The Trials of Madeleine Smith Transcript

Caroline: Whether the reader actually gets to read about it on the page or not, detective fiction is usually aimed in one very specific direction: the moment when an accused gets to their feet in a courtroom and waits to hear whether they have been found guilty or not guilty of the crime at issue.

Everything the detective has done in their investigation leads up to this, the gathering of evidence, the interviewing of witnesses, the ruling out of suspects. Finally, a jury decides if the prisoner in the dock actually “dunnit”, and theirs is the only verdict that really matters, the one that will determine everything that comes next.

But what happens when there is a third option available: neither guilty nor not guilty, but something else? What might the story look like then?

Today, we’re going to bear witness to the trials of Madeleine Smith.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.


Madeleine Smith was, in many ways, a very lucky girl. She had been born in Glasgow on 29th March 1835, to parents who both belonged to families on the rise. Her two grandfathers were both in the building trade and had achieved great success during Glasgow’s late Georgian expansion from a bustling port city to an elegant, neoclassical metropolis with new arcades, museums, squares and banks at its heart. She grew up spending her winters in spacious apartments in the centre of the city and her summers at the country house her father had designed and built overlooking the river Clyde. She was educated at home and at the age of 16 she was sent south for a couple of years to attend a boarding school near London. When she returned home, she was a young lady from a prosperous middle class family and was expected to make an advantageous marriage to further bolster their fortunes. Think Bridgerton but Scottish, essentially.

Back in Glasgow, Madeleine spent her time promenading, shopping, attending lectures and concerts, and otherwise participating in the city’s social season. She and her younger sister Bessie frequently went out together to look at the shops and generally mingle with the other middle class people on Sauciehall Street — the early Victorian equivalent of teenagers hanging around at the mall or in the town centre, I think. At some point on these excursions, Madeleine caught the eye of one Pierre Emile L’Angelier, a warehouse clerk 12 years her senior who was originally from Jersey. The evidence seems to point to the fact the Emile was a bit of a social climber — despite his relatively humble origins and job, he cultivated friends with greater means and position in Glasgow society than his own. Madeleine, as the daughter and granddaughter of famous architects and builders, was an exciting prospect for him. And so Emile engineered an introduction via a mutual friend in a draper’s shop in March 1855, when Madeleine was 20.

The pair quickly became friendly and flirty, meeting all over the city on Madeleine and Bessie’s excursions. In fact, they were so visibly keen on each other that a month later, in April, Madeleine reported in a letter to Emile that her parents had ordered her to stop seeing him. As an older, lower class man of French extraction, Emile was a hopelessly unsuitable suitor for Miss Smith. She, of course, was having none of that. By the middle of the month Emile had proposed marriage via letter and Madeleine had accepted. They continued to exchange letters with great frequency and met in secret whenever they could — with Emile even travelling out to the Smiths’ country house during the summer so they could meet in the grounds at night. By May 1856, they had consummated their relationship, and they continued to refer to each other as “husband” and “wife” in their voluminous correspondence, despite the fact that there seemed very little chance of their ever being married in a public or lasting sense.

So far, so lovestruck and romantic. Although their initial meeting makes it seem as if Emile was the pursuer, as the older, more experienced person, Madeleine’s own conduct and letters make it clear that she welcomed his attentions and enjoyed ordering him about. She liked flirting and being desired, and she was excited about the prospect of love and marriage. Emile, however, found their situation difficult: he was not admitted to Madeleine’s social circle, so he could not accompany to her to any of the many balls and parties she attended with her family, where she was supposed to be considering suitors for a potential match. Some of his letters seem to have been laying down rules for her about what she may or may not do on such occasions. He became controlling and jealous, and by the winter of 1856 Madeleine begins to tire of their tumultuous, aimless relationship. On 28th January 1857, William Minnoch, a junior partner at a prominent Glasgow firm, proposed to Madeleine and they became officially engaged. She immediately tried to break off her relationship with Emile, requesting that he return her letters but after a stormy exchange in which he probably threatened to expose their affair to her father, they appeared to reconcile, although their correspondence was lacklustre by comparison with what had passed between them before.

And that is seemingly how matters stood when, on 23rd March 1857, Emile died writhing in pain at his lodgings. A postmortem was carried out at the request of his employers, and his body was found to contain large quantities of arsenic. Madeleine’s letters were discovered in his rooms by a colleague, who handed them over to the Procurator Fiscal (the Scottish term for a public prosecutor). Madeleine tried to absent herself from the city, where rumours about Emile’s poisoning were swirling, and was intercepted by her brother and fiancé on her way to the family’s country house. Just over a week after Emile’s death, a warrant was issued for her arrest and she was taken into custody. She was refused bail, and remained in prison until her trial began in Edinburgh three months later.

Her family’s status in Glasgow, her hitherto reputation as an innocent upper middle class girl, and the salacious nature of her supposed crime gave much material to the local and national newspapers that were now covering the story in minute detail. Every aspect of her life and that of her family was scrutinised, and attempts were made to reconstruct every step of Emile’s last evening. It even made international news — a young Henry James, travelling with his parents in France, later remembered reading about the trial in the newspapers there.

In her initial statement to the prosecutor, Madeleine had readily admitted to purchasing arsenic on three occasions in the weeks before Emile’s death: on 21st February, 6th March and 18th March. She said that this was for cosmetic purposes, which was then considered to be a legitimate use of the chemical at the time. Preparations of arsenic, often homemade, were thought to encourage a clear, pale complexion. Long time listeners of Shedunnit will remember from when I covered the Florence Maybrick case back in 2019 — another influential poisoning case, this one from Liverpool in 1889 — that Victorian households were often full of arsenic, in cosmetics, in over the counter remedies, and in some cleaning products. So Madeleine’s statement isn’t quite as far fetched as it might seem to us today. In this initial declaration, which was featured prominently at her trial, Madeleine also admitted to her relationship with Emile and said that she had on occasion handed him a cup of cocoa through her ground floor bedroom window at the family’s apartment in Glasgow. However, she insisted that she had not poisoned him, and had not in fact seen him for three weeks before his death.

During their two year affair, Madeleine had written over 250 letters to Emile, and he had kept them all — a move that subsequent scholars have interpreted as a clue to his true motives. Why keep all of that potential blackmail material if he truly expected to be able to elope with his love and live happily ever after? Madeleine had destroyed all of his letters, perhaps out of loyalty and perhaps out of fear that her family would find them, so the correspondence as it was presented in court was extremely one-sided. In addition, the prosecution only read out excerpts of about 60 letters, mostly those that dealt with the pair’s sexual relationship and their desire to be married. This is what sent the coverage of the case into overdrive – the press could not resist the rare scandal of such a supposedly nice middle class girl being involved in such a torrid affair and being tried for her lover’s murder.

The defence tried to build up a picture of Emile as unstable and volatile, possibly with suicidal tendencies, while the prosecution leaned heavily on what they claimed was Madeleine’s last letter, in which she proposed a meeting — something that she denied had taken place. Much court time was spent on the correct sequence of the letters, since they were undated, and the fact that the postmark on the envelope for this particular one was illegible. It was also a possibility that the investigators, during their search, had stuffed letters back into the wrong envelopes. The case concluded with a savage summing up from the judge, who condemned Madeleine’s licentious behaviour but cautioned the jury against conjecture beyond the available facts. After just half an hour of deliberation, the fifteen men of the jury returned their verdict on the three charges of administering arsenic with intent to kill. Madeleine was found not guilty of the first, and not proven on the second and third. She was free to go, but the fall out from the Glasgow Poisoning Case, as the press termed it, was far from over.

After the break: what Madeleine did next.

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Some of you, I expect, will be wondering what is this “not proven” verdict that Madeleine Smith received. And rightly so: it is a fairly unique feature of the Scottish legal system, and intrinsic to the subsequent and enduring fascination with this case. I am by no means a lawyer or a legal historian, but I will do my best to explain it as it pertains to this situation.

Firstly, it’s important to understand that Scotland has a different legal system and history to England and Wales. The third verdict, beyond guilty and not guilty, is a feature of Scots law only, and remains in place to this day. Both not guilty and not proven verdicts result in the prisoner being acquitted, but the latter points to the fact that the jury felt that the accused was guilty but that the prosecution did not make their case for guilt beyond reasonable doubt. This stems in part from another unique feature of Scots law called corroboration, which requires that for something to be established in the eyes of the law, there must be two independent corroborating pieces of evidence for it.

In the case of Madeleine Smith, the combination of her letters and the chemists’ registers that showed her purchases of arsenic were not enough to prove that she had actually administered the poison to Emile. The lack of an eyewitness to the meeting the prosecution claimed had occurred on his final evening was key, as was the confusion around the sequence of her final letters. In other words, there was plenty of motive that suggested Madeleine’s guilt — Emile’s apparent threat to expose her to her father and fiancé — but not enough hard evidence that she had actually committed the crime.

The not proven verdict has been controversial for a long time. In 1827, the novelist and sheriff Walter Scott famously called it “that bastard verdict” and it was criticised for creating confusion in the courts. More recently, former Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has called for it to be abolished, and a motion to do so was debated in the Scottish parliament in 2016, but was rejected by a wide margin. Advocates of abolition argue that not proven is used as an “easy way out” by juries, and that it is widely understood by the public to be a kind of acquittal, when in legal terms it is usually a confirmation of guilt. It is suggested that this causes problems in sensitive or high profile cases, especially those that deal with offences like sexual assault. Those who argue for keeping the not proven verdict suggest that getting rid of it will result in more wrongful convictions, as juries are pushed to fit cases that aren’t sufficient into the guilty-not guilty binary. For now, though, it remains.

The not proven verdict is crucial to the fictional afterlife of the Madeleine Smith case. Her most intimate secrets had been exposed in front of the world’s media, and she had walked out of the courtroom safely (by the back entrance; a decoy in the same coat and hat went out the front to deceive the press). Her guilt had not been proved, but neither had her innocence. She could never go back to being the fun, flirty twenty year old who had run into Emile while walking on Sauciehall Street with her sister. She was now highly recognisable and the suggestion that she had poisoned her lover could never leave her. There was also the question of morality and her lack of it: she had been condemned in court by the judge for her behaviour, and the letters read out during the trial had been gleefully dissected by the public. She would not be making a virginal and advantageous marriage any longer.

What did happen to her next is very interesting. She was not disowned by her family; indeed she was to remain in contact with her parents and siblings for the rest of their lives, although she never tried to make her home in Scotland again. In the immediate aftermath of the trial her father seems to have arranged for to stay with acquaintances in Plymouth — she was certainly there, under the name of Lena Smith, at the time of the 1861 census. And then in London in July of that year, with her father and brother as witnesses, she married a George Young Wardle, a drawing master. In 1870, he became manager of William Morris’s design company, Morris & Co, and he and Madeleine, or Lena, lived a quiet and prosperous life on the fringes of the Pre-Raphaelite circle. They had children, a boy and a girl, and Lena Wardle took to dyeing her hair with henna both to fit in with her new artistic friends and to diminish the chance of anyone recognising her from her trial. Then in the early 1890s she and George separated, and she started over once again, moving to New York at the age of 58, where her son was already living. At immigration, she gave her age as 36. Much later, she married a concrete contractor named William Sheehy, who was twenty years her junior. She kept in touch with her family back in Scotland by letter, and lived on her share of her father and brother’s estates when they passed, as well as money from her first husband. In 1920, aged 86, she was living on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, a survival of a sensational Victorian poisoning case as the jazz age dawned. I do wonder what she made of the flappers. She died in 1928 at the age of 91 at her home in the Bronx, with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren nearby. She lived a long, exciting and, seemingly fulfilling life, but she never publicly addressed what had really happened with Emile.

And this is why this case has spawned novels, plays, films, television adaptations and numerous non-fiction works, both academic and not. Like the survivors of other sensational Victorian murder cases, like Constance Kent and Florence Maybrick, Madeleine long outlived the age in which her scandal had thrived. But Constance and Florence were both found guilty, so even if subsequent re-evaluations have questioned this, at least in the moment it was felt that there was enough evidence for a conviction. Madeleine’s case didn’t even meet that test, and it is in that uncertainty — the idea that she could seem guilty but never be definitely confirmed as such — that fiction thrives.

Wilkie Collins was the first, I think, to be inspired by the Madeleine Smith case — his 1975 novel The Law and the Lady changes many aspects of it but keeps the key details of arsenic poisoning and the not proven verdict. But it wasn’t until the golden age of detective fiction that we see the true explosion in the case’s popularity. In 1920, William Darling Lyell, a lawyer himself and the son of an advocate who worked at the Supreme Court of Scotland, published The House in Queen Anne Square, a novel that draws substantially on the Smith case. In 1928 Winifred Duke’s play Madeleine Smith: A Tragi-Comedy in Two Acts appeared, which takes the central facts of the story but heightens the moral atmosphere of the original events, making Madeleine’s father a cartoonish Victorian patriarch and hinting at a religious dimension that didn’t really feature in reality.

In 1927, the court transcripts were published as part of the Notable British Trials series with a new appraisal by F. Tennyson Jesse, which makes for fascinating reading. Jesse seems convinced of Madeleine’s guilt but still has great sympathy for her, as a woman born in the wrong time. She imagines how Madeleine’s life might have been different had she been young in the 1920s and been able to have a career, for instance, or live independently of her family and have relationships with men on her own terms. There’s a brilliant deconstruction of this post-Victorian take on the case, which dominates the versions in the golden age, in Eleanor Gordon and Gwyneth Nair’s 2009 book Murder and Morality in Victorian Britain. I’d highly recommend this work to anyone interested in more about the case — Gordon and Nair really debunk the idea that young middle class Victorian women were kept entirely sexless and locked up by their repressed society, and that their counterparts between the world wars were free to do as they chose. It was comforting, no doubt, to the writers of the 1920s to imagine that matters for women had improved immeasurably from the dark days of Victorian restriction to glorious freedom post 1918, but the facts don’t quite back this up.

F. Tennyson Jesse’s non-fiction account of the case only seems to have fuelled the interest in Madeleine. In 1931 Marie Belloc Lowndes published her novel Letty Lynton, which is pretty faithful to real events — Letty is an heiress and her paramour is a Swede, rather than from Jersey, but the arsenic and the letters are the same. The following year, this book was adapted into a pre-Code Hollywood film starring Joan Crawford and Robert Montgomery, which transports the action to New York. This film was even subject to its own trial, a plagiarism lawsuit after it was found to be too similar to another play based on the Smith case, Dishonored Lady by Edward Sheldon and Margaret Ayer Barnes, which was then also made into a film in 1947 starring Hedy Lamarr. Then David Lean made a highly-regarded film in 1950 titled Madeleine that really helped to cement the story in twentieth century popular culture. Much later, in 1976, golden age author Christianna Brand wrote a full fictionalisation of the case under her Mary Ann Ashe pseudonym, titled Alas, for Her That Met Me! The lure of being able to rewrite history, and imagine what really happened between Madeleine and Emile at the end of their relationship, seems to have been very strong for writers throughout the twentieth century.

What the Madeleine Smith case most strongly reminds me of, though, is actually another trial — the trial of Edith Thompson, which I covered on the podcast way back in 2018. Although some of the circumstances were different — Edith was married, a few years older, and it was her husband who was killed, not her lover — the striking similarity is in the use of love letters in the trial. Indeed, some experts have said that Edith was really convicted solely on the strength of her whimsical, explicit, romantic letters, because there was no other concrete evidence linking her to the crime itself. There are two important and tragic differences, though. Edith’s trial was in 1922, 65 years after Madeleine’s, demonstrating that attitudes to young women and their sexuality had not changed nearly as much as the post-Victorians like F. Tennyson Jesse might have liked to think. And, crucially, Edith was tried in England, where there was no not proven verdict available. She was found guilty and executed on 9th January 1923. The fact that Madeleine Smith outlived Edith Thompson, despite being born and going through a similar scandal in the previous century, feels extraordinary to me, like a dispatch from a parallel universe.

Did Madeleine really hand Emile a cup of cocoa laced with arsenic out of her bedroom window in Glasgow on that fateful night in March 1857? The not proven verdict means that she survived well into the next century, but it also means that we can never really be sure either way.


This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton.

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Shedunnit is edited by Euan McAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.

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