Madeleine Smith: The alleged Victorian poisoner who became a global mystery after she was cleared – Susan Morrison

After Madeleine Smith’s lover died of poisoning, she was sensationally cleared of his murder – and then disappeared, prompting worldwide speculation about where she was

The most famous ‘not proven’ verdict in Scottish legal history was handed down in Edinburgh’s High Court in July 1857. Madeleine Smith may have poisoned Pierre Emile L'Angelier, but the prosecution had failed to make the case. Or perhaps the jury just didn’t like the victim, whom the defence had painted as a mildly foreign, penniless, fortune-hunting cad.

The trial had been a media sensation. And no wonder. It had everything. A young, attractive woman. A man struck down by love and arsenic. And best of all, scorching letters of lust and passion, which were helpfully read out in court.

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When news of the verdict broke, the crowd went wild, mainly in support of Madeleine. Even further afield, the Alloa Advertiser noted that “the announcement of the acquittal before the High Court of Miss Madeleine Smith was received with a hearty cheer”.

Body double’s over-acting

Some in Parliament Square told the press that even if she had done it, he deserved it. The sergeant in charge of keeping order became alarmed. Even happy crowds can be dangerous. Fortunately, he had a solution. A young woman around Madeleine's age and build had been pestering for a quick peek at the prisoner, saying she would “give anything for the privilege”.

He offered the girl “not only a sight of Miss Smith, but also her dress and a douceur (bribe) besides if she would represent her in cab in order to disperse the mob from the square. She undertook the job, and was dressed accordingly.” By Miss Smith herself.

Scottish 'gentlewoman' Madeleine Smith, pictured in 1857, was accused of murdering her former lover, Pierre Emile L'Anglier, by poisoning him with arsenic (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)Scottish 'gentlewoman' Madeleine Smith, pictured in 1857, was accused of murdering her former lover, Pierre Emile L'Anglier, by poisoning him with arsenic (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Scottish 'gentlewoman' Madeleine Smith, pictured in 1857, was accused of murdering her former lover, Pierre Emile L'Anglier, by poisoning him with arsenic (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

For the price of a few bawbees and a good frock, our girl was game for the chase. Moments later, dressed and veiled “out came the fabricated girl in nearly fainting state”. Possibly getting a bit too much into the role, there. She was bundled through the crowd and “with some little difficulty got into the carriage along with the usual police, off drove the vehicle at breakneck pace, followed by the whole rabble”. The square was empty in minutes.

At the same time, “Miss Smith… put on a different dress, with a coloured veil, quietly walked away, accompanied her brother and another young gentleman, to the front of St Giles's church, where a cab was in waiting, and entering it quietly… drove away to Slateford, where she met the Caledonian train to Glasgow”. It was the first of Madeleine Smith’s vanishing acts. But, as she discovered, when any high-profile celebrity disappears, the void they leave fills with false news and fake sightings.

‘We don’t believe it’

Where did Madeleine go? The Inverness Advertiser asserted that not long after her trial, Madeleine had married a teacher in a town "a hundred miles from Linlithgow”, but that the marriage had soured when her husband discovered her true identity and died of despair. Madeleine, it was said, had followed him to the grave, dying “of a broken heart”. She most certainly didn’t.

The Madeleine Smith story had a global reach. The Glasgow Herald of March 14, 1858 reported that the Australian Ballarat Times claimed the “arrival of Madeleine Smith, the alleged poisoner of L'Angelier, in the colony”, then brutally stiffs the colonial press with the bracketed quote: “(We don't believe it.)”

America was another possible bolt-hole. The Ballarat Times relied on its dodgy sources again with a story claiming that the legendary Lola Montez was waiting to greet Miss Smith upon her arrival in New York. She wasn’t and she didn’t, but the pairing of Madeleine and Lola was believable. There was a rumour that Madeleine was about to emulate Lola and hit the stage to re-enact her tale. Many denounced her as a shameless hussy over this, completely overlooking that she probably poisoned her lover.

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New York was ready to meet the notorious Madeleine. When some New Yorkers heard that she had taken passage on the Cunard liner ‘Asia’ they determined to give her best welcome the Big Apple could lay on, with “a public reception”. But alas, as reported in the Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser on Saturday August 29, 1857, an “error had arisen from the fact that a Dutch lady named Mathilde Schmidt, was among the passengers”.

"The committee of reception… were shown to the cabin of the ‘fat, fair, and 40’ Mathilde Schmidt. Their chairman and spokesman had hardly commenced his prepared speech, when he was interrupted by something which sounded very much like ‘Nix furstang – nix spreich Anglish!’” the paper reported. “The committee were thunderstruck. They knew well that the dialect was not Scottish, and concluding that there must be some mistake, gathered up their hats and left in disgust.”

New life in New York

So where was Madeleine Smith? Plymouth, for a short time. She’s listed in the 1861 census, under the name Lena Smith. Later that year she married George Young Wardle, an artist and designer. Lena and George moved in artistic circles. He was a friend of that darling of the pre-Raphelites, Rossetti. George knew who she really was, of course, as did some of their friends. In fact, it is said that Rossetti wrote a scathing little sketch about Mrs Wardle’s past, and that George was nervous when she gave him “that look”. Despite that, they had two children, a boy and a girl.

The marriage ended in the 1890s. Separated from George, Lena Wardle finally headed for New York. There was no reception committee, only her son, but America let Lena re-invent herself again as a 36-year-old woman (she was actually 58) and marry again, to William Sheehy.

By 1920, she was living comfortably on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. Madeleine Smith died in 1928. She’s buried in New York, under the name Lena Sheehy. She was 91. In Glasgow’s Ramshorn Cemetery, a name is barely visible on a weather-worn tombstone. It is steadily vanishing. It reads “L'Angelier”.



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