Madeleine Smith and her poisonous tale

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SEX, BLACKMAIL, poison and death. With this heady mix it is hardly surprising that one of the most enduring murder cases from the past 150 years is the story of Madeleine Smith.

At her trial in 1857 the whole of Scotland was scandalised by newspaper accounts of pre-marital sex and arsenic poisoning. Yet the young and attractive Miss Smith walked free after a verdict of "not proven". Even today opinion is split as to whether she was framed, or got away with the murder of Emile L'Angelier.

They were introduced in 1855 by Miss Smith's middle-aged neighbour Miss Mary Perry – who herself had become close to Emile L'Angelier. They started to meet in secret and were both prolific letter-writers, correspondence which reveal a passion and physical intimacy that would certainly have shocked her family. Miss Smith refers to herself as Emile's "darling wife" or "Mimi L'Angelier", and Mr L'Angelier presses her to marry. However, Miss Smith is clear-headed enough to realise that her family would never condone a match between them.

When Miss Smith becomes engaged to the wealthy William Minnoch, she asks Mr L'Angelier for the return of her letters, writing: "I trust your honour as a gentleman that you will not reveal anything that may have passed between us."

Mr L'Angelier replies in a thinly veiled blackmail attempt, suggesting that he will give her letters to her father unless she marries him. Miss Smith begs him to see her and not to do anything hasty.

Mr L'Angelier starts a diary which refers to him being ill – especially after visiting Miss Smith in Glasgow. He confides to a number of his friends that he believes he is being poisoned. He tells Miss Perry: "I can't think why I was so unwell after getting that coffee from her … If she were to poison me, I would forgive her."

A third bout of illness on 23 March 1857 was so severe that his landlady called the doctor, who administered morphine. By morning Mr L'Angelier was dead. A post-mortem showed an enormous amount of arsenic in his stomach, and when the police found the letters from Miss Smith she was arrested and charged.

During her trial in Edinburgh Miss Smith, age 22, was represented by the best legal mind of the time, John Inglis, who led a brilliant defence of what he clearly thought was a guilty woman. Although the verdict of "not proven" meant she was free, the shadow of guilt was never close behind.

She subsequently moved to London, where as Lena Smith, she married George Wardle one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. After her divorce she moved to America, where she married for a second time and lived until her death in 1927 at age 93.

There are good arguments both for and against her guilt, and the list below sums up the main issues raised at her trial. It is possible that modern-day forensics may some day solve this crime, but until there is definite proof, we can only wonder if Madeleine Smith was a wanton woman with a great lawyer, or an innocent in a deadly game of revenge and spite.

Evidence against Madeleine

Her letters obviously threatened her with scandal

Her insistence that Emile meet with her

She bought three doses of morphine shortly before Emile died

On the morning of Emile's death, she left her home and travelled alone to the family summerhouse in Rhu

She had carried out a clandestine love affair and was clearly capable of deceit

When her fianc Minnoch caught up with her, she said she was ashamed of something she had done.

Evidence against Emile

Killing Emile would not have averted the scandal, as he still had possession of the letters

There is only Emile's notebook to prove that they did actually meet – no one witnessed any meetings

She bought the first dose of morphine after Emile first records feeling unwell

The morphine she bought was coloured with soot; the morphine found in Emile's stomach was white. (Arsenic sold in chemists was routinely coloured to differentiate it from other household products like flour.)

Emile's friends testified to his use and knowledge of arsenic. Indeed Chambers Journal (July 1856), which he had read, suggests that people who dabbled with arsenic write a letter exonerating friends lest they become implicated in murder

He told his friends that he wanted revenge on Madeline

Emile "coached" Miss Perry, suggesting the notion of poison to her. On the night he took ill, he asked for her – in the expectation that she would alert doctors to the possibility of arsenic poisoning. Fatefully she was delayed in arriving, and by then it was too late.