over several months. It is, however, a
narrow little face, and there is a tight-liddedness about the
eyes which in an older woman might indicate the bigot. Bigot she
proved herself to be, if it be bigotry in a woman to love a man
with an intensity that will not stop at murder in order to win
him. That is the one thing that may be said for Frances Howard.
She did love Robert Carr. She loved him to his ruin.
On a Sunday, the 5th of February, 1733, there came toddling into
that narrow passage of the Temple known as Tanfield Court an
elderly lady by the name of Mrs Love. It was just after one
o'clock of the afternoon. The giants of St Dunstan's behind her
had only a minute before rapped out the hour with their clubs.
Mrs Love's business was at once charitable and social. She was
going, by appointment made on the previous Friday night, to eat
dinner with a frail old lady named Mrs Duncomb, who lived in
chambers on the third floor of one of the buildings that had
entry from the court. Mrs Duncomb was the widow of a law
stationer of the City. She had been a widow for a good number of
years. The deceased law stationer, if he had not left her rich,
at least had left her in fairly comfortable circumstances. It
was said about the environs that she had some property, and this
fact, combined with the other that she was obviously nearing the
end of life's journey, made her an object of melancholy interest
to the womenkind of the neighbourhood.
Mrs Duncomb was looked after by a couple of servants. One of
them, Betty Harrison, had been the old lady's companion for a
lifetime. Mrs Duncomb, described as ``old,'' was only sixty.[16]
Her weakness and bodily condition seem to have made her appear
much older. Betty, then, also described as ``old,'' may have
been of an age with her mistress, or even older. She was, at all
events, not by much less frail. The other servant was a
comparatively new addition to the establishment, a fresh little
girl of about seventeen, Ann (or Nanny) Price by name.
[16] According to one account. The Newgate Calendar (London
1773) gives Mrs Duncomb's age as eighty and that of the maid
Betty as sixty.
Mrs Love climbed the three flights of stairs to the top landing.
It surprised her, or disturbed her, but little that she found no
signs of life on the various floors, because it was, as we have
seen, a Sunday. The occupants of the chambers of the staircase,
mostly gentlemen connected in one way or another with the law,
would be, she knew abroad for the eating of their Sunday dinners,
either at their favourite taverns or at commons in the Temple
itself. What did rather disturb kindly Mrs Love was the fact
that she found Mrs Duncomb's outer door closed--an unwonted
fact--and it faintly surprised her that no odour of cooking
greeted her nostrils.
Mrs Love knocked. There was no reply. She knocked, indeed, at
intervals over a period of some fifteen minutes, still obtaining
no response. The disturbed sense of something being wrong became
stronger and stronger in the mind of Mrs Love.
On the night of the previous Friday she had been calling upon Mrs
Duncomb, and she had found the old lady very weak, very nervous,
and very low in spirits. It had not been a very cheerful visit
all round, because the old maidservant, Betty Harrison, had also
been far from well. There had been a good deal of talk between
the old women of dying, a subject to which their minds had been
very prone to revert. Besides Mrs Love there were two other
visitors, but they too failed to cheer the old couple up. One of
the visitors, a laundress of the Temple called Mrs Oliphant, had
done her best, poohpoohing such melancholy talk, and attributing
the low spirits in which the old women found themselves to the
bleakness of the February weather, and promising them that they
would find a new lease of life with the advent of spring. But
Mrs Betty especially had been hard to console.
``My mistress,'' she had said to cheerful Mrs Oliphant, ``will
talk of dying. And she would have me die with her.''
As she stood in considerable perturbation of mind on the
cheerless third-floor landing that Sunday afternoon Mrs Love
found small matter for comfort in her memory of the Friday
evening. She remembered that old Mrs Duncomb had spoken
complainingly of the lonesomeness which had come upon her floor
by the vacation of the chambers opposite her on the landing. The
tenant had gone a day or two before, leaving the rooms empty of
furniture, and the key with a Mr Twysden.
Mrs. Love, turning to view the door opposite to that on which she
had been rapping so long and so ineffectively, had a shuddery
feeling that she was alone on the top of the world.
She remembered how she had left Mrs Duncomb on the Friday night.
Mrs Oliphant had departed first, accompanied by the second
visitor, one Sarah Malcolm, a charwoman who had worked for Mrs
Duncomb up to the previous Christmas, and who had called in to
see how her former employer was faring. An odd, silent sort of
young woman this Sarah, good-looking in a hardfeatured sort of
way, she had taken but a very small part in the conversation, but
had sat staring rather sullenly into the fire by the side of
Betty Harrison, or else casting a flickering glance about the
room. Mrs Love, before following the other two women downstairs,
had helped the ailing Betty to get Mrs Duncomb settled for the
night. In the dim candle-light and the faint glow of the fire
that scarce illumined the wainscoted room the high tester-bed of
the old lady, with its curtains, had seemed like a shadowed
catafalque, an illusion nothing lessened by the frail old figure
under the bedclothing.
It came to the mind of Mrs Love that the illness manifesting
itself in Betty on the Friday night had worsened. Nanny, she
imagined, must have gone abroad on some errand. The old servant,
she thought, was too ill to come to the door, and her voice would
be too weak to convey an answer to the knocking. Mrs Love, not
without a shudder for the chill feeling of that top landing,
betook herself downstairs again to make what inquiry she might.
It happened that she met one of her fellow-visitors of the Friday
night, Mrs Oliphant.
Mrs Oliphant was sympathetic, but could not give any information.
She had seen no member of the old lady's establishment that day.
She could only advise Mrs Love to go upstairs again and knock
This Mrs Love did, but again got no reply. She then evolved the
theory that Betty had died during the night, and that Nanny, Mrs
Duncomb being confined to bed, had gone to look for help,
possibly from her sister, and to find a woman who would lay out
the body of the old servant. With this in her mind Mrs Love
descended the stairs once more, and went to look for another
friend of Mrs Duncomb's, a Mrs Rhymer.
Mrs Rhymer was a friend of the old lady's of some thirty years'
standing. She was, indeed, named as executrix in Mrs Duncomb's
will. Mrs Love finding her and explaining the situation as she
saw it, Mrs Rhymer at once returned with Mrs Love to Tanfield
The two women ascended the stairs, and tried pushing the old
lady's door. It refused to yield to their efforts. Then Mrs
Love went to the staircase window that overlooked the court, and
gazed around to see if there was anyone about who might help.
Some distance away, at the door, we are told, ``of my Lord Bishop
of Bangor,'' was the third of Friday night's visitors to Mrs
Duncomb, the charwoman named Sarah Malcolm. Mrs Love hailed her.
``Prithee, Sarah,'' begged Mrs Love, ``go and fetch a smith to
open Mrs Duncomb's door.''
``I will go at all speed,'' Sarah assured her, with ready
willingness, and off she sped. Mrs Love and Mrs Rhymer waited
some time. Sarah came back with Mrs Oliphant in tow, but had
been unable to secure the services of a locksmith. This was
probably due to the fact that it was a Sunday.
By now both Mrs Love and Mrs Rhymer had become deeply
apprehensive, and the former appealed to Mrs Oliphant. ``I do
believe they are all dead, and the smith is not come!'' cried Mrs
Love. ``What shall we do, Mrs Oliphant?''
Mrs Oliphant, much younger than the others, seems to have been a
woman of resource. She had from Mr Twysden, she said, the key of
the vacant chambers opposite to Mrs Duncomb's. ``Now let me
see,'' she continued, ``if I cannot get out of the back chamber
window into the gutter, and so into Mrs Duncomb's apartment.''
The other women urged her to try.[17] Mrs Oliphant set off, her
heels echoing in the empty rooms. Presently the waiting women
heard a pane snap, and they guessed that Mrs Oliphant had broken
through Mrs Duncomb's casement to get at the handle. They heard,
through the door, the noise of furniture being moved as she got
through the window. Then came a shriek, the scuffle of feet.
The outer door of Mrs Duncomb's chambers was flung open. Mrs
Oliphant, ashen-faced, appeared on the landing. ``God! Oh,
gracious God!'' she cried. ``They're all murdered!
[17] One account says it was Sarah Malcolm who entered via the
gutter and window. Borrow, however, in his Celebrated Trials,
quotes Mrs Oliphant's evidence in court on this point.
% II
All four women pressed into the chambers. All three of the women
occupying them had been murdered. In the passage or lobby little
Nanny Price lay in her bed in a welter of blood, her throat
savagely cut. Her hair was loose and over her eyes, her clenched
hands all bloodied about her throat. It was apparent that she
had struggled desperately for life. Next door, in the
dining-room, old Betty Harrison lay across the press-bed in which
she usually slept. Being in the habit of keeping her gown on for
warmth, as it was said, she was partially dressed. She had been
strangled, it seemed, ``with an apron-string or a pack-thread,''
for there was a deep crease about her neck and the bruised
indentations as of knuckles. In her bedroom, also across her
bed, lay the dead body of old Mrs Duncomb. There had been here
also an attempt to strangle, an unnecessary attempt it appeared,
for the crease about the neck was very faint. Frail as the old
lady had been, the mere weight of the murderer's body, it was
conjectured, had been enough to kill her.
These pathological details were established on the arrival later
of Mr Bigg, the surgeon, fetched from the Rainbow Coffee-house
near by by Fairlow, one of the Temple porters. But the four
women could see enough for themselves, without the help of Mr
Bigg, to understand how death had been dealt in all three cases.
They could see quite clearly also for what motive the crime had
been committed. A black strong-box, with papers scattered about
it, lay beside Mrs Duncomb's bed, its lid forced open. It was in
this box that the old lady had been accustomed to keep her money.
If any witness had been needed to say what the black box had
contained there was Mrs Rhymer, executrix under the old lady's
will. And if Mrs. Rhymer had been at any need to refresh her
memory regarding the contents opportunity had been given her no
farther back than the afternoon of the previous Thursday. On
that day she had called upon Mrs Duncomb to take tea and to talk
affairs. Three or four years before, with her rapidly increasing
frailness, the old lady's memory had begun to fail. Mrs Rhymer
acted for her as a sort of unofficial curator bonis, receiving
her money and depositing it in the black box, of which she kept
the key.
On the Thursday, old Betty and young Nanny being sent from the
room, the old lady had told Mrs Rhymer that she needed some
money--a guinea. Mrs Rhymer had gone through the solemn process
of opening the black box, and, one must suppose--old ladies
nearing their end being what they are--had been at need to tell
over the contents of the box for the hundredth time, just to
reassure Mrs Duncomb that she thoroughly understood the duties
she had agreed to undertake as executrix
At the top of the box was a silver tankard. It had belonged to
Mrs Duncomb's husband. In the tankard was a hundred pounds.
Beside the tankard lay a bag containing guinea pieces to the
number of twenty or so. This was the bag that Mrs Rhymer had
carried over to the old lady's chair by the fire, in order to
take from it the needed guinea.
There were some half-dozen packets of money in the box, each
sealed with black wax and set aside for particular purposes after
Mrs Duncomb's death. Other sums, greater in quantity than those
contained in the packets, were earmarked in the same way. There
was, for example, twenty guineas set aside for the old lady's
burial, eighteen moidores to meet unforeseen contingencies, and
in a green purse some thirty or forty shillings, which were to be
distributed among poor people of Mrs Duncomb's acquaintance. The
ritual of telling over the box contents, if something ghostly,
had had its usual effect of comforting the old lady's mind. It
consoled her to know that all arrangements were in order for her
passing in genteel fashion to her long home, that all the
decorums of respectable demise would be observed, and that ``the
greatest of these'' would not be forgotten. The ritual over, the
black box was closed and locked, and on her departure Mrs Rhymer
had taken away the key as usual.
The motive for the crime, as said, was plain. The black box had
been forced, and there was no sign of tankard, packets, green
purse, or bag of guineas.
The horror and distress of the old lady's friends that Sunday
afternoon may better be imagined than described. Loudest of the
four, we are told, was Sarah Malcolm. It is also said that she
was, however, the coolest, keen to point out the various methods
by which the murderers (for the crime to her did not look like a
single-handed effort) could have got into the chambers. She drew
attention to the wideness of the kitchen chimney and to the
weakness of the lock in the door to the vacant rooms on the other
side of the landing. She also pointed out that, since the bolt
of the spring-lock of the outer door to Mrs Duncomb's rooms had
been engaged when they arrived, the miscreants could not have
used that exit.
This last piece of deduction on Sarah's part, however, was made
rather negligible by experiments presently carried out by the
porter, Fairlow, with the aid of a piece of string. He showed
that a person outside the shut door could quite easily pull the
bolt to on the inside.
The news of the triple murder quickly spread, and it was not long
before a crowd had collected in Tanfield Court, up the stairs to
Mrs. Duncomb's landing, and round about the door of Mrs Duncomb's
chambers. It did not disperse until the officers had made their
investigations and the bodies of the three victims had been
removed. And even then, one may be sure, there would still be a
few of those odd sort of people hanging about who, in those times
as in these, must linger on the scene of a crime long after the
last drop of interest has evaporated.
Two further actors now come upon the scene. And for the proper
grasping of events we must go back an hour or two in time to
notice their activities.
They are a Mr Gehagan, a young Irish barrister, and a friend of
his named Kerrel.[18] These young men occupy chambers on
opposite sides of the same landing, the third floor, over the
Alienation Office in Tanfield Court.
[18] Or Kerrol--the name varies in different accounts of the
Mr Gehagan was one of Sarah Malcolm's employers. That Sunday
morning at nine she had appeared in his rooms to do them up and
to light the fire. While Gehagan was talking to Sarah he was
joined by his friend Kerrel, who offered to stand him some tea.
Sarah was given a shilling and sent out to buy tea. She returned
and made the brew, then remained about the chambers until the
horn blew, as was then the Temple custom, for commons. The two
young men departed. After commons they walked for a while in the
Temple Gardens, then returned to Tanfield Court.
By this time the crowd attracted by the murder was blocking up
the court, and Gehagan asked what was the matter. He was told of
the murder, and he remarked to Kerrel that the old lady had been
their charwoman's acquaintance.
The two friends then made their way to a coffee-house in Covent
Garden. There was some talk there of the murder, and the theory
was advanced by some one that it could have been done only by
some laundress who knew the chambers and how to get in and out of
them. From Covent Garden, towards night, Gehagan and Kerrel went
to a tavern in Essex Street, and there they stayed carousing
until one o'clock in the morning, when they left for the Temple.
They were not a little astonished on reaching their common
landing to find Kerrel's door open, a fire burning in the grate
of his room, and a candle on the table. By the fire, with a dark
riding-hood about her head, was Sarah Malcolm. To Kerrel's
natural question of what she was doing there at such an unearthly
hour she muttered something about having things to collect.
Kerrel then, reminding her that Mrs Duncomb had been her
acquaintance, asked her if anyone had been ``taken up'' for the
``That Mr Knight,'' Sarah replied, ``who has chambers under her,
has been absent two or three days. He is suspected.''
``Well,'' said Kerrel, remembering the theory put forward in the
coffee-house, and made suspicious by her presence at that strange
hour, ``nobody that was acquainted with Mrs Duncomb is wanted
here until the murderer is discovered. Look out your things,
therefore, and begone!''
Kerrel's suspicion thickened, and he asked his friend to run
downstairs and call up the watch. Gehagan ran down, but found
difficulty in opening the door below, and had to return. Kerrel
himself went down then, and came back with two watchmen. They
found Sarah in the bedroom at a chest of drawers, in which she
was turning over some linen that she claimed to be hers. The now
completely suspicious Kerrel went to his closet, and noticed that
two or three waistcoats were missing from a portmanteau. He
asked Sarah where they were; upon which Sarah, with an eye to the
watchmen and to Gehagan, begged to be allowed to speak with him
Kerrel refused, saying he could have no business with her that
was secret.
Sarah then confessed that she had pawned the missing waistcoats
for two guineas, and begged him not to be angry. Kerrel asked
her why she had not asked him for money. He could readily
forgive her for pawning the waistcoats, but, having heard her
talk of Mrs Lydia Duncomb, he was afraid she was concerned with
the murder. A pair of earrings were found in the drawers, and
these Sarah claimed, putting them in her corsage. An odd-looking
bundle in the closet then attracted Kerrel's attention, and he
kicked it, and asked Sarah what it was. She said it was merely
dirty linen wrapped up in an old gown. She did not wish it
exposed. Kerrel made further search, and found that other things
were missing. He told the watch to take the woman and hold her
Sarah was led away. Kerrel, now thoroughly roused, continued his
search, and he found underneath his bed another bundle. He also
came upon some bloodstained linen in another place, and in a
close-stool a silver tankard, upon the handle of which was a lot
of dried blood.
Kerrel's excitement passed to Gehagan, and the two of them went
at speed downstairs yelling for the watch. After a little the
two watchmen reappeared, but without Sarah. They had let her go,
they said, because they had found nothing on her, and, besides,
she had not been charged before a constable.
One here comes upon a recital by the watchmen which reveals the
extraordinary slackness in dealing with suspect persons that
characterized the guardians of the peace in London in those
times. They had let the woman go, but she had come back. Her
home was in Shoreditch, she said, and rather than walk all that
way on a cold and boisterous night she had wanted to sit up in
the watch-house. The watchmen refused to let her do this, but
ordered her to ``go about her business,'' advising her sternly at
the same time to turn up again by ten o'clock in the morning.
Sarah had given her word, and had gone away.
On hearing this story Kerrel became very angry, threatening the
two watchmen, Hughes and Mastreter, with Newgate if they did not
pick her up again immediately. Upon this the watchmen scurried
off as quickly as their age and the cumbrous nature of their
clothing would let them. They found Sarah in the company of two
other watchmen at the gate of the Temple. Hughes, as a means of
persuading her to go with them more easily, told her that Kerrel
wanted to speak with her, and that he was not angry any longer.
Presently, in Tanfield Court, they came on the two young men
carrying the tankard and the bloodied linen. This time it was
Gehagan who did the talking. He accused Sarah furiously, showing
her the tankard. Sarah attempted to wipe the blood off the
tankard handle with her apron. Gehagan stopped her.
Sarah said the tankard was her own. Her mother had given it her,
and she had had it for five years. It was to get the tankard out
of pawn that she had taken Kerrel's waistcoats, needing thirty
shillings. The blood on the handle was due to her having pricked
a finger.
With this began the series of lies Sarah Malcolm put up in her
defence. She was hauled into the watchman's box and more
thoroughly searched. A green silk purse containing twenty-one
guineas was found in the bosom of her dress. This purse Sarah
declared she had found in the street, and as an excuse for its
cleanliness, unlikely with the streets as foul as they were at
that age and time of year, said she had washed it. Both bundles
of linen were bloodstained. There was some doubt as to the
identity of the green purse. Mrs Rhymer, who, as we have seen,
was likelier than anyone to recognize it, would not swear it was
the green purse that had been in Mrs Duncomb's black box. There
was, however, no doubt at all about the tankard. It had the
initials ``C. D.'' engraved upon it, and was at once identified
as Mrs Duncomb's. The linen which Sarah had been handling in Mr
Kerrel's drawer was said to be darned in a way recognizable as
Mrs Duncomb's. It had lain beside the tankard and the money in
the black box.
% IV
There was, it will be seen, but very little doubt of Sarah
Malcolm's guilt. According to the reports of her trial, however,
she fought fiercely for her life, questioning the witnesses
closely. Some of them, such as could remember small points
against her, but who failed in recollection of the colour of her
dress or of the exact number of the coins said to be lost, she
vehemently denounced.
One of the Newgate turnkeys told how some of the missing money
was discovered. Being brought from the Compter to Newgate, Sarah
happened to see a room in which debtors were confined. She asked
the turnkey, Roger Johnson, if she could be kept there. Johnson
replied that it would cost her a guinea, but that from her
appearance it did not look to him as if she could afford so much.
Sarah seems to have bragged then, saying that if the charge was
twice or thrice as much she could send for a friend who would pay
it. Her attitude probably made the turnkey suspicious. At any
rate, after Sarah had mixed for some time with the felons in the
prison taproom, Johnson called her out and, lighting the way by
use of a link, led her to an empty room.
``Child,'' he said, ``there is reason to suspect that you are
guilty of this murder, and therefore I have orders to search
you.'' He had, he admitted, no such orders. He felt under her
arms; whereupon she started and threw back her head. Johnson
clapped his hand on her head and felt something hard. He pulled
off her cap, and found a bag of money in her hair.
``I asked her,'' Johnson said in the witness-box, ``how she came
by it, and she said it was some of Mrs Duncomb's money. `But, Mr
Johnson,' says she, `I'll make you a present of it if you will
keep it to yourself, and let nobody know anything of the matter.
The other things against me are nothing but circumstances, and I
shall come well enough off. And therefore I only desire you to
let me have threepence or sixpence a day till the sessions be
over; then I shall be at liberty to shift for myself.' ''
To the best of his knowledge, said this turnkey, having told the
money over, there were twenty moidores, eighteen guineas, five
broad pieces, a half-broad piece, five crowns, and two or three
shillings. He thought there was also a twenty-five-shilling
piece and some others, twenty-three-shilling pieces. He had
sealed them up in the bag, and there they were (producing the bag
in court).
The court asked how she said she had come by the money.
Johnson's answer was that she had said she took the money and the
bag from Mrs Duncomb, and that she had begged him to keep it
secret. ``My dear,'' said this virtuous gaoler, ``I would not
secrete the money for the world.
``She told me, too,'' runs Johnson's recorded testimony, ``that
she had hired three men to swear the tankard was her
grandmother's, but could not depend on them: that the name of one
was William Denny, another was Smith, and I have forgot the
third. After I had taken the money away she put a piece of
mattress in her hair, that it might appear of the same bulk as
before. Then I locked her up and sent to Mr Alstone, and told
him the story. `And,' says I, `do you stand in a dark place to
be witness of what she says, and I'll go and examine her
Sarah interrupted: ``I tied my handkerchief over my hair to hide
the money, but Buck,[19] happening to see my hair fall down, he
told Johnson; upon which Johnson came to see me and said, `I find
the cole's planted in your hair. Let me keep it for you and let
Buck know nothing about it.' So I gave Johnson five broad pieces
and twenty-two guineas, not gratis, but only to keep for me, for
I expected it to be returned when sessions was over. As to the
money, I never said I took it from Mrs Duncomb; but he asked me
what they had to rap against me. I told him only a tankard. He
asked me if it was Mrs Duncomb's, and I said yes.''
[19] Peter Buck, a prisoner.
The Court: ``Johnson, were those her words: `This is the money
and bag that I took'?''
Johnson: ``Yes, and she desired me to make away with the bag.''
Johnson's evidence was confirmed in part by Alstone, another
officer of the prison. He said he told Johnson to get the bag
from the prisoner, as it might have something about it whereby it
could be identified. Johnson called the girl, while Alstone
watched from a dark corner. He saw Sarah give Johnson the bag,
and heard her ask him to burn it. Alstone also deposed that
Sarah told him (Alstone) part of the money found on her was Mrs
There is no need here to enlarge upon the oddly slack and casual
conditions of the prison life of the time as revealed in this
evidence. It will be no news to anyone who has studied
contemporary criminal history. There is a point, however, that
may be considered here, and that is the familiarity it suggests
on the part of Sarah with prison conditions and with the cant
terms employed by criminals and the people handling them.
Sarah, though still in her earliest twenties,[20] was known
already--if not in the Temple--to have a bad reputation. It is
said that her closest friends were thieves of the worst sort.
She was the daughter of an Englishman, at one time a public
official in a small way in Dublin. Her father had come to London
with his wife and daughter, but on the death of the mother had
gone back to Ireland. He had left his daughter behind him,
servant in an ale-house called the Black Horse.
[20] Born 1711, Durham, according to The Newgate Calendar.
Sarah was a fairly well-educated girl. At the ale-house,
however, she formed an acquaintance with a woman named Mary
Tracey, a dissolute character, and with two thieves called
Alexander. Of these three disreputable people we shall be
hearing presently, for Sarah tried to implicate them in this
crime which she certainly committed alone. It is said that the
Newgate officers recognized Sarah on her arrival. She had often
been to the prison to visit an Irish thief, convicted for
stealing the pack of a Scots pedlar.
It will be seen from Sarah's own defence how she tried to
implicate Tracey and the two Alexanders:
``I freely own that my crimes deserve death; I own that I was
accessory to the robbery, but I was innocent of the murder, and
will give an account of the whole affair.
``I lived with Mrs Lydia Duncomb about three months before she
was murdered. The robbery was contrived by Mary Tracey, who is
now in confinement, and myself, my own vicious inclinations
agreeing with hers. We likewise proposed to rob Mr Oakes in
Thames Street. She came to me at my master's, Mr Kerrel's
chambers, on the Sunday before the murder was committed; he not
being then at home, we talked about robbing Mrs Duncomb. I told
her I could not pretend to do it by myself, for I should be found
out. `No,' says she, `there are the two Alexanders will help
us.' Next day I had seventeen pounds sent me out of the country,
which I left in Mr Kerrel's drawers. I met them all in Cheapside
the following Friday, and we agreed on the next night, and so
``Next day, being Saturday, I went between seven and eight in the
evening to see Mrs Duncomb's maid, Elizabeth Harrison, who was
very bad. I stayed a little while with her, and went down, and
Mary Tracey and the two Alexanders came to me about ten o'clock,
according to appointment.''
On this statement the whole implication of Tracey and the
Alexanders by Sarah stands or falls. It falls for the reason
that the Temple porter had seen no stranger pass the gate that
night, nobody but Templars going to their chambers. The one fact
riddles the rest of Sarah's statement in defence, but, as it is
somewhat of a masterpiece in lying invention, I shall continue to
quote it. ``Mary Tracey would have gone about the robbery just
then, but I said it was too soon. Between ten and eleven she
said, `We can do it now.' I told her I would go and see, and so
went upstairs, and they followed me. I met the young maid on the
stairs with a blue mug; she was going for some milk to make a
sack posset. She asked me who were those that came after me. I
told her they were people going to Mr Knight's below. As soon as
she was gone I said to Mary Tracey, `Now do you and Tom Alexander
go down. I know the door is ajar, because the old maid is ill,
and can't get up to let the young maid in when she comes back.'
Upon that, James Alexander, by my order, went in and hid himself
under the bed; and as I was going down myself I met the young
maid coming up again. She asked me if I spoke to Mrs Betty. I
told her no; though I should have told her otherwise, but only
that I was afraid she might say something to Mrs Betty about me,
and Mrs Betty might tell her I had not been there, and so they
might have a suspicion of me.''
There is a possibility that this part of her confession, the tale
of having met the young maid, Nanny, may be true.[21] And here
may the truth of the murder be hidden away. Very likely it is,
indeed, that Sarah encountered the girl going out with the blue
mug for milk to make a sack posset, and she may have slipped in
by the open door to hide under the bed until the moment was ripe
for her terrible intention. On the other hand, if there is truth
in the tale of her encountering the girl again as she returned
with the milk--and her cunning in answering ``no'' to the maid's
query if she had seen Mrs Betty has the real ring--other ways of
getting an entry were open to her. We know that the lock of the
vacant chambers opposite Mrs Duncomb's would have yielded to
small manipulation. It is not at all unlikely that Sarah, having
been charwoman to the old lady, and with the propensities picked
up from her Shoreditch acquaintances, had made herself familiar
with the locks on the landing. So that she may have waited her
hour in the empty rooms, and have got into Mrs Duncomb's by the
same method used by Mrs Oliphant after the murder. She may even
have slipped back the spring-catch of the outer door. One
account of the murder suggests that she may have asked Ann Price,
on one pretext or other, to let her share her bed. It certainly
was not beyond the callousness of Sarah Malcolm to have chosen
this method, murdering the girl in her sleep, and then going on
to finish off the two helpless old women.
[21] This confession, however, varies in several particulars with
that contained in A Paper delivered by Sarah Malcolm on the Night
before her Execution to the Rev. Mr Piddington, and published by
Him (London, 1733).
The truth, as I have said, lies hidden in this extraordinarily
mendacious confection. Liars of Sarah's quality are apt to base
their fabrications on a structure, however slight, of truth. I
continue with the confession, then, for what the reader may get
out of it.
``I passed her [Nanny Price] and went down, and spoke with Tracey
and Alexander, and then went to my master's chambers, and stirred
up the fire. I stayed about a quarter of an hour, and when I
came back I saw Tracey and Tom Alexander sitting on Mrs Duncomb's
stairs, and I sat down with them. At twelve o'clock we heard
some people walking, and by and by Mr Knight came home, went to
his room, and shut the door. It was a very stormy night; there
was hardly anybody stirring abroad, and the watchmen kept up
close, except just when they cried the hour. At two o'clock
another gentleman came, and called the watch to light his candle,
upon which I went farther upstairs, and soon after this I heard
Mrs Duncomb's door open; James Alexander came out, and said, `Now
is the time.' Then Mary Tracey and Thomas Alexander went in, but
I stayed upon the stair to watch. I had told them where Mrs
Duncomb's box stood. They came out between four and five, and
one of them called to me softly, and said, `Hip! How shall I
shut the door?' Says I, ` 'Tis a spring-lock; pull it to, and it
will be fast.' And so one of them did. They would have shared
the money and goods upon the stairs, but I told them we had
better go down; so we went under the arch by Fig-tree Court,
where there was a lamp. I asked them how much they had got.
They said they had found fifty guineas and some silver in the
maid's purse, about one hundred pounds in the chest of drawers,
besides the silver tankard and the money in the box and several
other things; so that in all they had got to the value of about
three hundred pounds in money and goods. They told me that they
had been forced to gag the people. They gave me the tankard with
what was in it and some linen for my share, and they had a silver
spoon and a ring and the rest of the money among themselves.
They advised me to be cunning and plant the money and goods
underground, and not to be seen to be flush. Then we appointed
to meet at Greenwich, but we did not go.[22]
[22] In Mr Piddington's paper the supposed appointment is for ``3
or 4 o'clock at the Pewter Platter, Holbourn Bridge.''
``I was taken in the manner the witnesses have sworn, and carried
to the watch-house, from whence I was sent to the Compter, and so
to Newgate. I own that I said the tankard was mine, and that it
was left me by my mother: several witnesses have swore what
account I gave of the tankard being bloody; I had hurt my finger,
and that was the occasion of it. I am sure of death, and
therefore have no occasion to speak anything but the truth. When
I was in the Compter I happened to see a young man[23] whom I
knew, with a fetter on. I told him I was sorry to see him there,
and I gave him a shilling, and called for half a quartern of rum
to make him drink. I afterwards went into my room, and heard a
voice call me, and perceived something poking behind the curtain.
I was a little surprised, and looking to see what it was, I found
a hole in the wall, through which the young man I had given the
shilling to spoke to me, and asked me if I had sent for my
friends. I told him no. He said he would do what he could for
me, and so went away; and some time after he called to me again,
and said, `Here is a friend.'
[23] One Bridgewater.
``I looked through, and saw Will Gibbs come in. Says he, `Who is
there to swear against you?' I told him my two masters would be
the chief witnesses. `And what can they charge you with?' says
he. I told him the tankard was the only thing, for there was
nothing else that I thought could hurt me. `Never fear, then,'
says he; `we'll do well enough. We will get them that will rap
the tankard was your grandmother's, and that you was in
Shoreditch the night the act was committed; and we'll have two
men that shall shoot your masters. But,' said he, `one of the
witnesses is a woman, and she won't swear under four guineas; but
the men will swear for two guineas apiece,' and he brought a
woman and three men. I gave them ten guineas, and they promised
to wait for me at the Bull Head in Broad Street. But when I
called for them, when I was going before Sir Richard Brocas, they
were not there. Then I found I should be sent to Newgate, and I
was full of anxious thoughts; but a young man told me I had
better go to the Whit than to the Compter.
``When I came to Newgate I had but eighteenpence in silver,
besides the money in my hair, and I gave eighteenpence for my
garnish. I was ordered to a high place in the gaol. Buck, as I
said before, having seen my hair loose, told Johnson of it, and
Johnson asked me if I had got any cole planted there. He
searched and found the bag, and there was in it thirty-six
moidores, eighteen guineas, five crown pieces, two half-crowns,
two broad pieces of twenty-five shillings, four of twenty-three
shillings, and one half-broad piece. He told me I must be
cunning, and not to be seen to be flush of money. Says I, `What
would you advise me to do with it?' `Why,' says he, `you might
have thrown it down the sink, or have burnt it, but give it to
me, and I'll take care of it.' And so I gave it to him. Mr
Alstone then brought me to the condemned hold and examined me. I
denied all till I found he had heard of the money, and then I
knew my life was gone. And therefore I confessed all that I
knew. I gave him the same account of the robbers as I have given
you. I told him I heard my masters were to be shot, and I
desired him to send them word. I described Tracey and the two
Alexanders, and when they were first taken they denied that they
knew Mr Oakes, whom they and I had agreed to rob.
``All that I have now declared is fact, and I have no occasion to
murder three persons on a false accusation; for I know I am a
condemned woman. I know I must suffer an ignominious death which
my crimes deserve, and I shall suffer willingly. I thank God He
has given me time to repent, when I might have been snatched off
in the midst of my crimes, and without having an opportunity of
preparing myself for another world.'' There is a glibness and
an occasional turn of phrase in this confession which suggests
some touching up from the pen of a pamphleteer, but one may take
it that it is, in substance, a fairly accurate report. In spite
of the pleading which threads it that she should be regarded as
accessory only in the robbery, the jury took something less than
a quarter of an hour to come back with their verdict of ``Guilty
of murder.'' Sarah Malcolm was sentenced to death in due form.
% V
Having regard to the period in which this confession was made,
and considering the not too savoury reputations of Mary Tracey
and the brothers Alexander, we can believe that those three may
well have thought themselves lucky to escape from the mesh of
lies Sarah tried to weave about them.[24] It was not to be
doubted on all the evidence that she alone committed that cruel
triple murder, and that she alone stole the money which was found
hidden in her hair. The bulk of the stolen clothing was found in
her possession, bloodstained. A white-handled case-knife,
presumably that used to cut Nanny Price's throat, was seen on a
table by the three women who, with Sarah herself, were first on
the scene of the murder. It disappeared later, and it is to be
surmised that Sarah Malcolm managed to get it out of the room
unseen. But to the last moment possible Sarah tried to get her
three friends involved with her. Say, which is not at all
unlikely, that Tracey and the Alexanders may have first suggested
the robbery to her, and her vindictive maneouvring may be
[24] On more than one hand the crime is ascribed to Sarah's
desire to secure one of the Alexanders in marriage.
It is said that when she heard that Tracey and the Alexanders had
been taken she was highly pleased. She smiled, and said that she
could now die happy, since the real murderers had been seized.
Even when the three were brought face to face with her for
identification she did not lack brazenness. ``Ay,'' she said,
``these are the persons who committed the murder.'' ``You know
this to be true,'' she said to Tracey. ``See, Mary, what you
have brought me to. It is through you and the two Alexanders
that I am brought to this shame, and must die for it. You all
promised me you would do no murder, but, to my great surprise, I
found the contrary.''
She was, you will perceive, a determined liar. Condemned, she
behaved with no fortitude. ``I am a dead woman!'' she cried,
when brought back to Newgate. She wept and prayed, lied still
more, pretended illness, and had fits of hysteria. They put her
in the old condemned hold with a constant guard over her, for
fear that she would attempt suicide
The idlers of the town crowded to the prison to see her, for in
the time of his Blessed Majesty King George II Newgate, with the
condemned hold and its content, composed one of the fashionable
spectacles. Young Mr Hogarth, the painter, was one of those who
found occasion to visit Newgate to view the notorious murderess.
He even painted her portrait. It is said that Sarah dressed
specially for him in a red dress, but that copy--one which
belonged to Horace Walpole--which is now in the National Gallery
of Scotland, Edinburgh, shows her in a grey gown, with a white
cap and apron. Seated to the left, she leans her folded hands on
a table on which a rosary and a crucifix lie. Behind her is a
dark grey wall, with a heavy grating over a dark door to the
right. There are varied mezzotints of this picture by Hogarth
himself still extant, and there is a pen-and-wash drawing of
Sarah by Samuel Wale in the British Museum.
The stories regarding the last days in life of Sarah Malcolm
would occupy more pages than this book can afford to spend on
them. To the last she hoped for a reprieve. After the ``dead
warrant'' had arrived, to account for a paroxysm of terror that
seized her, she said that it was from shame at the idea that,
instead of going to Tyburn, she was to be hanged in Fleet Street
among all the people that knew her, she having just heard the
news in chapel. This too was one of her lies. She had heard the
news hours before. A turnkey, pointing out the lie to her, urged
her to confess for the easing of her mind.
One account I have of the Tanfield Court murders speaks of the
custom there was at this time of the bellman of St Sepulchre's
appearing outside the gratings of the condemned hold just after
midnight on the morning of executions.[25] This performance was
provided for by bequest from one Robert Dove, or Dow, a merchanttailor.
Having rung his bell to draw the attention of the
condemned (who, it may be gathered, were not supposed to be at
all in want of sleep), the bellman recited these verses:
All you that in the condemned hold do lie,
Prepare you, for to-morrow you shall die.
Watch all and pray; the hour is drawing near
That you before th' Almighty must appear.
Examine well yourselves, in time repent,
That you may not t'eternal flames be sent:
And when St 'Pulchre's bell to-morrow tolls,
The Lord above have mercy on your souls!
Past twelve o'clock![26]
[25] It was once done by the parish priest. (Stowe's Survey of
London, p. 195, fourth edition, 1618.)
[26] The bequest of Dove appears to have provided for a further
pious admonition to the condemned while on the way to execution.
It was delivered by the sexton of St Sepulchre's from the steps
of that church, a halt being made by the procession for the
purpose. This admonition, however, was in fair prose.
A fellow-prisoner or a keeper bade Sarah Malcolm heed what the
bellman said, urging her to take it to heart. Sarah said she
did, and threw the bellman down a shilling with which to buy
himself a pint of wine.
Sarah, as we have seen, was denied the honour of procession to
Tyburn. Her sentence was that she was to be hanged in Fleet
Street, opposite the Mitre Court, on the 7th of March, 1733. And
hanged she was accordingly. She fainted in the tumbril, and took
some time to recover. Her last words were exemplary in their
piety, but in the face of her vindictive lying, unretracted to
the last, it were hardly exemplary to repeat them.
She was buried in the churchyard of St Sepulchre's.
[27] Thanks to my friend Billy Bennett, of music-hall fame, for
his hint for the chapter title.
Born (probably illegitimately) in a fisherman's cottage, reared
in a workhouse, employed in a brothel, won at cards by a royal
duke, mistress of that duke, married to a baron, received at
Court by three kings (though not much in the way of kings),
accused of cozenage and tacitly of murder, died full of piety,
`cutting up' for close on L150,000--there, as it were in a
nutshell, you have the life of Sophie Dawes, Baronne de
In the introduction to her exhaustive and accomplished biography
of Sophie Dawes,[28] from which a part of the matter for this
resume is drawn, Mme Violette Montagu, speaking of the period in
which Sophie lived, says that ``Paris, with its fabulous wealth
and luxury, seems to have been looked upon as a sort of Mecca by
handsome Englishwomen with ambition and, what is absolutely
necessary if they wish to be really successful, plenty of
[28] Sophie Dawes, Queen of Chantilly (John Lane, 1912).
It is because Sophie had plenty of brains of a sort, besides the
attributes of good looks, health, and by much a disproportionate
share of determination, and because, with all that she attained
to, she died quite ostracized by the people with whom it had been
her life's ambition to mix, and was thus in a sense a failure--it
is because of these things that it is worth while going into
details of her career, expanding the precis with which this
chapter begins.
Among the women selected as subjects for this book Sophie Dawes
as a personality wins `hands down.' Whether she was a criminal
or not is a question even now in dispute. Unscrupulous she
certainly was, and a good deal of a rogue. That modern American
product the `gold-digger' is what she herself would call a
`piker' compared with the subject of this chapter. The blonde
bombshell, with her `sugar daddy,' her alimony `racket,' and the
hundred hard-boiled dodges wherewith she chisels money and goods
from her prey, is, again in her own crude phraseology, `knocked
for a row of ash-cans' by Sophie Dawes. As, I think, you will
presently see.
Sophie was born at St Helens, Isle of Wight--according to herself
in 1792. There is controversy on the matter. Mme Montagu in her
book says that some of Sophie's biographers put the date at 1790,
or even 1785. But Mme Montagu herself reproduces the list of
wearing apparel with which Sophie was furnished when she left the
`house of industry' (the workhouse). It is dated 1805. In those
days children were not maintained in poor institutions to the
mature ages of fifteen or twenty. They were supposed to be armed
against life's troubles at twelve or even younger. Sophie, then,
could hardly have been born before 1792, but is quite likely to
have been born later.
The name of Sophie's father is given as ``Daw.'' Like many
another celebrity, as, for example, Walter Raleigh and
Shakespeare, Sophie spelled her name variously, though ultimately
she fixed on ``Dawes.'' Richard, or Dickey, Daw was a fisherman
for appearance sake and a smuggler for preference. The question
of Sophie's legitimacy anses from the fact that her mother, Jane
Callaway, was registered at death as ``a spinster.'' Sophie was
one of ten children. Dickey Daw drank his family into the
poorhouse, an institution which sent Sophie to fend for herself
in 1805, procuring her a place as servant at a farm on the
Service on a farm does not appear to have appealed to Sophie.
She escaped to Portsmouth, where she found a job as hotel
chambermaid. Tiring of that, she went to London and became a
milliner's assistant. A little affair we hear, in which a mere
water-carrier was an equal participant, lost Sophie her place.
We next have word of her imitating Nell Gwynn, both in selling
oranges to playgoers and in becoming an actress--not, however, at
Old Drury, but at the other patent theatre, Covent Garden. Save
that as a comedian she never took London by storm, and that she
lacked Nell's unfailing good humour, Sophie in her career matches
Nell in more than superficial particulars. Between selling
oranges and appearing on the stage Sophie seems to have touched
bottom for a time in poverty. But her charms as an actress
captivated an officer by and by, and she was established as his
mistress in a house at Turnham Green. Tiring of her after a
time--Sophie, it is probable, became exigeant with increased
comfort--her protector left her with an annuity of L50.
The annuity does not appear to have done Sophie much good. We
next hear of her as servant-maid in a Piccadilly brothel, a
lupanar much patronized by wealthy emigres from France, among
whom was Louis-Henri-Joseph, Duc de Bourbon and later Prince de
Conde, a man at that time of about fifty-four.
The Duc's attention was directed to the good looks of Sophie by a
manservant of his. Mme Montagu says of Sophie at this time that
``her face had already lost the first bloom of youth and
innocence.'' Now, one wonders if that really was so, or if Mme
Montagu is making a shot at a hazard. She describes Sophie a
little earlier than this as having
developed into a fine young woman, not exactly pretty or
handsome, but she held her head gracefully, and her regular
features were illumined by a pair of remarkably bright and
intelligent eyes. She was tall and squarely built, with legs and
arms which might have served as models for a statue of Hercules.
Her muscular force was extraordinary. Her lips were rather thin,
and she had an ugly habit of contracting them when she was angry.
Her intelligence was above the average, and she had a good share
of wit.
At the time when the Duc de Bourbon came upon her in the
Piccadilly stew the girl was probably no more than eighteen. If
one may judge her character from the events of her subsequent
career there was an outstanding resiliency and a resoluteness as
main ingredients of her make-up, qualities which would go a long
way to obviating any marks that might otherwise have been left on
her by the ups and downs of a mere five years in the world. If,
moreover, Mme Montagu's description of her is a true one it is
clear that Sophie's good looks were not of the sort to make an
all-round appeal. The ways in which attractiveness goes, both in
men and in women, are infinite in their variety. The reader may
recall, in this respect, what was said in the introductory
chapter about Kate Webster and the instance of the bewhiskered
'Fina of the Spanish tavern. And since a look of innocence and
the bloom of youth may, and very often do, appear on the faces of
individuals who are far from being innocent or even young, it may
well be that Sophie in 1810, servant-maid in a brothel though she
was, still kept a look of country freshness and health, unjaded
enough to whet the dulled appetence of a bagnio-haunting old rip.
The odds are, at all events, that Sophie was much less artificial
in her charms than the practised ladies of complacency upon whom
she attended. With her odd good looks she very likely had just
that subacid leaven for which, in the alchemy of attraction, the
Duc was in search.
The Duc, however, was not the only one to whom Sophie looked
desirable. Two English peers had an eye on her--the Earl of
Winchilsea and the Duke of Kent. This is where the card affair
comes in. The Duc either played whist with the two noblemen for
sole rights in Sophie or, what is more likely, cut cards with
them during a game. The Duc won. Whether his win may be
regarded as lucky or not can be reckoned, according to the taste
and fancy of the reader, from the sequelae of some twenty years.
% II
With the placing of Sophie dans ses meubles by the Duc de Bourbon
there began one of the most remarkable turns in her career. In
1811 he took a house for her in Gloucester Street, Queen's
Square, with her mother as duenna, and arranged for the
completion of her education.
As a light on her character hardly too much can be made of this
stage in her development. It is more than likely that the
teaching was begun at Sophie's own demand, and by the use she
made of the opportunities given her you may measure the strength
of her ambition. Here was no rich man's doxy lazily seeking a
veneer of culture, enough to gloss the rough patches of speech
and idea betraying humble origin. This fisherman's child,
workhouse girl, ancilla of the bordels, with the thin smattering
of the three R's she had acquired in the poor institution, set
herself, with a wholehearted concentration which a Newnham `swot'
might envy, to master modern languages, with Greek, Latin, and
music. At the end of three years she was a good linguist, could
play and sing well enough to entertain and not bore the most
intelligent in the company the Duc kept, and to pass in that
company --the French emigre set in London--as a person of equal
education. If, as it is said, Sophie, while she could read and
write French faultlessly, never could speak it without an English
accent, it is to be remembered that the flexibility of tongue and
mind needed for native-sounding speech in French (or any other
language) is so exceptional as to be practically non-existent
among her compatriots to this day. The fault scarcely belittles
her achievement. As well blame a one-legged man for hopping when
trying to run. Consider the life Sophie had led, the sort of
people with whom she had associated, and that temptation towards
laissez-faire which conquers all but the rarest woman in the mode
of life in which she was existing, and judge of the constancy of
purpose that kept that little nose so steadfastly in Plutarch and
If in the year 1812 the Duc began to allow his little Sophie
about L800 a year in francs as pin-money he was no more generous
than Sophie deserved. The Duc was very rich, despite the fact
that his father, the old Prince de Conde, was still alive, and
so, of course, was enjoying the income from the family estates.
There is no room here to follow more than the barest outline of
the Duc de Bourbon's history. Fully stated, it would be the
history of France. He was a son of the Prince de Conde who
collected that futile army beyond the borders of France in the
royalist cause in the Revolution. Louis-Henri was wounded in the
left arm while serving there, so badly wounded that the hand was
practically useless. He came to England, where he lived until
1814, when he went back to France to make his unsuccessful
attempt to raise the Vendee. Then he went to Spain.
At this time he intended breaking with Sophie, but when he got
back to Paris in 1815 he found the lady waiting for him. It took
Sophie some eighteen months to bring his Highness up to scratch
again. During this time the Duc had another English fancy, a
Miss Harris, whose reign in favour, however, did not withstand
the manoeuvring of Sophie.
Sophie as a mistress in England was one thing, but Sophie
unattached as a mistress in France was another. One wonders why
the Duc should have been squeamish on this point. Perhaps it was
that he thought it would look vulgar to take up a former mistress
after so long. At all events, he was ready enough to resume the
old relationship with Sophie, provided she could change her name
by marriage. Sophie was nothing loth. The idea fell in with her
plans. She let it get about that she was the natural daughter of
the Duc, and soon had in tow one Adrien-Victor de Feucheres. He
was an officer of the Royal Guard. Without enlarging on the
all-round tawdriness of this contract it will suffice here to say
that Sophie and Adrien were married in London in August of 1818,
the Duc presenting the bride with a dowry of about L5600 in
francs. Next year de Feucheres became a baron, and was made
aide-de-camp to the Duc.
Incredible as it may seem, de Feucheres took four years to
realize what was the real relationship between his wife and the
Prince de Conde. The aide-de-camp and his wife had a suite of
rooms in the Prince's favourite chateau at Chantilly, and the
ambition which Sophie had foreseen would be furthered by the
marriage was realized. She was received as La Baronne de
Feucheres at the Court of Louis XVIII. She was happy--up to a
point. Some unpretty traits in her character began to develop: a
violent temper, a tendency to hysterics if crossed, and, it is
said, a leaning towards avaricious ways. At the end of four
years the Baron de Feucheres woke up to the fact that Sophie was
deceiving him. It does not appear, however, that he had seen
through her main deception, because it was Sophie herself, we are
told, who informed him he was a fool--that she was not the
Prince's daughter, but his mistress.
Having waked up thus belatedly, or having been woken up by Sophie
in her ungoverned ill-temper, de Feucheres acted with
considerable dignity. He begged to resign his position as aide
to the Prince, and returned his wife's dowry. The departure of
Sophie's hitherto complacent husband rather embarrassed the
Prince. He needed Sophie but felt he could not keep her
unattached under his roof and he sent her away--but only for a
few days. Sophie soon was back again in Chantilly.
The Prince made some attempt to get de Feucheres to return, but
without success. De Feucheres applied for a post in the Army of
Spain, an application which was granted at once. It took the
poor man seven years to secure a judicial separation from his
The scandal of this change in the menage of Chantilly --it
happened in 1822--reached the ears of the King, and the Baronne
de Feucheres was forbidden to appear at Court. All Sophie's
energies from then on were concentrated on getting the ban
removed. She explored all possible avenues of influence to this
end, and, incidentally drove her old lover nearly frantic with
her complaints giving him no peace. Even a rebuff from the
Duchesse de Berry, widow of the son of that prince who was
afterwards Charles X, did not put her off. She turned up one day
at the Tuileries, to be informed by an usher that she could not
be admitted.
This desire to be reinstated in royal favour is at the back of
all Sophie's subsequent actions--this and her intention of
feathering her own nest out of the estate of her protector. It
explains why she worked so hard to have the Prince de Conde
assume friendly relations with a family whose very name he hated:
that of the Duc d'Orleans. It is a clue to the mysterious death,
eight years later, of the Prince de Conde, last of the Condes, in
circumstances which were made to pass as suicide, but which in
unhampered inquiry would almost certainly have been found to
indicate murder.
Louis-Henri-Joseph, Duc de Bourbon and Prince de Conde, seems to
have been rather a simple old man: a useless old sinner, true
enough, but relatively harmless in his sinning, relatively venial
in his uselessness. It were futile to seek for the morality of a
later age in a man of his day and rank and country, just as it
were obtuse to look for greatness in one so much at the mercy of
circumstance. As far as bravery went he had shown himself a
worthy descendant of ``the Great Conde.'' But, surrounded by the
vapid jealousies of the most useless people who had ever tried to
rule a country, he, no more than his father, had the faintest
chance to show the Conde quality in war. Adrift as a
comparatively young man, his world about his ears, with no
occupation, small wonder that in idleness he fell into the
pursuit of satisfactions for his baser appetites. He would have
been, there is good reason to believe, a happy man and a busy one
in a camp. There is this to be said for him: that alone among
the spineless crowd of royalists feebly waiting for the miracle
which would restore their privilege he attempted a blow for the
lost cause. But where in all that bed of disintegrating chalk
was the flint from which he might have evoked a spark?
The great grief of the Prince's life was the loss of his son, the
young Duc d'Enghien, shamefully destroyed by Bonaparte. It is
possible that much of the Prince's inertia was due to this blow.
He had married, at the early age of fourteen,
Louise-Marie-Therese-Mathilde d'Orleans, daughter of
Louis-Philippe, Duc d'Orleans and the Duchesse de Chartres, the
bride being six years older than her husband. Such a marriage
could not last. It merely sustained the honeymoon and the birth
of that only son. The couple were apart in eighteen months, and
after ten years they never even saw each other again. About the
time when Sophie's husband found her out and departed the
Princesse died. The Prince was advised to marry again, on the
chance that an heir might be born to the large fortune he
possessed. But Sophie by then had become a habit with the
Prince--a bad one--and the old man was content to be left to his
continual hunting, and not to bother over the fact that he was
the last of his ancient line.
It may be easily believed that the Prince's disinclination to
marry again contented Sophie very well. And the fact that he had
no direct heir was one in which she saw possibilities
advantageous to herself.
The Prince was then sixty-six years old. In the course of nature
he was almost bound to predecease her. His wealth was enormous,
and out of it Sophie wanted as much by bequest as she could get.
She was much too shrewd, however, to imagine that, even if she
did contrive to be made his sole heir, the influential families
who had an eye upon the great possessions of the Prince, and who
through relationship had some right to expect inheritance, would
allow such a will to go uncontested. She therefore looked about
among the Prince's connexions for some one who would accept
coheirship with herself, and whose family would be strong enough
in position to carry through probate on such terms, but at the
same time would be grateful enough to her and venal enough to
further her aim of being reinstated at Court. Her choice in this
matter shows at once her political cunning, which would include
knowledge of affairs, and her ability as a judge of character.
It should be remembered that, in spite of his title of Duc de
Bourbon, Sophie's elderly protector was only distantly of that
family. He was descended in direct line from the Princes de
Conde, whose connexion with the royal house of France dated back
to the sixteenth century. The other line of `royal' ducs in the
country was that of Orleans, offshoot of the royal house through
Philippe, son of Louis XIII, and born in 1640. Sophie's
protector, Louis-Henri-Joseph, Prince de Conde, having married
Louise-Marie, daughter of the great-grandson of this Philippe,
was thus the brother-in-law of that Louis-Philippe, Duc
d'Orleans, who in the Revolution was known as ``Egalite.'' This
was a man whom, for his political opinion and for his failure to
stand by the King, Louis XVI, the Prince de Conde utterly
detested in memory. As much, moreover, as he had hated the
father did the Prince de Conde detest Egalite's son. But it was
out of this man's family that Sophie selected, though ultimately,
her coheir.
Before she arrived at this point, however, Sophie had been at
pains to do some not very savoury manoeuvring.
By a dancer at the Opera, called Mimi, the Prince de Conde had an
illegitimate daughter, whom he had caused to be educated and whom
he had married to the Comte de Rully. The Comtesse de Rully and
her husband had a suite at Chantilly. This was an arrangement
which Sophie, as reigning Queen of Chantilly, did not like at
all. While the Rully woman remained at Chantilly Sophie could
not think that her sway over the Prince was quite as absolute as
she wished. It took her six years of badgering her protector,
from 1819 to 1825, to bring about the eviction.
But meantime (for Sophie's machinations must be taken as
concurrent with events as they transpire) the Baronne de
Feucheres had approached the son of Philippe-Egalite, suggesting
that the last-born of his six children, the Duc d'Aumale, should
have the Prince de Conde for godfather. If she could persuade
her protector to this the Duc d'Orleans, in return, was to use
his influence for her reinstatement at Court. And persuade the
old man to this Sophie did, albeit after a great deal of
badgering on her part and a great deal of grumbling on the part
of the Prince.
The influence exerted at Court by the Duc d'Orleans does not seem
to have been very effective. The King who had dismissed her the
Court, Louis XVIII, died in 1824. His brother, the Comte
d'Artois, ascended the throne as Charles X, and continued by
politically foolish recourses, comparable in history to those of
the English Stuarts, to alienate the people by attempting to
regain that anachronistic absolute power which the Revolution had
destroyed. He lasted a mere six years as king. The revolution
of 1830 sent him into exile. But up to the last month or so of
those six years he steadfastly refused to have anything to do
with the Baronne de Feucheres--not that Sophie ever gave up
manoeuvring and wheedling for a return to Court favour.
About 1826 Sophie had a secret proposition made to the King that
she should try to persuade the Prince de Conde to adopt as his
heir one of the brothers of the Duchesse de Berry, widow of the
King's second son--or would his Majesty mind if a son of the Duc
d'Orleans was adopted? The King did not care at all.
After that Sophie pinned her faith in the power possessed by the
Duc d'Orleans. She was not ready to pursue the course whereby
her return to Court might have been secured--namely, to abandon
her equivocal position in the Prince de Conde's household, and
thus her power over the Prince. She wanted first to make sure of
her share of the fortune he would leave. She knew her power over
the old man. Already she had persuaded him to buy and make over
to her the estates of Saint-Leu and Boissy, as well as to make
her legacies to the amount of a million francs. Much as she
wanted to be received again at Court, she wanted more just as
much as she could grab from the Prince's estate. To make her
inheritance secure she needed the help of the Duc d'Orleans.
The Duc d'Orleans was nothing loth. He had the mind of a French
bourgeois, and all the bourgeois itch for money. He knew that
the Prince de Conde hated him, hated his politics, hated his very
name. But during the seven years it took Sophie to bring the
Prince to the point of signing the will she had in mind the son
of Philippe-Egalite fawned like a huckster on his elderly and, in
more senses than one, distant relative. The scheme was to have
the Prince adopt the little Duc d'Aumale, already his godchild,
as his heir.
The ways by which Sophie went about the job of persuading her old
lover do not read pleasantly. She was a termagant. The Prince
was stubborn. He hated the very idea of making a will--it made
him think of death. He was old, ill, friendless. Sophie made
his life a hell, but he had become dependent upon her. She
ill-used him, subjecting him to physical violence, but yet he was
afraid she might, as she often threatened, leave him. Her way of
persuading him reached the point, it is on record, of putting a
knife to his throat. Not once but several times his servants
found him scratched and bruised. But the old man could not
summon up the strength of mind to be quit of this succubine
At last, on the 29th of August, 1829, Sophie's `persuasions'
succeeded. The Prince consented to sign the will, and did so the
following morning. In its terms the Duc d'Aumale became
residuary legatee, and 2,000,000 francs, free of death-duty, were
bequeathed to the Prince's ``faithful companion, Mme la baronne
de Feucheres,'' together with the chateaux and estates of
Saint-Leu-Taverny, Boissy, Enghien, Montmorency, and
Mortefontaine, and the pavilion in the Palais-Bourbon, besides
all the Prince's furniture, carriages, horses, and so on.
Moreover, the estate and chateau of Ecouen was also given her, on
condition that she allowed the latter to be used as an orphanage
for the descendants of soldiers who had served with the Armies of
Conde and La Vendee. The cost of running this establishment,
however, was to be borne by the Duc d'Aumale.
It might be thought that Sophie, having got her way, would have
turned to kindness in her treatment of her old lover. But no.
All her mind was now concentrated on working, through the Duc
d'Orleans, for being received again at Court. She ultimately
succeeded in this. On the 7th of February, 1830, she appeared in
the presence of the King, the Dauphin and Dauphine. In the
business of preparing for this great day Chantilly and the Prince
de Conde were greatly neglected. The beggar on horseback had to
be about Paris.
But events were shaping in France at that time which were to be
important to the royal family, to Sophie and her supporters of
the house of Orleans, and fatal in consequence to the old man at
On the 27th of July revolution broke out in France. Charles X
and his family had to seek shelter in England, and
Louis-Philippe, Duc d'Orleans, became--not King of France, but
``King of the French'' by election. This consummation had not
been achieved without intrigue on the part of Egalite's son. It
was not an achievement calculated to abate the Prince de Conde's
hatred for him. Rather did it inflame that hatred. In the
matter of the famous will, moreover, as the King's son the little
Duc d'Aumale would be now in no need of the provision made for
him by his unwilling godfather, while members of the exiled royal
family--notably the grandson of Charles, the Duc de Bordeaux,
certainly cut out of the Prince's will by the intrigues of Sophie
and family--were in want of assistance. This is a point to be
remembered in the light of subsequent events.
% IV
While she had been looking after herself Sophie Dawes had not
been unmindful ofthe advancement of hangers-on of her own family.
She had about her a nephew and a niece. The latter, supposed by
some to have a closer relationship to Sophie than that of mere
niece, she had contrived to marry off to a marquis. The Marquise
de Chabannes de la Palice need not here concern us further. But
notice must be taken of the nephew. A few million francs,
provided by the Prince de Conde, had secured for this James Dawes
the title of Baron de Flassans, from a domain also bestowed upon
him by Sophie's elderly lover. De Flassans, with some minor post
in the Prince's household, acted as his aunt's jackal.
If Sophie, after the election to kingship of Louis-Philippe,
found it necessary to be in Paris a great deal to worship at the
throne her nephew kept her well informed about the Prince de
Conde's activities. The old man, it appeared, had suddenly
developed the habit of writing letters. The Prince, then at the
chateau of Saint-Leu expressed a desire to remove to Chantilly.
He was behaving very oddly all round, was glad to have Sophie out
of his sight, and seemed unwilling even to hear her name. The
projected move to Chantilly, as a fact, was merely a blind to
cover a flight out of Sophie's reach and influence. Rumour arose
about Saint-Leu and in Paris that the Prince had made another
will--one in which neither Sophie nor the Duc d'Aumale was
mentioned. This was a move of which Sophie had been afraid. She
saw to it that the Prince did not get away from Saint-Leu.
Rumour and the Prince's conduct made Sophie very anxious. She
tried to get him to make over to her in his lifetime those
properties which he had left to her in his will, and it is
probable enough that she would have forced this request but for
the fact that, to raise the legal costs, the property of
Saint-Leu would have had to be sold.
This was the position of affairs about the middle of August 1830.
It was believed the Prince had already signed a will in favour of
the exiled little Duc de Bordeaux, but that he had kept the act
secret from his mistress.
On the morning of the 11th of the month the Prince was met
outside his bedroom in his night attire. It was a young man
called Obry who thus met the Prince. He was the old man's
godchild. The old man's left eye was bleeding, and there was a
scratch on his cheek as if made by a fingernail. To Obry the
Prince attributed these wounds to the spite of the Baronne de
Feucheres. Half an hour later he told his valet he had hit his
head against a night-table. Later again in the day he gave
another version still: he had fallen against the door to a secret
staircase from his bedroom while letting the Baronne de Feucheres
out, the secret staircase being in communication with Sophie's
private apartments.
For the next ten days or so the Prince was engaged in contriving
his flight from the gentle Sophie, a second plan which again was
spoiled by Sophie's spies. There was something of a fete at
Saint-Leu on the 26th, the Prince's saint's day. There was a
quarrel between Sophie and the Prince on the morning of the 26th
in the latter's bedroom. Sophie had then been back in Saint-Leu
for three days. At midnight on the 26th the old man retired
after playing a game or two at whist. He was to go on the 30th
to Chantilly. He was accompanied to his bedroom by his surgeon
and a valet, one Lecomte, and expressed a desire to be called at
eight o'clock. Lecomte found a paper in the Prince's trousers
and gave it to the old man, who placed it on the mantelshelf.
Then the valet, as he said later, locked the door of the Prince's
dressing-room, thus --except for the entrance from the secret
staircase--locking the old man in his room.
The Prince's apartments were on the first floor of the chateau.
His bedroom was approached through the dressing-room from the
main corridor. Beyond the dressing-room was a passage, turning
left from which was the bedroom, and to the right in which was an
entrance to an anteroom. Facing the dressing-room door in this
same passage was the entrance to the secret staircase already
mentioned. The staircase gave access to the Baronne de
Feucheres' apartments on the entrance floor. These, however,
were not immediately under the Prince's rooms. An entresol
intervened, and here the rooms were occupied by the Abbe Briant,
a creature of Sophie's and her secretary, the Widow Lachassine,
Sophie's lady's-maid, and a couple named Dupre. These last, also
spies of Sophie's, had their room direcdy below the Prince's
bedroom, and it is recorded that the floor was so thin that they
could hear not only the old man's every movement, but anything he
Adjacent to the Prince's room, and on the same floor, were the
rooms occupied by Lambot, the Prince's aide, and the valet
Lecomte. Lambot was a lover of Sophie's, and had been the great
go-between in her intrigues with the Orleans family over the
will. Lecomte was in Sophie's pay. Close to Sophie's apartments
on the entrance floor were the rooms occupied by her nephew and
his wife, the de Flassans. It will be seen, therefore, that the
wing containing the Prince's rooms was otherwise occupied almost
completely by Sophie's creatures.
You have, then, the stage set for the tragedy which was about to
ensue: midnight; the last of the Condes peaceably in his bedroom
for the night, and locked in it (according to Lecomte). About
him, on all sides, are the creatures of his not too scrupulous
mistress. All these people, with the exception of the Baronne de
Flassans, who sat up writing letters until two, retire about the
same time.
And at eight o'clock next morning, there being no answer to
Lecomte's knocking to arouse the Prince, the door is broken open
at the orders of the Baronne de Feucheres. The Prince is
discovered dead in his bedroom, suspended by the neck, by means
of two of his own handkerchiefs knotted together, from the
fastening of one of the French windows.
The fastening was only about two and a half feet off the floor.
The handkerchief about the dead man's neck was loose enough to
have permitted insertion of all the fingers of a hand between it
and the neck. The second handkerchief was tied to the first, and
its other end was knotted to the window-fastening, and the dead
man's right cheek was pressed against the closed shutter. The
knees were bent a little, the feet were on the floor. None of
the usual indications of death by strangulation were present.
The eyes were half closed. The face was pale but not livid. The
mouth was almost closed. There was no protrusion of the tongue.
On the arrival of the civil functionaries, the Mayor of Saint-Leu
and a Justice of the Peace from Enghien, the body was taken down
and put on the bed. It was then found that the dead man's ankles
were greatly bruised and his legs scratched. On the left side of
the throat, at a point too low for it to have been done by the
handkerchief, there was some stripping of the skin. A large red
bruise was found between the Prince's shoulders.
The King, Louis-Philippe, heard about the death of the Prince de
Conde at half-past eleven that same day. He immediately sent his
High Chancellor, M. Pasquier, and his own aide-de-camp, M. de
Rumigny, to inquire into the matter. It is not stretching things
too far to say that the King's instructions to these gentlemen
are revealed in phrases occurring in the letters they sent his
Majesty that same evening. Both recommend that Drs Marc and
Marjolin should be sent to investigate the Prince's tragic death.
But M. Pasquier mentions that ``not a single document has been
found, so a search has already been made.'' And M. de Rumigny
thinks ``it is important that nobody should be accused who is
likely to benefit by the will.'' What document was expected to
be discovered in the search? Why, a second will that would
invalidate the first. Who was to benefit by the first will?
Why, the little Duc d'Aumale and Dame Sophie Dawes, Baronne de
The post-mortem examination was made by the King's own
physicians. During the examination the Prince's doctors, MM.
Dubois and Gendrin, his personal secretary, and the faithful one
among his body-servants, Manoury, were sent out of the room. The
verdict was suicide. The Prince's own doctors maintained that
suicide by the handkerchiefs from the window-fastening was
impossible. Dr Dubois wrote his idea of how the death had
The Prince very likely was asleep in his bed. The murderers must
have been given entrance to his bedroom--I have no wish to ask
how or by whom. They then threw themselves on the Prince,
gripped him firmly, and could easily pin him down on his bed;
then the most desperate and dexterous of the murderers suffocated
him as he was thus held firmly down; finally, in order to make it
appear that he had committed suicide and to hinder any judicial
investigations which might have discovered the identity of the
assassins, they fastened a handkerchief about their victim's
neck, and hung him up by the espagnolette of the window.
And that, at all hazards, is about the truth of the death of the
Duc de Bourbon and Prince de Conde. There was some official
display of rigour in investigation by the Procureur; there was
much play with some mysterious papers found a good time after the
first discovery half-burned in the fireplace of the Prince's
bedroom; there was a lot put forward to support the idea of
suicide; but the blunt truth of the affair is that the Prince de
Conde was murdered, and that the murder was hushed up as much as
possible. Not, however, with complete success. There were few
in France who gave any countenance to the theory of suicide.
The Prince, it will be remembered, had a practically disabled
left arm. It is said that he could not even remove his hat with
his left hand. The knots in the handkerchiefs used to tie him to
the espagnolette were both complicated and tightly made.
Impossible for a one-handed man. His bed, which at the time of
his retiring to it stood close to the alcove wall, was a good
foot and a half away from that wall in the morning. Impossible
feat also for this one-handed man. It was the Prince's habit to
lie so much to one side of the bed that his servants had to prop
the outside edge up with folded blankets. On the morning when
his death was discovered it was seen that the edges still were
high, while the centre was very much pressed down. There was, in
fact, a hollow in the bed's middle such as might have been made
by some one standing on it with shoes on. It is significant that
the bedclothes were neatly turned down. If the Prince had got up
on a sudden impulse to commit suicide he is hardly likely, being
a prince, to have attempted remaking his bed. He must, moreover,
since he could normally get from bed only by rolling on his side,
have pressed out that heightened edge. Manoury, the valet who
loved him, said that the bed in the morning looked more as if it
had been SMOOTHED OUT than remade. This would tend to support
the theory of Dr Dubois. The murderers, having suffocated the
Prince, would be likely to try effacing the effects of his
struggling by the former method rather than the latter.
But the important point of the affair, as far as this chapter on
it is concerned, is the relation of Sophie Dawes with it on the
conclusion of murder. How deeply was she implicated? Let us see
how she acted on hearing that there was no reply to Lecomte's
knocking, and let us examine her conduct from that moment on.
Note that the Baronne de Feucheres was the first person whom
Lecomte and the Prince's surgeon apprised of the Prince's
silence. She rushed out of her room and made for the Prince's,
not by the secret staircase, but by the main one. She knew,
however, that the door to the secret staircase from the Prince's
room was not bolted that night. This knowledge was admitted for
her later by the Prince's surgeon, M. Bonnie. She had gone up to
the Prince's room by the main staircase in order to hide the
fact, an action which gives a touch of theatricality to her
exhibited concern about the Prince's silence.
The search for documents spoken of by M. Pasquier in his letter
to the King had been carried out by Sophie in person, with the
aid of her nephew de Flassans and the Abbe Briant. It was a
thorough search, and a piece of indecorousness which she excused
on the ground of being afraid the Prince's executors might find a
will which made her the sole heir, to the exclusion of the Duc
Regarding the `accident' which had happened to the Prince on the
11th of August, she said it was explained by an earlier attempt
on his part to do away with himself. She tried to deny that she
had been at Saint-Leu at the time of the actual happening, when
the fact was that she only left for Paris some hours later.
When, some time later, the Prince's faithful valet Manoury made
mention of the fact that the Prince had wanted to put the width
of the country between himself and his mistress, Sophie first
tried to put the fear of Louis-Philippe into the man, then,
finding he was not to be silenced that way, tried to buy him with
a promise of employment.
It is beyond question that the Prince de Conde was murdered. He
was murdered in a wing of the chateau in which he was hemmed in
on all sides by Sophie's creatures. It is impossible that Sophie
was not privy, at the least, to the deed. It is not beyond the
bounds of probability that she was an actual participator in the
She was a violent woman, as violent and passionate as she was
determined. Not once but many times is it on record that she
physically ill-used her elderly lover. There was one occasion,
it is said, when the Prince suddenly came upon her in a very
compromising position with a younger man in the park of one of
his chateaux. Sophie, before the Prince could utter a protest,
cut him across the face with her riding-whip, and finished up by
thrashing him with his own cane.
Here you have the stuff, at any rate, of which your murderesses
of the violent type are made. It is the metal out of which your
Kate Websters, your Sarah Malcolms, your Meteyards and Brownriggs
fashion themselves. It takes more than three years of scholastic
self-discipline, such as Sophie Dawes in her ambition subjected
herself to, to eradicate the inborn harridan. The very
determination which was at the back of Sophie's efforts at
self-education, that will to have her own way, would serve to
heighten the sick rage with which she would discover that her
carefully wrought plans of seven years had come to pieces. What
was it that the Abbe Pelier de Lacroix had in ``proof of the
horrible assassination'' of the Prince de Conde, but that he was
prevented from placing before the lawyers in charge of the later
investigation, if not the fact that the Prince had made a later
will than the one by which Sophie inherited so greatly? The Abbe
was the Prince's chaplain. He published a pamphlet declaring
that the Prince had made a will leaving his entire fortune to the
little Duc de Bordeaux, but that Sophie had stolen this later
will. Who likelier to be a witness to such a will than the
Prince's chaplain?
It needs no great feat of imagination to picture what the effect
of such a discovery would be on a woman of Sophie's violent
temper, or to conceive how little the matter of taking a life
especially the life of a feeble old man she was used to bullying
and mishandling--would be allowed to stand in the way of rescuing
her large gains. Murder of the Prince was her only chance. It
had taken her seven years to bring him to the point of signing
that first will. He was seventy-four years of age, enfeebled,
obstinate, and she knew of his plans to flee from her. Even
supposing that she could prevent his flight, could she begin all
over again to another seven years of bullying and
wheedling--always with the prospect of the old man dying before
she could get him to the point again of doing as she wished? The
very existence of the second will was a menace. It only needed
that the would-be heirs of the Prince should hear of it, and
there would be a swoop on their part to rescue the testator from
her clutches. In the balance against 2,000,000 francs and some
halfdozen castles with their estates the only wonder is that any
reasonable person, knowing the history of Sophie Dawes, should
hesitate about the value she was likely to place on the old man's
The inquiry begun in September of 1830 into the circumstances
surrounding the death of the Prince was cooked before it was
dressed. The honest man into whose hands it was placed at first,
a M. de la Hurpoie, proved himself too zealous. After a night
visit from the Procureur he was retired into private life. After
that the investigators were hand-picked. They concluded the
investigation the following June, with the declaration that the
Prince had committed suicide, a verdict which had its reward--in
advancement for the judges.
In the winter of 1831-32 there was begun a lawsuit in which the
Princes de Rohan brought action against Sophie and the Duc
d'Aumale for the upsetting of the will under which the latter two
had inherited the Prince de Conde's fortune. The grounds for the
action were the undue influence exerted by Sophie. The Princes
de Rohan lost.
Thus was Sophie twice `legally' vindicated. But public opinion
refused her any coat of whitewash. Never popular in France, she
became less and less popular in the years that followed her legal
triumphs. Having used her for his own ends, Louis-Philippe
gradually shut off from her the light of his cod-like
[29] Lacenaire, the notorious murderer-robber in a biting song,
written in prison, expressed the popular opinion regarding
Louis-Philippe's share in the Feucheres-Conde affair. The song,
called Petition d'un voleur a un roi son voisin, has this final
``Sire, oserais-je reclamer?
Mais ecoutez-moi sans colere:
Le voeu que je vais exprimer
Pourrait bien, ma foi, vous deplaire.
Je suis fourbe, avare, mechant,
Ladre, impitoyable, rapace;
J'ai fait se pendre mon parent:
Sire, cedez-moi votre place.''
Sophie found little joy in her wide French possessions. She
found herself without friends before whom she could play the
great lady in her castles. She gradually got rid of her
possessions, and returned to her native land. She bought an
estate near Christchurch, in Hampshire, and took a house in Hyde
Park Square, London. But she did not long enjoy those English
homes. While being treated for dropsy in 1840 she died of
angina. According to the famous surgeon who was at her bedside
just before her demise, she died ``game.''
It may almost be said that she lived game. There must have been
a fighting quality about Sophie to take her so far from such a
bad start. Violent as she was of temper, greedy, unscrupulous,
she seems yet to have had some instincts of kindness. The
stories of her good deeds are rather swamped by those of her bad
ones. She did try to do some good with the Prince's money round
about Chantilly, took a definite and lasting interest in the
alms-houses built there by ``the Great Conde,'' and a request in
her own will was to the effect that if she had ever done anything
for the Orleans gang, the Prince de Conde's wishes regarding the
use of the chateau of Ecouen as an orphanage might be fulfilled
as a reward to her. The request never was fulfilled, but it does
show that Sophie had some affinity in kindness to Nell Gwynn.
How much farther--or how much better--would Sophie Dawes have
fared had her manners been less at the mercy of her temper? It
is impossible to say. That she had some quality of greatness is
beyond doubt. The resolution of character, the will to achieve,
and even the viraginous temper might have carried her far had she
been a man some thirty years earlier in the country of her
greater activities. Under Napoleon, as a man, Sophie might have
climbed high on the way to glory. As a woman, with those traits,
there is almost tragic inevitability in the manner in which we
find her ranged with what Dickens called ``Glory's bastard
On Tuesday, the 1st of July, in the year 1851, two gentlemen,
sober of face as of raiment, presented themselves at the office
of the Procureur-General in the City of Rennes. There was no
need for them to introduce themselves to that official. They
were well-known medical men of the city, Drs Pinault and Boudin.
The former of the two acted as spokesman.
Dr Pinault confessed to some distress of mind. He had been
called in by his colleague for consultation in the case of a
girl, Rosalie Sarrazin, servant to an eminent professor of law,
M. Bidard. In spite of the ministrations of himself and his
colleague, Rosalie had died. The symptoms of the illness had
been very much the same as in the case of a former servant of M.
Bidard's, a girl named Rose Tessier, who had also died. With
this in mind they had persuaded the relatives of Rosalie to
permit an autopsy. They had to confess that they had found no
trace of poison in the body, but they were still convinced the
girl had died of poisoning. With his colleague backing him, Dr
Pinault was able to put such facts before the Procureur-General
that that official almost at once reached for his hat to
accompany the two doctors to M. Bidard's.
The door of the Professor's house was opened to them by Helene
Jegado, another of M. Bidard's servants. She was a woman of
forty odd, somewhat scraggy of figure and, while not exactly
ugly, not prepossessing of countenance. Her habit of looking
anywhere but into the face of anyone addressing her gave her
rather a furtive air.
Having ushered the three gentlemen into the presence of the
Professor, the servant-woman lingered by the door.
``We have come, M. Bidard,'' said the Procureur, ``on a rather
painful mission. One of your servants died recently--it is
suspected, of poisoning.''
``I am innocent!''
The three visitors wheeled to stare, with the Professor, at the
grey-faced woman in the doorway. It was she who had made the
``Innocent of what?'' demanded the Law officer. ``No one has
accused you of anything!''
This incautious remark on the part of the servant, together with
the facts already put before him by the two doctors and the
information he obtained from her employer, led the
Procureur-General to have her arrested. Helene Jegado's past was
inquired into, and a strange and dreadful Odyssey the last twenty
years of her life proved to be. It was an Odyssey of death.
Helene was born at Plouhinec, department of Morbihan, on
(according to the official record) ``28 prairial,'' in the
eleventh year of the republic (1803). Orphaned at the age of
seven, she was sheltered by the cure of Bubry, M. Raillau, with
whom two of her aunts were servants. Sixteen years later one of
those aunts, Helene Liscouet, took Helene with her into service
with M. Conan, cure at Seglien, and it was here that Helene
Jegado's evil ways would appear first to become manifest. A girl
looking after the cure's sheep declared she had found grains of
hemp in soup prepared for her by Helene.
It was not, however, until 1833 that causing death is laid at her
In that year she entered the service of a priest in Guern, one Le
Drogo. In the space of little more than three months, from the
28th of June to the 3rd of October, seven persons in the priest's
household died. All those people died after painful vomitings,
and all of them had eaten food prepared by Helene, who nursed
each of them to the last. The victims of this fatal outbreak of
sickness included Helene's own sister Anna (apparently on a visit
to Guern from Bubry), the rector's father and mother, and Le
Drogo himself. This last, a strong and vigorous man, was dead
within thirty-two hours of the first onset of his illness.
Helene, it was said, showed the liveliest sorrow over each of the
deaths, but on the death of the rector was heard to say, ``This
won't be the last!'' Nor was it. Two deaths followed that of Le
Such a fatal outbreak did not pass without suspicion. The body
of the rector was examined by Dr Galzain, who found indications
of grave disorder in the digestive tracts, with inflammation of
the intestines. His colleague, Dr Martel, had suspicions of
poison, but the pious sorrow of Helene lulled his mind as far as
she was concerned.
We next find Helene returned to Bubry, replacing her sister Anna
in the service of the cure there. In three months three people
died: Helene's aunt Marie-Jeanne Liscouet and the cure's niece
and sister. This last, a healthy girl of about sixteen, was dead
within four days, and it is to be noted that during her brief
illness she drank nothing but milk from the hands of Helene. But
here, as hitherto, Helene attended all the sufferers. Her grief
over their deaths impressed every one with whom she came in
From Bubry Helene went to Locmine. Her family connexion as
servants with the clergy found her room for three days in the
rectory, after which she became apprentice to a needlewoman of
the town, one Marie-Jeanne Leboucher, with whom she lived. The
Widow Leboucher was stricken ill, as also was one of her
daughters. Both died. The son of the house, Pierre, also fell
ill. But, not liking Helene, he refused her ministrations, and
recovered. By this time Helene had become somewhat sensitive.
``I'm afraid,'' she said to a male relative of the deceased
sempstress, ``that people will accuse me of all those deaths.
Death follows me wherever I go.'' She quitted the Leboucher
establishment in distress.
A widow of the same town offered her house room. The widow died,
having eaten soup of Helene's preparing. On the day following
the Widow Lorey's death her niece, Veuve Cadic, arrived. The
grief-stricken Helene threw herself into the niece's arms.
``My poor girl!'' exclaimed the Veuve Cadic.
``Ai--but I'm so unhappy!'' Helene grieved. ``Where-ever I
go--Seglien, Guern, Bubry, Veuve Laboucher's--people die!
She had cause for grief, sure enough. In less than eighteen
months thirteen persons with whom she had been closely associated
had died of violent sickness. But more were to follow.
In May of 1835 Helene was in service with the Dame Toussaint, of
Locmine. Four more people died. They were the Dame's
confidential maid, Anne Eveno, M. Toussaint pere, a daughter of
the house, Julie, and, later, Mme Toussaint herself. They had
eaten vegetable soup prepared by Helene Jegado. Something
tardily the son of the house, liking neither Helene's face nor
the deathly rumours that were rife about her, dismissed her.
To one as burdened with sorrow as Helene Jegado appeared to be
the life conventual was bound to hold appeal. She betook herself
to the pleasant little town of Auray, which sits on a sea arm
behind the nose of Quiberon, and sought shelter in the convent of
the Eternal Father there. She was admitted as a pensionnaire.
Her sojourn in the convent did not last long, for queer disorders
marked her stay. Linen in the convent cupboards and the garments
of the pupils were maliciously slashed. Helene was suspect and
was packed off.
Once again Helene became apprentice to a sempstress, this time an
old maid called Anne Lecouvrec, proprietress of the
Bonnes-oeuvres in Auray. The ancient lady, seventy-seven years
of age, tried Helene's soup. She died two days later. To a
niece of the deceased Helene made moan: ``Ah! I carry sorrow.
My masters die wherever I go!''
The realization, however, did not prevent Helene from seeking
further employment. She next got a job with a lady named Lefur
in Ploermel, and stayed for a month. During that time Helene's
longing for the life religious found frequent expression, and she
ultimately departed to pay a visit, so she said, to the good
sisters of the Auray community. Some time before her departure,
however, she persuaded Anne Lefur to accept a drink of her
preparing, and Anne, hitherto a healthy woman, became very ill
indeed. In this case Helene did not show her usual solicitude.
She rather heartlessly abandoned the invalid--which would appear
to have been a good thing for the invalid, for, lacking Helene's
ministrations, she got better.
Helene meantime had found a place in Auray with a lady named
Hetel. The job lasted only a few days. Mme Hetel's son-in-law,
M. Le Dore, having heard why Helene was at need to leave the
convent of the Eternal Father, showed her the door of the house.
That was hasty, but not hasty enough. His mother-in-law, having
already eaten meats cooked by Helene, was in the throes of the
usual violent sickness, and died the day after Helene's
Failing to secure another place in Auray, Helene went to Pontivy,
and got a position as cook in the household of the Sieur Jouanno.
She had been there some few months when the son of the house, a
boy of fourteen, died after a sickness of five days that was
marked by vomiting and convulsions. In this case an autopsy was
immediately held. It revealed an inflamed condition of the
stomach and some corrosion of the intestines. But the boy had
been known to be a vinegar-drinker, and the pathological
conditions discovered by the doctor were attributed by him to the
Helene's next place was with a M. Kerallic in Hennebont. M.
Kerallic was recovering from a fever. After drinking a tisane
prepared by Helene he had a relapse, followed by repeated and
fierce vomiting that destroyed him in five days. This was in
1836. After that the trail of death which had followed Helene's
itineracy about the lower section of the Brittany peninsula was
broken for three years.
In 1839 we hear of her again, in the house of the Dame Veron,
where another death occurred, again with violent sickness.
Two years elapse. In 1841 Helene was in Lorient, domestic
servant to a middle-aged couple named Dupuyde-Lome, with whom
lived their daughter and her husband, a M. Breger. First the
little daughter of the young couple died, then all the members of
the family were seized by illness, its onset being on the day
following the death of the child. No more of the family died,
but M. Dupuy and his daughter suffered from bodily numbness for
years afterwards, with partial paralysis and recurrent pains in
the extremities.
Helene seems to have made Lorient too hot for herself, and had to
go elsewhere. Port Louis is her next scene of action. A
kinswoman of her master in this town, one Duperron, happened to
miss a sheet from the household stock. Mlle Leblanc charged
Helene with the theft, and demanded the return of the stolen
article. It is recorded that Helene refused to give it up, and
her answer is curious.
``I am going into retreat,'' she declared. ``God has forgiven me
my sins!''
There was perhaps something prophetic in the declaration. By the
time Helene was brought to trial, in 1854, her sins up to this
point of record were covered by the prescription legale, a sort
of statute of limitations in French law covering crime. Between
1833 and 1841 the wanderings of Helene Jegado through those quiet
Brittany towns had been marked by twenty-three deaths, six
illnesses, and numerous thefts.
There is surcease to Helene's death-dealing between the years of
1841 and 1849, but on the inquiries made after her arrest a
myriad of accusers sprang up to tell of thefts during that time.
They were petty thefts, but towards the end of the period they
begin to indicate a change in Helene's habits. She seems to have
taken to drink, for her thefts are mostly of wine and eau de vie.
In March 1848 Helene was in Rennes. On the 6th of November of
the following year, having been dismissed from several houses for
theft, she became sole domestic servant to a married couple
called Rabot. Their son, Albert, who was already ill, died in
the end of December. He had eaten a farina porridge cooked by
Helene. In the following February, having discovered Helene's
depredations from the wine-cupboard, M. Rabot gave her notice.
This was on the 3rd of the month. (Helene was to leave on the
13th.) The next day Mme Rabot and Rabot himself, having taken
soup of Helene's making, became very ill. Rabot's mother-in-law
ate a panade prepared by Helene. She too fell ill. They all
recovered after Helene had departed, but Rabot, like M.
Dupuy-de-Lome, was partially paralysed for months afterwards.
In Helene's next situation, with people called Ozanne, her way of
abstracting liquor again was noticed. She was chided for
stealing eau de vie. Soon after that the Ozannes' little son
died suddenly, very suddenly. The doctor called in thought it
was from a croup fever.
On the day following the death of the little Ozanne Helene
entered the service of M. Roussell, proprietor of the
Bout-du-Monde hotel in Rennes. Some six weeks later Roussell's
mother suddenly became ill. She had had occasion to reproach
Helene for sullen ill-manners or something of that sort. She ate
some potage which Helene had cooked. The illness that ensued
lasted a long time. Eighteen months later the old lady had
hardly recovered.
In the hotel with Helene as fellow-servant there was a woman of
thirty, Perrotte Mace, very greatly relied upon by her masters,
with whom she had been five years. She was a strongly built
woman who carried herself finely. Perrotte openly agreed with
the Veuve Roussell regarding Helene's behaviour. This, with the
confidence reposed in Perrotte by the Roussells, might have been
enough to set Helene against her. But there was an additional
cause for jealousy: Jean Andre, the hotel ostler, but also
described as a cabinet-maker, though friendly enough with Helene,
showed a marked preference for the younger, and comelier,
Perrotte. The Veuve Roussell fell ill in the middle of June. In
August Perrotte was seized by a similar malady, and, in spite of
all her resistance, had to take to her bed. Vomiting and purging
marked the course of her illness, pains in the stomach and limbs,
distension of the abdomen, and swelling of the feet. With her
strong constitution she put up a hard fight for her life, but
succumbed on the 1st of September, 1850. The doctors called in,
MM. Vincent and Guyot, were extremely puzzled by the course of
the illness. At times the girl would seem to be on the mend,
then there would come a sudden relapse. After Perrotte's death
they pressed for an autopsy, but the peasant relatives of the
girl showed the usual repugnance of their class to the idea.
Helene was taken red-handed in the theft of wine, and was
dismissed. Fifteen days later she took service with the Bidards.
These are the salient facts of Helene's progression from 1833 to
1851 as brought out by the investigations made by and for the
Procureur-General of Rennes. All possible channels were explored
to discover where Helene had procured the arsenic, but without
success. Under examination by the Juge d'instruction she stoutly
denied all knowledge of the poison. ``I don't know anything
about arsenic--don't know what it is,'' she repeated. ``No
witness can say I ever had any.'' It was believed that she had
secured a large supply in her early days, and had carried it with
her through the years, but that at the first definite word of
suspicion against her had got rid of it. During her trial
mention was made of packets found in a chest she had used while
at Locsine, the place where seven deaths had occurred. But it
was never clearly established that these packets had contained
arsenic. It was never clearly established, though it could be
inferred, that Helene ever had arsenic at all.
% II
The first hearings of Helene's case were taken before the Juge
d'instruction in Rennes, and she was remanded to the assizes for
Ille-et-Vilaine, which took place, apparently, in the same city.
The charges against her were limited to eleven thefts, three
murders by poisoning, and three attempts at murder by the like
means. Under the prescription legale twenty-three poisonings,
six attempts at poisoning, and a number of thefts, all of which
had taken place within the space of ten years, had to be left out
of the indictment. We shall see, however, that, under the
curious rules regarding permissible evidence which prevail in
French criminal law, the Assize Court concerned itself quite
largely with this prescribed matter.
The trial began on the 6th of December, 1851, at a time when
France was in a political uproar--or, more justly perhaps, was
settling down from political uproar. The famous coup d'etat of
that year had happened four days before. Maitre Dorange,
defending Helene, asked for a remand to a later session on the
ground that some of his material witnesses were unavailable owing
to the political situation. An eminent doctor, M. Baudin, had
died ``pour maintien des lois.'' There was some argument on the
matter, but the President ruled that all material witnesses were
present. Scientific experts could be called only to assist the
The business of this first day was taken up almost completely by
questions on the facts produced in investigation, and these
mostly facts covered by the prescription. The legal value of
this run of questions would seem doubtful in the Anglo-Saxon idea
of justice, but it gives an indication of the shiftiness in
answer of the accused. It was a long interrogation, but Helene
faced it with notable self-possession. On occasion she answered
with vigour, but in general sombrely and with lowered eyes. At
times she broke into volubility. This did not serve to remove
the impression of shiftiness, for her answers were seldom to the
Wasn't it true, she was asked, that in Locmine she had been
followed and insulted with cries: ``C'est la femme au foie
blanc; elle porte la mort avec elle!''? Nobody had ever said
anything of the sort to her, was her sullen answer. A useless
denial. There were plenty of witnesses to express their belief
in her ``white liver'' and to tell of her reputation of carrying
Asked why she had been dismissed from the convent at Auray, she
answered that she did not know. The Mother Superior had told her
to go. She had been too old to learn reading and writing.
Pressed on the point of the slashed garments of the pupils and
the linen in the convent cupboards, Helene retorted that somebody
had cut her petticoats as well, and that, anyhow, the sisters had
never accused her of working the mischief.
This last answer was true in part. The evidence on which Helene
had been dismissed the convent was circumstantial. A sister from
the community described Helene's behaviour otherwise as edifying
After the merciless fashion of French judges, the President came
back time and again to attack Helene on the question of poison.
If Perrotte Mace did not get the poison from her--from whom,
``I don't know anything of poison,'' was the reply, with the
pious addendum, ``and, God willing, I never will!''
This, with variations, was her constant answer.
``Qu'est-ce que c'est l'arsenic? Je n'en ai jamais vu d'arsenic,
The President had occasion later to take her up on these denials.
The curate of Seglien came to give evidence. He had been curate
during the time of M. Conan, in whose service Helene had been at
that time. He could swear that M. Conan had repeatedly told his
servants to watch that the domestic animals did not get at the
poisoned bait prepared for the rats. M. Conan's servants had
complete access to the arsenic used.
Helene interposed at this point. ``I know,'' she said, ``that M.
Conan had asked for arsenic, but I wasn't there at the time. My
aunt told me about it.''
The President reminded her that in her interrogaion she had
declared she knew nothing of arsenic, nor had heard anyone speak
of it. Helene sullenly persisted in her first declaration, but
modified it with the admission that her aunt had told her the
stuff was dangerous, and not to be used save with the strictest
This evidence of the arsenic at Seglien was brought forward on
the second day of the trial, when witnesses began to be heard.
Before pursuing the point of where the accused might have
obtained the poison I should like to quote, as typical of the
hypocritical piety exhibited by Helene, one of her answers on the
first day.
After reminding her that Rose Tessier's sickness had increased
after taking a tisane that Helene had prepared the President
asked if it was not the fact that she alone had looked after
``No,'' Helen replied. ``Everybody was meddling. All I did was
put the tisane on to boil. I have suffered a great deal,'' she
added gratuitously. ``The good God will give me grace to bear up
to the end. If I have not died of my sufferings in prison it is
because God's hand has guided and sustained me.''
With that in parenthesis, let us return to the evidence of the
witnesses on the second day of the trial. A great deal of it had
to do with deaths on which, under the prescription, no charge
could be made against Helene, and with thefts that equally could
not be the subject of accusation.
Dr Galzain, of Ponivy, who, eighteen years before, had performed
the autopsy on Le Drogo, cure of Guern, testified that though he
had then been puzzled by the pathological conditions, he was now
prepared to say they were consistent with arsenical poisoning.
Martel, a pharmacist, brother of the doctor who had attended Le
Drogo, spoke of his brother's suspicions, suspicions which had
recurred on meeting with the cases at Bubry. They had been
diverted by the lavishly affectionate attendance Helene had given
to the sufferers.
Relatives of the victims of Locmine told of Helene's predictions
of death, and of her plaints that death followed her everywhere.
They also remarked on the very kind ministrations of Helene.
Dr Toussaint, doctor at Locmine, and son to the house in which
Helene had for a time been servant, told of his perplexity over
the symptoms in the cases of the Widow Lorey and the youth
Leboucher. In 1835 he had been called in to see Helene herself,
who was suffering from an intermittent fever. Next day the fever
had disappeared. He was told that she had been dosing herself,
and he was shown a packet which had been in her possession. It
contained substances that looked like kermes-mineral,[30] some
saffron, and a white powder that amounted to perhaps ten grammes.
He had disliked Helene at first sight. She had not been long in
his mother's service when his mother's maid-companion (Anne
Eveno), who also had no liking for Helene, fell ill and died.
His father fell violently ill in turn, seemed to get better, and
looked like recovering. But inexplicable complications
supervened, and his father died suddenly of a haemorrhage of the
intestinal canal. His sister Julie, who had been the first to
fall sick, also seemed to recover, but after the death of the
father had a relapse. In his idea Helene, having cured herself,
was able to drug the invalids in her care. The witness ordered
her to be kept completely away from the sufferers, but one night
she contrived to get the nurses out of the way. A confrere he
called in ordered bouillon to be given. Helene had charge of the
kitchen, and it was she who prepared the bouillon. It was she
who administered it. Three hours later his sister died in agony.
[30] Or, simply, kermes--a pharmaceutical composition, containing
antimony and sodium sulphates and oxide of antimony--formerly
used as an expectorant.
The witness suggested an autopsy. His family would not agree.
The pious behaviour of Helene put her beyond suspicion, but he
took it on himself to dismiss her. During the illness of his
father, when Helene herself was ill, he went reluctantly to see
her, being told that she was dying. Instead of finding her in
bed he came upon her making some sort of white sauce. As soon as
he appeared she threw herself into bed and pretended to be
suffering intense pain. A little later he asked to see the
sauce. It had disappeared.
He had advised his niece to reserve his sister's evacuations.
His niece replied that Helene was so scrupulously tidy that such
vessels were never left about, but were taken away at once to be
emptied and cleaned. ``I revised my opinion of the woman after
she had gone,'' added the witness. ``I thought her very well
HELENE. I never had any drugs in my possession--never. When I
had fever I took the powders given me by the doctor, but I did
not know what they were!
THE PRESIDENT. Why did you say yesterday that nothing was ever
found in your luggage?
HELENE. I didn't remember.
THE PRESIDENT. What were you doing with the saffron? Wasn't it
in your possession during the time you were in Seglien?
HELENE. I was taking it for my blood.
THE PRESIDENT. And the white powder--did it also come from
HELENE [energetically]. Never have I had white powder in my
luggage! Never have I seen arsenic! Never has anyone spoken to
me of arsenic!
Upon this the President rightly reminded her that she had said
only that morning that her aunt had talked to her of arsenic at
Seglien, and had warned her of its lethal qualities. ``You deny
the existence of that white powder,'' said the President,
``because you know it was poison. You put it away from you with
The accused several times tried to answer this charge, but
failed. Her face was beaded with moisture.
THE PRESIDENT. Had you or had you not any white powder at
HELENE. I can't say if I still had fever there.
THE PRESIDENT. What was that powder? When did you first have
HELENE. I had taken it at Locmine. Somebody gave it to me for
two sous.
THE PRESIDENT. Why didn t you say so at the beginning, instead
of waiting until you are confounded by the witness? [To Dr
Toussaint] What would the powder be, monsieur? What powder
would one prescribe for fever?
DR TOUSSAINT. Sulphate of quinine; but that's not what it was.
Questioned by the advocate for the defence, the witness said he
would not affirm that the powder he saw was arsenic. His present
opinion, however, was that his father and sister had died from
injections of arsenic in small doses.
A witness from Locmine spoke of her sister's two children
becoming ill after taking chocolate prepared by the accused. The
latter told her that a mob had followed her in the street,
accusing her of the deaths of those she had been servant to.
Then came one of those curious samples of `what the soldier said'
that are so often admitted in French criminal trials as evidence.
Louise Clocher said she had seen Helene on the road between Auray
and Lorient in the company of a soldier. When she told some one
of it people said, ``That wasn't a soldier! It was the devil you
saw following her!''
One rather sympathizes with Helene in her protest against this
From Ploermel, Auray, Lorient, and other places doctors and
relatives of the dead came to bear witness to Helene's cooking
and nursing activities, and to speak of the thefts she had been
found committing. Where any suspicion had touched Helene her
piety and her tender care of the sufferers had disarmed it. The
astonishing thing is that, with all those rumours of `white
livers' and so on, the woman could proceed from place to place
within a few miles of each other, and even from house to house in
the same towns, leaving death in her tracks, without once being
brought to bay. Take the evidence of M. Le Dore, son-in-law of
that Mme Hetel who died in Auray, His mother-in-law became ill
just after Helene's reputation was brought to his notice. The
old lady died next day.
``The day following the revelation,'' said M. Le Dore, ``I put
Helene out. She threw herself on the ground uttering fearsome
yells. The day's meal had been prepared. I had it thrown out,
and put Helene herself to the door with her luggage, INTO WHICH
SHE HASTILY STOWED A PACKET. Mme Hetel died next day in fearful
I am responsible for the italicizing. It is hard to understand
why M. Le Dore did no more than put Helene to the door. He was
suspicious enough to throw out the meal prepared by Helene, and
he saw her hastily stow a packet in her luggage. But, though he
was Mayor of Auray, he did nothing more about his mother-in-law's
death. It is to be remarked, however, that the Hetels themselves
were against the brusque dismissal of Helene. She had
``smothered the mother with care and attentions.''
But one gets perhaps the real clue to Helene's long immunity from
the remark made in court by M. Breger, son-in-law of that Lorient
couple, M. and Mme Dupuyde-Lome. He had thought for a moment of
suspecting Helene of causing the child's death and the illness of
the rest of the family, but ``there seemed small grounds. What
interest had the girl in cutting off their lives?''
It is a commonplace that murder without motive is the hardest to
detect. The deaths that Helene Jegado contrived between 1833 and
1841, twenty-three in number, and the six attempts at murder
which she made in that length of time, are, without exception,
crimes quite lacking in discoverable motive. It is not at all on
record that she had reason for wishing to eliminate any one of
those twenty-three persons. She seems to have poisoned for the
mere sake of poisoning. Save to the ignorant and superstitious,
such as followed her in the streets to accuse her of having a
``white liver'' and a breath that meant death, she was an
unfortunate creature with an odd knack of finding herself in
houses where `accidents' happened. Time and again you find her
being taken in by kindly people after such `accidents,' and made
an object of sympathy for the dreadful coincidences that were
making her so unhappy. It was out of sympathy that the Widow
Lorey, of Locmine, took Helene into her house. On the widow's
death the niece arrived. In court the niece described the scene
on her arrival. ``Helene embraced me,'' she said. ``'Unhappy
me!' she wept. `Wherever I go everybody dies!' I pitied and
consoled her.'' She pitied and consoled Helene, though they were
saying in the town that the girl had a white liver and that her
breath brought death!
Where Helene had neglected to combine her poisoning with detected
pilfering the people about her victims could see nothing wrong in
her conduct. Witness after witness --father, sister, husband,
niece, son-in-law, or relation in some sort to this or that
victim of Helene's--repeated in court, ``The girl went away with
nothing against her.'' And even those who afterwards found
articles missing from their household goods: ``At the same time
I did not suspect her probity. She went to Mass every morning
and to the evening services. I was very surprised to find some
of my napkins among the stuff Helene was accused of stealing.''
``I did not know of Helene's thefts until I was shown the objects
stolen,'' said a lady of Vannes. ``Without that proof I would
never have suspected the girl. Helene claimed affiliation with a
religious sisterhood, served very well, and was a worker.''
It is perhaps of interest to note how Helene answered the
testimony regarding her thieving proclivities. Mme Lejoubioux,
of Vannes, said her furnishing bills went up considerably during
the time Helene was in her service. Helene had purloined two
Helene: ``That was for vengeance. I was furious at being sent
Sieur Cesar le Clerc and Mme Gauthier swore to thefts from them
by Helene.
Helene: ``I stole nothing from Mme Gauthier except one bottle of
wine. If I commit a larceny it is from choler. WHEN I'M FURIOUS
It was when Helene began to poison for vengeance that retribution
fell upon her. Her fondness for the bottle started to get her
into trouble. It made her touchy. Up to 1841 she had poisoned
for the pleasure of it, masking her secret turpitude with an
outward show of piety, of being helpful in time of trouble. By
the time she arrived in Rennes, in 1848, after seven years during
which her murderous proclivities seem to have slept, her
character as a worker, if not as a Christian, had deteriorated.
Her piety, in the face of her fondness for alcohol and her
slovenly habits, and against her now frequently exhibited bursts
of temper and ill-will, appeared the hypocrisy it actually was.
Her essays in poisoning now had purpose and motive behind them.
Nemesis, so long at her heels, overtook her.
It is not clear in the accounts available to me just what
particular murders by poison, what attempts at poisoning, and
what thefts Helene was charged with in the indictment at Rennes.
Twenty-three poisonings, six attempts, and a number of thefts had
been washed out, it may be as well to repeat, by the prescription
legale. But from her arrival in Rennes, leaving the thefts out
of account, her activities had accounted for the following: In
the Rabot household one death (Albert, the son) and three
illnesses (Rabot, Mme Rabot, the mother-in-law); in the Ozanne
establishment one death (that of the little son), in the hotel of
the Roussells one death (that of Perrotte Mace) and one illness
(that of the Veuve Roussell); at the Bidards two deaths (Rose
Tessier and Rosalie Sarrazin). In this last establishment there
was also one attempt at poisoning which I have not yet mentioned,
that of a young servant, named Francoise Huriaux, who for a short
time had taken the place of Rose Tessier. We thus have five
deaths and five attempts in Rennes, all of which could be
indictable. But, as already stated, the indictment covered three
deaths and three attempts.
It is hard to say, from verbatim reports of the trial, where the
matter of the indictment begins to be handled. It would seem
from the evidence produced that proof was sought of all five
deaths and all five attempts that Helene was supposed to be
guilty of in Rennes. The father of the boy Ozanne was called
before the Rabot witnesses, though the Rabot death and illnesses
occurred before the death of the Ozanne child. We may, however,
take the order of affairs as dealt with in the court. We may see
something of motive on Helene's part suggested in M. Ozanne's
evidence, and an indication of her method of covering her crime.
M. Ozanne said that Helene, in his house, drank eau de vie in
secret, and, to conceal her thefts, filled the bottle up with
cider. He discovered the trick, and reproached Helene for it.
She denied the accusation with vigour, and angrily announced her
intention of leaving. Mme Ozanne took pity on Helene, and told
her she might remain several days longer. On the Tuesday
following the young child became ill. The illness seemed to be a
fleeting one, and the father and mother thought he had recovered.
On the Saturday, however, the boy was seized by vomiting, and the
parents wondered if they should send for the doctor. ``If the
word was mine,'' said Helene, who had the boy on her knees, ``and
the child as ill as he looks, I should not hesitate.'' The
doctor was sent for about noon on Sunday. He thought it only a
slight illness. Towards evening the child began to complain of
pain all over his body. His hands and feet were icy cold. His
body grew taut. About six o'clock the doctor came back. ``My
God!'' he exclaimed. ``It's the croup!'' He tried to apply
leeches, but the boy died within a few minutes. Helene hastened
the little body into its shroud.
Helene, said Ozanne, always talked of poison if anyone left their
food. ``Do you think I'm poisoning you?'' she would ask.
A girl named Cambrai gave evidence that Helene, coming away from
the cemetery after the burial of the child, said to her, ``I am
not so sorry about the child. Its parents have treated me
shabbily.'' The witness thought Helene too insensitive and
reproached her.
``That's a lie!'' the accused shouted. ``I loved the child!''
The doctor, M. Brute, gave evidence next. He still believed the
child had died of a croup affection, the most violent he had ever
seen. The President questioned him closely on the symptoms he
had seen in the child, but the doctor stuck to his idea. He had
seen nothing to make him suspect poisoning.
The President: ``It is strange that in all the cases we have
under review the doctors saw nothing at first that was serious.
They admit illness and prescribe mild remedies, and then,
suddenly, the patients get worse and die.''
M. Victor Rabot was called next. To begin with, he said,
Helene's services were satisfactory. He had given her notice
because he found her stealing his wine. Upon this Helene showed
the greatest discontent, and it was then that Mme Rabot fell ill.
A nurse was put in charge of her, but Helene found a way to get
rid of her. Helene had no love for his child. The child had a
horror of the servant, because she was dirty and took snuff. In
consequence Helene had a spite against the boy. Helene had never
been seen eating any of the dishes prepared for the family, and
even insisted on keeping certain of the kitchen dishes for her
own use.
At the request of his father-in-law Helene had gone to get a
bottle of violet syrup from the pharmacist. The bottle was not
capped. His father-in-law thought the syrup had gone bad,
because it was as red as mulberry syrup, and refused to give it
to his daughter (Mme Rabot). The bottle was returned to the
pharmacist, who remarked that the colour of the syrup had
changed, and that he did not recognize it as his own.
Mme Rabot having corroborated her husband's evidence, and told of
Helene's bad temper, thieving, and disorderliness, Dr Vincent
Guyot, of Rennes, was called.
Dr Guyot described the illness of the boy Albert and its result.
He then went on to describe the illness of Mme Rabot. He and his
confreres had attributed her sickness to the fact that she was
enceinte, and to the effect of her child's death upon her while
in that condition. A miscarriage of a distressing nature
confirmed the first prognosis. But later he and his confreres
saw reason to change their minds. He believed the boy had been
poisoned, though he could not be certain. The mother, he was
convinced, had been the victim of an attempt at poisoning, an
opinion which found certainty in the case of Mme Briere. If Mme
Rabot's pregnancy went some way in explaining her illness there
was nothing of this in the illness of her mother. The
explanation of everything was in repeated dosing of an arsenical
The witness had also attended Mme Roussell, of the Bout-du-Monde
hotel. It was remarkable that the violent sickness to which this
lady was subject for twenty days did not answer to treatment, but
stopped only when she gave up taking food prepared for her by
Helene Jegado.
He had also looked after Perrotte Mace. Here also he had had
doubts of the nature of the malady; at one time he had suspected
pregnancy, a suspicion for which there were good grounds. But
the symptoms that later developed were not consistent with the
first diagnosis. When Perrotte died he and M. Revault, his
confrere, thought the cause of death would be seen as poison in
an autopsy. But the post-mortem was rejected by the parents.
His feeling to-day was that Mme Roussell's paralysis was due to
arsenical dosage, and that Perrotte had died of poisoning.
Helene, speaking to him of Perrotte, had said, ``She's a chest
subject. She'll never get better!'' And she had used the same
phrase, ``never get better,'' with regard to little Rabot.
M. Morio, the pharmacist of Rennes from whom the violet syrup was
bought, said that Helene had often complained to him about Mme
Roussell. During the illness of the Rabot boy she had said that
the child was worse than anyone imagined, and that he would never
recover. In the matter of the violet syrup he agreed it had come
back to him looking red. The bottle had been put to one side,
but its contents had been thrown away, and he had therefore been
unable to experiment with it. He had found since, however, that
arsenic in powder form did not turn violet syrup red, though
possibly arsenic in solution with boiling water might produce the
effect. The change seen in the syrup brought back from M.
Rabot's was not to be accounted for by such fermentation as the
mere warmth of the hand could bring about.
Several witnesses, interrupted by denials and explanations from
the accused, testified to having heard Helene say that neither
the Rabot boy nor his mother would recover.
The evidence of M. Roussell, of the Bout-du-Monde hotel, touched
on the illnesses of his mother and Perrotte. He knew nothing of
the food prepared by Helene; nor had the idea of poison occurred
to him until her arrest. Helene's detestable character, her
quarrels with other servants, and, above all, the thefts of wine
he had found her out in were the sole causes of her dismissal.
He had noticed that Helene never ate with the other domestics.
She always found an excuse for not doing so. She said she had
stomach trouble and could not hold down her food.
The Veuve Roussell had to be helped into court by her son. She
dealt with her own illness and with the death of Perrotte. Her
illness did not come on until she had scolded Helene for her bad
Dr Revault, confrere of Guyot, regretted the failure to perform a
post-mortem on the body of Perrotte. He had said to Roussell
that if Perrotte's illness was analogous to cholera it was,
nevertheless, not that disease. He believed it was due to a
The President: ``Chemical analysis has proved the presence of
arsenic in the viscera of Perrotte. Who administered that
arsenic, the existence of which was so shrewdly foreseen by the
witness? Who gave her the arsenic? [To Helene] Do you know?
Was it not you that gave it her, Helene?''
At this Helene murmured something unintelligible, but, gathering
her voice, she protested, ``I have never had arsenic in my hands,
Monsieur le President--never!''
Something of light relief was provided by Jean Andre, the
cabinet-making ostler of Saint-Gilles, he for whose attention
Helene had been a rival with Perrotte Mace.
``The service Helene gave was excellent. So was mine. She
nursed Perrotte perfectly, but said it was in vain, because the
doctors were mishandling the disease. She told me one day that
she was tired of service, and that her one wish was to retire.''
``Did you attach a certain idea to the confidence about
``No!'' Andre replied energetically.
``You were in hospital. When you came back, did Helene take good
care of you?''
``She gave me bouillon every morning to build me up.''
``The bouillon she gave you did you no harm?''
``On the contrary, it did me a lot of good.''
``Wasn't the accused jealous of Perrotte--that good-looking girl
who gave you so much of her favour?''
``In her life Perrotte was a good girl. She never was out of
sorts for a moment--never rubbed one the wrong way.''
``Didn't Helene say to you that Perrotte would never recover?''
``Yes, she said that. `She's a lost woman,' she said; `the
doctors are going the wrong way with the disease.'
``All the same,'' Andre went on, ``Helene never ate with us. She
worked night and day, but ate in secret, I believe. Anyhow, a
friend of mine told me he'd once seen her eating a crust of
bread, and chewing some other sort of food at the same time. As
for me--I don't know; but I don't think you can live without
``I couldn't keep down what I ate,'' Helene interposed. ``I took
some bouillon here and there; sometimes a mouthful of
bread--nothing in secret. I never thought of Andre in
marriage--not him more than another. That was all a joke.''
A number of witnesses, friends of Perrotte, who had seen her
during her illness, spoke of the extreme dislike the girl had
shown for Helene and for the liquids the latter prepared for her.
Perrotte would say to Helene, ``But you're dirty, you ugly
Bretonne!'' Perrotte had a horror of bouillon: ``Ah--these
vegetable soups! I've had enough of them! It was what Helene
gave me that night that made me ill!'' The witnesses did not
understand all this, because the accused seemed to be very good
to her fellow-servant. At the bedside Helene cried, ``Ah! What
can I do that will save you, my poor Perrotte?'' When Perrotte
was dying she wanted to ask Helene's pardon. Embracing the dying
girl, the accused replied, ``Ah! There's no need for that, my
poor Perrotte. I know you didn't mean anything.''
A witness telling of soup Helene had made for Perrotte, which the
girl declared to have been poisoned, it was asked what happened
to the remainder of it. The President passed the question to
Helene, who said she had thrown it into the hearth.
% IV
The most complete and important testimony in the trial was given
by M. Theophile Bidard, professor to the law faculty of Rennes.
The facts he had to bring forward, he said, had taken no
significance in his mind until the last of them transpired. He
would have to go back into the past to trace them in their proper
He recalled the admission of Helene to his domestic staff and the
good recommendations on which he had engaged her. From the first
Helene proved herself to have plenty of intelligence, and he had
believed that her intelligence was combined with goodness of
heart. This was because he had heard that by her work she was
supporting two small children, as well as her poor old mother,
who had no other means of sustenance.
(The reader will recollect that Helene was orphaned at the age of
Nevertheless, said M. Bidard, Helene was not long in his
household before her companion, Rose Tessier, began to suffer in
plenty from the real character of Helene Jegado.
Rose had had a fall, an accident which had left her with pains in
her back. There were no very grave symptoms but Helene
prognosticated dire results. One night, when the witness was
absent in the country, Helene rose from her bed, and, approaching
her fellow-servant's room, called several times in a sepulchral
voice, ``Rose, Rose!'' That poor girl took fright, and hid under
the bedclothes, trembling.
Next day Rose complained to witness, who took his domestics to
task. Helene pretended it was the farm-boy who had perpetrated
the bad joke. She then declared that she herself had heard some
one give a loud knock. ``I thought,'' she said, ``that I was
hearing the call for poor Rose.''
On Sunday, the 3rd of November, 1850, M. Bidard, who had been in
the country, returned to Rennes. After dinner that day, a meal
which she had taken in common with Helene, Rose was seized with
violent sickness. Helene lavished on her the most motherly
attention. She made tea, and sat up the night with the invalid.
In the morning, though she still felt ill, Rose got up. Helene
made tea for her again. Rose once more was sick, violently, and
her sickness endured until the witness himself had administered
copious draughts of tea prepared by himself. Rose passed a
fairly good night, and Dr Pinault, who was called in, saw nothing
more in the sickness than some nervous affection. But on the day
of the 5th the vomitings returned. Helene exclaimed, ``The
doctors do not understand the disease. Rose is going to die!''
The prediction seemed foolish as far as immediate appearances
were concemed, for Rose had an excellent pulse and no trace of
In the night between Tuesday and Wednesday the patient was calm,
but on the morning of Wednesday she had vomitings with intense
stomach pains. From this time on, said the witness, the life of
Rose, which was to last only thirty-six hours, was nothing but a
long-drawn and heart-rending cry of agony. She drew her last
breath on the Thursday evening at half-past five. During her
whole illness, added M. Bidard, Rose was attended by none save
Helene and himself.
Rose's mother came. In Rose the poor woman had lost a beloved
child and her sole support. She was prostrated. Helene's grief
seemed to equal the mother's. Tears were ever in her eyes, and
her voice trembled. Her expressions of regret almost seemed to
be exaggerated.
There was a moment when the witness had his doubts. It was on
the way back from the cemetery. For a fleeting instant he
thought that the shaking of Helene's body was more from glee than
sorrow, and he momentarily accused her in his mind of hypocrisy.
But in the following days Helene did nothing but talk of ``that
poor Rose,'' and M. Bidard, before her persistence, could only
believe he had been mistaken. ``Ah!'' Helene said. ``I loved
her as I did that poor girl who died in the Bout-du-Monde.''
The witness wanted to find some one to take Rose's place. Helene
tried to dissuade him. ``Never mind another femme de chambre,''
she said. ``I will do everything.'' M. Bidard contented himself
with engaging another girl, Francoise Huriaux, strong neither in
intelligence nor will, but nevertheless a sweet little creature.
Not many days passed before Helene began to make the girl
unhappy. ``It's a lazy-bones,'' Helene told the witness. ``She
does not earn her keep.'' (``Le pain qu'elle mange, elle le
vole.'') M. Bidard shut her up. That was his affair, he said.
Francoise meantime conceived a fear of Helene. She was so scared
of the older woman that she obeyed all her orders without
resistance. The witness, going into the kitchen one day, found
Helene eating her soup at one end of the table, while Francoise
dealt with hers at the other extreme. He told Helene that in
future she was to serve the repast in common, on a tablecloth,
and that it was to include dessert from his table. This order
seemed to vex Helene extremely. ``That girl seems to live
without eating,'' she said, ``and she never seems to sleep.''
One day the witness noticed that the hands and face of Francoise
were puffy. He spoke to Helene about it, who became angry. She
accused her companion of getting up in the night to make tea, so
wasting the sugar, and she swore she would lock the sugar up. M.
Bidard told her to do nothing of the sort. He said if Francoise
had need of sugar she was to have it. ``All right--I see,''
Helene replied sullenly, obviously put out.
The swelling M. Bidard had seen in the face and hands of
Francoise attacked her legs, and all service became impossible
for the girl. The witness was obliged to entrust Helene with the
job of finding another chambermaid. It was then that she brought
Rosalie Sarrazin to him. ``A very good girl,'' she said. `` If
her dress is poor it is because she gives everything to her
The words, M. Bidard commented, were said by Helene with
remarkable sincerity. It was said that Helene had no moral
sense. It seemed to him, from her expressions regarding that
poor girl, who, like herself, devoted herself to her mother, that
Helene was far from lacking in that quality.
Engaging Rosalie, the witness said to his new domestic, ``You
will find yourself dealing with a difficult companion. Do not
let her be insolent to you. You must assert yourself from the
start. I do not want Helene to rule you as she ruled
Francoise.'' At the same time he repeated his order regarding
the service of the kitchen meals. Helene manifested a sullen
opposition. ``Who ever heard of tablecloths for the servants?''
she said. ``It is ridiculous!''
In the first days the tenderness between Helene and the new girl
was quite touching. But circumstance arose to end the harmony.
Rosalie could write. On the 23rd of May the witness told Helene
that he would like her to give him an account of expenses. The
request made Helene angry, and increased her spite against the
more educated Rosalie. Helene attempting to order Rosalie about,
the latter laughingly told her, ``M. Bidard pays me to obey him.
If I have to obey you also you'll have to pay me too.'' From
that time Helene conceived an aversion from the girl.
About the time when Helene began to be sour to Rosalie she
herself was seized by vomitings. She complained to Mlle Bidard,
a cousin of the witness, that Rosalie neglected her. But when
the latter went up to her room Helene yelled at her, `` Get out,
you ugly brute! In you I've brought into the house a stick for
my own back!''
This sort of quarrelling went on without ceasing. At the
beginning of June the witness said to Helene, ``If this continues
you'll have to look for another place.'' ``That's it!'' Helene
yelled, in reply. ``Because of that girl I'll have to go!''
On the 10th of June M. Bidard gave Helene definite notice. It
was to take effect on St John's Day. At his evening meal he was
served with a roast and some green peas. These last he did not
touch. In spite of his prohibition against her serving at table,
it was Helene who brought the peas in. ``How's this?'' she said
to him. ``You haven't eaten your green peas--and them so good!''
Saying this, she snatched up the dish and carried it to the
kitchen. Rosalie ate some of the peas. No sooner had she taken
a few spoonfuls, however, than she grew sick, and presently was
seized by vomiting. Helene took no supper. She said she was out
of sorts and wanted none.
The witness did not hear of these facts until next day. He
wanted to see the remainder of the peas, but they could not be
found. Rosalie still kept being sick, and he bade her go and see
his doctor, M. Boudin. Helene, on a sudden amiable to Rosalie
where she had been sulky, offered to go with her. Dr Boudin
prescribed an emetic, which produced good effects.
On the 15th of June Rosalie seemed to have recovered. In the
meantime a cook presented herself at his house to be engaged in
place of Helene. The latter was acquainted with the new-comer.
A vegetable soup had been prescribed for Rosalie, and this Helene
prepared. The convalescent ate some, and at once fell prey to
violent sickness. That same day Helene came in search of the
witness. ``You're never going to dismiss me for that young
girl?'' she demanded angrily. M. Bidard relented. He said that
if she would promise to keep the peace with Rosalie he would let
her stay on. Helene seemed to be satisfied, and behaved better
to Rosalie, who began to mend again.
M. Bidard went into the country on the 21st of June, taking
Rosalie with him. They returned on the 22nd. The witness
himself went to the pharmacy to get a final purgative of Epsom
salts, which had been ordered for Rosalie by the doctor. This
the witness himself divided into three portions, each of which he
dissolved in separate glasses of whey prepared by Helene. The
witness administered the first dose. Helene gave the last. The
invalid vomited it. She was extremely ill on the night of the
22nd-23rd, and Helene returned to misgivings about the skill of
the doctors. She kept repeating, ``Ah! Rosalie will die! I
tell you she will die!'' On the day of the 23rd she openly
railed against them. M. Boudin had prescribed leeches and
blisters. ``Look at that now, monsieur,'' Helene said to the
witness. ``To-morrow's Rosalie's name-day, and they're going to
put leeches on her!'' Rather disturbed, M. Bidard wrote to Dr
Pinault, who came next day and gave the treatment his approval.
Dr Boudin had said the invalid might have gooseberry syrup with
seltzer water. Two glasses of the mixture given to Rosalie by
her mother seemed to do the girl good, but after the third glass
she did not want any more. Helene had given her this third
glass. The invalid said to the witness, ``I don't know what
Helene has put into my drink, but it burns me like red-hot
``Struck by those symptoms,'' added M. Bidard, ``I questioned
Helene at once. It has not been given me more than twice in my
life to see Helene's eyes. I saw at that moment the look she
flung at Rosalie. It was the look of a wild beast, a tiger-cat.
At that moment my impulse was to go to my work-room for a cord,
and to tie her up and drag her to the justiciary. But one
reflection stopped me. What was this I was about to do--disgrace
a woman on a mere suspicion? I hesitated. I did not know
whether I had before me a poisoner or a woman of admirable
The witness enlarged on the tortures of mind he experienced
during the night, but said he found reason to congratulate
himself on not having given way to his first impulse. On the
morning of the 24th Helene came running to him, all happiness, to
say that Rosalie was better.
Three days later Rosalie seemed to be nearly well, so much so
that M. Bidard felt he might safely go into the country. Next
day, however, he was shocked by the news that Rosalie was as ill
as ever. He hastened to return to Rennes.
On the night of the 28th-29th the sickness continued with
intensity. Every two hours the invalid was given calming
medicine prescribed by Dr Boudin. Each time the sickness
redoubled in violence. Believing it was a case of worms, the
witness got out of bed, and substituted for the medicine a strong
infusion of garlic. This stopped the sickness temporarily. At
six in the morning it began again.
The witness then ran to Dr Pinault's, but met the doctor in the
street with his confrere, Dr Guyot. To the two doctors M. Bidard
expressed the opinion that there were either worms in the
intestines or else the case was one of poisoning. ``I have
thought that,'' said Dr Pinault, ``remembering the case of the
other girl.'' The doctors went back with M. Bidard to his house.
Magnesia was administered in a strong dose. The vomiting
stopped. But it was too late.
Until that day the witness's orders that the ejected matter from
the invalid should be conserved had been ignored. The moment a
vessel was dirty Helene took it away and cleaned it. But now the
witness took the vessels himself, and locked them up in a
cupboard for which he alone had the key. His action seemed to
disturb Helene Jegado. From this he judged that she had intended
destroying the poison she had administered.
From that time Rosalie was put into the care of her mother and a
nurse. Helene tried hard to be rid of the two women, accusing
them of tippling to the neglect of the invalid. ``I will sit up
with her,'' she said to the witness. The witness did not want
her to do so, but he could not prevent her joining the mother.
In the meantime Rosalie suffered the most dreadful agonies. She
could neither sit up nor lie down, but threw herself about with
great violence. During this time Helene was constantly coming
and going about her victim. She had not the courage, however, to
watch her victim die. At five in the morning she went out to
market, leaving the mother alone with her child. The poor
mother, worn out with her exertions, also went out, to ask for
help from friends. Rosalie died in the presence of the witness
at seven o'clock in the morning of the 1st of July. Helene
returned. ``It is all over,'' said the witness. Helene's first
move was to look for the vessels containing the ejections of the
invalid to throw them out. These were green in hue. M. Bidard
stopped her, and locked the vessels up. That same day justice
was invoked.
M. Bidard's deposition had held his hearers spellbound for over
an hour and a half. He had believed, he added finally, that, in
spite of her criminal conduct, Helene at least was a faithful
servant. He had been wrong. She had put his cellar to pillage,
and in her chest they had found many things belonging to him,
besides a diamond belonging to his daughter and her wedding-ring.
The President questioned Helene on the points of this important
deposition. Helene simply denied everything. It had not been
she who was jealous of Rosalie, but Rosalie who had been jealous
of her. She had given the two girls all the nursing she could,
with no intention but that of helping them to get better. To the
observation of the President, once again, that arsenic had been
administered, and to his question, what person other than she had
a motive for poisoning the girls, or had such opportunity for
doing so, Helene answered defiantly, ``You won't redden my face
by talking of arsenic. I defy anybody to say they saw me give
The Procureur-General invited M. Bidard to say what amount of
intelligence he had found in Helene. M. Bidard declared that he
had never seen in any of his servants an intelligence so acute or
subtle. He held her to be a phenomenon in hypocrisy. He put
forward a fact which he had neglected to mention in his
deposition. It might throw light on the character of the
accused. Francoise had a dress hanging up to dry in the mansard.
Helene went up to the garret above this, made a hole in the
ceiling, and dropped oil of vitriol on her companion's dress to
burn it.
Dr Pinault gave an account of Rosalie's illness, and spoke of the
suspicions he and his colleagues had had of poisoning. It was a
crime, however, for which there seemed to be no motive. The
poisoner could hardly be M. Bidard, and as far as suspicion might
touch the cook, she seemed to be lavish in her care of the
patient. It was not until the very last that he, with his
colleagues, became convinced of poison.
Rosalie dead, the justiciary went to M. Bidard's. The cupboards
were searched carefully. The potion which Rosalie had thought to
be mixed with burning stuff was still there, just sampled. It
was put into a bottle and capped.
An autopsy could not now be avoided. It was held next day. M.
Pinault gave an account of the results. Most of the organs were
in a normal condition, and such slight alterations as could be
seen in others would not account for death. It was concluded
that death had been occasioned by poison. The autopsy on the
exhumed body of Perrotte Mace was inconclusive, owing to the
condition of adipocere.
Dr Guyot spoke of the case of Francoise Huriaux, and was now sure
she had been given poison in small doses. Dr Boudin described
the progress of Rosalie's illness. He was in no doubt, like his
colleagues, that she had been poisoned.
The depositions of various witnesses followed. A laundress said
that Helene's conduct was to be explained by jealousy. She could
not put up with any supervision, but wanted full control ofthe
household and ofthe money.
Francoise Huriaux said Helene was angry because M. Bidard would
not have her as sole domestic. She had resented Francoise's
being engaged. The witness noticed that she became ill whenever
she ate food prepared for her by Helene. When she did not eat
Helene was angry but threw out the food Francoise refused.
Several witnesses testified to the conduct of Helene towards
Rosalie Sarrazin during her fatal illness. Helene was constant,
self-sacrificing, in her attention to the invalid. One incident,
however, was described by a witness which might indicate that
Helene's solicitude was not altogether genuine. One morning,
towards the end of Rosalie's life, the patient, in her agony,
escaped from the hold of her mother, and fell into an awkward
position against the wall. Rosalie's mother asked Helene to
place a pillow for her. ``Ma foi!'' Helene replied. ``You're
beginning to weary me. You're her mother! Help her yourself!''
The testimony of a neighbour, one Francoise Louarne, a domestic
servant, supports the idea that Helene resented the presence of
Rosalie in the house. Helene said to this witness, ``M. Bidard
has gone into the country with his housemaid. Everything SHE
does is perfect. They leave me here--to work if I want to, eat
my bread dry: that's my reward. But the housemaid will go before
I do. Although M. Bidard has given me my notice, he'll have to
order me out before I'll go. Look!'' Helene added. ``Here's the
bed of the ugly housemaid--in a room not too far from the
master's. Me--they stick me up in the mansard!'' Later, when
Rosalie was very ill, Helene pretended to be grieved. ``You
can't be so very sorry,'' the witness remarked; ``you've said
plenty that was bad about the girl.''
Helene vigorously denounced the testimony as all lies. The woman
had never been near Bidard's house.
The pharmacist responsible for dispensing the medicines given to
Rosalie was able to show that arsenic could not have got into
them by mistake on his part.
At the hearing of the trial on the 12th of December Dr Pinault
was asked to tell what happened when the emissions of Rosalie
Sarrazin were being transferred for analysis.
DR PINAULT. As we were carrying out the operation Helene came
in, and it was plain that she was put out of countenance.
M. BIDARD [interposing]. We were in my daughter's room, where
nobody ever came. When Helene came to the door I was surprised.
There was no explanation for her appearance except that she was
DR PINAULT. She seemed to be disturbed at not finding the
emissions by the bed of the dead girl, and it was no doubt to
find them that she came to the room.
HELENE. I had been given a funnel to wash. I was bringing it
M. BIDARD. Helene, with her usual cleverness, is making the most
of a fact. She had already appeared when she was given the
funnel. Her presence disturbed me. And to get rid of her I
said, ``Here, Helene, take this away and wash it.''
The accused persisted in denying M. Bidard's version of the
% V
M. Malagutti, professor of chemistry to the faculty of sciences
in Rennes, who, with M. Sarzeau, had been asked to make a
chemical analysis of the reserved portions of the bodies of
Rosalie, Perrotte Mace, and Rose Tessier, gave the results of his
and his colleague s investigations. In the case of Rosalie they
had also examined the vomitings. The final test on the portions
of Rosalie's body carried out with hydrochloronitric acid--as
best for the small quantities likely to result in poisoning by
small doses--gave a residue which was submitted to the Marsh
test. The tube showed a definite arsenic ring. Tests on the
vomit gave the same result.
The poisoning of Perrotte Mace had also been accomplished by
small doses. Arsenic was found after the strictest tests, which
obviated all possibility that the substance could have come from
the ground in which the body was interred.
In the case of Rose Tessier the tests yielded a huge amount of
arsenic. Rose had died after an illness of only four days. The
large amount of arsenic indicated a brutal and violent poisoning,
in which the substance could not be excreted in the usual way.
The President then addressed the accused on this evidence. She
alone had watched near all three of the victims, and against all
three she had motives of hate. Poisoning was established beyond
all doubt. Who was the poisoner if not she, Helene Jegado?
Helene: ``Frankly, I have nothing to reproach myself with. I
gave them only what came from the pharmacies on the orders of the
After evidence of Helene's physical condition, by a doctor who
had seen her in prison (she had a scirrhous tumour on her left
breast), the speech for the defence was made.
M. Dorange was very eloquent, but he had a hopeless case. The
defence he put up was that Helene was irresponsible, but the
major part of the advocate's speech was taken up with a
denouncement of capital punishment. It was a barbarous
anachronism, a survival which disgraced civilization.
The President summed up and addressed the jury:
``Cast a final scrutiny, gentlemen of the jury,'' he said, ``at
the matter brought out by these debates. Consult yourselves in
the calm and stillness of your souls. If it is not proved to you
that Helene Jegado is responsible for her actions you will acquit
her. If you think that, without being devoid of free will and
moral sense, she is not, according to the evidence, as well
gifted as the average in humanity, you will give her the benefit
of extenuating circumstance.
``But if you consider her culpable, if you cannot see in her
either debility of spirit or an absence or feebleness of moral
sense, you will do your duty with firmness. You will remember
that for justice to be done chastisement will not alone suffice,
but that punishment must be in proportion to the offence.''
The President then read over his questions for the jury, and that
body retired. After deliberations which occupied an hour and a
half the jury came back with a verdict of guilty on all points.
The Procureur asked for the penalty of death.
THE PRESIDENT. Helene Jegado, have you anything to say upon the
application of the penalty?
HELENE. No, Monsieur le President, I am innocent. I am resigned
to everything. I would rather die innocent than live in guilt.
You have judged me, but God will judge you all. He will see then
. . . Monsieur Bidard. All those false witnesses who have come
here to destroy me . . . they will see. . . .
In a voice charged with emotion the President pronounced the
sentence condemning Helene Jegado to death.
An appeal was put forward on her behalf, but was rejected.
On the scaffold, a few moments before she passed into eternity,
having no witness but the recorder and the executioner, faithful
to the habits of her life, Helene Jegado accused a woman not
named in any of the processes of having urged her to her first
crimes and of being her accomplice. The two officials took no
notice of this indirect confession of her own guilt, and the
sentence was carried out. The Procureur of Rennes, hearing of
this confession, took the trouble to search out the woman named
in it. She turned out to be a very old woman of such a pious and
kindly nature that the people about her talked of her as the
It were superfluous to embark on analysis of the character of
Helene Jegado. Earlier on, in comparing her with Van der Linden
and the Zwanziger woman, I have lessened her caliginosity as
compared with that of the Leyden poisoner, giving her credit for
one less death than her Dutch sister in crime. Having
investigated Helene's activities rather more closely, however, I
find I have made mention of no less than twenty-eight deaths
attributed to Helene, which puts her one up on the Dutchwoman.
The only possible point at which I may have gone astray in my
calculations is in respect of the deaths at Guern. The accounts
I have of Helene's bag there insist on seven, but enumerate only
six--namely, her sister Anna, the cure, his father and mother,
and two more (unnamed) after these. The accounts, nevertheless,
insist more than once that between 1833 and 1841 Helene put away
twenty-three persons. If she managed only six at Guern, that
total should be twenty-two. From 1849 she accounted for Albert
Rabot, the infant Ozanne, Perrotte Mace, Rose Tessier, and
Rosalie Sarrazin--five. We need no chartered accountant to
certify our figures if we make the total twenty-eight. Give her
the benefit of the doubt in the case of Albert Rabot, who was ill
anyhow when Helene joined the household, and she still ties with
Van der Linden with twenty-seven deaths.
There is much concerning Helene Jegado, recorded incidents, that
I might have introduced into my account of her activities, and
that might have emphasized the outstanding feature of her dingy
make-up--that is, her hypocrisy. When Rosalie Sarrazin was
fighting for her life, bewailing the fact that she was dying at
the age of nineteen, Helene Jegado took a crucifix and made the
girl kiss it, saying to her, ``Here is the Saviour Who died for
you! Commend your soul to Him!'' This, with the canting piety
of the various answers which she gave in court (and which, let me
say, I have transcribed with some reluctance), puts Helene Jegado
almost on a level with the sanctimonious Dr Pritchard--perhaps
quite on a level with that nauseating villain.
With her twenty-three murders all done without motive, and the
five others done for spite--with her twenty-eight murders, only
five of which were calculated to bring advantage, and that of the
smallest value--it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Helene
Jegado was mad. In spite, however, of evidence called in her
defence--as, for example, that of Dr Pitois, of Rennes, who was
Helene's own doctor, and who said that ``the woman had a bizarre
character, frequently complaining of stomach pains and
formications in the head''--in spite of this doctor's hints of
monomania in the accused, the jury, with every chance allowed
them to find her irresponsible, still saw nothing in her
extenuation. And very properly, since the law held the extreme
penalty for such as she, Helene went to the scaffold. Her judges
might have taken the sentimental view that she was abnormal,
though not mad in the common acceptation of the word. Appalled
by the secret menace to human life that she had been scared to
think of the ease and the safety in which she had been allowed
over twenty odd years to carry agonizing death to so many of her
kind, and convinced from the inhuman nature of her practices that
she was a lusus naturae, her judges, following sentimental
Anglo-Saxon example, might have given her asylum and let her live
for years at public expense. But possibly they saw no social or
Civic advantage in preserving her, so anti-social as she was.
They are a frugal nation, the French.
% VI
Having made you sup on horror a la Bretonne, or Continental
fashion, I am now to give you a savoury from England. This lest
you imagine that France, or the Continent, has a monopoly in
wholesale poison. Let me introduce you, as promised earlier, to
Mary Ann Cotton aged forty-one, found guilty of and sentenced to
death for the murder of a child, Charles Edward Cotton, by giving
him arsenic.
Rainton, in Durham, was the place where, in 1832 Mary Ann found
mortal existence. At the age of fifteen or sixteen she began to
earn her own living as a nursemaid, an occupation which may
appear to have given her a distaste for infantile society. At
the age of nineteen and at Newcastle she married William Mowbray,
a collier, and went with him to live in Cornwall. Here the
couple remained for some years.
It was a fruitful marriage. Mary bore William five children in
Cornwall, but, unfortunately, four of the children
died--suddenly. With the remaining child the pair moved to
Mary's native county. They had hardly settled down in their new
home when the fifth child also died. It died, curiously enough,
of the ailment which had supposedly carried off the other four
children--gastric fever.
Not long after the death of this daughter the Mowbrays removed to
Hendon, Sunderland, and here a sixth child was born. It proved
to be of as vulnerable a constitution as its brothers and
sisters, for it lasted merely a year. Four months later, while
suffering from an injured foot, which kept him at home, William
Mowbray fell ill, and died with a suddenness comparable to that
which had characterized the deaths of his progeny. His widow
found a job at the local infirmary, and there she met George
Ward. She married Mr Ward, but not for long. In a few months
after the nuptials George Ward followed his predecessor, Mowbray,
from an illness that in symptoms and speed of fatality closely
resembled William's.
We next hear of Mary as housekeeper to a widower named Robinson,
whose wife she soon became. Robinson had five children by his
former wife. They all died in the year that followed his
marriage with Mary Ann, and all of `gastric fever.'
The second Mrs Robinson had two children by this third husband.
Both of these perished within a few weeks of their birth.
Mary Ann's mother fell ill, though not seriously. Mary Ann
volunteered to nurse the old lady. It must now be evident that
Mary Ann was a `carrier' of an obscure sort of intestinal fever,
because soon after her appearance in her mother's place the old
lady died of that complaint.
On her return to her own home, or soon after it, Mary was accused
by her husband of robbing him. She thought it wise to disappear
out of Robinson's life, a deprivation which probably served to
prolong it.
Under her old name of Mowbray, and by means of testimonials which
on later investigation proved spurious, Mary Ann got herself a
housekeeping job with a doctor in practice at Spennymore.
Falling into error regarding what was the doctor's and what was
her own, and her errors being too patent, she was dismissed.
Wallbottle is the scene of Mary Ann's next activities. Here she
made the acquaintance of a married man with a sick wife. His
name was Frederick Cotton. Soon after he had met Mary Ann his
wife died. She died of consumption, with no more trace of
gastric fever than is usual in her disease. But two of Cotton's
children died of intestinal inflammation not long after their
mother, and their aunt, Cotton's sister, who kept house for him,
was not long in her turn to sicken and die in a like manner.
The marriage which Mary Ann brought off with Frederick Cotton at
Newcastle anticipated the birth of a son by a mere three months.
With two of Cotton's children by his former marriage, and with
the infant son, the pair went to live at West Auckland. Here
Cotton died--and the three children--and a lodger by the curious
name of Natrass.
Altogether Mary Ann, in the twenty years during which she had
been moving in Cornwall and about the northeastern counties, had,
as it ultimately transpired, done away with twenty-four persons.
Nine of these were the fruit of her own loins. One of them was
the mother who gave her birth. Retribution fell upon her through
her twenty-fourth victim, Charles Edward Cotton, her infant
child. His death created suspicion. The child, it was shown,
was an obstacle to the marriage which she was already
contemplating--her fifth marriage, and, most likely, bigamous at
that. The doctor who had attended the child refused a death
certificate. In post-mortem examination arsenic was found in the
child's body. Cotton was arrested.
She was brought to trial in the early part of 1873 at Durham
Assizes. As said already, she was found guilty and sentenced to
death, the sentence being executed upon her in Durham Gaol in
March of that year. Before she died she made the following
remarkable statement: ``I have been a poisoner, but not
It is believed that she secured the poison from a vermicide in
which arsenic was mixed with soft soap. One finds it hard to
believe that she extracted the arsenic from the preparation (as
she must have done before administering it, or otherwise it must
have been its own emetic) unintentionally.
What advantage Mary Ann Cotton derived from her poisonings can
have been but small, almost as small as that gained by Helene
Jegado. Was it for social advancement that she murdered husbands
and children? Was she a `climber' in that sphere of society in
which she moved? One hesitates to think that passion swayed her
in being rid of the infant obstacle to the fifth marriage of her
contemplation. With her ``all o'er-teeming loins,'' this woman,
Hecuba in no other particular, must have been a very sow were
this her motive.
But I have come almost by accident on the word I need to compare
Mary Ann Cotton with Jegado. The Bretonne, creeping about her
native province leaving death in her track, with her piety, her
hypocrisy, her enjoyment of her own cruelty, is sinister and
repellent. But Mary Ann, moving from mate to mate and farrowing
from each, then savaging both them and the litter, has a musty
sowishness that the Bretonne misses. Both foul, yes. But we
needn't, we islanders, do any Jingo business in setting Mary Ann
against Helene.
Twenty years separate the cases of these two women, the length of
France lies between the scenes in which they are placed: Mme
Boursier, Paris, 1823; Mme Lacoste, Riguepeu, a small town in
Gascony, 1844. I tie their cases together for reasons which
cannot be apparent until both their stories are told--and which
may not be so apparent even then. That is not to say I claim
those reasons to be profound, recondite, or settled in the deeps
of psychology. The matter is, I would not have you believe that
I join their cases because of similarities that are superficial.
My hope is that you will find, as I do, a linking which, while
neither profound nor superficial, is curious at least. As I
cannot see that the one case transcends the other in drama or
interest, I take them chronologically, and begin with the Veuve
At the corner of Rue de la Paix and Rue Neuve Saint-Augustine in
1823 there stood a boutique d'epiceries. It was a flourishing
establishment, typical of the Paris of that time, and its
proprietors were people of decent standing among their
neighbours. More than the prosperous condition of their
business, which was said to yield a profit of over 11,000 francs
per annum, it was the happy and cheerful relationship existing
between les epoux Boursier that made them of such good
consideration in the district. The pair had been married for
thirteen years, and their union had been blessed by five
Boursier, a middle-aged man of average height, but very stout of
build and asthmatically short of neck, was recognized as a keen
trader. He did most of his trading away from the house in the
Rue de la Paix, and paid frequent visits, sometimes entire months
in duration, to Le Havre and Bordeaux. It is nowhere suggested
that those visits were made on any occasion other than that
of business. M. Boursier spent his days away from the house, and
his evenings with friends.
It does not anywhere appear that Mme Boursier objected to her
husband's absenteeism. She was a capable woman, rather younger
than her husband, and of somewhat better birth and education.
She seems to have been content with, if she did not exclusively
enjoy, having full charge of the business in the shop. Dark,
white of tooth, not particularly pretty, this woman of thirty-six
was, for her size, almost as stout as her husband. It is said
that her manner was a trifle imperious, but that no doubt
resulted from knowledge of her own capability, proved by the
successful way in which she handled her business and family
The household, apart from Mme and M. Boursier, and counting those
employed in the epicerie, consisted of the five children, Mme
Boursier's aunt (the Veuve Flamand), two porters (Delonges and
Beranger), Mlle Reine (the clerk), Halbout (the book-keeper), and
the cook (Josephine Blin).
On the morning of the 28th of June, which would be a Sunday,
Boursier was called by the cook to take his usual dejeuner,
consisting of chicken broth with rice. He did not like the taste
of it, but ate it. Within a little time he was violently sick,
and became so ill that he had to go to bed. The doctor, who was
called almost immediately, saw no cause for alarm, but prescribed
mild remedies. As the day went on, however, the sickness
increased in violence. Dr Bordot became anxious when he saw the
patient again in the evening. He applied leeches and mustard
poultices. Those ministrations failing to alleviate the
sufferings ofthe invalid, Dr Bordot brought a colleague into
consultation, but neither the new-comer, Dr Partra, nor
himself could be positive in diagnosis. Something gastric, it
was evident. They did what they could, though working, as it
were, in the dark.
The patient was no better next day. As night came on he was
worse than ever. A medical student named Toupie was enlisted as
nurse and watcher, and sat with the sufferer through the
night--but to no purpose. At four o'clock in the morning of the
Tuesday, the 30th, there came a crisis in the illness of
Boursier, and he died.
The grief exhibited by Mme Boursier, so suddenly widowed, was
just what might have been expected in the circumstances from a
woman of her station. She had lost a good-humoured companion,
the father of her five children, and the man whose genius in
trading had done so much to support her own activities for their
mutual profit. The Veuve Boursier grieved in adequate fashion
for the loss of her husband, but, being a capable woman and
responsible for the direction of affairs, did not allow her grief
to overwhelm her. The dead epicier was buried without much
delay--the weather was hot, and he had been of gross habit--and
the business at the corner of Rue de la Paix went on as near to
usual as the loss of the `outside' partner would allow.
Rumour, meantime, had got to work. There were circumstances
about the sudden death of Boursier which the busybodies of the
environs felt they might regard as suspicious. For some time
before the death of the epicier there had been hanging about the
establishment a Greek called Kostolo. He was a manservant out of
employ, and not, even on the surface, quite the sort of fellow
that a respectable couple like the Boursiers might be expected to
accept as a family friend. But such, no less, had been the
Greek's position with the household. So much so that, although
Kostolo had no money and apparently no prospects, Boursier
himself had asked him to be godfather to a niece. The epicier
found the Greek amusing, and, on falling so suddenly ill, made no
objection when Kostolo took it on himself to act as nurse, and to
help in the preparing of drinks and medicines that were prescribed.
It is perhaps to the rather loud-mouthed habits of this Kostolo
that the birth of suspicion among the neighbours may be
attributed. On the death of Boursier he had remarked that the
nails of the corpse were blue a colour, he said, which was almost
a certain indication of poisoning. Now, the two doctors who had
attended Boursier, having failed to account for his illness, were
inclined to suspect poisoning as the cause of his death. For
this reason they had suggested an autopsy, a suggestion rejected
by the widow. Her rejection of the idea aroused no immediate
suspicion of her in the minds of the doctors.
Kostolo, in addition to repeating outside the house his opinion
regarding the blueness of the dead Boursier's nails, began,
several days after the funeral, to brag to neighbours and friends
of the warm relationship existing between himself and the widow.
He dropped hints of a projected marriage. Upon this the
neighbours took to remembering how quickly Kostolo's friendship
with the Boursier family had sprung up, and how frequently he had
visited the establishment. His nursing activities were
remembered also. And it was noticed that his visits to the
Boursier house still went on; it was whispered that he visited
the Veuve Boursier in her bedroom.
The circumstances in which Boursier had fallen ill were well
known. Nobody, least of all Mme Boursier or Kostolo, had taken
any trouble to conceal them. Anybody who liked to ask either Mme
Boursier or the Greek about the soup could have a detailed story
at once. All the neighbourhood knew it. And since the Veuve
Boursier's story is substantially the same as other versions it may
as well be dealt with here and now.
M. Boursier, said his widow, tasted his soup that Sunday morning.
``What a taste!'' he said to the cook, Josephine. ``This rice is
poisoned.'' ``But, monsieur,'' Josephine protested, ``that's
amazing! The potage ought to be better than usual this morning,
because I made a liaison for it with three egg-yolks!''
M. Boursier called his wife, and told her he couldn't eat his
potage au riz. It was poisoned. Mme Boursier took a spoonful of
it herself, she said, and saw nothing the matter with it.
Whereupon her husband, saying that if it was all right he ought
to eat it, took several spoonfuls more.
``The poor man,'' said his widow, ``always had a bad taste in his
mouth, and he could not face his soup.'' Then, she explained, he
became very sick, and brought up what little of the soup he had
taken, together with flots de bile.
All this chatter of poison, particularly by Kostolo and the
widow, together with the persistent rumours of an adulterous
association between the pair, gave colour to suspicions of a
criminal complicity, and these in process of time came to the
ears of the officers of justice. The two doctors were summoned
by the Procureur-General, who questioned them closely regarding
Boursier's illness. To the mind of the official everything
pointed to suspicion of the widow. Word of the growing suspicion
against her reached Mme Boursier, and she now hastened to ask the
magistrates for an exhumation and a post-mortem examination.
This did not avert proceedings by the Procureur. It was already
known that she had refused the autopsy suggested by the two
doctors, and it was stated that she had hurried on the burial.
Kostolo and the Widow Boursier were called before the Juge
% II
There is about the Greek Kostolo so much gaudy impudence and
barefaced roguery that, in spite of the fact that the main
concern of these pages is with women, I am constrained to add his
portrait to the sketches I have made in illustration. He is of
the gallery in which are Jingle and Montague Tigg, with this
difference--that he is rather more sordid than either.
Brought before the Procureur du Roi, he impudently confessed that
he had been, and still was, Mme Boursier's lover. He told the
judge that in the lifetime of her husband Mme Boursier had
visited him in his rooms several times, and that she had given
him money unknown to her husband.
Mme Boursier at first denied the adulterous intimacy with
Kostolo, but the evidence in the hands of the Procureur was too
much for her. She had partially to confess the truth of
Kostolo's statement in this regard. She emphatically denied,
however, that she had ever even thought of, let alone agreed to,
marriage with the Greek. She swore that she had been intimate
with Kostolo only once, and that, as far as giving him money was
concerned, she had advanced him but one small sum on his IOU.
These confessions, together with the information which had come
to him from other investigations, served to increase the feeling
of the Procureur that Boursier's death called for probing. He
issued an exhumation order, and on the 31st of July an autopsy on
the body of Boursier was carried out by MM. Orfila and Gardy,
doctors and professors of the Paris faculty of medicine. Their
finding was that no trace existed of any disorders to which the
death of Boursier might be attributed--such, for example, as
cerebral congestion, rupture of the heart or of a larger
vessel--but that, on the other hand, they had come upon a
sufficiency of arsenic in the intestines to have caused death.
On the 2nd of August the same two professors, aided by a third,
M. Barruel, carried out a further examination of the body. Their
testimony is highly technical. It is also rather revolting. I
am conscious that, dealing, as I have had to, with so much
arsenical poisoning (the favourite weapon of the woman murderer),
a gastric odour has been unavoidable in many of my pages--perhaps
too many. For that reason I shall refrain from quoting either in
the original French or in translation more than a small part of
the professors' report. I shall, however, make a lay shot on the
evidence it supplies. Boursier's interior generally was in foul
condition, which is not to be explained by any ingestion of
arsenic, but which suggests chronic and morbid pituitousness.
The marvel is that the man's digestion functioned at all. This
insanitary condition, however, was taken by the professors, as it
were, in their stride. They concentrated on some slight traces
of intestinal inflammation.
`` One observed,'' their report went on,
about the end of the ileum some grains of a whitish appearance
and rather stubbornly attached. These grains, being removed,
showed all the characteristics of white arsenic oxide. Put upon
glowing charcoal they volatilized, giving off white smoke and a
garlic odour. Treated with water, they dissolved, and the
solution, when brought into contact with liquid hydrosulphuric
acid, precipitated yellow sulphur of arsenic, particularly when
one heated it and added a few drops of hydrochloric acid.
These facts (including, I suppose, the conditions I have hinted
at) allowed them to conclude (a) that the stomach showed
traces of inflammation, and (b) that the intestinal canal yielded
a quantity of arsenic oxide sufficient to have produced that
inflammation and to have caused death.
The question now was forward as to where the arsenic found in the
body had come from. Inquiry established the fact that on the
15th of May, 1823--that is to say, several weeks before his
death--Boursier had bought half a pound of arsenic for the
purpose of destroying the rats in his shop cellars. In addition,
he had bought prepared rat-poison. Only a part of those
substances had been used. The remaining portions could not be
found about the shop, nor could Mme Boursier make any suggestions
for helping the search. She declared she had never seen any
arsenic about the house at all.
There was, however, sufficient gravity in the evidences on hand
to justify a definite indictment of Mme Boursier and Nicolas
Kostolo, the first of having poisoned her husband, and the second
of being accessory to the deed.
The pair were brought to trial on the 27th of November, 1823,
before the Seine Assize Court, M. Hardouin presiding. The
prosecution was conducted by the AvocatGeneral, M. de Broe.
Maitre Couture defended Mme Boursier. Maitre Theo. Perrin
appeared for Kostolo.
The case created great excitement, not only in Paris, but
throughout the country. Another poisoning case had not long
before this occupied the minds of the public very greatly--that
of the hypocritical Castaing for the murder of Auguste Ballet.
Indeed, there had been a lot of poisoning going on in French
society about this period. Political and religious controversy,
moreover, was rife. The populace were in a mood either to praise
extravagantly or just as extravagantly to condemn. It happened
that rumour convinced them of the guilt of the Veuve Boursier
and Kostolo, and the couple were condemned in advance. Such
was the popular spite against Mme Boursier and Kostolo that, it
is said, Maitre Couture at first refused the brief for the
widow's defence. He had already made a success of his defence of
a Mme Lavaillaut, accused of poisoning, and was much in demand in
cases where women sought judicial separation from their husbands.
People were calling him ``Providence for women.'' He did not
want to be nicknamed ``Providence for poisoners.'' But Mme
Boursier's case being more clearly presented to him he took up
the brief.
The accused were brought into court.
Kostolo was about thirty years of age. He was tall, distinctly
good-looking in an exotic sort of way, with his dark hair,
complexion, and flashing eyes. He carried himself grandly, and
was elegandy clad in a frac noir. Not quite, as Army men were
supposed once to say, ``the clean potato, it was easy enough to
see that women of a kind would be his ready victims. It was
plain, in the court, that Master Nicolas thought himself the hero
of the occasion.
There was none of this flamboyance about the Widow Boursier. She
was dressed in complete mourning, and covered her face with a
handkerchief. It was manifest that, in the phrase of the crime
reporters, ``she felt her position keenly.'' The usual questions
as to her name and condition she answered almost inaudibly, her
voice choked with sobs.
Kostolo, on the contrary, replied in organ tones. He said that
he was born in Constantinople, and that he had no estate.
The acte d'accusation was read. It set forth the facts of the
adulterous association of the two accused, of the money lent by
Mme Boursier to Kostolo, of their meetings, and all the
suspicious circumstances previous to the death of the epicier.
The cook-girl, Josephine Blin, had prepared the potage au riz in
the kitchen, using the small iron pan that it was her wont to
employ. Having made the soup, she conveyed it in its terrine to
a small secretaire in the dining-room. This secretaire stood
within the stretch of an arm from the door of the comptoir in
which Mme Boursier usually worked. According to custom,
Josephine had divided the potage in two portions--one for
Boursier and the other for the youngest child. The youngster and
she had eaten the second portion between them, and neither had
experienced any ill-effects.
Josephine told her master that the soup was ready. He came at
her call, but did not eat the soup at once, being otherwise
occupied. The soup stood on the secretaire for about fifteen
minutes before Boursier started to eat it.
According to the accused, the accusation went on, after
Boursier's death the two doctors asked that they might be allowed
to perform an autopsy, since they were at a loss to explain the
sudden illness. This Mme Boursier refused, in spite of the
insistence of the doctors. She refused, she said, in the
interest of her children. She insisted, indeed, on a quick
burial, maintaining that, as her husband had been tres replet,
the body would rapidly putrefy, owing to the prevailing heat, and
that thus harm would be done to the delicate contents of the
Led by rumours of the bluish stains--almost certain indications
of a violent death--the authorities, said the accusation, ordered
an exhumation and autopsy. Arsenic was found in the body. It
was clear that Boursier, ignorant, as he was, of his wife's bad
conduct, had not killed himself. This was a point that the widow
had vainly attempted, during the process of instruction, to
maintain. She declared that one Clap, a friend of her late
husband, had come to her one day to say that a certain Charles, a
manservant, had remarked to him, ``Boursier poisoned himself
because he was tired of living.'' Called before the Juge
d'instruction, Henri Clap and Charles had concurred in denying
The accusation maintained that the whole attitude of Mme Boursier
proved her a poisoner. As soon as her husband became sick she
had taken the dish containing the remains of the rice soup,
emptied it into a dirty vessel, and passed water through the
dish. Then she had ordered Blin to clean it, which the latter
did, scrubbing it out with sand and ashes.
Questioned about arsenic in the house, Mme Boursier said, to
begin with, that Boursier had never spoken to her about arsenic,
but later admitted that her husband had mentioned both arsenic
and mort aux rats to her.
Asked regarding the people who frequented the house she had
mentioned all the friends of Boursier, but neglected to speak of
Kostolo. Later she had said she never had been intimate with the
Greek. But Kostolo, `` barefaced enough for anything,'' had
openly declared the nature of his relations with her. Then Mme
Boursier, after maintaining that she had been no more than
interested in Kostolo, finding pleasure in his company, had been
constrained to confess that she had misconducted herself with the
Greek in the dead man's room. She had given Kostolo the run of
her purse, the accusation declared, though she denied the fact,
insisting that what she had given him had been against his note.
There was only one conclusion, however. Mme Boursier, knowing
the poverty of her paramour, had paid him as her cicisbeo,
squandering upon him her children's patrimony.
The accusation then dealt with the supposed project of marriage,
and declared that in it there was sufficient motive for the
crime. Kostolo was Mme Boursier's accomplice beyond any doubt.
He had acted as nurse to the invalid, administering drinks and
medicines to him. He had had full opportunity for poisoning the
grocer. Penniless, out of work, it would be a good thing for him
if Boursier was eliminated. He had been blatant in his visits to
Mme Boursier after the death of the husband.
Then followed the first questioning of the accused.
Mme Boursier said she had kept tryst with Kostolo in the
Champs-Elysees. She admitted having been to his lodgings once.
On the mention of the name of Mlle Riene, a mistress of
Kostolo's, she said that the woman was partly in their
confidence. She had gone with Mlle Riene twice to Kostolo's
rooms. Once, she admitted, she had paid a visit to Versailles
with Kostolo unknown to her husband.
Asked if her husband had had any enemies, Mme Boursier said she
knew of none.
The questioning of Kostolo drew from him the admission that he
had had a number of mistresses all at one time. He made no bones
about his relations with them, nor about his relations with Mme
Boursier. He was quite blatant about it, and seemed to enjoy the
show he was putting up. Having airily answered a question in a
way that left him without any reputation, he would sweep the
court with his eyes, preening himself like a peacock.
He was asked about a journey Boursier had proposed making. At
what time had Boursier intended making the trip?
``Before his death,'' Kostolo replied.
The answer was unintentionally funny, but the Greek took credit
for the amusement it created in court. He conceived himself
a humorist, and the fact coloured all his subsequent answers.
Kostolo said that he had called to see Boursier on the first day
of his illness at three in the afternoon. He himself had
insisted on helping to nurse the invalid. Mme Boursier had
brought water, and he had given it to the sick man.
After Boursier's death he had remarked on the blueness of the
fingernails. It was a condition he had seen before in his own
country, on the body of a prince who had died of poison, and the
symptoms of whose illness had been very like those in Boursier's.
He had then suspected that Boursier had died of poisoning.
The loud murmurs that arose in court upon his blunt confession of
having misconducted himself with Mme Boursier fifteen days after
her husband's death seemed to evoke nothing but surprise in
Kostolo. He was then asked if he had proposed marriage to Mme
Boursier after Boursier's death.
``What!'' he exclaimed, with a grin. ``Ask a woman with five
children to marry me--a woman I don't love?''
Upon this answer Kostolo was taken to task by the President of
the court. M. Hardouin pointed out that Kostolo lived with a
woman who kept and fed him, giving him money, but that at the
same time he was taking money from Mme Boursier as her lover,
protesting the while that he loved her. What could the Greek say
in justification of such conduct?
``Excuse me, please, everybody,'' Kostolo replied, unabashed.
``I don't know quite how to express myself, but surely what I
have done is quite the common thing? I had no means of living
but from what Mme Boursier gave me.''
The murmurs evoked by the reply Kostolo treated with lofty
disdain. He seemed to find his audience somewhat prudish.
To further questioning he answered that he had never proposed
marriage to the Veuve Boursier. Possibly something might have
been said in fun. He knew, of course, that the late Boursier had
made a lot of money.
The cook, Josephine Blin, was called. At one time she had been
suspect. Her version of the potage incidents, though generally
in agreement with that of the accused widow, differed from it in
two essential points. When she took Boursier's soup into the
dining-room, she said, Mme Boursier was in the comptoir, three or
four paces away from the desk on which she put the terrine. This
Mme Boursier denied. She said she had been in the same comptoir
as her husband. Josephine declared that Mme Boursier had ordered
her to clean the soup-dish out with sand, but her mistress
maintained she had bade the girl do no more than clean it. For
the rest, Josephine thought about fifteen minutes elapsed before
Boursier came to take the soup. During that time she had seen
Mme Boursier writing and making up accounts.
Toupie, the medical student, said he had nursed Boursier during
the previous year. Boursier was then suffering much in the same
way as he had appeared to suffer during his fatal illness. He
had heard Mme Boursier consulting with friends about an autopsy,
and her refusal had been on their advice.
The doctors called were far from agreeing on the value of the
experiments they had made. Orfila, afterwards to intervene in
the much more universally notorious case of Mme Lafarge, stuck to
his opinion of death by arsenic. If his evidence in the Lafarge
case is read it will be seen that in the twenty years that had
passed from the Boursier trial his notions regarding the proper
routine of analysis for arsenic in a supposedly poisoned body had
undergone quite a change. But by then the Marsh technique had
been evolved. Here, however, he based his opinion on experiments
properly described as ``very equivocal;'' and stuck to it. He
was supported by a colleague named Lesieur.
M. Gardy said he had observed that the greater part of the grains
about the ileum, noted on the 1st of August, had disappeared next
day. The analysis had been made with quantities too small. He
now doubted greatly if the substance taken to be arsenic oxide
would account for death.
M. Barruel declared that from the glareous matter removed from
the body only a grain of the supposed arsenic had been extracted,
and that with difficulty. He had put the substance on glowing
charcoal, but, in his opinion, the experiment was VERY EQUIVOCAL.
It was at first believed that there was a big amount of arsenic,
but he felt impelled to say that the substance noted was nothing
other than small clusters of fat. The witness now refused to
conclude, as he had concluded on the 1st of August, that enough
poison had been in the body to cause death.
It would almost seem that the medical evidence should have been
enough to destroy the case for the prosecution, but other
witnesses were called.
Bailli, at one time a clerk to Boursier, said he had helped his
patron to distribute arsenic and rat-poison in the shop cellars.
He was well aware that the whole of the poison had not been used,
but in the course of his interrogation he had failed to remember
where the residue of the poisons had been put. He now
recollected. The unused portion of the arsenic had been put in a
niche of a bottle-rack.
In view of evidence given by a subsequent witness Bailli's rather
sudden recovery of memory might have been thought odd if a friend
of his had not been able to corroborate his statement. The
friend was one Rousselot, another grocer. He testified that he
and Bailli had searched together. Bailli had then cudgelled that
dull ass, his brain, to some effect, for they had ultimately come
upon the residue of the arsenic bought by Boursier lying with the
remainder of the mort aux rats. Both the poisons had been placed
at the bottom of a bottle-rack, and a plank had been nailed over
Rousselot, asked why he had not mentioned this fact before,
answered stupidly, ``I thought you knew it!''
The subsequent witness above referred to was an employee in the
Ministere du Roi, a man named Donzelle. In a stammering and
rather confused fashion he attempted to explain that the
vacillations of the witness Bailli had aroused his suspicions.
He said that Bailli, who at first had been vociferous in his
condemnation of the Widow Boursier, had later been rather more
vociferous in her defence. The witness (Donzelle) had it from a
third party that Mme Boursier's sister-in-law had corrupted other
witnesses with gifts of money. Bailli, for example, could have
been seen carrying bags of ecus under his arm, coming out of the
house of the advocate briefed to defend Mme Boursier.
Bailli, recalled, offered to prove that if he had been to Maitre
Couture's house he had come out of it in the same fashion as he
had gone in--that was, with a bag of bay salt under each arm.
Maitre Couture, highly indignant, rose to protest against the
insinuation of the witness Donzelle, but the President of the
court and the Avocat-General hastened to say that the eminent and
honourable advocate was at no need to justify himself. The
President sternly reprimanded Donzelle and sent him back to his
The Avocat-General, M. de Broe, stated the case for the
prosecution. He made, as probably was his duty, as much as he
could of the arsenic said to have been found in the body (that
precipitated as yellow sulphur of arsenic), and of the adultery
of Mme Boursier with Kostolo. He dwelt on the cleaning of the
soup-dish, and pointed out that while the soup stood on the desk
Mme Boursier had been here and there near it, never out of arm's
reach. In regard to Kostolo, the Greek was a low scallywag, but
not culpable.
The prosecution, you observe, rested on the poison's being
administered in the soup.
In his speech for the defence the eloquent Maitre Couture began
by condemning the gossip and the popular rumour on which the case
had been begun. He denounced the action of the magistrates in
instituting proceedings as deplorably unconsidered and hasty.
Mme Boursier, he pointed out, had everything to lose through the
loss of her husband. Why should she murder a fine merchant like
Boursier for a doubtful quantity like Kostolo? He spoke of the
happy relationship that had existed between husband and wife,
and, in proof of their kindness for each other, told of a comedy
interlude which had taken place on the Sunday morning.
Boursier, he said, had to get up before his wife that morning,
rising at six o'clock. His rising did not wake his wife, and,
perhaps humorously resenting her lazy torpor, he found a piece of
charcoal and decorated her countenance with a black moustache.
It was true that Mme Boursier showed some petulance over her
husband's prank when she got down at eight o'clock, but her
ill-humour did not last long. Her husband caressed and petted
her, and before long the wife joined her merry-minded husband in
laughing over the joke against her. That, said Maitre Couture,
that mutual laughter and kindness, seemed a strange preliminary
to the supposed poisoning episode of two hours or so later.
The truth of the matter was that Boursier carried the germ of
death in his own body. What enemy had he made? What vengeance
had he incurred? Maitre Couture reminded the jury of Boursier's
poor physical condition, of his stoutness, of the shortness of
his neck. He brought forward Toupie's evidence of Boursier's
illness of the previous year, alike in symptoms and in the
sufferings of the invalid to that which proved fatal on Tuesday
the 30th of June. Then Maitre Couture proceeded to tear the
medical evidence to pieces, and returned to the point that Mme
Boursier had been sleeping so profoundly, so serenely, on the
morning of her supposed contemplated murder that the prank played
on her by her intended victim had not disturbed her.
The President's address then followed. The jury retired, and
returned with a verdict of ``Not guilty.''
On this M. Hardouin discharged the accused, improving the
occasion with a homily which, considering the ordeal that Mme
Boursier had had to endure through so many months, and that might
have been considered punishment enough, may be quoted merely as a
fine specimen of salting the wound:
``Veuve Boursier,'' said he, ``you are about to recover that
liberty which suspicions of the gravest nature have caused you to
lose. The jury declares you not guilty of the crime imputed to
you. It is to be hoped that you will find a like absolution in
the court of your own conscience. But do not ever forget that
the cause of your unhappiness and of the dishonour which, it may
be, covers your name was the disorder of your ways and the
violation of the most sacred obligations. It is to be hoped that
your conduct to come may efface the shame of your conduct in the
past, and that repentance may restore the honour you have lost.''
% IV
Now we come, as the gentleman with the crimson handkerchief coyly
showing between dress waistcoat and shirt might have said, waving
his pointer as the canvas of the diorama rumbled on its rollers,
to Riguepeu!
Some twenty years have elapsed since the Veuve Boursier stumbled
from the stand of the accused in the Assize Court of the Seine,
acquitted of the poisoning of her grocer husband, but convicted
of a moral flaw which may (or may not) have rather diminished
thereafter the turnover of the epicerie in the Rue de la Paix.
One hopes that her punishment finished with her acquittal, and
that the mood of the mob, as apt as a flying straw to veer for a
zephyr as for a whirlwind, swung to her favour from mere
revulsion on her escape from the scaffold. The one thing is as
likely as the other. Didn't the heavy man of the fit-up show,
eighteen months after his conviction for rape (the lapse of time
being occupied in paying the penalty), return as an actor to the
scene of his delinquency to find himself, not, as he expected,
pelted with dead cats and decaying vegetables, but cheered to the
echo? So may it have been with the Veuve Boursier.
Though in 1844, the year in which the poison trial at Auch was
opened, four years had passed since the conviction of Mme Lafarge
at Tulle, controversy on the latter case still was rife
throughout France. The two cases were linked, not only in the
minds of the lay public, but through close analogy in the idea of
lawyers and experts in medical jurisprudence. From her
prison cell Marie Lafarge watched the progress of the trial in
Gascony. And when its result was published one may be sure she
shed a tear or two.
But to Riguepeu . . .
You will not find it on anything but the biggest-scale maps. It
is an inconsiderable town a few miles from Vic-Fezensac, a town
not much bigger than itself and some twenty kilometres from Auch,
which is the capital of the department of Gers. You may take it
that Riguepeu lies in the heart of the Armagnac district.
Some little distance from Riguepeu itself, on the top of a rise,
stood the Chateau Philibert, a one-floored house with red tiles
and green shutters. Not much of a chateau, it was also called
locally La Maison de Madame. It belonged in 1843 to Henri
Lacoste, together with considerable land about it. It was
reckoned that Lacoste, with the land and other belongings, was
worth anything between 600,000 and 700,000 francs.
Henri had become rich late in life. The house and the domain had
been left him by his brother Philibert, and another brother's
death had also been of some benefit to him. Becoming rich, Henri
Lacoste thought it his duty to marry, and in 1839, though already
sixty-six years of age, picked on a girl young enough to have
been his granddaughter.
Euphemie Verges was, in fact, his grand-niece. She lived with
her parents at Mazeyrolles, a small village in the foothills of
the Pyrenees. Compared with Lacoste, the Verges were said to be
poor. Lacoste took it on himself to look after the girl's
education, having her sent at his charges to.a convent at Tarbes.
In 1841, on the 2nd of May, the marriage took place.
If this marriage of youth with crabbed age resulted in any
unhappiness the neighbours saw little of it. Though it was
rumoured that for her old and rich husband Euphemie had given up
a young man of her fancy in Tarbes, her conduct during the two
years she lived with Lacoste seemed to be irreproachable.
Lacoste was rather a nasty old fellow from all accounts. He was
niggardly, coarse, and a womanizer. Euphemie's position in the
house was little better than that of head domestic servant, but
in this her lot was the common one for wives of her station in
this part of France. She appeared to be contented enough with
About two years after the marriage, on the 16th of May, 1843, to
be exact, after a trip with his wife to the fair at Riguepeu, old
Lacoste was taken suddenly ill, ultimately becoming violently
sick. Eight days later he died.
By a will which Henri had made two months after his marriage his
wife was his sole beneficiary, and this will was no sooner proved
than the widow betook herself to Tarbes, where she speedily began
to make full use of her fortune. Milliners and dressmakers were
called into service, and the widow blossomed forth as a lady of
fashion. She next set up her own carriage. If these proceedings
had not been enough to excite envy among her female neighbours
the frequent visits paid to her in her genteel apartments by a
young man did the trick. The young man came on the scene less
than two months after the death of the old man. It was said that
his visits to the widow were prolonged until midnight. Scandal
resulted, and out of the scandal rumour regarding the death of
Henri Lacoste. It began to be said that the old man had died of
It was in December, six months after the death of Lacoste, that
the rumours came to the ears of the magistrates. Nor was there
lack of anonymous letters. It was the Widow Lacoste herself,
however, who demanded an exhumation and autopsy on the body of her
late husband--this as a preliminary to suing her traducers. Note,
in passing, how her action matches that of Veuve Boursier.
On the orders of the Juge d'instruction an autopsy was begun on
the 18th of December. The body of Lacoste was exhumed, the
internal organs were extracted, and these, with portions of the
muscular tissue, were submitted to analysis by a doctor of Auch,
M. Bouton, and two chemists of the same city, MM. Lidange and
Pons, who at the same time examined samples of the soil in which
the body had been interred. The finding was that the body of
Lacoste contained some arsenical preparation.
The matter now appearing to be grave, additional scientific
assurance was sought. Three of the most distinguished chemists
in Paris were called into service for a further analysis. They
were MM. Devergie, Pelouze, and Flandin. Their report ran in
The portion of the liver on which we have experimented proved to
contain a notable quantity of arsenic, amounting to more than
five milligrammes; the portions of the intestines and tissue
examined also contained appreciable traces which, though in
smaller proportion than contained by the liver, accord with the
known features of arsenical poisoning. There is no appearance of
the toxic element in the earth taken from the grave or in the
material of the coffin.
As soon as Mme Lacoste was apprised of the findings of the
autopsy she got into her carriage and was driven to Auch, where
she visited a friend of her late husband and of herself. To him
she announced her intention of surrendering herself to the
Procureur du Roi. The friend strongly advised her against
doing any such thing, advice which Mme Lacoste accepted with
On the 5th of January a summons to appear was issued for Mme
Lacoste. She was seen that day in Auch, walking the streets on
the arm of a friend. She even went to the post-office, but the
police agents failed to find her. She stopped the night in the
town. Next day she was at Riguepeu. She was getting out of her
carriage when a servant pointed out gendarmes coming up the hill
with the Mayor. When those officials arrived Euphemie was well
away. Search was made through the house and outbuildings, but
without result. ``Don't bother yourself looking any further,
Monsieur le Maire,'' said one of the servants. ``The mistress
isn't far away, but she's in a place where I could hide a couple
of oxen without you finding them.
From then on Mme Lacoste was hunted for everywhere. The roads to
Tarbes, Toulouse, and Vic-Fezensac were patrolled by brigades of
gendarmes day and night, but there was no sign of the fugitive.
It was rumoured that she had got away to Spain, that she was
cached in a barrel at Riguepeu, that she was in the fields
disguised as a shepherd, that she had taken the veil.
In the meantime the process against her went forward. Evidence
was to hand which seemed to inculpate with Mme Lacoste a poor and
old schoolmaster of Riguepeu named Joseph Meilhan. The latter,
arrested, stoutly denied not only his own part in the supposed
crime, but also the guilt of Mme Lacoste. ``Why doesn't she come
forward?'' he asked. ``She knows perfectly well she has nothing
to fear--no more than I have.''
From the `information' laid by the court of first instance at
Auch a warrant was issued for the appearance of Mme Lacoste and
Meilhan before the Assize of Gers. Mme Lacoste was apparently well
instructed by her friends. She did not come into the open until
the last possible moment. She gave herself up at the Auch prison
on the 4th of July.
Her health seemed to have suffered little from the vicissitudes
of her flight. It was noticed that her hair was short, a fact
which seemed to point to her having disguised herself. But, it
is said, she exhibited a serenity of mind which consorted ill
with the idea of guilt. She faced an interrogation lasting three
hours without faltering.
On the 10th of July she appeared before the Gers Assize Court,
held at Auch. The President was M. Donnoderie. Counsel for the
prosecution, as it were, was the Procureur du Roi, M. Cassagnol.
Mme Lacoste was defended by Maitre Alem-Rousseau, leader of the
bar of Auch.
The case aroused the liveliest interest, people flocking to the
town from as far away as Paris itself--so much so that at 6.30 in
the morning the one-time palace of the Archbishops of Auch, in
the hall of which the court was held, was packed.
The accused were called. First to appear was Joseph Meilhan. He
was a stout little old boy of sixty-six, rosy and bright-eyed,
with short white hair and heavy black eyebrows. He was calm and
smiling, completely master of himself.
Mme Lacoste then appeared on the arm of her advocate. She was
dressed in full widow's weeds. A little creature, slender but
not rounded of figure, she is described as more agreeable-looking
than actually pretty.
After the accused had answered with their names and descriptions
the acte d'accusation was read. It was a long document. It
recalled the circumstances of the Lacoste marriage and of the
death of the old man, with the autopsy and the finding of traces
of arsenic. It spoke of the lowly household tasks that Mme
Lacoste had performed with such goodwill from the beginning, and
of the reward for her diligence which came to her by the making
of a holograph will in which her husband made her his sole heir.
But the understanding between husband and wife did not last long,
the acte went on. Lacoste ardently desired a son and heir, and
his wife appeared to be barren. He confided his grief to an old
friend, one Lespere. Lespere pointed out that Euphemie was not
only Lacoste's wife, but his kinswoman as well. To this Lacoste
replied that the fact did not content him. ``I tell you on the
quiet,'' he said to his friend, ``I've made my arrangements. If
SHE knew--she's capable of poisoning me to get herself a younger
man.'' Lespere told him not to talk rubbish, in effect, but
Lacoste was stubborn on his notion.
This was but a year after the marriage. It seemed that Lacoste
had a melancholy presentiment of the fate which was to be his.
It was made out that Euphemie suffered from the avarice and
jealousy of her old husband. She was given no money, was hardly
allowed out of the house, and was not permitted even to go to
Vespers alone. And then, said the accusation, she discovered
that her husband wanted an heir. She had reason to fear that he
would go about getting one by an illicit association.
In the middle of 1842 she overheard her husband bargaining with
one of the domestics. The girl was asking for 100 pistoles (say,
L85), while her husband did not want to give more than 600 francs
(say, L24). ``Euphemie Verges had no doubt,'' ran the
accusation, ``that this was the price of an adulterous contract,
and she insisted on Marie Dupuys' being sent from the house.
This was the cause of disagreement between the married pair,
which did not conclude with the departure of the servant.''
Later another servant, named Jacquette Larrieux, told Mme Lacoste
in confidence that the master was trying to seduce her by the
offer of a pension of 2000 francs or a lump sum of 20,000.
Euphemie Verges, said the accusation, thus thought herself
exposed daily, by the infidelity of her husband, to the loss of
all her hopes. Also, talking to a Mme Bordes about the two
servants some days after Lacoste's death, she said, ``I had a bad
time with those two girls! If my husband had lived longer I
might have had nothing, because he wanted a child that he could
leave everything to.''
The acte d'accusation enlarged on the situation, then went on to
bring in Joseph Meilhan as Euphemie's accomplice. It made him
out to be a bad old man indeed. He had seduced, it was said, a
young girl named Lescure, who became enceinte, afterwards dying
from an abortion which Meilhan was accused of having procured.
It might be thought that the society of such a bad old man would
have disgusted a young woman, but Euphemie Verges admitted him to
intimacy. He was, it was said, the confidant for her domestic
troubles, and it was further rumoured that he acted as intermediary
in a secret correspondence that she kept up with a
young man of Tarbes who had been courting her before her
marriage. The counsels of such a man were not calculated to help
Mme Lacoste in her quarrels with her unfaithful and unlovable
Meanwhile M. Lacoste was letting new complaints be heard
regarding his wife. Again Lespere was his confidant. His wife
was bad and sulky. He was very inclined to undo what he had done
for her. This was in March of 1843.
Towards the end of April he made a like complaint to another old
friend, one Dupouy, who accused him of neglecting old friends
through uxoriousness. Lacoste said he found little pleasure
in his young wife. He was, on the contrary, a martyr. He was on
the point of disinheriting her.
And so, with the usual amount of on dit and disait-on, the acte
d'accusation came to the point of Lacoste at the Riguepeu fair.
He set out in his usual health, but, several hours later, said to
one Laffon, ``I have the shivers, cramps in the stomach. After
being made to drink by that ---Meilhan I felt ill.''
Departing from the fair alone, he met up with Jean Durieux, to
whom he said, ``That ---of a Meilhan asked me to have a drink, and
afterwards I had colic, and wanted to vomit.''
Arrived home, Lacoste said to Pierre Cournet that he had been
seized by a colic which made him ill all over, plaguing him,
giving him a desire to vomit which he could not satisfy. Cournet
noticed that Lacoste was as white as a sheet. He advised going
to bed and taking hot water. Lacoste took the advice. During
the night he was copiously sick. The old man was in bed in an
alcove near the kitchen, but next night he was put into a room
out of the way of noise.
Euphemie looked after her husband alone, preparing his drinks and
admitting nobody to see him. She let three days pass without
calling a doctor. Lacoste, it was true, had said he did not want
a doctor, but, said the accusation, ``there is no proof that he
persisted in that wish.''
On the fourth day she sent a summary of the illness to Dr Boubee,
asking for written advice. On the fifth day a surgeon was
called, M. Lasmolles, who was told that Lacoste had eaten a meal
of onions, garlic stems, and beans. But the story of this meal
was a lie, a premeditated lie. On the eve of the fair Mme
Lacoste was already speaking of such a meal, saying that that
sort of thing always made her husband ill.
According to the accusation, the considerable amount of poison
found in the body established that the arsenic had been
administered on several occasions, on the first by Meilhan and on
the others by Mme Lacoste.
When Henri Lacoste had drawn his last breath his wife shed a few
tears. But presently her grief gave place to other preoccupations.
She herself looked out the sheet for wrapping
the corpse, and thereafter she began to search in the desk for
the will which made her her husband's sole heir.
Next day Meilhan, who had not once looked in on Lacoste during
his illness, hastened to visit the widow. The widow invited him
to dinner. The day after that he dined with her again, and they
were seen walking together. Their intimacy seemed to grow daily.
But the friendship of Mme Lacoste for Meilhan did not end there.
Not very many days after the death of Lacoste Meilhan met the
Mayor of Riguepeu, M. Sabazan, and conducted him in a mysterious
manner into his schoolroom. Telling the Mayor that he knew him
to be a man of discretion, he confided in him that the Veuve
Lacoste intended giving him (Meilhan) a bill on one Castera. Did
the Mayor know Castera to be all right? The Mayor replied that a
bill on Castera was as good as gold itself. Meilhan said that
Mme Lacoste had assured him this was but the beginning of what
she meant to do for him.
Meilhan wrote to Castera, who called on him. The schoolmaster
told Castera that in return for 2000 francs which she had
borrowed from him Mme Lacoste had given him a note for 1772
francs, which was due from Castera to Henri Lacoste as part
inheritance from a brother. Meilhan showed Castera the original
note, which was to be renewed in Meilhan's favour. The accusation
dwelt on the different versions regarding his
possession of the note given by Meilhan to the Mayor and to
Castera. Meilhan was demonstrably lying to conceal Mme Lacoste's
Some little time after this Meilhan invited the Mayor a second
time into the schoolroom, and told him that Mme Lacoste meant to
assure him of a life annuity of 400 francs, and had asked him to
prepare the necessary document for her to sign. But there was
another proposition. If Meilhan would return the note for 1772
francs owing by Castera she would make the annuity up to 500.
What, asked Meilhan, would M. le Maire do in his place? The
Mayor replied that in Meilhan's place he would keep the Castera
note and be content with the 400 annuity. Then Meilhan asked the
Mayor to draw up for him a specimen of the document necessary for
creating the annuity. This M. Sabazan did at once, and gave the
draft to Meilhan.
Some days later still Meilhan told M. Sabazan that Mme Lacoste
did not wish to use the form of document suggested by the Mayor,
but had written one herself. Meilhan showed the Mayor the
widow's document, and begged him to read it to see if it was in
proper form. Sabazan read the document. It created an annuity
of 400 francs, payable yearly in the month of August. The Mayor
did not know actually if the deed was in the writing of Mme
Lacoste. He did not know her fist. But he could be certain that
it was not in Meilhan's hand.
This deed was later shown by Meilhan to the cure of Riguepeu, who
saw at least that the deed was not in Meilhan's writing. He
noticed that it showed some mistakes, and that the signature of
the Widow Lacoste began with the word ``Euphemie.''
In the month of August Meilhan was met coming out of Mme
Lacoste's by the Mayor. Jingling money in his pocket, the
schoolmaster told the Mayor he had just drawn the first payment
of his annuity. Later Meilhan bragged to the cure of Basais that
he was made for life. He took a handful of louis from his
pocket, and told the priest that this was his daily allowance.
``Whence,'' demanded the acte d'accusation, ``came all those
riches, if they were not the price of his share in the crime?''
But the good offices of Mme Lacoste towards Meilhan did not end
with the giving of money. In the month of August Meilhan was
chased from his lodgings by his landlord, Lescure, on suspicion
of having had intimate relations with the landlord's wife. The
intervention of the Mayor was ineffective in bringing about a
reconciliation between Meilhan and Lescure. Meilhan begged Mme
Lacoste to intercede, and where the Mayor had failed she
While Mme Lacoste was thus smothering Meilhan with kindnesses she
was longing herself to make the most of the fortune which had
come to her. From the first days of her widowhood she was
constantly writing letters which Mme Lescure carried for her.
Euphemie had already begun to talk of remarriage. Her choice was
already made. ``If I marry again,'' she said, a few days after
the death of Lacoste, ``I won't take anybody but M. Henri Berens,
of Tarbes. He was my first love.''
The accusation told of Euphemie's departure for Tarbes, where
almost her first caller was this M. Henri Berens. The next day
she gave up the lodgings rented by her late husband, to establish
herself in rich apartments owned by one Fourcade, which she
furnished sumptuously. The accusation dwelt on her purchase of
horses and a carriage and on her luxurious way of living. It
also brought forward some small incidents illustrative of her
distaste for the memory of her late husband. It dealt with
information supplied by her landlord which indicated that her
conscience was troubled. Twice M. Fourcade found her trembling, as
with fear. On his asking her what was the matter she replied, ``I
was thinking of my husband--if he saw me in a place furnished like
(It need hardly be pointed out, considering the sour and
avaricious ways of her late husband, that Euphemie need not have
been conscience-stricken with his murder to have trembled over
her lavish expenditure of his fortune. But the point is typical
of the trivialities with which the acte d'accusation was padded
The accusation claimed that a young man had several times been
seen leaving Euphemie's apartments at midnight, and spoke of
protests made by Mme Fourcade. Euphemie declared herself
indifferent to public opinion.
Public opinion, however, beginning to rise against her, Euphemie
had need to resort to lying in order to explain her husband's
death. To some she repeated the story of the
onion-garlic-and-beans meal, adding that, in spite of his
indigestion, he had eaten gluttonously later in the day. To
others she attributed his illness to two indigestible repasts
made at the fair. To others again she said Lacoste had died of a
hernia, forced out by his efforts to vomit. She was even accused
of saying that the doctor had attributed the death to this cause.
This, said the indictment, was a lie. Dr Lasmolles declared that
he had questioned Lacoste about the supposed hernia, and that the
old man denied having any such thing.
What had brought about Lacoste's fatal illness was the wine
Meilhan had made him drink at Rigeupeu fair.
With the rise of suspicion against her and her accomplice, Mme
Lacoste put up a brave front. She wrote to the Procureur du Roi,
demanding an exhumation, with the belief, no doubt, that time
would have effaced the poison. At the same time she sent the
bailiff Labadie to Riguepeu, to find out the names of those who
were traducing her, and to say that she intended to prosecute her
calumniators with the utmost rigour of the law. This, said the
accusation, was nothing but a move to frighten the witnesses
against her into silence. Instead of making good her threats the
Widow Lacoste disappeared.
On the arrest of Meilhan search of his lodgings resulted in the
finding of the note on Castera for 1772 francs, and of a sum of
800 francs in gold and silver. But of the deed creating the
annuity of 400 francs there was no trace.
Meilhan denied everything. In respect of the wine he was said to
have given Lacoste he said he had passed the whole of the 16th of
May in the company of a friend called Mothe, and that Mothe could
therefore prove Meilhan had never had a drink with Lacoste.
Mothe, however, declared he had left Meilhan that day at three
o'clock in the afternoon, and it was just at this time that
Meilhan had taken Lacoste into the auberge where he lived to give
him the poisoned drink. It was between three and four that
Lacoste first showed signs of being ill.
Asked to explain the note for 1772 francs, Meilhan said that,
about two months after Lacoste's death, the widow complained of
not having any ready money. She had the Castera note, and he
offered to discount it for her. This was a palpable lie, said
the accusation. It was only a few days after Lacoste's death
that Meilhan spoke to the Mayor about the Castera note.
Meilhan's statement was full of discrepancies. He told Castera
that he held the note against 2000 francs previously lent to the
widow. He now said that he had discounted the note on sight.
But the fact was that since Meilhan had come to live in Riguepeu
he had been without resources. He had stripped himself in order
to establish his son in a pharmacy at Vic-Fezensac. His profession
of schoolmaster scarcely brought him in enough for
living expenses. How, then, could he possibly be in a position
to lend Mme Lacoste 2000 francs? And how had he managed to
collect the 800 odd francs that were found in his lodgings? The
real explanation lay in the story he had twice given to the
Mayor, M. Sabazan: he was in possession of the Castera note
through the generosity of his accomplice.
Meilhan was in still greater difficulty to explain the document
which had settled on him an annuity of 400 francs, and which had
been seen in his hands. Denial was useless, since he had asked
the Mayor to make a draft for him, and since he had shown that
functionary the deed signed by Mme Lacoste. Here, word for word,
is the explanation given by the rubicund Joseph:
``My son,'' he said, ``kept asking me to contribute to the upkeep
of one of his boys who is in the seminary of Vic-Fezensac. I
consistently refused to do so, because I wanted to save what
little I might against the time when I should be unable to work
any longer. Six months ago my son wrote to the cure, begging him
to speak to me. The cure, not wishing to do so, sent on the
letter to the Mayor, who communicated with me. I replied that I
did not wish to do anything, adding that I intended investing my
savings in a life annuity. At the same time I begged M. Sabazan
to make me a draft in the name of Mme Lacoste. She knew nothing
about it. M. Sabazan sent me on the draft. It seemed to me well
drawn up. I rewrote it, and showed it to M. Sabazan. At the
foot of the deed I put the words `Veuve Lacoste,' but I had been
at pains to disguise my handwriting. I did all this with the
intention of making my son believe, when my infirmities obliged
me to retire to his household, that my income came from a life
annuity some one had given me; and to hide from him where I had put
my capital I wanted to persuade M. Sabazan that the deed
actually existed, so that he could bear witness to the fact to my
son.'' Here, said the accusation, Meilhan was trying to make
out that it was on the occasion of a letter from his son that he
had spoken to the Mayor of the annuity.
The cure of Riguepeu, however, while admitting that he had
received such a letter from Meilhan's son, declared that this was
long before the death of Henri Lacoste. The Mayor also said that
he had spoken to Meilhan of his son's letter well before the time
when the accused mentioned the annuity to him and asked for a
draft of the assignment.
The accusation ridiculed Meilhan's explanation, dubbing it just
another of the schoolmaster's lies. It brought forward a
contradictory explanation given by Meilhan to one Thener, a
surgeon, whom he knew to be in frequent contact with the son whom
the document was intended to deceive. Meilhan informed Thener
that he had fabricated the deed, and had shown it round, in order
to inspire such confidence in him as would secure him refuge when
he had to give up schoolmastering.
These contradictory and unbelievable explanations were the fruit
of Meilhan's efforts to cover the fact that the annuity was the
price paid him by the Widow Lacoste for his part in the murder of
her husband. It was to be remembered that M. Sabazan, whose
testimony was impeccable, had seen Meilhan come from the house of
Mme Lacoste, and that Meilhan had jingled money, saying he had
just drawn the first payment of his annuity.
The accusation, in sum, concentrated on the suspicious
relationship between Meilhan and the Widow Lacoste. It was a
long document, but something lacking in weight of proof--proof of
the actual murder, that is, if not of circumstance.
% V
The process in a French criminal court was--and still
is--somewhat long-winded. The Procureur du Roi had to go over
the accusation in detail, making the most of Mme Lacoste's
intimacy with the ill-reputed old fellow. That parishioner, far
from being made indignant by the animadversions of M. Cassagnol,
listened to the recital of his misdeeds with a faint smile. He
was perhaps a little astonished at some of the points made
against him, but, it is said, contented himself with a gesture of
denial to the jury, and listened generally as if with pleasure at
hearing himself so well spoken of.
He was the first of the accused to be questioned.
It was brought out that he had been a soldier under the Republic,
and then for a time had studied pharmacy. He had been a
corn-merchant in a small way, and then had started schoolmaster.
Endeavour was made to get him to admit guilty knowledge of the
death of the Lescure girl. He had never even heard of an
abortion. The girl had a stomach-ache. This line failing, he
was interrogated on the matter of being chased from his lodgings
by the landlord-father, it would seem, of the aforementioned
girl. (It may be noted that Meilhan lived on in the auberge
after her death.) Meilhan had an innocent explanation of the
incident. It was all a mistake on the part of Lescure. And he
hadn't been chased out of the auberge. He had simply gone out
with his coat slung about his shoulders. Mme Lacoste went with
him to patch the matter up.
He had not given Lacoste a drink, hadn't even spoken with him, at
the Riguepeu fair, but had passed the day with M. Mothe. Cournet
had told him of Lacoste's having a headache, but had said nothing
of vomitings. He had not seen Lacoste during the latter's
illness, because Lacoste was seeing nobody.
This business of the annuity had got rather entangled, but he
would explain. He had lodged 1772 francs with Mme Lacoste, and
she had given him a bill on Castera. Whether he had given the
money before or after getting the bill he could not be sure. He
thought afterwards. He had forgotten the circumstances while in
Meilhan stuck pretty firmly to his story that it was to deceive
his son that he had fabricated the deed of annuity. He couldn't
help it if the story sounded thin. It was the fact.
How had he contrived to save, as he said, 3000 francs? His
yearly income during his six years at Riguepeu had been only 500
francs. The court had reason to be surprised.
``Ah! You're surprised!'' exclaimed Meilhan, rather put out.
But at Breuzeville, where he was before Riguepeu, he had bed and
board free. In Riguepeu he had nothing off the spit for days on
end. He spent only 130 francs a year, he said, giving details.
And then he did a little trade in corn.
He had destroyed the annuity deed only because it was worthless.
As for what he had said to the Mayor about drawing his first
payment of the pension, he had done it because he was a bit
conscience-stricken over fabricating the deed. He had been
bragging--that was all.
The President, having already chidden Meilhan for being prolix in
his answers, now scolded him for anticipating the questions. But
the fact was that Meilhan was not to be pinned down.
The first questions put to Mme Lacoste were with regard to her
marriage and her relations with her husband. She admitted,
incidentally, having begun to receive a young man some six weeks
after her husband's death, but she had not known him before
marriage. Meilhan had carried no letters between them. She had
married Lacoste of her own free will. Lacoste had not asked any
attentions from her that were not ordinarily sought by a husband,
and her care of him had been spontaneous. It was true he was
jealous, but he had not formally forbidden her pleasures. She
had renounced them, knowing he was easily upset. It was true
that she had seldom gone out, but she had never wanted to.
Lacoste was no more avaricious than most, and it was untrue that
he had denied her any necessaries.
Taken to the events of the fair day, Tuesday, the 16th of May,
Mme Lacoste maintained that her husband, on his return,
complained only of a headache. He had gone to bed early, but he
usually did. That night he slept in the same alcove as herself,
but next night they separated. In spite of the contrary evidence
of witnesses, of which the President reminded her, Mme Lacoste
firmly maintained that it was not until the Wednesday-Thursday
night that Lacoste started to vomit. It was not until that night
that she began to attend to him. She had given him lemonade,
washed him, and so on.
The President was saying that nobody had been allowed near him,
and that a doctor was not called, when the accused broke in with
a lively denial. Anybody who wanted to could see him, and a
doctor was called. This was towards the last, the President
pointed out. Mme Lacoste's advocate intervened here, saying that
it was the husband who did not wish a doctor called, for reasons
of his own. The President begged to be allowed to hear the
accused's own answers. He pointed out that the ministrations of
the accused had effected no betterment, but that the illness had
rapidly got worse. The delay in calling a doctor seemed to lend
a strange significance to the events.
Mme Lacoste answered in lively fashion, accenting her phrases
with the use of her hands: ``But, monsieur, you do not take into
account that it was not until the night of Wednesday and the
Thursday that my husband began to vomit, and that it was two days
after that he--he succumbed.''
The President said a way remained of fixing the dates and
clearing up the point. He had a letter written by M. Lacoste to
the doctor in which he himself explained the state of his
illness. It was pointed out to him that the letter had been
written by Mme Lacoste at her husband's dictation.
The letter was dated the 19th (Friday). It was directed to M.
Boubee, doctor of medicine, in Vic-Fezensac. Perhaps it would be
better to give it in the original language. It is something
frank in detail:
Depuis quelque temps j'avais perdu l'appetit et m'endormais de
suite quand j'etais assis. Mercredi il me vint un secours de
nature par un vomissement extraordinaire. Ces vomissements m'ont
dure pendant un jour et une nuit; je ne rendais que de la bile.
La nuit passee, je n'en ai pas rendu; dans ce moment, j'en rends
encore. Vous sentez combien ces efforts reiteres m'ont fatigue;
ces grands efforts m'ont fait partir de la bile par en bas; je
vous demanderai, monsieur, si vous ne trouveriez pas a propos que
je prisse une medecine d'huile de ricin ou autre, celle que vous
jugerez a propos. Je vous demanderai aussi si je pourrais
prendre quelques bains. [signe]
Je rends beaucoup de vents par en bas. Pour la boisson, je ne
bois que de l'eau chaude et de l'eau sucree. (Il n'y a pas eu de
fievre encore.)
The Procureur du Roi maintained that this letter showed the
invalid had already been taken with vomiting before it was
considered necessary to call in a doctor. But Mme Lacoste's
advocate pointed out that the letter was written by her, when she
had overcome Lacoste's distaste for doctors.
The President made much of the fact that Mme Lacoste had
undertaken even the lowliest of the attentions necessary in a
sick-room, when other, more mercenary, hands could have been
engaged in them. The accusation from this was that she did these
things from a desire to destroy incriminating evidences. Mme
Lacoste replied that she had done everything out of affection for
her husband.
Asked by the court why she had not thought to give Dr Boubee any
explanations of the illness, she replied that she knew her
husband was always ill, but that he hid his maladies and was
ashamed of them. He had, it appeared, hernias, tetters, and
other maladies besides. It was easy for her to gather as much,
in spite of the mystery Lacoste made of them; she had seen him
rubbing his limbs at times with medicaments, and at others she
had seen him taking medicines internally. He was always vexed
when she found him at it. She did not know what doctor
prescribed the medicaments, nor the pharmacist who supplied them.
Her husband thought he knew more than the doctors, and usually
dealt with quacks.
Mme Lacoste was questioned regarding her husband's will, and on
his longing to have an heir of his own blood. She knew of the
will, but did not hear any word of his desire to alter it until
after his death. With regard to Lacoste's attempts to seduce the
servants, she declared this was a vague affair, and she had found
the first girl in question a place elsewhere.
Her letter to the Procureur du Roi demanding an exhumation and
justice against her slanderers was read. Then a second one, in
which she excused her absence, saying that she would give
herself up for judgment at the right time, and begged him to add
her letter to the papers of the process.
The President then returned to the question of her husband's
attempts to seduce the servants. She denied that this was the
cause of quarrels. There had been no quarrels. She did not know
that her husband was complaining outside about her.
She denied all knowledge of the arsenic found in Lacoste's body,
but suggested that it might have come from one or other of the
medicines he took.
Questioned with regard to her intimacy with Meilhan, she declared
that she knew nothing of his morals. She had intervened in the
Lescure affair at the request of Mme Lescure, who came to deny
the accusation made by Lescure. This woman had never acted as
intermediary between herself and Meilhan. Meilhan had not been
her confidant. She looked after her late husband's affairs
herself. She had handed over the Castera note to Meilhan against
his loan of 2000 francs, but she had never given him money as a
present. Nor had she ever spoken to Meilhan of an annuity. But
Meilhan, it was objected, had been showing a deed signed
``Euphemie Lacoste.'' The accused quickly replied that she never
signed herself ``Euphemie,'' but as ``Veuve Lacoste.'' Upon this
the President called for several letters written by the accused.
It was found that they were all signed ``Veuve Lacoste.''
The evidence of the Fourcades regarding her conduct in their
house at Tarbes was biased, she said. She had refused to take up
some people recommended by her landlady. The young man who had
visited her never remained longer than after ten o'clock or
half-past, and she saw nothing singular in that.
The examination-in-chief of Mme Lacoste ended with her firm
declaration that she knew nothing of the poisoning of her
husband, and that she had spoken the truth through all her
interrogations. Some supplementary questions were answered by
her to the effect that she knew, during her marriage, that her
husband had at one time suffered from venereal disease; and that
latterly there had been recrudescences of the affection, together
with the hernia already mentioned, for which her husband took
numerous medicaments.
Throughout this long examination Mme Lacoste showed complete
self-possession, save that at times she exhibited a Gascon
impatience in answering what she conceived to be stupid
% VI
The experts responsible for the analysis of Lacoste's remains
were now called. All three of those gentlemen from Paris, MM.
Pelouze, Devergie, and Flandin, agreed in their findings. Two
vessels were exhibited, on which there glittered blobs of some
metallic substance. This substance, the experts deposed, was
arsenic obtained by the Marsh technique from the entrails and the
muscular tissue from Lacoste's body. They could be sure that the
substances used as reagents in the experiments were pure, and
that the earth about the body was free from arsenic.
M. Devergie said that science did not admit the presence of
arsenic as a normal thing in the human body. What was not made
clear by the expert was whether the amount of arsenic found in the
body of Lacoste was consistent with the drug's having been taken in
small doses, or whether it had been given in one dose.
Devergie's confrere Flandin later declared his conviction that
the death of Lacoste was due to one dose of the poison, but, from
a verbatim report, it appears that he did not give any reason for
the opinion.
At this point Mme Lacoste was recalled, and repeated her
statement that she had seen her husband rubbing himself with an
ointment and drinking some white liquid on the return of a
syphilitic affection.
Dr Lasmolles testified that Lacoste, though very close-mouthed,
had told him of a skin affection that troubled him greatly. The
deceased dosed himself, and did not obey the doctors' orders. It
was only from a farmer that he understood Lacoste to have a
hernia, and Lacoste himself did not admit it. The doctor did not
believe the man poisoned. He had been impressed by the way Mme
Lacoste looked after her husband, and the latter did not complain
about anyone. M. Lasmolles had heard no mention from Lacoste of
the glass of wine given him by Meilhan.
After M. Devergie had said that he had heard of arsenical
remedies used externally for skin diseases, but never of any
taken internally, M. Plandin expressed his opinion as before
The next witness was one Dupouy, of whom some mention has already
been made. Five days before his death Lacoste told him that,
annoyed with his wife, he definitely intended to disinherit her.
Dupouy admitted, however, that shortly before this the deceased
had spoken of taking a pleasure trip with Mme Lacoste.
Lespere then repeated his story of the complaints made to him by
Lacoste of his wife's conduct, of his intention of altering his
will, and of his belief that Euphemie was capable of poisoning
him in order to get a younger man. It was plain that this
witness, a friend of Lacoste's for forty-six years, was not ready
to make any admissions in her favour. He swore that Lacoste had
told him his wife did not know she was his sole heir. He was
allowed to say that on the death of Lacoste he had immediately
assumed that the poisoning feared by Lacoste had been brought
about. He had heard nothing from Lacoste of secret maladies or
secret remedies, but had been so deep in Lacoste's confidence
that he felt sure his old friend would have mentioned them. He
had heard of such things only at the beginning of the case.
The Procureur du Roi remarked here that reliance on the secret
remedies was the `system' of the defence.
That seemed to be the case. The `system' of the prosecution, on
the other hand, was to snatch at anything likely to appear as
evidence against the two accused. The points mainly at issue
were as follows:
(1) Did Meilhan have a chance of giving Lacoste a drink at the
(2) Did Lacoste become violently sick immediately on his return
from the fair?
(3) Did Lacoste suffer from the ailments attributed to him by his
wife, and was he in the habit of dosing himself?
(4) Did Meilhan receive money from Mme Lacoste, and,
particularly, did she propose to allow him the supposed annuity?
With regard to (1), several witnesses declared that Lacoste had
complained to them of feeling ill after drinking with Meilhan,
but none could speak of seeing the two men together. M. Mothe,
the friend cited by Meilhan, less positive in his evidence in
court than the acte d'accusation made him out to be, could not
remember if it was on the 16th of May that he had spent the whole
afternoon with Meilhan. It was so much his habit to be with
Meilhan during the days of the fair that he had no distinct
recollection of any of them. Another witness, having business
with Lacoste, declared that on the day in question it was
impossible for Meilhan to have been alone with Lacoste during the
time that the latter was supposed to have taken the poisoned
drink. Lescure, in whose auberge Lacoste was supposed to have
had the drink, failed to remember such an incident. The evidence
that Meilhan had given Lacoste the drink was all second-hand;
that to the contrary was definite.
For the most part the evidence with regard to (2), that Lacoste
became very ill immediately on his return from the fair, was
hearsay. The servants belonging to the Lacoste household all
maintained that the vomiting did not seize the old man until the
night of Wednesday-Thursday. Indeed, two witnesses testified that
the old man, in spite of his supposed headache, essayed to show
them how well he could dance. This was on his return from the fair
where he was supposed to have been given a poisoned drink at three
o'clock. The evidence regarding the seclusion of Lacoste by his
wife was contradictory, but the most direct of it
maintained that it was the old man himself, if anyone, who wanted
to be left alone. On this point arises the question of the delay
in calling the doctor. Witness after witness testified to
Lacoste's hatred of the medical faculty and to his preference for
dosing himself. He declared his faith in a local vet.
On (3), the bulk of the evidence against Lacoste's having the
suggested afflictions came simply from witnesses who had not
heard of them. There was, on the contrary, quite a number of
witnesses to declare that Lacoste did suffer from a skin disease,
and that he was in the habit of using quack remedies, the
stronger the better. It was also testified that Lacoste was in
the habit of prescribing his remedies for other people. A
witness declared that a woman to whom Lacoste had given medicine
for an indisposition had become crippled, and still was crippled.
With regard to (4), the Mayor merely repeated the evidence given
in his first statement, but the cure', who also saw the deed
assigning an annuity to Meilhan, said that it was not in Mme
Lacoste's writing, and that it was signed with the unusual
``Euphemie.'' This last witness added that Mme Lacoste's
reputation was irreproachable, and that her relations with her
husband were happy.
Evidence from a business-man in Tarbes showed that Mme Lacoste's
handling of her fortune was careful to a degree, her expenditure
being well within her income. This witness also proved that the
Fourcades' evidence of Euphemie's misbehaviour could have been
dictated from spite. Fourcade had been found out in what looked
like a swindle over money which he owed to the Lacoste estate.
The court then went more deeply into the medico-legal evidence.
It were tedious to follow the course of this long argument.
After a lengthy dissertation on the progress of an acute
indigestion and the effects of a strangulated hernia M. Devergie
said that, as the poison existed in the body, from the symptoms
shown in the illness it could be assumed that death had resulted
from arsenic. The duration of the illness was in accord with the
amount of arsenic found.
M. Flandin agreed with this, but M. Pelouze abstained from
expressing an opinion. He, however, rather gave the show away,
by saying that if he was a doctor he would take care to forbid
any arsenical preparations. ``These preparations,'' he said
moodily, ``can introduce a melancholy obscurity into the
investigations of criminal justice.''
Some sense was brought into the discussion by Dr Molas, of Auch.
He put forward the then accepted idea of the accumulation of
arsenic taken in small doses, and the power of this accumulation,
on the least accident, of determining death.
This was rather like chucking a monkey-wrench into the
cerebration machinery of the Paris experts. They admitted that
the absorption and elimination of arsenic varied with the
individual, and generally handed the case over to the defence.
M. Devergie was the only one who stuck out, but only partially
even then. ``I persist in believing,'' he said, `` that M.
Lacoste succumbed to poisoning by arsenic; but I use the word
`poisoning' only from the point of view of science: arsenic
killed him.''
The speech of the Procureur du Roi was another resume of the acte
d'accusation, with consideration of that part of the evidence
which suited him best.
This was followed by the speech of Maitre Canteloup in defence of
Meilhan. The speech was a good effort which demonstrated that,
whatever rumour might accuse the schoolmaster of, there were
plenty of people of standing who had found him upright and free
from stain through a long life. It reproached the accusation
with jugglery over dates and so forth in support of its case, and
confidently predicted the acquittal of Meilhan.
Then followed the speech of Maitre Alem-Rousseau on behalf of the
Veuve Lacoste. Among other things the advocate brought forward
the fact that Euphemie was not so poorly born as the prosecution
had made out, but that she had every chance of inheriting some
20,000 francs from her parents. It was notorious that when Henri
Lacoste first broached the subject of marriage with Euphemie he
was not so rich as he afterwards became, but, in fact, believed he
had lost the inheritance from his brother Philibert, this last
having made a will in favour of a young man of whom popular rumour
made him the father. This was in 1839. The marriage was
celebrated in May of 1841. Henri Lacoste, it is true, had hidden
his intentions, but when news of the marriage reached the ears of
brother Philibert that brother was so delighted that he destroyed
the will which disinherited Henri. It was thus right to say that
Euphemie became the benefactor of her husband. Where was the
speculative marriage on the part of Euphemie that the prosecution
talked about?
Maitre Alem-Rousseau made short work of the medico-legal evidence
(he had little bother with the facts of the illness). Poison was
found in the body. The question was, how had it got there? Was
it quite certain that arsenic could not get into the human body
save by ingestion, that it could not exist in the human body
normally? The science of the day said no, he knew, but the
science of yesterday had said yes. Who knew what the science of
to-morrow would say?
The advocate made use of the evidence of a witness whose
testimony I have failed to find in the accounts of the trial.
This witness spoke of Lacoste's having asked, in Bordeaux, for a
certain liquor of ``Saint-Louis,'' a liquor which Mme Lacoste
took to be an anisette. ``No,'' said Lacoste, ``women don't take
it.'' Maitre Alem-Rousseau had tried to discover what this
liquor of Saint-Louis was. During the trial he had come upon the
fact that the arsenical preparation known as Fowler's solution
had been administered for the first time in the hospital of
Saint-Louis, in Paris. He showed an issue of the Hospital
Gazette in which the advertisement could be read: ``Solution de
Fowler telle qu'on l'administre a SAINT-LOUIS!'' The jury could
make what they liked of that fact.
The advocate now produced documents to prove that the marriage of
Euphemie with her grand-uncle had not been so much to her
advantage, but had been--it must have been--a marriage of
affection. At the time when the marriage was arranged, he
proved, Lacoste had no more than 35,000 francs to his name.
Euphemie had 15,000 francs on her marriage and the hope of 20,000
francs more. The pretence of the prosecution, that her
contentment with the abject duties which she had to perform in
the house was dictated by interest, fell to the ground with the
preliminary assumption that she had married for her husband's
Maitre Alem, defending the widow's gayish conduct after her
husband's death, declared it to be natural enough. It had been
shown to be innocent. He trounced the Press for helping to
exaggerate the rumours which envy of Mme Lacoste's good fortune
had created. He asked the jury to acquit Mme Lacoste.
The Procureur du Roi had another say. It was again an attempt to
destroy the `system' of the defence, but by making a mystery of
the fact that the Lacoste-Verges marriage had not taken place in
a church he gave the wily Maitre Alem an opportunity for
following him.
The summing-up of the President on the third day of the trial
was, it is said, a model of clarity and impartiality. The jury
returned on all the points put to them a verdict of ``Not
guilty'' for both the accused.
Another verdict may now seem to have been hardly possible. The
accusation was built up on the jealousy of neighbours, on chance
circumstances, on testimonies founded on petty spite. But,
combined with the medico-legal evidence, the weight of
circumstance might easily have hoisted the accused in the
It will be seen, then, how much on foot the case of the Veuve
Lacoste was with that of the Veuve Boursier, twenty years before.
It is on the experience of cases such as these two that the
technique of investigation into arsenical poison has been
evolved. In the case of Veuve Boursier you find M. Orfila
discovering oxide of arsenic where M. Barruel saw only grains of
fat. Four years previous to the case of the Veuve Lacoste that
same Orfila came into the trial of Mme Lafarge with the first use
in medical jurisprudence of the Marsh test, and based on the
experiment a cocksure opinion which had much to do with the
condemnation of that unfortunate woman. In the Lacoste trial you
find the Parisian experts giving an opinion of no greater value
than that of Orfila's in the Lafarge case, but find also an
element of doubt introduced by the country practitioner, with his
common sense on the then moot question of the accumulation, the
absorption, and elimination of the drug.
Nowadays we are quite certain that our experts in medical
jurisprudence know all there is to know about arsenical
poisoning. What are the chances, however, in spite of our
apparently well-founded faith, that some bristle-headed local
chemist with a fighting chin will not spring up at an
arsenic-poisoning trial and, with new facts about the substance,
blow to pieces the cocksure evidence of the leading expert in
pathology? It may seem impossible that such a thing can ever
happen again--a mistake regarding the action of arsenic on the
human body. But when we discover it becoming a commonplace of
science that one human may be poisoned by an everyday substance
which thousands of his fellows eat with enjoyment as well as
impunity--a substance, for instance, as everyday as
porridge--who will dare say even now that the last word has been
said and written of arsenic?
But that, as the late George Moore so doted on saying, is
quelconque. M. Orfila, sure about the grocer of the Rue de la
Paix, was defeated by M. Barruel. M. Orfila, sure about the
death of Charles Lafarge, is declared by to-day's experts in
criminal jurisprudence and pathology to have been talking through
his hat. According to the present experts, says ``Philip
Curtin,'' Lafarge was not poisoned at all, but died a natural
death. Because of M. Devergie it was for the Veuve Lacoste as
much `touch and go' as it was for the Veuve Boursier twenty years
before. Well might Marie-Fortunee Lafarge, hearing in prison of
the verdict in the Lacoste trial, say, ``Ma condamnation a sauve
Madame Lacoste!''
In all this there's a moral lesson somewhere, but I'm blessed if
I can put my finger on it.
Abbot, George, Archbishop of Canterbury
Alem-Rousseau, Maitre; on arsenic
Amos (Great Oyer of Poisoning)
Ansell, Mary
Aqua fortis--see Poisons
Armstrong, poisoner
Arsenic--see Poisons
Artois, Comte d'--see Charles X
Aumale, Duc d'
Bacon, Sir Francis
Balfour, Rev. James
Ballet, Auguste
Barruel, Dr.
Barry, Philip Beaufroy
Berry, Duchesse de
Bidard, Professor; evidence against Helene Jegado
Black, Mrs (Armagh)
Blandy, Mary
Bordeaux, Duc de
Bordot, Dr.
Borgia, Cesare
Borgia, Lucretia
Borgia, Rodrigo, Pope Alexander VI
Borrow, George
Boubee, Dr.
Boudin, Dr.
Bourbon, Louis-Henri-Joseph, Duc de, afterwards Prince de Conde
Bourbon, Louise-Marie-Therese-Mathilde d'Orleans, Duchesse de
Boursier, Veuve; case compared with Veuve Lacoste's
Bouton, Dr.
Briant, Abbe
Brock, Alan
Broe, M. de, Avocat-General
Brownrigg, Elizabeth
Bruce, Rev. Robert
Burke and Hare
Burning at the stake
Canteloup, Maitre
Cantharides--see Poisons
Carew, Edith Mary
Carr, Robert
Cassagnol, M., Procureur du Roi, Auch
Castaing, poisoner
Cecil, Robert, Lord Salisbury
Chabannes de la Palice, Marquise de
Charles X, King of France; flight from France
Coke, Sir Edward, Lord Chief Justice
Conde, Louis-Henri-Joseph, Prince de--see Bourbon, Duc de Conde,
Louis-Joseph, Prince de
Cotton, Mary Ann
Couture, Maitre; speech in defence of Mme Boursier
Cream, Neill
``Curtin, Philip,''
Dawes, James, made Baron de Flassans
Dawes, Sophie,
Devergie, M., chemist
Diamond powder--see Poisons
Diblanc, Marguerite
Dilnot, George
Donnoderie, M., Assize President, Auch
Dorange, Maitre; defence of Helene Jegado
Dubois, Dr, his account of the Prince de Conde's death
Dunnipace, Laird of--see Livingstone, John
Dyer, Amelia
``Egalite''--see Orleans, Louis-Philippe
Elwes, Sir Gervase
Enghien, Duc d'
Essex, Countess of--see Howard, Frances
Essex, Robert Devereux, third Earl of
Farnese, Julia
Feucheres, Adrien-Victor, Baron de; marriage with Sophie Dawes;
Feucheres, Baronne de--see Dawes, Sophie
Flanagan, Mrs. poisoner
Flandin, M., chemist
Flassans, Baronde--see Dawes, James
Fly-papers, for arsenic
Forman, Dr
``Fowler's solution''
Franklin, apothecary
Gardy, Dr
Gendrin, Dr
Gibbon, Edward
Gowrie mystery
Gribble, Leonard R.
Gunness, Belle
Hardouin, M., Assize President, Seine
Harris, Miss
Henry, Prince of Wales, son of James VI and I
Higgins, Mrs, poisoner
Hogarth, William
Holroyd, Susannah, poisoner
Howard family
Howard, Frances, Countess of
Essex, Countess of Somerset; early marriage; attracted to Robert
Carr; begs Essex to agree to annul marriage; administers poison to
husband; annulment petition presented; nullity suit succeeds;
enmity to Overbury inexplicable; arrest and trial; death; portrait
Howard, Thomas, Earl of Suffolk
Jack the Ripper
James VI and I, cruelty and inclemency of; double dealing
of; share in Overbury's murder
Jegado, HeleneJ
Jesse, Tennyson
Jones, Inigo
Kent, Edward Augustus, Duke of
Kincaid, John, Laird of Warriston
Kipling, Rudyard
Kostolo (the Boursier case)
Lacenaire, murderer and robber, his verses against King Louis-
Lacoste, Henri
Lacoste, Veuve
Lacroix, Abbe Pelier de, his evidence re death of Prince de Conde
Lafarge, Marie-Fortunee
Lambot, aide-de-camp to last Prince de Conde
Lapis costitus--see Poisons
Lavaillaut, Mme
Lecomte, valet to last Prince de Conde
Lesieur, chemist
Lidange, chemist
Linden, Mme van der
Livingstone, or Kincaid, Jean
Livingstone, John, of Dunipace
Logan, Guy
Lombroso, Cesare
Loubel, apothecary
MACE, PERROTTE (Jegado victim)
``Maiden,'' the
Mainwaring, Sir Arthur
Malcolm, Sarah; portraits of
Malgutti, Professor, his evidence re arsenic in Jegado trial
Manoury, valet to last Prince de Conde
``Marsh technique,'' arsenic
Maybrick, Mrs, poisoner
Mayerne, Sir Theodore
Meilhan, Joseph
Mercury--see Poisons
Moinet, Paul
Molas, Dr, arsenic theory
Monson, Sir Thomas
Montagu, Violette
Murdo, Janet
`Mute of malice,'
Northampton, Henry Howard, Earl of
Norwood, Mary
O'Donnell, Elliot
Orfila, Professor; change of opinions re arsenic; intervention in
Lafarge case
Orleans, Louis-Philippe, Duc d', (King of the French); bourgeois
traits of; elected King
Orleans, Louis-Philippe (``Egalite''), Duc d'
Orleans, Louise-Marie-Therese-Mathilde d'--see Bourbon, Louise-
Marie-Therese-Mathilde d'Orleans, Duchesse de
Overbury, Sir Thomas
Parry, Judge A. E.
Partra, Dr
Pasquier, M.
Paul III, Pope
Pearcy, Mrs, murderess
Pearson, Sarah
Pelouze, chemist
Perrin, Maitre Theo.
Phosphorus--see Poisons
Piddington, Rev. Mr.
Pinault, Dr. of Rennes
Pitcairn's trials
Pitois, Dr. his estimate of character of Helene Jegado
Poisons: aqua fortis; arsenic (from fly-papers),(white),(from a
vermicide); cantharides; diamond powder; great spiders; lapis
costitus; mercury (metallic),(corrosive sublimate); phosphorus;
porridge;``rosalgar'' ; strychnine
Poisons, reasons murderesses are inclined to use
Pons, chemist
Porridge, poisoning--see Poisons
Porta, Guglielmo della
Pritchard, Dr, poisoner
Rachel, MME
Rais, Gilles de
Rochester, Viscount--see Carr, Robert
Rohan, the Princes de, their lawsuit v. Sophie Dawes
``Rosalgar''--see Poisons
Roughead, William
Row, breaking on--see Wheel
Rully, Comtesse de
Rumigny, M. de, aide-de-camp to Louis-Philippe
Sabatini, Rafael
Saint-Louis, Liquor of--see
``Fowler's solution
Sarrazin, Rosalie (Jegado victim)
Sarzeau, Dr, his evidence re arsenic in Jegado case
Seddon, poisoner
Smith (``brides in the bath'')
Somerset, Countess of--see Howard, Frances
Somerset, Earl of--see Carr, Robert
Spara, Hieronyma
Spiders, great--see Poisons
Strychnine--see Poisons
Suffolk, Countess of
Suffolk, Earl of--see Howard, Thomas
Tessier, Rose (Jegado victim)
Toffana, poisoner
Turner, Anne; as beauty specialist; her lover; relations with
Countess of Essex; a spy for Northampton (?); causes poisoned food
to be carried to Overbury in the Tower; arrest; trial; condemnation
and execution
Turner, Dr George
Vigoureux, La
Voisin, La
Wade, Sir Willlam
Wainewright, poisoner
Walpole, Horace
Warriston, Lady--see Livingstone, Jean
Webster, Kate
Weir, Robert
Weissmann-Bessarabo, Mme
Weissmann-Bessarabo, Paule Jacques
Weldon, Antony
Wheel,Breaking on the
Winchilsea, Earl of
Zwanziger, Anna

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