Monday, 29 August 2016

The Sensational Story of Madeleine Smith

Madeline Smith has been sensationally dubbed ‘the Victorian Amanda Knox’, treated in the Victorian tabloid press as Scotland’s own Lucretia Borgia, journalists rhapsodized over her apparent good-looks and salaciously hinted at the defendant’s voracious sexual appetite. Then, as now, sex and death sell, and in 1857 the tale of passion, and poison, made for a tabloid sensation.

Madeleine Smith

Madeleine Smith was born 29th March 1835 to James Smith, a prominent architect, and Elizabeth, the daughter of the famous neo-classical architect David Hamilton. The family were wealthy, living between their townhouse at No.7 Blythswood Square, Glasgow and their country property, ‘Rowaleyn’, located near Helensburgh. Madeleine had been educated in England and on returning to Glasgow in her late teens, she found the city rather parochial for her tastes. Nevertheless she amused herself by attending balls and parties, and often sauntering along Sauchiehall Street on the arm of her sister Bessie. It was on one of the jaunts that Madeleine Smith caught the eye of Pierre Emile L’Angelier. At 28 years old, L’Angelier was 10 years Madeleine’s senior. He claimed to be a Frenchman, and boasted that he descended from the French aristocracy, but in fact he was born in Jersey, his father was a nurseryman who fled France during the revolution. Pierre was dandified in his clothing, often wearing ornate waistcoats and sporting a twirling moustache, yet he earned only 10 shillings a weeks as a clerk at a seedman’s office in Bothwell Street. After Madeleine came to his attention, L’Angelier asked his friend Robert Baird to walk with him up and down Sauchiehall Street until they spotted the two sisters, and fatefully the two were introduced, soon after Pierre began sending single red roses to Madeline’s house in Blythswood Square.

Pierre L'Angelier

Soon after Madeleine and L’Angelier met, the Smith family moved permanently to their country seat in Helensburgh, returning to Glasgow only when business or society demanded. It was the beginning of April 1855 when Madeline penned her first letter to L’Angelier, it is impossible to know how many letters the pair sent between them, but at least 198 letters from Madeline were found in L’Angelier’s lodgings and office after his death. This rabid correspondence would go on to form an important part of the murder trial, sixty of these letters were read as evidence of her guilt. In her letters Madeline alluded to the fact that her father didn’t approve of the courtship, ‘Papa was very angry with me for walking with a gentleman unknown to him’, but she was defiant: ‘I don’t care for the world’s remarks so long as my own heart tells me I am doing nothing wrong. Believe me, yours most sincerely, Madeleine.’

Her father’s anger at the courtship with, not only a foreigner, but a penniless clerk, seemed to have an effect in April 1855 when Madeline wrote to L’Angelier desiring to end the correspondence: ‘I think you will agree with me…that for the present the correspondence had better stop.’ While the correspondence may have stopped, the lover continued to meet, L’Angelier took to hanging around Blythswood Square, and if the coast was clear, Madeline would let him into the house. In the middle of July, Madeleine’s father discovered that the liaison between his daughter and the Frenchman was not over, and forbade Madeline to see L’Angelier. When Madeline passed on this message,  L’Angelier wrote back angrily: ‘I did not deserve to be treated as you have done. How you astonish me by writing such a note without condescending to explain the reasons why your father refuses his consent…Never, dear Madeleine, could I have believed you were capable of such conduct…What would you think if even one of your servants had played with any one’s affections as you have done?.’

This break up, like the first, was not permanent, as soon the lovers were back in contact. On December 3rd 1855 Madeline posted this letter to her lover. This letter was one which shocked the Victorian court as it alluded, quite openly, to sex. In the letter she refers to L’Angelier as ‘My own darling husband’ and speaks of the ‘pleasure…of being fondled by you’ and ‘tender long embraces’. In another letter, after a clandestine meeting in the garden of Madeline’s Helensburgh house, she wrote to L’Angelier, ‘if we did wrong last night it was the excitement of our love. Tell me, pet, were you angry at me for allowing you to do what you did – was it very bad of me? We shoud, I suppose, have waited till we were married.’ She was adamant that she did not regret their physical union, ‘I do not regret that – never did, and never shall.’

It was this absolute honestly about sex on Madeleine’s part that worried the Victorian’s so much when her letters were read in court and then published in the newspapers. L’Angelier, for his part, was less honest. His reply to Madeline’s letter is full of contrition and self-absolution, blaming Madeline almost entirely for what happened: ‘I am sad at what we did, I regret it very much. Why, Mimi, did you give way after your promises? My Pet, it is a pity. Think of the consequences if I were never to marry you.’ When Madeline next wrote to L’Angelier she warned him not to ‘give ear to any reports you might hear. There are several I hear going about regarding me going to get married – regard them not.’ There was some substance to these reports that Madeleine mentioned, she was being courted by an eligible Glasgow bachelor called Billy Minnoch. Minnoch moved in the same society as Madeline, he had an income of £3000 a year, and most importantly, Madeline’s father approved of him highly. But Madeline still preferred her penniless clerk. While Minnoch was paying polite addresses a Rowaleyn by day, L’Angelier was meeting Madeline in the garden at night. But soon Madeline’s letters to L’Angelier started to cool off and become less frequent. In September she wrote, ‘Mr Minnoch has been here since Friday – he is most agreeable – think.’ Yet the correspondence continued with L’Angelier dropping his letters through the bars of the basement windows of Madeline’s bedroom, in the pretence of tying a shoelace. L’Angelier not only posted notes to her down through the window, he would also wait in the winter darkness and talked with Madeline once her sister Janet was asleep. Now and again Madeleine made cocoa and passed a cup through the window to her lover.

The Smith home on Blythswood Square

Floorplan of the basement of the Smith home
Balancing her relationships with L’Angelier and Minnoch and maintain her double life was becoming more and more difficult. By the time there was what the Victorians called ‘an understanding’ between her and Minnoch, an assumption of an engagement in the near future. But at the same time she was allowing L’Angelier to think that they were going to elope and marry in secret. On January 28th Madeleine Smith accepted Billy Minnoch’s proposal of marriage, unknown to L’Angelier. Her letters grew colder and colder, she wrote to him simply and coolly, ‘my love for you has ceased’. Obviously aware of the danger of being blackmailed, and how disastrous such a reveal would be to her new engagement, Madeline demanded that L’Angelier return all her letters at a prearranged spot and time. But L’Angelier did not appear. She wrote to him suggesting a new date. This time L’Angelier did reply, telling Madeline that he regarded her as his wife and that he would show her letters to her father to prove it. While she had burned most of his letters to her, he has kept most of hers, and particularly those which proved ‘the criminal intimacy’ between them. Madeline wrote back desperately: ‘Emile, for the love you once had for me do nothing till I see you – for God’s sake do not bring your once loved Mimi to an open shame.’ She wrote on and on in this vein, imploring her lover not to reveal the extent of their relationship, she writes ‘I grow mad, I have been ill, very ill…I feel as if death indeed would be sweet.’ But she didn’t make clear whose death would be sweet.

The very next day she sent the page boy to get her some prussic acid, giving him a note explaining that she required it for cosmetic purposes, but the doctor refused him, explaining that his mistress needed a physician’s line to make the purchase. On the very same day, L’Angelier started a diary of sorts, one entry a few days later reads: ‘Thurs.19 Feb - Saw Mimi a few moments was very ill during the night. L’Angelier’s landlady found him violently ill, vomiting green bile. He explained ‘On the road coming home I was seized with a violent pain in my bowels and stomach, and when I was taking off my clothes I lay down upon the carpet and thought I would have died.’ The following morning Madeleine Smith left the house in Blythswood Square and visited Murdoch Brothers druggist in nearby Sauchiehall Street. She explained that she wanted to buy a sixpence worth of arsenic, the pharmacist explained that she would have to sign for it, and asked what she needed the arsenic for. Madeleine explained that it was needed for the garden and the country house, and the assistant made up the ounce of arsenic, charging it to James Smith’s account. L’Angelier’s diary for that day reads ‘Sat.21st.Feb – don’t feel well.’ And the next day ‘Saw Mimi in Drawing Room…Taken very ill.’ He would later tell his landlady ‘I can’t think why I was so unwell after getting that coffee and chocolate from her’ he went on to prophetically add ‘It is a perfect fascination, my attachment to that girl. If she were to poison me, I would forgive her.’

One month later Pierre L’Angelier was dead. On March 21st he alarmed his landlady by returned to his lodging clutching his stomach and groaning in pain, a doctor was sent for who assured the patient that there was nothing seriously wrong, to which L’Angelier replied, ‘I am far worse than the doctor thinks.’ When the doctor returned to check on his patient later in the morning, L’Angelier was lying dead on the sofa. His landlady was reported to have observed, ‘I heard he was going to be married, how sorry the lady will be.’

On searching the deceased clothes, a love letter from Madeline was found folded in his pocket. The next day L’Angelier’s landlady travelled to the Smith family home in Blythswood Square to inform Madeline that her fiancé has died. On the same say an autopsy was performed which determined that Pierre L’Angelier has died from poisoning, medical experts found enough arsenic in his body to kill forty men. L’Angelier’s employer arranged for his body to be buried in his family lair in the Ramshorn kirkyard on Ingram Street, but it did not lie there long. Five days later it was exhumed in order that investigators, who know suspected foul play, could make a fuller investigation.
That afternoon Madeleine Smith was arrested and charged with the murder of Pierre Emile L’Angelier, in her initial statement to police she denied having seen L’Angelier in the three weeks preceding his death, denied that the victim had visited her the night he died (as per the letter found in L’Angelier’s clothes). She admitted that, yes, she had been in the habit of buying arsenic, but it was merely used as a cosmetic.

Three months after she made that statement Madeleine Smith went on trial at the High Court in Edinburgh, the decision to hold the trial in Edinburgh instead of Glasgow had been made due to the intense public feeling in Madeleine’s native city. Public feeling was divided, those who were in favour of Madeleine thought that L’Angelier had likely committed suicide, or if there was any chance that Madeleine had poisoned him, it was only what the blackmailing French seducer deserved. Those who were against Madeleine painted her as a rich girl who ruthlessly got rid of a poor but honest lover in order to marry a rich man. On his part, Billy Minnoch stood by Madeleine throughout the trial, declaring that they would marry as soon as the trial was over.

Court illustration of Madeleine Smith

One journalist described the defendant in court: ‘Madeleine Smith, a very young lady of short stature and slight form, with features sharp and prominent, and restless and sparkling eye, stepped up the stair in to the dock with all the buoyancy with which she might have entered the box of a theatre. Her head never sank for a moment, and she even seemed to scan the witnesses with a scrutinising glance. Her perfect self-possession, indeed could only be accounted for either by a proud consciousness of innocence, or by her possessing an almost unparalleled amount of self-control.’

One of the prosecution’s medical experts explained his theory was to how Madeleine Smith administered the vast amount of arsenic to the victim: ‘Cocoa or chocolate are substances in which a considerable doze of arsenic might be conveyed. I have found by actual experiment that when thirty or forty grains of arsenic are put into a cup of warm chocolate, a large portion of the arsenic settles down to the bottom of the cup, and I think a person drinking such chocolate would suspect something when the gritty particles came into his mouth. But when the same or a larger quantity of arsenic is boiled with the chocolate, instead of stirring it in, none of it settles at the bottom.’

Everyday crowds gathered outside the court hoping to catch a glimpse of the prisoner as she arrived or departed, while the newspapers were flooded with details of Madeline’s every movement in court. Throughout all the mass excitement, it seems that only Madeleine Smith remained unmoved. That is, until the prosecution started reading out some of the more explicit love letters, at this point, Madeleine was said to bow her head and blush. On the sixth day the defence made their case, arguing that L’Angelier was the sort of man who would commit suicide, and also arguing that the prosecution could not prove that Madeleine and L’Angelier had met on any occasion after she had bought the arsenic. Interestingly, there was some evidence that L’Angeleir had spoken of suicide before, an acquaintance from Edinburgh stated that he often spoke of being tired of his existence and occasionally referred to suicide explicitly. In one letter he wrote, ‘I never was so unhappy in my life. I wish I had the courage to blow my brains out.’ The defence also produced three chemists as witness who claimed to have sold arsenic to a man matching L’Angelier’s description.

The defence lawyer portrayed Madeleine as a pure and innocent maid who had been seduced by a foul older man, who then turned blackmailer, and who then likely committed suicide as a result of Madeleine attempting to break off the relationship. It is crucial to know that the damning evidence of L’Angelier’s dairy that documented his deteriorating health, which often coincided with meetings with Madeleine, was not entered as evidence in court. This may go far to explain the jury’s verdict.
That verdict was as follows: Not guilty on the first charge of administering poison and Not Proven on the charge of murder. The court erupted into applause and cheering. The jury’s vote was two for guilty, and thirteen for not proven. It was later learned that most of the jury did in fact think Madeleine was guilty, but felt that the prosecution’s evidence was too weak.

Following the verdict, Madeleine Smith fled Scotland, and far from marrying straight after the trail, Billy Minnoch never saw his once fiancé again. The Smith family were ruined socially, they fled Glasgow and soon after Mrs Smith took to her bed and became an invalid for the rest of her life. Madeleine’s younger sisters never married. Madeleine herself left Scotland for London, then Plymouth where she met a young drawing teacher named George J. Wardle. They married in London in 1861. With her first name changed to Lena, the Wardles settles in the bourgeoning bohemian set in Bloomsbury, were introduced to William Morris, George Bernard Shaw and other intellectual socialists, and Lena Wardle became a renowned Bloomsbury hostess. In a bit of a bizarre aside, it has been said that it was Lena Wardle who originated, at her society parties, the trend of place mats on a bare dining table. The Wardles had two children, Tom and Kitty. Thirty years after she had been tried for murder as Madeleine Smith, Lena Wardle because treasurer for a splinter group of the Socialist League, run by Karl Marx’s son in law, Edward Aveling. George Bernard Shaw would later write of his coffee mornings with Lena Wardle: ‘One day someone  rushed in to tell me that Mrs Wardle was Madeleine Smith and that we should all be poisoned…but to me she seemed an ordinary, good-humoured, capable woman with nothing sinister about her.’ George and Lena broke up in 1889, and former died in 1910 (through natural causes, it must be added). At this point Lena/Madeline drops out of sight for years, before emerging again when she emigrated to the United States in 1916. In America she married again, to an elderly man named Sheehy.

In 1919 writer Somerset Maugham recounts meeting Lena Wardle in 1907: ‘my next door neighbour was a very quiet prim old lady, becoming acquainted with her, I gradually connected her with the heroine of a celebrated murder case which had excited the world fifty years before. She had been tried and found not guilty but the evidence was so damning that, notwithstanding the verdict, the general opinion was that she had in point of fact committed the crime. She discovered that I had found out her identity and presently said to me, ‘I suppose you want to know whether I did it or not. I did, and what’s more, if it were to happen again, I’d do it again.’

This apparent confession, however, did not appear in print until long after Madeleine’s death. She died in the Bronx, New York on April 12th 1928 of kidney disease. She was 92 years old. On her simple tombstone is the name ‘Lena Sheehy’.


  1. Dear "Plain Jane Doe"-
    I recently watched the famous 1949
    Film: "MADELEINE" Starring Ann Todd who was the perfect Actress to portray Madeleine Smith.
    May I ask where you were able to locate so much incredible, detailed information on the life of this Victorian Era Woman.
    I live in New York and perhaps one day I will visit her Gravesite at Mount Hope Cemetery, Hastings-on-Hudson,
    Westchester County, New York.
    There have been several Films based on the life of Madeleine Smith but none made in recent times.
    I believe it is now long overdue to produce a new film version based upon the life of this fascinating woman.
    She was certainly a "Survivor" in every sense of that term, avoiding a Guilty Verdict, Marrying twice, having three children and living to the ripe old age of 91 or 92.
    Perhaps you might post a Follow Up article letting your readers know what became of her children and Grandchildren.
    And whatever became of all those Letters ? Were they ever Published in full ?
    Thank you again for all your fascinating research into this incredible true Story proving once again that "Truth is always Stranger than Fiction".
    Time for you to write a new book on the life of Madeleine Smith.
    All Best Regards,

    David Pakter, M.A., M.F.A.