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Crime fiction writing and forensic medicine


‘Madame Ribault … managed to crawl to a chimney-board, where she traced with her finger, dipped in blood, the letters “Commis de M.T.”’

Handy that, my Inspector Hardacre of Manchester would have said if he had read the story of Madame Ribault and her companion, Mademoiselle Lebelle. There was no escape for the murderer. Hardacre says the same of the case of William Adams, who, in 1848, shot his girlfriend, Dinah Thomas, in front of Constable Edward Craven.

The story of Madame Ribault appears in The Household Narrative of Current Events (1851) published by Charles Dickens in conjunction with Household Words. The Household Narrative is full of stories of dreadful murder, but none, perhaps, with such uncompromising evidence as the initials of the murderer written in his victim’s blood.

Many of the cases concern arsenic which Dickens in an article for Household Words refers to as the ‘favourite’ poison of the times. He cites a number of famous cases: Mrs Barber and her paramour, Ingham, murdered her husband; Mrs Hathaway, landlady of the Fox beer house in Chipping Sodbury, poisoned by her servant girl, Ann Averment; Mr and Mrs Waddington who murdered her daughter for the sake of £7 due from the burial club, and Sarah Chesham who poisoned her husband. Arsenic in every one.

Since there is no handy writing on the wall or smoking gun, such cases need to be proved by examination of the body, and the man who was often called to testify as an expert witness was Doctor Alfred Swaine Taylor (1806-1880). Dickens quotes from Taylor’s Medical Jurisprudence: ‘Taylor cites no less than 185 cases of poisoning, in England, by arsenic alone’ in the years 1837 – 1838. Dickens called the use of arsenic ‘an epidemic’. To prove his point, he might have referred to the case of Betty Eccles, who, despite her cosy currant bun name, was hanged in 1843 for the murder by arsenic poisoning of her two daughters and a stepson. She was suspected of killing also eight of her ten children and her husband – a one woman epidemic.

Taylor seems to have been popular reading for the Victorian novelist. Wilkie Collins refers to ‘the terrible popular fame of the Arsenic and Strychnine’. He certainly owned a copy of Taylor’s work: ‘The next morning I consulted Taylor’s Medical Jurisprudence (Ed. 3, 1849) to ascertain exactly what were the symptoms of poisoning by strychnine’. In his novella Fallen Leaves, Mrs Farnaby commits suicide by swallowing strychnine, and the effects of the poison are certainly hideous as is also shown in Charles Reade’s description in the novel Hard Cash: ‘His body was drawn up by the middle into an arch…the toes were turned back in the most extraordinary contortion’. Reade must have read Taylor who states: ‘The body…assumes a bow-like form, being arched…the soles of the feet are incurvated or arched.’

Taylor gave evidence for the crown in the case of William Palmer accused of poisoning John Parsons Cook. Palmer’s choice of poison was first antimony and then strychnine to finish him off. The symptoms of strychnine poisoning can be mistaken for the effects of tetanus. But the jury wasn’t fooled in Palmer’s case. Palmer, who Dickens called ‘the greatest rogue ever to appear in the Old Bailey Dock’, was convicted, and hanged in 1856 for the murder of Cook, but he was thought to have poisoned as many as fifteen people, including five of his own children.

Colocynth, Gamboge, Holy Bitters, Jalap, Scammony – I am very tempted by Dr Taylor’s analysis of these poetic poisons. After all, arsenic is rather too common. I want something subtle – and deadly, of course. The aforementioned poisons were used in small doses as medicines in the Victorian period. Morrison’s Pills were made up of colocynth and aloes, and fatal if too many were taken. In one case, the defence tried to argue that the overdose was administered in the belief that a large dose would be more efficacious. The court did not accept this. The inaptly named Holy Bitters or Hierapicra had a serious drawback for the murderer – it tasted vile. Dr Taylor observes: ‘It is not probable that it could be taken unknowingly.’ Meadow Saffron or Colchium might be a better choice. It was made into wine and could be offered as a relief for rheumatism – to some wealthy, aged relative whose money is needed elsewhere, perhaps?

Timing is a crucial matter for the novelist. I think of a body left in a crypt. I need him to be there for more than a week or the plot is blown apart. But wouldn’t someone smell him? Dr Taylor informs me of the case of a young man who died very suddenly. It was twenty-eight days before signs of putrefaction were observed. Fortunate for the novelist if not for the poor young man.

The hair of the dog. Suppose a bloody axe is found under the suspect’s bed. Careless of him, but handy for the police. Open and shut case? In a case quoted by Taylor, such an axe was discovered, and with hair adhering to the blood. However, when the axe was examined with a pocket lens, the hair turned out to be animal hair. Not guilty. Dead end for the detectives.

Did she fall, or was she pushed? Suppose a missing woman is found drowned in the River Thames. There is some mystery about her life and death. The first question is: did she go into the water alive? The post mortem reveals material grasped in the deceased’s hands. Dr Taylor concludes that if such material has ‘evidently been torn from the banks of a canal or river, or from the bottom of the water in which the body is found, we have strong presumptive evidence that the individual died within the water.’ Suicide or murder? Probably suicide – if there are no marks of violence on the person indicative of a struggle. But, it might be murder. If so, what devil persuaded her to go into the water?

The mark on the wall again. Suppose the detectives find a bloody mark on the wall – the mark of a hand. Is it he? In the case of Regina v. Hatto (1854), the murderer’s name was not written in blood, but he did leave a mark, a smear of blood left by a hand. More blood smears continued into a room locked and bolted from the inside. Here the murderer cowered. No other person could have entered the room. Guilty. Handy, that!

But if the room is empty – staggerer, number one, as Dick Swiveller might have said. And that bloodstain on the carpet? The victim’s or the murderer’s? Or something else? For Dr Taylor informs us that ‘it is not possible to distinguish by the microscope human from animal blood’. Ah, the dog that didn’t bark, perhaps. On second thoughts, I think that may have been done.

Wait a minute: Is this a dagger I see before me? It is. Of course, its handle is not before my hand; it is sticking out of the heart of my next victim. Death must be instantaneous: ‘Wounds of the large arterial and venous trunks around the heart must be considered as decidedly mortal; death is generally instantaneous from the sudden and profuse bleeding…’ Thank you, Dr Taylor – and for all that gore, too. ‘Sanguinary effusion’, says Taylor. I say ‘Bloody murder’ – just the ticket.

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