The Secret Poisoner: An Extract

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 Victorian 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.

We have selected this exclusive extract from The Secret Poisoner – exploring the difficulties of  trying to prove murder by poison.

A personal introduction to the book by the author is also available on the YaleBooks blog.

 The Secret Poisoner : Extract from Chapter 8

‘Getting Away with Murder’

The first challenge in a trial for murder by poison is to demonstrate to the satisfaction of a jury that the deceased died from the effects of poison. However, even supposing this difficult task is accomplished, the secretive nature of such a crime means it is often impossible to prove that the poison was administered by the accused. Defence counsel will suggest to jurors that the deceased might have committed suicide or taken poison by accident. When the gallows beckoned, as the following two cases show, a prosecution often foundered on a jury’s reluctance to convict, even where there was opportunity and strong evidence of motive…

…On the evening of Saturday 17 September 1842, twenty- six- year- old Jane Bowler, wife of a Southwark chair- maker, was wandering the street near her home in a highly distressed state. Encountering a friend, James Thomas, she took him by the hand and begged him to come at once as her husband Joseph was dead. At the Bowlers’ home in Union Street, James found twenty- nine- year- old Joseph lying on the floor, his face bruised, dark phlegm oozing from his nose and mouth, the floor stained with faeces and mucus. He helped lift the body on to the bed. John Dunster, a young clerk who lodged in the same house, fetched a surgeon, James Coulthred, who confirmed on arrival that Joseph Bowler had been dead for about an hour.

Coulthred told Jane it would be necessary to conduct a post- mortem, and she raised no objections. She said that her husband had been taken ill on the previous Wednesday. He had eaten an apple pudding and immediately gone out into the yard and brought it up again. Some of the pudding crust remained and she gave it to Coulthred. It was later revealed that Joseph had been continuously ill for three days before his death, was dosed with rhubarb and castor oil, and vomited everything he was given.

Powdered arsenic is more persistent than most murderers realise, and at the post- mortem Coulthred found twenty grains of it in Joseph Bowler’s stomach. He thought that it had been taken six to twelve hours before death.

The Sunday before Joseph was taken ill, the Bowlers’ fellow lodger Sarah Morley had told Jane that she had read in a newspaper about a lady and gentleman who, together with their servant, had been poisoned with arsenic by their daughter. Jane’s response was to ask Sarah if she knew whether the poison was sold as a liquid or as powder. The following Saturday, Sarah, seeing that Joseph was very ill, asked Jane why she did not call a doctor. Jane protested that they could not afford it as they owed money, but Sarah pointed out that there were parish and dispensary doctors. The dying man demanded to know why he could not have a doctor, but Jane dismissed the idea, saying, ‘You don’t want to be physicked and tortured about.’

On the morning after Joseph’s death, Sarah helped lay out the body and cleaned the room. Finding a half- pint mug of tea, she emptied the contents into the drain and saw white sediment in the bottom. She showed it to her husband, saying, ‘See what a dirty mug the poor fellow had to drink his last tea out of.’ He told her to put it in the kitchen. She never saw it again. When Sarah mentioned to Jane’s mother that Joseph had asked for a doctor Jane denied it, adding, ‘If you say that, you will hang me, for you will be called on the jury.’

Joseph and Jane Bowler had not been on good terms, although their marriage was not of the quarrelling kind. Mary Musgrave, who had attended Jane at her last lying-in, commented, ‘There was never hardly any words between them – more of silent contempt, sulky like, to one another – they had no words before anybody.’ Not only that, but Jane was casting her eyes elsewhere. Jane had told Sarah that she and John Dunster were romantically involved, and he would ‘stop five years for her’,5 although Sarah had never seen them going out together. The clerk was already betrothed to another, and denied that there had been any relationship between him and Jane. The romance may have been no more than a flirtation, or even wishful thinking on Jane’s part. Between inquest hearings, Jane revealed what was on her mind by saying, in a jocular fashion, ‘I am in it, and must get out of it in the best manner I can; there is one thing, they cannot hang me, on account of my children.’

The defence at Jane’s trial for murder was that Joseph had committed suicide. The chemist from whom it was thought Jane had bought arsenic was unable to supply a positive identification and witnesses testified that Joseph was a gloomy, sullen fellow who had more than once tried to throw himself in the river. Jane was acquitted.

The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder by Linda Stratmann has been selected by the BBC Radio 2 Book Club.

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