The Secret Poisoner
by Linda Stratmann
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Yale University Press
Released: April 26, 2016
Source: ebook review copy from the publisher through NetGalley.
Book Description, Modified from Goodreads:
Murder by poison alarmed, enthralled, and in many ways encapsulated the Victorian age. Linda Stratmann’s dark and splendid social history reveals the nineteenth century as a gruesome battleground where poisoners went head-to-head with authorities who strove to detect poisons, control their availability, and bring the guilty to justice.
She corrects many misconceptions about particular poisons and documents how the evolution of issues such as marital rights and the legal protection of children impacted poisonings. Combining archival research with a chemist’s expertise and a novelist’s eye, Stratmann charts the era’s inexorable rise of poison cases both gruesome and sad.
The Secret Poisoner was primarily a collection of true crime stories from the 1800s. These cases happened mainly in Great Britain and France, and they all involved poisons. Arsenic was the poison most frequently used in the cases brought to trial, so we learn a lot about it. The author also covered some less frequently used poisons, like laudanum and vegetable poisons. I've read about some of these cases before, but most of them were new to me.
We're also told about developments in scientific testing that allowed these poisons to be detected, laws proposed to added safe-guards on who could buy poisons, and how society viewed poisoners. The author also described the difficulties in proving a murder charge in a poisoning case and how science experts fared when giving testimony.
The writing wasn't difficult to understand and flowed well. While scientific tests were briefly described, the book was not technical in nature. The descriptions of the vomit and other effects of poison, the stomach contents, and the state of old corpses could get rather gross. They were graphically described using what sounded like witness reports from the trials. Overall, I'd recommend this book to true crime fans with an interest in poisoning cases.
If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.
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