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The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder

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Murder by poison alarmed, enthralled, and in many ways encapsulated the Victorian age. Linda Stratmann’s dark and splendid social history reveals the nineteenth century as a gruesome battleground where poisoners went head-to-head with authorities who strove to detect poisons, control their availability, and bring the guilty to justice. She corrects many misconceptions about particular poisons and documents how the evolution of issues such as marital rights and the legal protection of children impacted poisonings. Combining archival research with a novelist’s eye, Stratmann charts the era’s inexorable rise of poison cases both shocking and sad.

525 pages, Kindle Edition

First published April 26, 2016

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About the author

Linda Stratmann

43 books55 followers
Linda Stratmann is a British writer of historical true crime, biography and crime fiction.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 43 reviews
Profile Image for Leah.
1,432 reviews221 followers
May 8, 2016
The science of murder...

Liberally illustrated by true tales of crimes from the Victorian era, the book's real focus is on advances and developments in the science of detection and the prosecution of poisoning cases. In each chapter, Stratmann looks at one aspect of these and gives one or more examples to show their impact in practice.

Stratmann opens with the case of Eliza Fenning, a maidservant hanged for the attempted poisoning of her employers. This case came to be seen as a major miscarriage of justice, highlighting the inadequacies of the justice system as it related to poisoning cases. Cases were dependant on proof of two things – that the victim had in fact been poisoned, and that the accused had deliberately administered the poison. The science at the time was so weak that proof of the first part was almost entirely dependent on observation of the victim's symptoms, and the second was complicated by the fact that poisons were readily available without any safeguards, and in fact were often used in small doses as medicines.

Arsenic was the poison most often suspected in the early days of the period, and at this time women were the ones most likely to be accused of using it. Although the focus of the book is on the science, Stratmann also touches on the social conditions behind many of the cases she discusses. Arsenic was easily obtainable and simple to use, and its use as a rat poison meant that there was nothing particularly suspicious about women buying it. At the time, divorce was difficult, especially for the poor, and especially for women. While men could divorce an unfaithful wife, a woman could only divorce her husband for much worse things; for example, if he was violent or deserted her. Married women had no property rights – whereas a widow could inherit her husband's property. So the temptation to do away with a brutal (or sometimes just boring) husband was always there...

But it wasn't only inconvenient husbands who could be disposed of with relative ease. During this period, the Government changed the law so that an unmarried mother could no longer get maintenance from her child's father through the court. Add to this the rise of 'burial clubs' – an insurance scheme where payouts greater than the cost of the funeral would be made on the death of the insured – and it's hardly surprising there was a rise in the number of cases of infanticide amongst the poor. Stratmann makes two interesting points about these cases – firstly, that women murdering their children tended to use laudanum rather than arsenic because it was a 'kinder' death, causing less suffering to the victim; and, secondly, that juries, who probably had a good understanding of the impossible poverty some women found themselves in, tended to take a more sympathetic and lenient view of such cases than we might expect from Victorian men.

Stratmann makes the point that, although there were indeed many poisoning cases in the period, much of the hysteria around the apparent prevalence of poisoning was due in large part to the effect of 'moral panic', as the media and special interest groups whipped up fear amongst the populace for their own advantage. The new Pharmacists Association and the forerunner of the British Medical Association saw panic over poisons as a means to boost recognition of their own professions as the best people to sell and control drugs, while nothing sells more newspapers than a horrific murder and, preferably, a good public hanging to follow.

As the science of detection gradually improved and the Government slowly began to take measures to make the purchase of arsenic a little harder, the focus changed somewhat to vegetable alkaloids, such as the infamous strychnine. Since these poisons were harder to get hold off and in some cases required a bit of knowledge to use effectively, the 'moral panic' pendulum swung and it was now men who were seen as the main poisoners, especially well-educated, respectable men. Again Stratmann raises some interesting points here, such as the reluctance of doctors called in to such cases to suggest poisoning because of the elevated social positions of the 'suspects'. She gives us examples of cases where a wife would be slowly poisoned, with her attending physicians suspecting poison for days, even weeks, before death but doing nothing constructive to stop it. The British class system at play as usual – isn't it great?

Meantime, the science was improving but unfortunately the egos of the scientists were growing alongside. Now both prosecution and defence would call 'expert witnesses' who would battle it out in court, more interested sometimes in their own reputations than in the guilt or innocence of the accused. This had the double effect of making it next to impossible for jury members to decide on scientific points they didn't understand, while undermining public faith in science in general. In some of the examples Stratmann cites here, I was frankly glad I hadn't been on the jury, as both sides set out to destroy the reputation of the other. She also compares the British system to the French, where the court would appoint its own expert, thus avoiding this kind of courtroom confrontation (but also meaning that perhaps too much reverence and faith was placed on one man's opinion).

So, interesting stuff. Unfortunately overall, I found the interesting bits were pretty deeply submerged under a lot of scientific stuff I didn't really understand and didn't think was explained clearly enough for the layperson. Also, there are far too many examples of cases given, all complete with very similar gruesome descriptions of vomiting, bodily excretions, autopsies and horrific scientific experimentation, mainly on dogs. All the cases eventually merged into one mass of yuckiness – a few cases more carefully chosen would have been much more effective, in my opinion. By the final few chapters, I was skipping over the cases, and the science, I must admit, to get to the little bits of interest to me. In the end, I felt it was all too detailed and had too much repetition of points already made. However, it is undoubtedly a thoroughly researched and well written book which will be a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the science, justice system or social conditions of the time. 3½ stars for me, so rounded up.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,384 reviews582 followers
September 3, 2016
This is the case history and forensics outcomes for numerous cases of poisoning during the 1800's.

Most of the cases are European- and involve testing patterns that were just being learned. In most cases, these herald at nearly the birth of forensics for examining organs or recovered residue to prove poisoning had occurred.

It's a difficult read. Case study histories do not connect and the chemical and law bound dictates of place and time are innumerable. For instance, the categories of poisons most commonly used as murder weapons. Those are difficult and lengthy, as well. Especially the alkaloids, plant substance acting compounds, not yet isolated or in most cases, named.

I would not recommend this book to other than a person interested in forensic science, chemicals and chemistry, and maybe an interest in the origins of laws and criteria for pharmacy.

The research and the photo plates are awesome and truly convey what the "eyes" of the times held for these deciding issues for further laws and also for consequence to the perpetrators.
Profile Image for Cleopatra  Pullen.
1,364 reviews296 followers
April 2, 2016
The Secret Poisoner concentrates mainly on those who made it to trial in the nineteenth century.

This isn’t just a book about the alleged poisoners and their possible victims though, it is about the birth of the expert witness, the different poisons available to both the typical poisoner; the wife, the servant or the offspring in hope of money but also those most feared of poisoners the medical men who did away with their patients under the guise of healing them and the judges who sentenced the perpetrators of this ‘cowardly crime’

There were various reasons for committing this particular crime and although the book doesn’t go into much detail as to the cause this book captures four cases that detail servants with a grudge against their employers, six poisoners who wanted to do away with inconvenient spouses or relatives and seven people who committed the crime for financial gain and these are just those who used the most common poison of the early nineteenth century, arsenic. The description of the death by this particular poison is gut-wrenching, although not as bad as for the poor victims!

The book also touches on the use of other poisons too, in particular laudanum which was the most common poison used on children, sometimes as an accidentally large dose to keep the little one quiet, but far more disquieting was those parents who used this drug to access the insurance taken out on their offspring’s lives.

This is a comprehensive book, with information about the scientists who devised tests for detecting poison in the body of the deceased, these tests were often demonstrated in court by the experts, many of whom it appeared were playing their own game of one-upmanship sometimes with disastrous consequences. Sadly the descriptions of the tests themselves had me no more interested than I was many moons ago in my chemistry lessons, but I understood enough to get the gist (I think!)

We also learn how frightened poisoning left the population at this time with stories in the press gleefully pouring out the details of the trials to their readers. In response to the public clamouring for action, the Pharmaceutical Society wrote a report to ensure that the sale of poisons became more regulated, athough this took a shockingly long time to make it into law finally

This book covers poisoners predominantly in the United Kingdom and France, although some Americans make an appearance towards the end of the book. Some of the crimes detailed were familiar, such as that of Glaswegian, Madeline Smith was accused of murdering her secret lover Pierre Emile L’Angeier who died from arsenic poisoning in 1857, as well as many that I'd never heard of before.

I don’t think there is a more comprehensive look at this particular type of crime and this book is quite dense, I certainly don’t recommend it as light reading, nor is it for those who easily feel queasy, believe me I’ve only lightly touched upon some of the unpleasant descriptions in-between these pages! The danger of course with the sheer volume of research packed into the book is that the crimes described can begin to merge into one, and as a result I did feel that it wasn’t always clear how this related to the laws being passed to prevent it, nor the increased chance of discovery due to the clever scientists. Despite that mild criticism which is easily overcome by not trying to pack this into a beginning to end reading experience, it was a simply fascinating read, particularly as the author rounds of her book with brief descriptions of some modern poisoners!

I’d like to say a big thank you to the publishers Yale University Press, London for allowing me to read a copy of this book, this review is my thank you to them. If you want to know anything at all about nineteenth century poisoners then The Secret Poisoner was published on 22 March 2016 so you can fill your boots with Linda Stratmann’s meticulous research.
Profile Image for Bruce Gargoyle.
874 reviews143 followers
March 17, 2016
I received a digital copy of this title from the publisher via Netgalley.

Ten Second Synopsis:
A comprehensive coverage of cases of murder using poison in the Victorian age and the scientific discoveries that advanced the cause of forensic medicine.

This is an ultra-thorough coverage of the use of poison in Victorian age murders (mostly in England and France) and the advances in forensic chemistry that allowed the law to gain convictions for murder by poison based on physical evidence. The format of this book consists of collections of actual cases of murder, attempted murder or suspected murder from the time period, interspersed with information about the scientists and chemists whose discoveries allowed for more efficient and accurate means of detecting poison in the deceased. The cases are well selected to demonstrate how court cases succeeded or failed upon the strength of the scientific evidence provided – or in some cases, how public opinion swayed the outcome of certain trials when the science was not yet developed sufficiently to keep pace with the kind of evidence that would provide the jury with the information needed to reasonably acquit or convict. The book focuses also on the gender and class issues surrounding poison murders, with women and the poorer classes seemingly more likely to use widely available and easily accessible poisons (both mineral and vegetable) to commit dastardly deeds.

While I was very engaged with the information early on in the book, by the halfway point, I started to feel as if I had seen all this before. Each chapter follows the same structure, beginning with a case study and the assertion that this case was pivotal in advancing either the science of poison detection or the laws related to availability of poisons, followed by a look at the key scientists of the time and their work, succeeded by a bunch of other murder case studies. Similarly, each murder case study followed a very similar format: the details of the victim and murderer, the instance in which the victim fell sick and died (or didn’t, as the case may be), the exhumation of the victim (and in some cases, other corpses that, in hindsight, may have suffered the same fate by the same hand), the court case, the conviction (or acquittal) and the execution (or transportation or getting-off-scot-free!). Even though the introduction notes that the author left out many interesting cases that were too similar to the ones included, I feel that a good deal more slashing and hacking could have been done in the selection process for the various cases presented.

Despite the fact that the book is long and could have done with a bit more fussiness in the selection of the cases presented, I was nevertheless fascinated with some of the information revealed here. Some of the cases, particularly relating to memorable murderers who seemed quite happy to top their own children (as well as any number of other people’s offspring) almost beggared belief, but serves as a good reminder as to how common infant and child mortality were during the Victorian age, such that communities might not think it strange that a woman’s husband, five children, three step-children and the next-door-neighbour’s cat might all die within a week of each other, for instance. I would recommend this one for fans of forensic investigation TV shows, who are looking for a blast from the past as to how the experts got their man (or more commonly, woman) back in the Victorian day.
Profile Image for Margaret McCulloch-Keeble.
774 reviews10 followers
April 18, 2016
My book group 'won' a set of this title from The Reading Agency via Reading Groups for Everyone. I think I'm first to finish it, so I'll post a group review later. To begin with I found it fascinating and highly educational. By the end I found it quite repetitive and a wee bit dry. I was grateful for the glossary a couple of times, but felt smug enough not to need it too often!
Profile Image for Irka.
248 reviews25 followers
November 3, 2018
Standardowo ocena w dół za literówki których szczerze nienawidzę. Poza tym mocno popularno-naukowo. Choć o większości spraw sporo słyszałam/czytałam to jednak ta książka mnie rozczarowała, po tytule spodziewałam się czegoś "bardziej". Jak ktoś ma chęć na ciekawostki na długie jesienne wieczory to OK, ale jak ktoś szuka czegoś bardziej naukowego i ma jako takie pojęcie o temacie to odradzam bo wynudzi się niemiłosiernie.
If you look for a book that is a set of press articles this one is for you, but if look for something more scientific I suggest to look somewhere else.
79 reviews2 followers
September 24, 2016
The Secret Poisoner
By Linda Stratmann

Murder by poison alarmed, enthralled, and in many ways encapsulated the Victorian age. Linda Stratmann's dark and splendid social history reveals the nineteenth century as a gruesome battleground where poisoners went head-to-head with authorities who strove to detect poisons, control their availability, and bring the guilty to justice. She corrects many misconceptions about particular poisons and documents how the evolution of issues such as marital rights and the legal protection of children impacted poisonings. Combining archival research with a novelist's eye, Stratmann charts the era's relationship and fascination with poisons, poisoners and their affects on society in Europe, but especially in England.

This is an extremely readable book, and is part history, part academic presentation, and part forensic textbook. For anyone fascinated by forensics, murder, murders and their weapons of choice, this is a thoroughly absorbing reading experience.

Although meticulously and thoroughly researched, this author has the eye for detail, and the voice for expression of a novelist, and the resulting combination kept me reading from the first page to the last, and enjoying the experience.

I will only say that if you are squeamish or have a sensitive digestive system, this might not be the book for you, since there are comprehensive details of the symptoms and actions of various poisons on the human body, and descriptions of autopsy results …that probably shouldn’t be read while, or just after, eating.

This aside, I can thoroughly recommend this incredibly informative, thorough, thought provoking, and yes, even entertaining book.

Profile Image for Krystelle Fitzpatrick.
609 reviews31 followers
January 2, 2021
A deep dive into the history of poisons, I found myself reading parts of this book out to my lightly concerned family as it was simply so interesting. There's a lot to be found in here, and it was a fascinating journey, but it did end up dragging on a little eventually when it came to the second half of the book. A little truncation would have gone a long way- however, it still has a lot of value for those who are overly invested in the dark underside of humanity.
Profile Image for sami.
45 reviews
May 4, 2021
experiencing an incredible turnaround on the subject of chemistry after this, i like it now and think it’s cool. much to ponder.

as a book it’s kind of gross and disturbing, but also pretty academically elucidating and sometimes really fascinating in a pulpy way. i liked it as entertainment but i think it would be a pretty good research resource too.
Profile Image for Bonnie.
462 reviews8 followers
August 20, 2016
Nom Nom Nom! I ate this book up! I saw this as an ARC on some website and wanted it but didn't fit their criteria. Luckily, my library ordered it and I borrowed it immediately!

This is a book about the evolution of toxicology forensics and poison laws (mainly in the UK) in the 19th century, peppered liberally with different court cases. The book starts at the turn of the century and each chapter focuses on either a type of poison or a motive, with one or two main court cases to back up the theme and a smattering of other cases mentioned with less detail. By the time we make it through the book, we're at the beginning of the 20th century, having made vast advancements in the toxicology field.

Stratmann makes the stories real by using contemporary eye witness accounts and newspaper stories that are annotated within each chapter. A word of warning to dog lovers, there was a lot of testing poisons on dogs and the author goes into graphic detail. The descriptions of suffering from poisoning (especially by children and babies) were hard to read at times. Her bias comes out in some of the cases, especially those that end in acquittals, but it's a common theme in the book that poisoning usually results in circumstantial evidence as a poisoner doesn't tend to poison their victims in the presence of others, so it was difficult for juries to find them guilty.

There are problems with the book that come with the territory of a book such as this. Namely, so much information is being introduced that you have to really pay attention to keep everything straight. It seems as though every woman in the 1800s was a Mary, Elizabeth, or Jane and with multiple cases with multiple Marys floating around in each chapter, this did require the rereading of some paragraphs to make everything clear .

For as much information that is put into this book, it would leave the true crime aficionado wanting more. I had already read a case study of Madeline Smith and the information here was incomplete, but it’s a good start to learn about different cases that may have slipped under the radar and Stratmann includes a bibliography and plenty of citations to help you on your search.
Profile Image for The Wordsworm.
16 reviews
August 11, 2016
I received an ebook ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to NetGalley and Yale University Press for providing me with this copy.

Linda Stratmann is best known as a Crime Fiction writer, and confesses a fascination with the Victorian era, and Victorian Crime. It feels as though this book is a culmination of the research which goes into her Victorian Crime novels.

The narrative voice maintains a Dickensian vibe in between quotes from newspapers, essays, letters, court records, trial records, and other published sources from the era. It feels comfortable and fitting.

There is a lot of passion in this book. Stratmann’s Author’s Note explains that although she avoids gory gruesome details in her Frances Doughty novels, in this book she will not spare the reader’s stomach. She also explains that she doesn’t intend the book to be a compendium of poison murders. Rather than present a list of unconnected, renowned cases, it is a story of “a duel of wits and resources”. Stratmann tells the stories of the poison cases, the characters involved, the fate of the victim, and who got punished and how they were convicted. They are all worthy of Miss Marple, Poirot, and Jessica Fletcher. The motives for murder are mostly passion, greed or revenge, but a couple are shockingly cold, seemingly just for the sake of the act of murder itself.

Each case described justifies its place in the book, showing how it affected policy and law-making; how both poisons were sold, and how poisoning prosecutions were conducted. Newspaper coverage at the time becomes part of these stories, influencing public opinion.

Notable figures in the emerging science of toxicology working to develop poison detection techniques add to the drama. Vengeful acts weren’t only reserved for the perpetrators of poisonings. In this competitive circle of innovation is a dramatic story of pride, jealousy, shattered reputations, misappropriated glory, and accusations of sabotage.

The Secret Poisoner paints a picture of Victorian society, before welfare reforms, and at the birth of modern science. Ugly characteristics of human beings sit alongside the more noble attributes. Even if non-fiction isn’t your genre of choice, this is still a page-turner full of dubious characters and unexpected twists.
Profile Image for Jennifer (JC-S).
2,964 reviews203 followers
April 1, 2016
‘Poison murders are, with few exceptions, usually planned and rarely the result of an altercation or a sudden fit of temper, as is so often the case with crimes of violence.’

Murder by poisoning in the Victorian age was comparatively easy. Poison, in various forms, was both cheap and readily available. In this book, using particular cases, Linda Stratmann writes about the availability of poison, about advances in detecting poison, and about developing controls over the availability and sale of poison.

It was, as Ms Stratmann points out, difficult to prove the act of poisoning even if the cause of death seemed clear. Identifying the cause of death wasn’t always easy: some poisonings would not have been identified, others would have been (mis) diagnosed as cholera. With poisoning, unlike most other forms of murder, it is possible that the cause of death could be considered natural.

But who are the poisoners? Given that the murderer needs both the ability to obtain poison and the opportunity to administer it, the closeness generally required in preparing food or administering medicine would provide opportunity for introducing poison. Women poisoners, according to analysis for the period between 1750 and 1914, are most likely to be the mother, wife, other family member or servant of the victim. Men are most likely to be husband, father, medical attendant, lover, son or friend.

I found this book fascinating, especially reading about the advances in detecting the presence of poison. It’s not for the squeamish: there’s a lot of detail provided. I’d not previously read about some of the cases Ms Stratmann has included in her book. Consider Christiana Edmunds, a spinster living in Brighton, who became obsessed with her doctor, and in 1870 tried to kill his wife with poisoned chocolates. Her attempt failed, but she tried to divert suspicion onto the chocolate sellers, Maynard’s, by leaving packets of their chocolate creams (laced with strychnine) around Brighton. She was eventually apprehended, but not until after a four year old boy, Sidney Albert Barker, had died.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Yale University Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
Profile Image for Carissa.
379 reviews9 followers
October 6, 2018
This is a very interesting, surprisingly dense book. It's good for reading off and on as the details otherwise run together. Either way, a fascinating look at one deadly aspect of Victorian Life.
Profile Image for Debbie.
3,274 reviews61 followers
March 22, 2016
"The Secret Poisoner" was primarily a collection of true crime stories from the 1800s. These cases happened mainly in Great Britain and France, and they all involved poisons. Arsenic was the poison most frequently used in the cases brought to trial, so we learn a lot about it. The author also covered some less frequently used poisons, like laudanum and vegetable poisons. I've read about some of these cases before, but most of them were new to me.

We're also told about developments in scientific testing that allowed these poisons to be detected, laws proposed to added safe-guards on who could buy poisons, and how society viewed poisoners. The author also described the difficulties in proving a murder charge in a poisoning case and how science experts fared when giving testimony.

The writing wasn't difficult to understand and flowed well. While scientific tests were briefly described, the book was not technical in nature. The descriptions of the vomit and other effects of poison, the stomach contents, and the state of old corpses could get rather gross. They were graphically described using what sounded like witness reports from the trials. Overall, I'd recommend this book to true crime fans with an interest in poisoning cases.

I received an ebook review copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.
Profile Image for Lorena.
Author 9 books500 followers
December 28, 2017
I read this book as part of my immersion in nineteenth century London and New York, and it had exactly what I needed to write an episode on a poisoning mystery. Poisonings were all the fad during the Victorian era since only a few poisons were traceable. It was an easy way knock off a rich relative who wasn't dying fast enough, a complaining wife, a drunken husband, the boss who fired you. It seems that the leading forensic scientists of the day were in a race with the more creative poisoners to identify especially plant-based poisons in human tissue.

I found the poison I intend to use, and I learned some of the procedures then used in the laboratories to separate the poison and identify it. The main obstacle to solving a poisoning was often the coroner, especially in nineteenth century New York. The position was a political appointment, and many were corrupt drunkards more interested in getting a payoff from the funeral home for the quick delivery of a body than performing a proper autopsy -- which they didn't know how to do anyway. If someone wanted a decent autopsy done, Bellevue Hospital was the only game in town. Hope I am not conflating this bit about coroners with another book...I've been speed reading so many of them for research lately. Anyway, highly recommend this one for Victorianageophiles.
Profile Image for Mystereity Reviews.
778 reviews45 followers
December 7, 2016
See this review and more on my blog Mystereity Reviews

What a great book! Very well organized and thoroughly researched, the book neatly lays out the progression of forensic toxicology in the 1800s, encompassing some truly outrageous poisonings in England, France and even in the United States. I don't know what surprised me more, how many people got away with it, or how many people were found guilty of their crimes. Forensic toxicology was in its infancy during the nineteenth century and some of the techniques used to find poisons in the body after death were ingenious. Equally amazing was that many scientists would take samples from the stomach, intestines and vomit of the poison victim and taste a small amount. Good grief, that takes a lot of guts (pun intended.)

Warning: there are numerous references to animals being experimented on, so if you're an animal lover, you may find it hard to read at times (I know I did.)

Absorbing and horrifying, The Secret Poisoner will appeal to fans of true crime or forensic science.
Profile Image for mica.
432 reviews4 followers
November 11, 2017
CN - discusses domestic abuse, sexual violence, murder, cruel and unethical 19th century tests on animals

This book was engaging and interesting, and, at times, despite its morbid topic, I had a hard time putting it down.

It does have a fairly repetitive format - describe the people, then the motives, then the crime, then the investigation or the trial, but I found Stratmann's prose interesting enough that I didn't really mind. I will say, however, that about halfway through I kept vaguely hoping that somehow everyone would live happily ever after (yeaaaaah that didn't happen).

It had a concise notes section (which I always appreciate), and I was impressed at Stratmann's ability to convey information clearly and concisely, and in a way that I believe is relatively accessible.
Profile Image for T.G. Campbell.
Author 16 books105 followers
March 6, 2017
An excellent reference book. Each chapter is well-written and organised for ease of reading. I'd highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in true crime who isn't a writer or academic, too. Linda relates true cases to support her explanations of how poisoners committed their crimes, how science evolved in its efforts to detect poisons and thereby catch the poisoners, and how the political & legal landscapes evolved with challenges, revelations & outcomes of each case. I particularly liked the subtle reference to the Kate Summerscale work, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, in one of Linda's chapters. A great read!
Profile Image for Mandy.
3,217 reviews278 followers
March 20, 2016
This well-researched and comprehensive examination of poisonings, poisoners and the development of technologies to deal with them is both entertaining and illuminating. Focussing primarily on the nineteenth century, the author looks at a number (perhaps too many) real-life cases and explores how the law, medicine, the new science of toxicology, plus more humane social attitudes all combined to create new approaches. Personally I felt that the author looked at just too many incidents as they all seemed to merge into one after a while, but overall I enjoyed the book and learnt a lot from it.
Profile Image for Abbi.
405 reviews
February 7, 2017
Though it was a lot of details on poisoning cases and there was a plethora of quotes from cases/legal aspects, it was very well written and interesting. Sometimes it was a bit hard to follow the organization with some stories being interrupted by other similar cases and then coming back to the initial poisoning cases. I appreciated the detail of the symptoms of the poisons and how UK tried to limit purchases to control criminal use. Definitely recommend as a resource for anyone writing murder mystery novels.
Profile Image for Leyla Johnson.
1,334 reviews14 followers
March 20, 2016
What an intriguing book, with real cases dating back and giving the history of poison used and its detection in crime. I was interesting also to read of how many people actually got away with poisoning family members - and yes a lot where women. A very interesting and fascinating book, not one to be read at one sitting, but to dip into from time to time and absorb the history and the atmosphere of the eras.
This book was provided to me in return for an honest and unbiased review
Profile Image for Kristin.
402 reviews1 follower
November 3, 2016
It seems fitting that I started this book on Halloween. This was a fascinating look at forensics, poison control, and the legal system in Victorian (mostly) England through quite a few poisoning cases. Seeing the progression of detection of various poisons was really interesting and the very slowly changing laws were frustrating. The ties to social mores and class divisions was also very interesting.
542 reviews3 followers
March 11, 2017
It is mostly case studies of poisoners who got away with murder. It just wasn't as engaging as I hoped it would be. I also got a bit frustrated with the author's grand pronouncements about the case being one that would change how the justice system would be forever changed by it and then the murderer would get off. It seemed counter to the claim
Profile Image for Matthew Mccrady.
70 reviews
August 3, 2016
An interesting book, although poisoning murders are a little on the boring side, as homicides go. Better to read this book as a history of the development 19th century forensic medicine, rather than a chilling collection of true-crime tales.
Profile Image for Stacy.
Author 42 books204 followers
May 15, 2017
Dense and fascinating history of the criminal and social trends around various poisons in Victorian society. The information is well-organized and presented in an engaging manner, although the volume of example cases may inspire more casual readers to flip ahead through chunks of the work.
Profile Image for Nettie.
316 reviews
March 29, 2016
I received a free copy of this from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

This book is absolutely fascinating. Extremely well researched and written. Well worth a read.
Profile Image for Hilary.
1 review
August 5, 2023
A legitimately good book that is both a good read and well researched. Footnotes were informative and I often read them to gain more information. I highly recommend to anyone interested in cases of poisoning (and reasons for doing so) in the Victorian Era. I appreciated reflections on how social discourse and scientific developments shaped early forensics, detection techniques, and law of the land. There were a couple of social references like that of women's rights (reproductive and social) that rang a poignant "have we learned nothing?" bell.

My only caution is that there is liberal mention of poison testing on animals. None of it is graphic or needlessly grituitous, but it might be disturbing to certain individuals. Since these mentions are not isolated to specific to one part of the book, I would avoid if this will disrupt your enjoyment of the text
Profile Image for Lavinia Thompson.
Author 14 books32 followers
May 2, 2021
With a mix of stories, true cases, facts and sometimes startling statistics, Stratmann takes us into the dark world of poison and the murderers who have utilized the various ones over the past decades. She takes the reader all the way back into the nineteenth century to look at the oldest of poisons used for murder: arsenic. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. If I am to nitpick on the minor flaws, some of the sentences were very run-on and it felt like the book ended abruptly, but I didn't feel like it wrecked my reading experience. It is insightful, informative and intriguing enough to forgive those. As a mystery author myself, this will be a great reference book to keep on hand!
Profile Image for Mel Yuan.
16 reviews2 followers
August 22, 2021
Good for lovers of true crime. Traces the history of poisoning crimes through the 1800s and how the scientific, medical, and legal fraternities did, and did not, keep up. Gives satisfying gruesome details of the crimes themselves plus stories of the reactions by the doctors, police, and scientists involved in the cases. Especially interesting are the examination of gender roles and the legal situation for women of the time. Paints a compelling portrait of life in those times in England and France, when children could go and buy a pennyworth of white arsenic at the grocers.
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