On 30 June 1857 the trial of Madeleine Smith began. A young woman from a prosperous Glasgow family, Smith was charged with, on three separate occasions, administering arsenic or other poison to Pierre Emile L’Angelier with intent to kill, twice in February and once in March 1857. It was this accusation and the subsequent trial which brought to light the great volume of letters which had secretly passed between them. Presented as evidence of Madeleine and Emile’s relationship and meetings, these letters formed a core part of the trial, and because of their frank expressions of desire and affection, they scandalised and excited the Victorian public of the time.
Madeleine Smith’s story has captured the imagination of many historians, playwrights, film makers and the general public since it was reported in 1857. Having been the subject of many re-interpretations and productions (including a musical), it is no wonder that the story of Smith and her love affair have persisted until this day. But why is this the case?
Her trial led to the revelation of lascivious letters that were shocking because of her gender and class, but also because of the explicit statement of her enjoyment in sexual activity.
“My nightdress was on when you saw me. Would to God you had been in the same attire. We would be happy”
In the context of her time, this was a shocking revelation as, although it was not unexpected that woman would enjoy sex, it was understood that this would and could only happen within the marital bed. While the tantalising story of a doomed romance ending in a possible murder still has an attractive hook for a story today, it is likely the ‘whodunnit’ element of Smith’s case which continues to capture the imagination.
Taken into custody on 31 March 1857, Smith was accused of administering poison, but due to a lack of evidence the Crown could not prove that it was Madeleine who had killed L’Angelier. This lack of evidence and a magnificent defence led the jury to return the sensational verdict ‘not proven’. A unique characteristic of Scottish law, a verdict of ‘not proven’ is an acquittal with the same effect as ‘not guilty’. It has been wryly suggested however that the meaning of “not proven” is closer to ‘we think you did it, but the prosecution couldn’t prove it’. This verdict allows nuance between ‘Proven’ and ‘Not Guilty’, allowing the jury to specify whether the evidence alone provides enough proof of the accused’s guilt or innocence (although the verdict itself carries an implication of guilt). This inability to prove that Smith was responsible for Pierre Emile L’Angelier’s death has kept the public intrigued, with many retellings and reviews of the evidence presented in an attempt to prove once and for all whether she was guilty, or not guilty.
While we cannot solve this murder mystery, we can offer a tantalising glimpse in to the Madeleine Smith archive, consisting of her declaration, letters, transcripts and the physical productions which were used in her trial. These include the purchased arsenic bottle, the forensic containers used for post-mortem chemical tests, the chocolate purportedly used to administer the poison and more. On display from 1 August to 1 September, some of these never-before exhibited items will be on show in General Register House’s Matheson Dome in ‘Famous Scots from the Past’. Featuring some of Scotland’s most remarkable historical characters, productions from Madeleine Smith’s trial will be on show alongside records relating to three other individuals. Who will they be? Kings or Queens? Thinkers or Doers? Come along to this Fringe Festival Exhibition and discover more about our shared history, and the unique records held in our archives.
Jocelyn Grant, Outreach Archivist
National Records of Scotland
- Murder and Morality in Victorian Britain: The Story of Madeleine Smith, Eleanor Gordon and Gwyneth Nair
- The Strange Affair of Madeleine Smith: Victorian Scotland’s Trial of the Century, Douglas MacGowan
- Lives of Scottish Women: Women and Scottish Society, 1800-1980, William W.J. Knox