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Poison April 10, 2016

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

A deeply thought-provoking review here in the Guardian yesterday about a social history of poisoners in the Victorian period. Linda Stratmann’s book, The Secret Poisoner sounds like a genuinely intriguing read, detailing as it does horrors aplenty.

But Kathryn Hughes in her review makes a very valid point:

The most striking thing about Stratmann’s fine account is the light it sheds on domestic desperation. In a time before easy divorce or legal separation, the main reason people poisoned each other was either to obtain a marriage or to get out of one. In the first instance, existing spouses and inconvenient stepchildren were ruthlessly eliminated as impediments to nuptial bliss. In the second scenario, violent husbands and drunken wives were made to disappear in a frantic bid for some kind of peace.


The other motive was money. The book is awash with heiresses of a minor stripe who attract some suburban adventurer fallen on hard times. It rarely goes smoothly. There is always a mother in the mix, some old trout who starts to ask difficult questions about why her darling girl has started looking so peaky ever since you took to hanging around the kitchen when dinner was being prepared. So you end up having to poison her too. And then there’s the maid, who is both nosey and a tattle. To stop her saying what she’s seen, you’re obliged to slip something into her evening cocoa. What had once seemed so simple – stylish, even – has now become a big old vomity mess that ends, more often than not, with you swinging for it.

There’s a lot of glib talk on the right about the supposedly appalling outcomes of the social loosening of the 20th century (and the 1950s and onwards in particular) but it seems to me that what Hughes and Stratmann point to are in part the sometimes murderously stultifying societies that preceded them. But it also often seems to me that the misery of societies enmeshed in social conventions, class structures and gender and other roles that were unnameable to any dissent must have weighed all too heavily upon those who were part of them.


1. 6/5against - April 10, 2016

I read a history of the Medici a few years back and was struck by the number of poisonings in Florence and Rome at the time. It did occur to me though, that some of them at least had surely died of accidental food poisoning which fed into a paranoid world and became a murder. Presumably food hygiene was poor enough at the time.

Maybe that’s an issue here too? But that doesn’t undermine the great point you make in your last paragraph.


WorldbyStorm - April 10, 2016

I’d never thought of that but it makes perfect sense that simple lack of hygiene was responsible for many deaths attributed to poisoning. Isn’t there a book on how basic hygiene techniques of the mid to late 19th century had a massive effect in lowering mortality rates.


2. EWI - April 10, 2016

The British state accidentally tried to poison John Daly in prison with arsenic, before getting caught at it – but P.W. Nally wasn’t so lucky, dying of ‘typhoid fever’ just before his own release.


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