Wednesday, 11 April 2012

ACCIDENTAL MURDER - Poison in Victorian Britain.

Part ONE - A Story of Agony.

"Murder…by poison is the most dreadful, as it takes a man unguarded and gives him no opportunity to defend himself"
Counsel for the Crown in the Mary Blandy case. 1752

Welcome to a new series of blog posts about poison in Victorian Britain. Murder by poisoning was an obsession with the Victorians - whilst ignoring the poison surrounding them in their homes; from the rat bait that could be mistaken for flour, to the pigment in wallpaper. Over the next few weeks we will look at the poisoner's art, accidental poisonings, dangers in the home and at work, and how physicians poisoned their patients.

The Case of Mary Blandy.

The root of the Victorian horror of poisoning can be found a hundred years earlier, in the case of Mary Blandy.
In childhood Mary was disfigured by smallpox, but with a dowry of 10,000 pounds she had hopes of marriage. However, none of her suitors met the stringent standards set by her father, Francis Blandy. Then along came Captain William Cranstoun, who although a short, pock-marked, clumsy man, had the advantage of being a scion of Scottish aristocracy and his suit was welcomed by Mr Blandy.
Mary and William became engaged, but then disaster! Francis Blandy found out his prospective son-in-law was already married. Captain Cranstoun left in disgrace, but unknown to Mr Blandy, kept up a correspondence with the infatuated Mary.

Cranstoun wrote to the besotted woman, enclosing a 'powder of forgiveness' to put into her father's tea. Apparently, with this potion, her father's objection to them being together would vanish and all would be well. She did as instructed on numerous occasions, even doubling the dose when it seemed to have little effect and then Mr Blandy grew ill, suffering terribly:

"A fireball in his stomach" and "one of the effects being that the teeth dropping out of his head, whole from their sockets."

Servants noticed a strange white residue at the bottom of his tea cup and called a physician, who concluded the powder was arsenic. When the father was informed his daughter was likely poisoning him, he replied:

"Poor love-sick girl! What will not a woman do for the man she loves!"

Francis died 14 August 1751, but he had exaggerated his wealth and his daughter's dowry was a fraction of the 10,000 pounds he advertised. So who knows if Cranstoun would have resorted to a capital offence so such a lesser amount?

Mary was arrested and imprisoned at Oxford, and her story dominated the newspapers, and a play written about her story. "The Fair Parricide, A Tragedy in Three Acts."

We will never know whether Mary had been duped or a willing accessory to murdering her father - but she was hung on 6 April 1752.

On news of Mary's arrest Cranstoun fled to France and evaded punishment. However, nine months later he became ill, the symptoms not unlike those of poisoning:

"Such torments…such great agonies as to make him wish for death some days before he died."
Mary's ghost is said to walk the grounds of Park Place, Henley-On-Thams.

The poison used by Mary Blandy was arsenic. The poison can be absorbed through the skin, gut or mucous membranes such as the vagina or rectum. In the 18th century one servant, who failed to kill his mistress with arsenic laced soup, succeeded by adding it to her enema liquid!

Indeed, a 16th Century German farmer is attributed with murdering three wives by inserting an arsenic coated finger into their vaginas after coition.

So if arsenic had been around for a long time, why did the Victorian's fear of it reach near hysterical proportions? Find out next week!
Easter Lilies are poisonous to cats and cause kidney failure.

Next week: Death Clubs.


  1. Ooh, one of my favourite subjects! Looking forward to the next part.

  2. This is fastinating, I love poisions. Can't wait to read this series.

  3. Great story. Will you be relating the story of Dr Palmer in this series?


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