Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Case of Madeleine Smith

"I would sooner have danced with her than dined with her," John Inglis, Dean of Faculty.

It was called the Trial of the Century. Imagine if you will, an attractive young woman from an upstanding and wealthy family stands accused of murdering her lover by poison. Passionate love letters are found giving the most intimate details of the lovers. Spectators line up daily outside the court room for a chance at the few available seats. The best legal minds in the country have been hired for her defense. The case captures the attention of not just the local media, but newspapers from as far away as London, Paris, New York. Media interest in the case is so great it bumps news of the Mutiny in Calcutta off the front page.

Sound familiar? Like something ripped from today’s headlines, or the lead story on Court TV? Well this case took place 150 years ago this year in Scotland, and the accused was named Madeleine Smith. The Case of Madeleine Smith reads almost like a film noir. It’s exactly the type of case you’d expect to read about in Dominick Dunne’s column in Vanity Fair, of a love affair gone sour and ending in death. It has all the earmarks of Passion, Power and Privilege.

On March 23, 1857, in Glasgow, Scotland, Emile L'Anglier, a clerk at a seed warehouse died suddenly after complaining of intense stomach pains. In his pocket, a letter was found signed only 'Mimi.' Amongst his belongings, his friends find various keys, several packages of letters, and a notebook the deceased was using as a journal. More letters are found at the seed warehouse where he worked going back two years, all signed with the signature of 'Mimi.'

It wasn't long before everyone in Glasgow learned that 'Mimi' was none other than Madeleine Hamilton Smith.
But who was Madeleine Smith? She was the daughter and granddaughter of well known architects in Glasgow. You can still examples of her grandfather, David Hamilton's work, in Glasgow today. She was the eldest of five children, she helped to raise her younger siblings due to her mother frequently taking to her bed with various ailments. Like many women of her class, she was sent to an expensive finishing school to learn how to be a proper Victorian lady. At Miss Gorton’s Academy for Young Ladies in London, she was taught proper manners and took the appropriate courses designed to make her decorative. She returned home four years later at the age of 18. Despite the polish she had acquired in London, Madeleine’s temperament meant that she would never be comfortable in the role she was required to play.

Emile L’Anglier, on the other hand, came from the small island of Jersey, part of the Channel Islands that lie directly in between England and France. Thirty-two when he met Madeleine for the first time, he’d already lived in Edinburgh and Paris before finally settling in Glasgow. Fluent in French and English, Emile worked as a clerk in nursery warehouse. If it hadn’t been for Emile sighting Madeleine by chance on the street, they would never have met, since they didn’t exactly travel in the same social circles. Class separation was a strictly enforced concept in Victorian Glasgow.

Emile, who seems to have had a dramatic temperament, having wooed and lost several ladies over the years, was smitten with Madeleine at first sight. Soon after they met, Madeleine wrote her first note to him while staying at her family’s country home. Even though a warehouse clerk was hardly an acceptable suitor for a young lady of Madeleine’s stature, she was attracted to him for precisely that reason. He must have seemed so different from the men she met at the social gatherings her parents took her to, where she met the crème de la crème of Glasgow society. The pressure must have always been there for her to make an appropriate match.

Letters continued back and forth between the couple, and they managed to meet several times accidentally on purpose on the street or at a nearby shop. Soon, however, Madeleine’s father learned of the relationship, possible from one of her sisters out of either jealously or wanting to protect her sister’s reputation, and demanded that she put a stop to it. Bowing to her father’s wishes, she wrote Emile a note breaking off their relationship and wished him the best in the future.

Emile was not to be put off. He wrote back, entreating her to meet with him. He persuaded a female friend, Miss Mary Perry, to allow them to meet covertly at her house. Madeleine relented, presumably swept up in the forbidden nature of it all. How exciting it must have been for her to have this secret!
For two years they exchanged many letters; meeting secretly in the country whenever her family journeyed there for their holiday. In Glasgow, they met secretly when her parents were out in the laundry room, or at the home of Emile’s friend Miss Perry. Although they wanted to marry, Madeleine’s father was adamant that he wouldn't even countenance meeting Emile. Sometime in 1856, the couple became intimate, in anticipation of their hoped for wedding vows. Although not legally married, they addressed each other as ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ in their letters.

Emile kept all of her letters to him, but he firmly instructed her to burn his, which she complied, ostensibly so that no one in the Smith house could accidentally come upon them, and their secret would be revealed. The few letters of his that survive (he kept a few copies) show him to be a demanding and bullying lover. He would constantly criticize her behavior, he decided what clothes she should wear, who she could or could not talk to, where she could go. He compared her unfavorably to his other female acquaintances. Her letters to him show a young woman who constantly sought his approval.

In the fall of 1856, Madeleine was introduced to William Minnoch, a wealthy merchant and neighbor of the Smiths. Like Emile, he was also in his thirties. Unlike Emile, he was thoroughly suitable husband for a young woman of her class. Madeleine eventually realized that there was no way that her father would ever be convinced to allow her and Emile to be married. Perhaps she also realized that she could hope for no dowry, if she eloped. And what life would like living on a clerk’s salary. Whatever her motives, Madeleine did nothing to discourage William Minnoch from courting her, and in January of 1857, he proposed and she accepted.

Her letters to Emile from this time show a slow cooling off in her ardor towards him, although she cautions him not to listen to gossip about her and Minnoch. Finally, she tried to break off with him, asking that he return her letters to him back to her. Emile, of course, decides not to take this lying down. He tries to blackmail Madeleine by threatening to show her father the letters. Those letters were the 19th Century version of making a sex tape. Her father would know from her letters that she was no longer a virgin. Her life would be ruined.

Madeleine, in a panic, asked him to meet with her again secretly. Events seemed to move rapidly over the next several weeks. On three separate occasions, Madeleine purchases arsenic from several chemists, claiming that she is using it for a beauty treatment (it was a commonly known but dangerous practice to use arsenic to whiten one's skin.) 19th Century law required that she sign a Poison Book recording her purchase. Around the same time, Emile suffered the first of several attacks of violent stomach pains. Three days after her second purchase of arsenic, Emile had tea with his friend Miss Perry. According to her testimony, he told her that he had felt unwell after drinking hot chocolate that Madeleine had passed to him through the bars at her window (her room was in the basement). Miss Perry also testified that Emile told her that “if she were to poison me, I would forgive her.” When Miss Perry declared that Madeleine would have no cause for such an action, Emile replied, “I don’t know that. Perhaps she might not be sorry to be rid of me.”

After the discovery of her letters in Emile’s lodgings and his office, Madeleine Smith was arrested. She gave a statement to the police, claiming that she hadn’t seen Emile in 3 weeks, she’d purchased the arsenic for a beauty treatment. She didn’t deny that the letters were hers, or that they’d seriously discussed marriage. Her statement to the police is the only record we have of what happened between Madeleine and Emile.

Because the sudden and popular interest in the case, the trial was moved from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Madeleine was interred in the county jail until the trial started in June. Her parents hired the 19th Century equivalent of the Dream Team, including John Inglis. Due to Victorian Scottish law, she couldn’t testify in her own defense. Opinion in the press was divided on whether or not she was guilty or innocent.

Just like in today’s court cases, her remarkable composure worked against her, while some admired her for it, others found it shocking. The trial lasted a scant nine days, incredible in these days of continuations, delays, and general stonewalling from the defense team. Most of her letters were admitted into evidence, but Emile’s journal was not because the prosecution argued that it could not be verified that it was indeed Emile L’Anglier’s handwriting.

The jury deliberated for only 9 days before reaching a verdict of ‘not proven’. What this meant was not that she was found innocent, but that the prosecution had not made a strong enough case to convict her.

No one will ever know for sure whether or not Madeleine Smith really did kill Emile L'Anglier. There have been various theories floated over the years that perhaps Emile poisoned himself in revenge for Madeleine’s spurning their relationship. The problem with this theory is that no arsenic was found amongst his possessions after his death, and his name wasn’t found in a single Poison Book in the Glasgow, Stirling or Bridge of Allan areas. Also, how would he have known that Madeleine herself would have been purchasing poison?

If she did kill Emile, why did she make her purchases of arsenic so blatant? She even brought an eyewitness with her for one of her purchases. And if she killed him, why did she not remove his letters from either his room or his office? Just like Lizzie Borden, the Case of Madeleine Smith has taken on a mystique over the years. Was she an innocent victim of an older man? Or a calculating witch getting rid of her lower class lover when she was bored of him? Or a desperate girl taking the only way out that she could think of?

After the trial was over, it was clear that Madeleine could no longer stay in Scotland. She moved to London with her younger brother James. Calling herself Lena, a childhood nickname, she met and married George Wardle, an artist who worked as the manager of Morris & Co. There she mingled with the pre-Raphaelites, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Burne-Jones and others. She may even have posed for Rossetti at one time. A popular hostess, she started a fashion for not using tablecloths at dinner, using placemats instead. A shocking convention at a time when even piano legs were covered.

After having two children Tom and Kitten, she and her husband separated after 28 years. He moved to Italy where he died. Lena Wardle moved to New York to live with her son’s family at the age of 70, where she eventually died at the age of 93.
But her name and her story still live on over a century later.

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