The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder by Linda Stratmann – a BBC Radio 2 Book Club choice – is a dark and splendid social history that exposes one of the more sinister sides of nineteenth-century life: domestic poisoning. The book delves into the newspapers, journals and courtroom accounts of the time to expose the poisoners, whose increasingly cunning attempts at concealing their crimes were the torment of the authorities.
To mark the publication of this absorbing new book, we asked Linda Stratmann to share her insights about the criminals she’s studied, why she can feel sympathy for some, and what continues to chill and inspire her.
An Interview with Linda Stratmann, author of The Secret Poisoner
Yale University Press: Who do you feel was the cleverest of the poisoners you encountered during your research?
Linda Stratmann: This is not to say that I have any admiration for him, but Graham Young showed the most extraordinary ingenuity in obtaining supplies of rare and deadly poisons when one might have thought it was impossible. Of course like many a criminal he was clever in one way but foolish in another, giving himself away by being unable to resist showing off his knowledge.
YUP: Did you feel sympathy for any of the criminals in the book?
LS: I feel great sympathy for Ann Rothwell, whose common law husband stripped her home of all its contents before deserting her and her child, driving her to commit murder and almost succeed in suicide.
YUP: After having immersed yourself in the world of the Victorian poisoner, do you think that poisoning is largely a crime of the past?
LS: I think it is rarer than it once was because many of the social issues that led to this kind of crime are long gone, poison is less available and also the risk of detection is much higher. But cases do still occur.
YUP: Some of the stories you’ve unearthed from history still have the power to shock, chill and horrify us today – did you feel haunted by any of the cases you wrote about?
LS: Some crimes do haunt me and they are always the ones that involve children. For that reason Chapter 7 was an especially challenging one to write. The case I keep coming back to is that of Daniel and William Farr, who were both under the age of ten, and there is no doubt that they were murder victims. There can only be two suspects in that case, and one was tried and acquitted. No one suffered any penalty for that singularly cruel crime.
YUP: Once readers have unlocked the secrets in your book, what would you recommend they read next for more about Victorian life and death – in fiction or non-fiction?
LS: Regarding non-fiction, I especially recommend Katherine Watson’s Poisoned Lives, James Wharton’s The Arsenic Century, James D Livingston’s Arsenic and Clam Chowder, Sandra Hempel’s The Inheritor’s Powder, and my own Chloroform: the Quest for Oblivion. My favourite book on the Victorian way of life is The Victorian House by Judith Flanders.
On a related subject Buried Alive by Jan Bondeson is fascinating.
I am a bit cautious about reading historical fiction – many writers don’t read in their own genre in case they inadvertently remember another writer’s ideas and then months later think it was their own! But some of my favourites are Asta’s Book by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine and Painting the Darkness by Robert Goddard.
The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder by Linda Stratmann has been selected by the BBC Radio 2 Book Club.
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