Making a Medieval Murderer: The Exoneration of Gilles de Rais

Gillesderais1835

Gilles de Rais. Éloi Firmin Féron, 1835. 

You may have heard the story of Bluebeard—a woman marries a wealthy nobleman with a string of wives who had died under mysterious circumstances only to find said deceased wives congealing in an armoire. It’s a tale as old as time…or something. Variations have been told over the years, and a few real-life murderers have taken inspiration from it. What you might not realize, however, is that the Bluebeard of legend is said to be based on a controversial historical figure—the infamous Gilles de Rais (1404-40).

As the story goes, Gilles de Rais’ crimes were unspeakable. Rather than murdering a series of wives, he was ultimately convicted of sexually assaulting and ritualistically murdering up to 150 boys in his descent into the occult. He was accused of heresy, alchemy, sodomy, sorcery, and murdering countless—and unidentified—women and children. You know, in addition to the 100, 150, or 600 boys, depending on who you ask.

His crimes were so horrific and almost cartoonishly exaggerated, you have to wonder if they were even possible. Where did he find the time, how did he get away with it for so long, and who would ever do such a thing?

What does the history say?

Gilles de Rais fought in the Hundred Years’ War, where he distinguished himself as a courageous fighter. He was given the honor of guarding Joan of Arc by the dauphin in 1429. As her personal bodyguard, he fought alongside her in many of the most significant battles of her life. He helped to life the Siege of Orléans and earned the position of Marshal of France, the country’s highest military distinction.

When Joan of Arc died in 1431, de Rais was devastated. She had been a dear friend to him, and he believed in her wholeheartedly. In his grief, he retired to his estate and threw himself into religion and the preservation of Joan’s memory. Although his estate was one of the richest in France, he burned through his money at an alarming rate, employing armies of servants and soldiers and commissioning works of music and literature in honor of her.

In 1433, he funded the construction of the Chapel of Holy Innocents. The chapel featured a boys’ choir personally chosen by de Rais, a fact that many have pointed to as an early hint of the alleged crimes to come, but this is consistent with the enthusiastic attention to detail he applied to all of his projects.

In 1435, he financed a play he wrote himself about the Siege of Orléans, and it almost bankrupted him. More than six hundred elaborate costumes were made for the 140 actors with speaking parts and 500 extras; each costume was worn only once, discarded, and sewn all over again for each performance. He also provided unlimited food and drink to all of the spectators in attendance.

The play, Le Mystère du Siège d’Orléans, marks another turning point in his life. Not only was it regarded as fiscally irresponsible, but it amounted to the unofficial canonization of a woman who had been burned as a heretic.

To hear many tell it, this is when his descent into the occult truly began, but the only evidence we have of anything even remotely related is his interest in alchemy, which he later confessed to publically. Crucially, alchemy itself was not a crime unless it was accomplished with the devil’s aid; de Rais had not attempted to invoke any demons, he’d only read a book. This was not enough to seize his estates, however, and a far more serious crime had to be invented.

He was arrested in 1440 after kidnapping a priest over a minor dispute. Up until 1789, torture was considered a valid way to extract reliable testimony in France, and it was under these circumstances that de Rais confessed. Although the confession read by clerics at his execution named unspeakable crimes in lurid detail, his actual private confession was no more than a short verbal agreement to the charge of dabbling in alchemy. He was simultaneously hanged and burned alive on October 26th, 1440 in Nantes.

By all accounts, de Rais was oddly calm as he faced an execution not unlike that of his beloved Joan of Arc, who he could not save in spite of his best efforts. After his death, he was hailed as model of penitence, and a three-day fast was observed in his honor. Bizarrely, until the mid-sixteenth century, the people of Nantes marked the anniversary of his execution by whipping their children.

Exoneration 

In 1992, biographer Gilbert Proteau argued that de Rais was innocent in Gilles de Rais ou la Gueule de Loup and called for a retrial.

Proteau was not the first to notice the evidence against de Rais didn’t hold up. As early as 1443, there had been attempts to clear his name. While the evidence of his guilt was mainly limited to rumors, questionable witness testimonies, and the confession extracted under torture, there was one very good reason to want de Rais out of the way.

At one point, de Rais was the wealthiest man in Europe. His wealth has been used to explain his alleged corruption, but it is also a pretty convincing motive. His eccentricity and tendency to hemorrhage money after Joan’s death had caused a serious rift between him and the rest of his family. In 1435, his family petitioned the king to prevent de Rais from selling any more property. Charles VII agreed and issued an edict for de Rais to cease selling property and forbidding any of his subjects to enter into any contract with him. As far as they were concerned, de Rais was running the estate into the ground, and they wanted to keep it intact.

De Rais was not accused of murder until after a dispute with the church of Saint-Etienne-de-Mer-Morte in 1440, which resulted in him kidnapping a priest. Only after he had angered the church was there any investigation, and just two months after the kidnapping, the Bishop of Nantes presented witness testimony accusing de Rais of murder, sodomy, and heresy. Servants claiming to be de Rais’s accomplices testified against him, but no bodies, bones, or other physical evidence was ever found. Crucially, he was prosecuted by the Duke of Brittany, who received all of de Rais’ lands and titles after his death.

Centuries after his torture and execution, the Court of Cassation heard the appeal and fully exonerated de Rais in 1992. Although many French historians have long since accepted his innocence, many English-speaking historians persist in arguing for his guilt.

Fortunately, the movement to clear his name has been steadily picking up momentum, and many of the sources are available online. Since 2010, de Rais’ biographer Margot Juby has been making the case for de Rais in English through the website Gilles de Rais Was Innocent, providing almost a decade’s worth of evidence that the allegations against him were fabricated.

We were delighted to sit down with Juby for a closer look at the facts.

A Conversation with Margot Juby

DSH: We have been given two very different impressions of Gilles de Rais–on one hand, he’s this incredible war hero who fought with Joan of Arc, and on the other, he’s seen as this unspeakably horrible murderer–what do you think he was really like after Joan’s death? How did it affect him?

MJ: Most versions of Gilles’ life offer a very muddled account of his military career. They gloss over it and some even dismiss his heroism as an exaggeration. Too much is known about his part in the siege of Orléans and other battles for this to be viable. He was put in charge of protecting Jehanne, apparently at her own request, and came to her rescue at least twice when she was injured. He was also rewarded by the king for his bravery on several occasions, not least when he was made a Marshal of France at the age of 24. At the same time, he was given the highly unusual honour of a border of fleurs de lys (the royal emblem) on his coat of arms. This distinction was more often given to an exceptionally loyal town than an individual, and he shared it only with Jehanne and none of the other captains. Contemporary chroniclers all agree that he was the preeminent captain of Orléans and the Loire campaign; it was only later writers, after his death, who tried to play down his role.

When Jehanne was on trial for her life in Rouen, Gilles was just across the river in Louviers with an army and in the company of another of her captains, La Hire. Biographers try to explain his presence in occupied Normandy, far from his nearest estate, as some whimsical expedition to buy a horse, which is ludicrous. It is obvious that some rescue attempt was planned; the English knew it and threatened to throw their captive into the river if such an attempt was made. As we know, the plan failed and Jehanne was burned.

We can only guess how Gilles felt. The official story is that he had no particular feelings for Jehanne and yet, paradoxically, was so emotionally shattered by her death that he turned to diabolism and murder. Almost all accounts of his life are reduced to such paradoxes, because the two halves of his life simply do not fit.

After her death, his life fragments. There are plenty of events, but they lack coherence. He still maintains some interest in military matters, but he is no longer really a soldier. He dabbles in theatre, in the Church, and even in alchemy, at least according to his one confession that was not extracted by the threat of torture. He signs bizarre documents, seems to be afraid that his family is plotting his death, disinherits his daughter, compulsively sells properties to meet expenses that are not fully explained. And he constantly gravitates to Orléans, where he was happy and loved.

In 1435, to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the liberation of Orléans, Gilles paid for an elaborate mystery play, Le Mystère du Siège d’Orléans, to be performed, not just once but repeatedly, over a period of some months. Biographers are puzzled and disturbed by this and cannot work out what it might mean. Was it “discreet propaganda” (Jacques Heers) or “a cry of bruised love” (Gilbert Prouteau)? Whatever it was, it indicated that Jehanne had mattered immensely in his life. It was also a huge political error. It was virtually an unofficial canonisation of an executed heretic. In retrospect, it is hardly surprising that it marks the moment when his family turned against him, and his enemies, some he thought of as his friends, started to plot his downfall.

DSH: What do you think are the most compelling pieces of evidence that Gilles de Rais was innocent?

MJ: What to choose? The case for his innocence is based on countless small details, which build up into an unanswerable refutation of the case for the prosecution. In fact, the evidence presented in court is so feeble that, properly examined, it is the strongest argument for the innocence of Gilles and his fellow accused. It was some 550 years before the first serious attempt at a biography was written, by the Abbé Bossard. The records of the trial were written in manuscript, in Latin and Old French, and there is no sign that anybody looked at them closely apart from René Mauldes, who transcribed them for Bossard. His is a redacted version, since he felt unable to write the sexual details even in the original languages (he had no such problem with the slaughter). Very few biographers since show any sign of having done more than glance at the records, if that. They have built up a cast-iron case, built on lies and half-truths.

The traditional version of the story is that hundreds of children disappeared and were attested to in court by their grieving parents. Gilles and his entourage would pass through a village and leave at least one bereft family in his wake. Charge 15 of the Articles of Accusation is quite explicit: “For the past fourteen years, every year, every month, every day, every night and every hour, [Gilles] took, killed, cut the throats of many children, boys and girls…”

Yet there are accounts of only forty or so missing boys, and only a dozen are given a full name. The rest have only a family name and sometimes an age. Several are simply “unknown boy”–there are no girls listed. Apparently there were no known victims between 1434 and 1436, and only one in 1437. Although many people testify in court, few are related to the supposed victims; the crowds of weeping mothers simply did not exist. The complainants allude to the fate of the disappeared children, which they could not possibly have known about. Where several complainants attest to the loss of a child, serious discrepancies appear–this is particularly true of the Hubert and Darel boys. On one occasion, Gilles appears to be in two places at once. Some cases are mere anecdotes–in one case, a man seen looking for his son. All this evidence is hearsay.

Moreover, the links between these disappearances and Gilles or his men are weak. Several take place in parts of the country which he was not known to frequent–a whole string of boys go missing in Machecoul while he is living at Tiffauges. To make up for this problem, we are told that several old women–among them the infamous Perrine Martin, La Meffraye (the Terror), and Tiphaine Branchu–scoured the countryside for handsome boys. These ladies were caught and imprisoned, but we do not have their evidence and we have no idea of their fate, although they apparently confessed and their confessions were conveniently made known to some of the complainants. Unfortunately, nobody told Poitou and Henriet, the only eye witnesses, or Gilles himself; they mention no female procurers.

It is fairly well known that the evidence of Poitou and Henriet shows clear signs of having been extracted by torture. What is less often noticed is that Gilles himself was almost certainly tortured–he was promised that, in return for a confession, his torture would be deferred till the next day, not that it would be waived. Unusually, the next day’s hearing took place in the evening rather than the morning, allowing time for the torture to be applied.

This is merely an indication of how biographers have cherry-picked the evidence to make a coherent narrative out of what is, in fact, a messy and contradictory tangle of hearsay and forced confessions. There is much, much more.

DSH: Although he was fully exonerated in 1992, why do you think so many English-speaking historians and biographers persist in believing he was guilty?

MJ: Several reasons. First, plain bad timing. News travels fast now, but back then there was no internet to spread it. Second, all the documentation was in French, and English-language newspapers only printed short, whimsical accounts. It was a nine-day wonder. It is actually more difficult to find out what happened in 1992 than to tease out the details of early 15th century events, and that, believe me, is difficult enough. You would think that, as the prime mover of the retrial, Gilbert Prouteau would have put all the salient facts in his book. You would be wrong.

Prouteau himself, excellent PR man though he was, is part of the reason the retrial is regarded with some suspicion. He was a naughty boy, and wrote a confusing and occasionally dishonest book. The first time I read it–in French, having naïvely waited some twenty years for somebody to publish it in translation–I was mystified. He wrote a novel, quite overtly, and tagged an account of a preliminary hearing (not the trial itself, which had not yet happened) onto the end. The novel section aped all the errors in the “magisterial” tome by Gilles’ first biographer, the Abbé Bossard, and that was clearly deliberate. Prouteau had done no original research, and the evidence presented in court was taken from the writings of earlier authors, such as Salomon Reinach and Fernand Fleuret. This was well and good, but certain elements from Prouteau’s fiction also crept into the peroration delivered in court. This is worrying, though I feel that behind his obvious mischievousness, he was perfectly sincere in his belief that Gilles de Rais was wrongfully convicted.

The retrial itself was not, as it is often claimed, an official process and the verdict carried no weight in French law. At the time, those who had spoken up in Gilles’ defence had planned to ask for the support of French President François Mitterand to look into the matter and formalise the rehabilitation. As far as I am aware, this was never done.

One final reason why many people refuse to accept that Gilles de Rais was neither a murderer nor Bluebeard: human beings hate to lose their villains. As seen by posterity, Gilles is the perfect model of a villain and his story is packed with excitement–black magic, murder, sexual depravity to rival the Caesars. Who would want to give that up to hear about politics and property transactions?

DSH: What do you make of his confession? Torture was clearly a factor. Do you think this was a case where he would agree to any ideas they suggested, or was it a total fabrication? The things he supposedly confessed to are so outrageously horrible, it would be difficult to dream them up, let alone actually do them. I keep thinking about it and wondering how they got there. It makes me think of the penitential literature of the period–a lot of the things people could confess weren’t things people actually did, they were just these lurid fantasies thought up by bored monks.

MJ: When we talk about a “confession” now, we mean something fairly spontaneous and given in the accused person’s own words. Even those can be suspect if the accused has been subjected to intense interrogation. In 1440, it was very different. This is what Professor Thomas Fudgé wrote in his 2017 book, Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages:

“Confessions in many inquisitorial proceedings relating to heresy or witchcraft are remarkably similar in many parts of Europe. This may be attributed to the nature and standardized questions asked of the defendant or deponent. Leading questions were often asked. In many records there are no specific answers provided, only the single word affirmat meaning the witness has affirmed the point in question. Sometimes a statement of confession written in the first person would be drawn up by the court, which the accused or deponent would be compelled to sign or otherwise affirm.”

Lazy writers will say that Gilles de Rais made two confessions before the ecclesiastical court. The first, made privately in his own quarters, is preceded by the Inquisition rubric that it had been delivered “voluntarily, freely, and without any coercion whatsoever.” We know exactly what this assurance is worth, since he confessed only under the immediate threat of torture. It is short, has little detail, and does not mention murder.

The public one, made in court some thirty-six hours later, is the one usually quoted from, as it is longer, far more circumstantial, and has all the gory details. However, there was an earlier confession, not produced by threats (as far as we know) in which Gilles accepted the truth of the earlier heads of the Acts of Accusation (1-11 and 14, interestingly omitting the two articles that dealt with the qualifications of the Inquisitor Jean Blouyn). This meant he really confessed to nothing, since the accusations only started at Article 15. He did go on to admit–aloud, in public–that he read a book about alchemy and evocations that he obtained in Angers, and that he practised alchemy, though he specifically denied dealing with demons. Now, alchemy was perfectly legal and considered to be a suitable hobby for wealthy men; at least one Pope had written a treatise on it. It only became illegal if the Devil’s aid was invoked, which Gilles denied, or if it was the low form known as arquémie, in which the alchemist attempted to turn base metals to gold. This was clearly what Gilles meant. It was a minor offence, akin to forgery. It was not sufficient to get Gilles executed and his property confiscated; more was required.

The other two confessions bear a marked resemblance to those of his valets, Poitou and Henriet. Their confessions were certainly produced under torture and seem to be textbook examples of the leading question followed by affirmation technique of interrogation. It is their testimony that is most often cherry-picked in accounts of the trial; Gilles’ account usually seems confused and lacking in detail, whether the subject is murder or evoking demons. In between the first, private confession and the second, in court, it is certain that torture was applied. He had been promised, in return for confessing, that the torture would be deferred, but not that it would be waived altogether. The second confession was delivered in an evening session; all the others except one, after the interrogation of his friends, had taken place in the morning. It is usually claimed that he confessed at the mere threat of torture, and implied that he was a coward, but this is based on skim-reading the documents.

The confessions themselves are riddled with inconsistencies. It is not even possible to determine exactly what form of sexual assault is described; the accounts given before the ecclesiastical court differ from those given before the civil court. The only eye witnesses, Gilles himself and his two friends, contradict themselves and each other at every turn, and state impossibilities as facts. All the bodies were burned to ashes (a thing that would have been impossible without leaving visible remains). Except, that is for the eighty that were left lying around for several years, unnoticed, and had to be burned in two batches, in mid-summer, without attracting attention. Some of the other cremations took place in a manor house in Nantes with the Duke’s castle at one end of the street & the Bishop’s palace at the other. Or were the bodies taken to Machecoul for burning? The accused men do not agree.

From The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais:

“Gilles is a serial killer without any discernible modus operandi. The children are killed in a number of different ways, sometimes by Gilles himself and sometimes by his henchmen. This is not wholly impossible, but it adds an air of improbability, as if a number of possible tableaux was being presented for the delectation of a shocked audience. Interrogated as to who killed them, [Poitou] responded that occasionally the said Gilles, the accused, killed them by his own hand, occasionally he had them killed by the said Sillé or Henriet or him, the witness, or by anyone among them, together or separately. Interrogated as to the manner, he responded: sometimes beheading or decapitating them, sometimes cutting their throats, sometimes dismembering them, and sometimes breaking their necks with a cudgel: and that there was a sword dedicated to their execution, commonly called a braquemard.”

All of the more lurid parts of these confessions, including the murders as well as the sexual assaults, are related with a detail and a relish that suggest the imaginings of a few frustrated and unworldly celibates vying with each other to appal. The charges are generic: Gilles de Rais was accused of the same crimes that all outsiders were charged with. Witches, Gypsies, Jews, heretics, the Knights Templar…all faced accusations of sodomy, child abduction, murder, dealings with the Devil. All except Gilles de Rais are now almost universally seen as innocent victims.

DSH: If you could tell the people reading this one thing, what would it be?

MJ: Believe nothing you read about Gilles de Rais. The internet thrives on copypasta, and the “facts” that you read will have been taken from unreliable sources, quite probably from fiction. I have seen Gilles described as “Joan of Arc’s serial killer brother” and read descriptions of sexual acts that even his judges never thought to invent. Biographies are not much better, since very few are based on original research. All rely heavily on his original biographer, Bossard, who was not a historian. He took many of his so-called facts from an utterly bogus version of the trial record written in the late 19th century by a sensationalist author called Paul Lacroix.

Much of what we think we know about Gilles was invented by Lacroix, parroted by Bossard, and passed on to other biographers in a process of Chinese whispers. The illustrated Suetonius that supposedly gave Gilles the inspiration for his crimes? Lacroix invented it. The Bishop rising up and veiling the crucifix at the most horrific moment of Gilles’ confession? Lacroix originally, elaborated and improved upon by the Decadent author J-K Huysmans in his novel Là-Bas. Biographies of Gilles de Rais are largely fictional.

Jessica Cale

Margot Juby is a writer and biographer from King’s Lynn, Norfolk. She studied English at Hull, where, as poet Philip Larkin remarked to her some time later, she “got a First and (did) bugger all ever since.” Well, not quite bugger all. After years writing poetry, she decided to revisit a biography on Gilles de Rais she had questioned in school, and hasn’t stopped reading the sources since. Her upcoming book, The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais, is a labor of love nearly a decade in the making. You can visit her at http://www.gillesderaiswasinnocent.blogspot.com.

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The Life and Bizarre Death of “Necro-Entrepreneur” Locusta, the World’s First Known Serial Killer

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The Love Potion. Evelyn de Morgan, 1903.

Little is known about the world’s first serial killer, which is perhaps why accounts of Locusta’s death are . . . eccentric?

Here’s what we do know: Locusta hailed from Gaul, the outer province of Ancient Rome now known as France. Trained in herbs, she mastered the system of “patronage” and made a name for herself as a reliable assassin – or as Dr. Katherine Ramsland calls Locusta’s business, “necro-entrepreneur.” [1] To Locusta’s benefit, Rome brimmed with wealthy, would-be-patrons, eager to hasten the death of rich relatives. These clients also reliably bailed Locusta out of prison when events didn’t unfold per plan.

In AD 54, Empress Agrippina, the fourth wife—and niece—of Emperor Claudius, grew tired of her uncle/husband. She conspired with Locusta to murder Claudius in order to place her son from a previous marriage, Nero, on the throne. The Emperor, however, proved a challenging mark. Not only was he armed with taste testers, he also had a ghastly habit of vomiting each meal by tickling his throat with a feather in order to indulge again—a quirk which limited the time any poison could act.

But Claudius’ habit was not a challenge for Locusta’s ingenuity. Undercover, Locusta managed to avert the taste tester and serve the Emperor death cap mushrooms, likely flavored with aconite.[2] When symptoms of poisoning appeared, Agrippina gave Claudius a feather to purge the poison, but Locusta had laced that as well.

Suffering, the Emperor called for his personal physician, Xenophon, whom the devious women also had in their pocket. So when Xenophon gave Claudius a healing enema, he added poison to the mix as well. Claudius suffered a heinous death and eventually perished on October 13.

While Locusta was subsequently imprisoned in AD 55, Nero sought to secure his throne by contracting Locusta to craft a poison to murder Claudius’ son, Britannicus. When the concoction failed initial tests, Nero flogged Locusta with his own hands.[5] Motivated, her second attempt succeeded and the pair was ready for Britannicus.

During Roman times, it was customary to dilute wine with hot water. Britannicus was served wine that was too hot and when he called for cold water, Locusta’s poison was secretly waiting in the pitcher.

Upon Britannicus’s death, Nero bestowed Locusta with pardons, lands, lavish gifts, and condemned prisoners for experimentation. He also sent pupils to study with the poison master.

But all good things come to an end. In AD 68, the Roman Senate tired of Nero’s rogue practices and the Emperor took his own life with a dagger before facing punishment. The Senate’s attention then turned towards Locusta, and without protection from the Emperor, she was convicted with an execution sentence.

Some accounts say Locusta was smeared with vaginal juices of a female giraffe, raped by a specially trained male giraffe, and then torn apart by wild animals. [1] While that tale tantalizes the imagination, it is more likely she was led through the city in chains and executed by human hands.

I first came across Locusta’s story last fall, struck by the statement the world’s first serial killer was a woman. Even as a modern, non-traditional gal, it contradicted my expectation. My mind pondered what had motivated a female from Gaul to pursue such violence. What possessed Locusta to reach so far beyond expectation, to fulfill her sadistic cravings with poison? Where would she have learned her craft? How would she have honed the alchemy? The musings manifested in my historical fiction thriller, Apricots and Wolfsbane.

K.M. Pohlkamp

References

[1] Ramsland, Katherine. The human predator: A historical chronicle of serial murder and forensic investigation. Penguin, 2013.

[2] Cilliers, Louise, and Francois Retief. “Poisons, Poisoners, and Poisoning in Ancient Rome.” History of Toxicology and Environmental Health (2014): 127.

[3] Cilliers, L., and F. P. Retief. “Poisons, poisoning and the drug trade in ancient Rome.” Akroterion 45.1 (2000): 88-100.

[4] Macinnis, Peter. Poisons: From Hemlock to Botox to the Killer Bean of Calabar. Arcade Publishing, 2005.

[5] Belcombe, H. S. “Observations on Secret Poisons.” Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal 11.4 (1847): 94.

Apricots and Wolfsbane Front CoverK.M. Pohlkamp is a blessed wife, proud mother of two young children, and an aerospace engineer who works in Mission Control. She operated guidance, navigation and control systems on the Space Shuttle and is currently involved in development of upcoming manned-space vehicles. A Cheesehead by birth, she now resides in Texas for her day job and writes to maintain her sanity. Her other hobbies include ballet and piano. K.M. has come a long way from the wallpaper and cardboard books she created as a child. Her debut historical fiction novel, Apricots and Wolfsbane, was published by Filles Vertes Publishing in October. You can find K.M. at www.kmpohlkamp.com or @KMPohlkamp

A Field Guide to Historical Poisons

[From the archives]

The Long Way Home takes place in the court of Louis XIV during the Affair of the Poisons. During this period, many people from all walks of life were employing poison to dispatch with rivals and even family members to improve their fortunes or standing in court. As you can imagine, poison plays a large part in the plot of The Long Way Home. Here are three that are featured in the book along with symptoms so you’ll be first to know if your enemies have dosed your wine.

You know, just in case.

Arsenic (also known as Inheritance Powder)

Arsenic was the most commonly used poison at this time, and was used alone or to add extra toxicity to other lethal concoctions. It was the primary ingredient in Inheritance Powder, so called because of the frequency with which it was against relatives and spouses for the sake of inheritance.

Tasteless as it was potent, arsenic usually went undetected in wine or food, although it was also added to soap and even sprinkled into flowers. It could easily kill someone quickly, but was more commonly distributed over a long period of time to make it appear that the victim was suffering from a long illness. The symptoms begin with headaches, drowsiness, and gastrointestinal problems, and as it develops, worsen into convulsions, muscle cramps, hair loss, organ failure, coma, and death.

Unusually for a poison apart from lead, arsenic has had many other common uses throughout history. It was used as a cosmetic as early as the Elizabethan period. Combined with vinegar and white chalk, it was applied to whiten the complexion as a precursor to the lead-based ceruse popular in later centuries.

Ad for Arsenic Wafers, 1896. Arsenic was a common complexion treatment until the early 20th century.

By the Victorian period, arsenic was taken as a supplement to correct the complexion from within, resulting in blueish, translucent skin. Victorian and Edwardian doctors prescribed it for asthma, typhus, malaria, period pain, syphilis, neuralgia, and as a nonspecific pick-me-up. It was also used in pigments such as Paris Green, Scheele’s Green, and London Purple, all of them extremely toxic when ingested or inhaled. A distinctive yellow-green, Scheele’s Green was a popular dye in the nineteenth century for furnishings, candles, fabric, and even children’s toys, but it gave off a toxic gas. It may have even played a part in Napoleon’s death. While it took nearly a century to discover the dangers of the pigment, it was later put to use as an insecticide.

A Glass of Wine With Caesar Borgia. John Collier, 1893. From left to right: Cesare, Lucrezia, their father, Pope Alexander VI, and a young man with an empty glass. The implication is that the man doesn’t know if it will be poisoned.

Cantharides (also known as Cantarella or Spanish Fly)

Cantarella was a poison that was rumored to have been used by the Borgias (among others). Although it appeared in literature as something that could mimic death, cantarella was probably made from arsenic, like most of the common poisons of the era, or of canthariden powder made from blister beetles, and was highly toxic. Cantharides are now more commonly known as Spanish Fly.

Although it was only rumored to have been used by the Borgias, it was definitely 8fda6-cantharidesassociated with the Medicis. Aqua Toffana, or Aquetta di Napoli, was a potent mixture of both arsenic and cantharides allegedly created by an Italian countess, Giulia Tofana (d. 1659). Colorless and odorless, it was undetectable even in water and as little as four drops could cause death within a few hours. It could also be mixed with lead or belladonna for a little extra f*** you.

In case you’re wondering how one would catch enough blister beetles to do away with one’s enemies, cantharides were surprisingly easy to come across. They were also used as an aphrodisiac. In small quantities, they engorge the genitals, so it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. In larger quantities, however, they raise blisters, cause inflammation, nervous agitation, burning of the mouth, dysphagia, nausea, hematemesis, hematuria, and dysuria.

Oh, and death.

The powder was brownish in color and smelled bad, but mostly went unnoticed with food or wine. More than one character in The Long Way Home has come in contact with it, and it even plays a part in the story.

Ad for Pennyroyal Pills, 1905.

Pennyroyal

Pennyroyal was not often used to intentionally poison anyone, but I’m including it in this guide because of its toxic effects. Usually drunk as tea, is was used as a digestive aid and to cause miscarriage. Is was also used in baths to kill fleas or to treat venomous bites.

Although this is the least toxic of the bunch, the side effects are much more worrying. Taken in any quantity, it may not only result in contraction of the uterus, but also serious damage to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system. It’s a neurotoxin that can cause auditory and visual hallucinations, delirium, unconsciousness, hearing problems, brain damage, and death.

Along with Inheritance Powder and Cantarella, Pennyroyal also appears in The Long Way Home and causes some interesting complications for a few of our characters.

*

All of these poisons were common and easily obtainable in much of Europe during the time this book takes place and as you can see, continued to be commonly used for a variety of purposes until very recently. The use of Inheritance Powder in particular is very well-documented and it played a huge part in the Affair of the Poisons as well as commanding a central position in The Long Way Home.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Bloody, Sexy Murder: Sexual Magic, Missing Evidence, and Jack the Ripper

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Whitechapel, 1888

Theories still abound about the identity of Jack the Ripper, a nineteenth-century serial killer who was never caught. Experts debate endlessly over the victim toll and the actual start/stop dates of the gory murder spree in London’s Whitechapel neighborhood (Odell, 2006). Officially, two prostitutes were murdered on August 31 and September 8, 1888, before two more were “ripped” in the “double event” on September 30. A fifth murder occurred during the early hours of November 9. Some victims were gutted, all had their throats slashed, and some body parts were taken. The spree drew international coverage and a massive police effort.

newsarticleDuring this period, hundreds of letters arrived to police and news outlets purporting to be from the killer (Evans & Skinner, 2001). One nasty note offered the grim moniker, “Jack the Ripper,” although there’s no proof that Red Jack sent any letter. If he (or she or they) did send one, some Ripperologists view the “From Hell” letter as the best candidate.

This mysterious missive arrived shortly after the double event to the head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, enclosed with half of a preserved human kidney that had the appearance of a disorder from which victim #4, Catherine Eddowes, had suffered (and her kidney was missing). The note’s author claimed he’d consumed the rest before taunting, “Catch me when you can” (Evans & Skinner, 2001). Crime historian Donald Rumbelow (2004) discovered that the original note had gone missing from police files, and some experts think it ended up with a private collector.

This note’s potential provenance became the starting point for my fictional murder mystery. I linked it with a Ripper suspect whose background offers plenty of spooky detail.

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The “From Hell” letter

A circle of occult practitioners believed that their crony, Dr. Roslyn “D’Onston” Stephenson, was the Whitechapel killer (Edwards, 2003; Harris, 1987-8; Odell, 2006; O’Donnell, 1928). He was a former military surgeon who knew his way around knives and who’d studied magical practices in France and Africa. His wife had gone missing in 1887, possibly murdered, and he claimed to have killed a female shaman in Africa. He was unmoved by brutality. D’Onston associated with Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical group, adding to his obsession with the occult. Some members said that they never saw him eat and whenever he appeared, he made no sound.

Despite being highly secretive, D’Onston openly shared his ideas about the identity and modus operandi of Jack the Ripper. He named a medical colleague. D’Onston was himself arrested but not detained. He sought out a sponsor to fund a private investigation, but D’Onston’s associates remained convinced that he was the killer. One of them reportedly discovered a box under his bed that held books on magic, along with several stained black ties. D’Onston’s friends thought the ties had been worn during the murders to hide body parts carried away, as blood would not show up on black material.

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The fourth victim

On December 1, 1888, D’Onston published a detailed article about the murders in the Pall Mall Gazette, offering a black magic angle (Edwards, 2003; Harris, 1987). He suggested that the killer had walked around Whitechapel to select specific locations for six murders that would mirror Christian symbolism, in order to pervert it. Sexual energy, released with “sacrifice” of a “harlot,” would tap into psychic energy for demonic ceremonies. Female body parts, he said, were essential, along with such items as strips of skin from a suicide, nails from a gallows, and the head of a black cat fed on human flesh for forty days.

“Yet, though the price is awful, horrible, unutterable,” he wrote, “the power is real!”

Intrigued with D’Onston’s description, surveyor Ivor Edwards (2003) measured the distances between murder sites and found them strikingly consistent. He mapped out two equilateral triangles and added an elliptical arc to form the Vesica Piscis, the almond-shaped intersection of two circles, a vaginal symbol. This aligned with D’Onston’s notions about erotic energy and his belief that triangles had supernatural power.

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Whitechapel’s London Hospital

In addition, throughout the spree, D’Onston had been a self-committed patient in Whitechapel’s London Hospital for a fatigue disorder (easily malingered). What a perfect hiding place! He could easily have eluded police after each murder. Although most Ripperologists dismiss D’Onston as a viable suspect (Dimolianis, 2001), Odell admits that “Edwards’ idea of murder by measurement produced some intriguing symmetry.”

I agree, and from such mysteries can one effectively form fiction.

theripperlettercoverKatherine Ramsland teaches forensic psychology and has published 58 books and hundreds of articles, mostly nonfiction devoted to crime, forensics, and serial murder. Lately, she has added paranormal murder mysteries with The Ripper Letter and it’s sequel, Track the Ripper, published by Riverdale Avenue Books. There’s romance, sure, and sex, but she has wrapped it all in Ripper lore, along with other figures from history that nicely fit. She doesn’t claim to be a Ripperologist, but she knows enough from extensive research (including trips to London and Paris) to realize that all of the theorists make assumptions and take some leaps to make their ideas work. Within the gaps and ambiguities she has found room to develop fictional plots that still retain historical accuracy.

Sources

Dimolianis, S. (2001) Jack the Ripper and Black Magic. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Edwards, I. (2003) Jack the Ripper’s Black Magic Rituals. London: John Blake.

Harris, M. (1987). Jack the Ripper: The Bloody Truth. London: Columbus Books.

Odell, R. (2006). Ripperology. Kent, OH: Kent State Press.

O’Donnell, E. (1928). Confessions of a Ghost Hunter. London: Thornton Butterworth.

Rumbelow, D. (1975, 2004). The Complete Jack the Ripper. London: W. H. Allen.

Evans, S. P., & Skinner, K. (2001). Jack the Ripper: Letters from Hell. Stroud: Sutton.

 

The Tourist Trade Was Murder in Victorian England

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The Burial of William Weare, from “The Fatal Effects of Gambling Exemplified in the Murder of Wm. Weare.” T. Kelly, 1824.

Today we have CSI: Every City in America and then Some. Patricia Cornwell makes a killing with her Scarpetta series. People binge watch Making of a Murderer. But in Victorian England, citizens had no such luxurious entertainments. When murder didn’t come to them, they went to the murder.

The murder tourism trade was rampant during the Victorian era in England as the time saw a powerful focus on death and dying. Victorians took on many rituals surrounding death, developing traditions during periods of mourning, and maintaining keepsake notions like clipping a lock of hair from a dead person and keeping it in a locket, and even death photos in which the dead were photographed. This delight with death sparked a surge in entertainments focused on murder.

Murder tours were all the rage. The Radlett murder in 1823 sparked a wealth of murder entertainment. The Radlett murder involved three men mired in the vices of gambling and boxing who killed a fourth man, William Weare. The three murderers were led by John Thurtell, a sports promoter. He believed Weare had cheated him out of money and murdered him on October 24, 1823. Tourists would visit the location of the murder, a cottage in Radlett, Hertfordshire, England to survey the scene of the crime. Even Sir Walter Scott would visit the cottage a few years after the crime.

Tourists flocking to murder scenes was so common, a trade built up around it. Sightseeing tours to murder locations became quite common. In relation to the Radlett murder, the tour would take visitors not only to the cottage where the murder took place but to the local churchyard and the pond where the murderers hid. Finally the tour would stop at the Artichoke Inn, the place where the corpse was carried during the execution of the murder, and the proprietor of the inn, a Mr. Field, would be required to answer questions of the visitors.

L0036393 Mourning brooch containing the hair of a deceased relative. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Mourning brooch containing the hair of a deceased relative. Photograph 19th Century Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Mourning brooch containing the hair of a deceased relative

So popular were these tours, that tradesmen began to capitalize on them by creating souvenirs for tour-goers. In the case of the Radlett murder, at the end of the tour you could acquire a bit of the sack that was used to carry the corpse of William Weare or a book and a map of the murdered body’s journey. Staffrodshire pottery was even developed around the murder. But tourists took it even further.

When news of a murder got out, murder-hungry tourists would race to the location in the hopes of a public auction. Fanatics would buy up any materials that were auctioned off in the hopes of getting something from the murder scene. When that wasn’t enough, they would flock to the executions to see the murderers hanged. In the case of John Thurtell, an estimated 40,000 people attended. But it wasn’t just the crime scenes and mementos that pulled in the tourists. Murder spawned entertainment of a much more creative nature as well.

Murder plays and poetry abounded from sensational murders. Poetry accompanied action illustrations in broadsheets published during murder trials at the height of public frenzy. In the case of the Radlett murder, Thurtell once again was the focus with –

From bad to worse he did proceed,
‘mid scenes of guilt and vice,
Until he learn’d the cursed art,
To play with cards and dice.

Spectators would buy up these broadsheets, especially if they couldn’t afford newspapers. These publications would feed their yearning for more sensation as the trial went on. But even more so did plays move to stoke the public’s interest.

The Gamblers, or, The Murderers at the Desolate Cottage opened at the Surrey on November 17, 1823, not one month after the murder. The Gamblers would reappear on stage immediately following Thurtell’s execution. So hungry for murder plays was the public that it was not uncommon for plays based on real-life murders to play over and over again to packed houses.

While it may seem uncouth or perhaps disrespectful to the dead for people to carry on so, I bring you back to the present where the recent adaptation for television of the O.J. Simpson trial won an Emmy for outstanding limited series. Perhaps we’re not all that different from Victorians. Perhaps it’s just that advancements in technology has changed how people revel in the forbidden of murder. Getting safely close to the danger of murder through entertainments like shows and books. Perhaps now murder simply comes to us.

Jessie Clever

Sources:

Flanders, Judith. The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011, pp. 20-41.

About Jessie Clever

jessieclever_tobeadebutante_800In the second grade, Jessie began a story about a duck and a lost ring. Two harrowing pages of wide ruled notebook paper later, the ring was found. And Jessie has been writing ever since.

Taking her history degree dangerously, Jessie tells the stories of courageous heroines, the men who dared to love them, and the world that tried to defeat them.

Jessie makes her home in the great state of New Hampshire where she lives with her husband and two very opinionated Basset Hounds.

Her most recent release is To Be a Debutante: A Spy Series Short Story. Find out more at jessieclever.com.

Attempted Mass Murder at Sea: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson

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Map of route through the Bahamas. Lotgevallen van den Heer O.H. Bonnema (1853). Used with kind permission of Collectie Tresoar

When 208 passengers boarded the William & Mary in March 1853, they had no idea of the drama that would ensue after the ship set sail from Liverpool for New Orleans, or that violence and murder were in their future. Captained by the relatively inexperienced Timothy Stinson, it soon became clear to the emigrants that they were in a very vulnerable position, not least because the crew refused to give them enough food. Fourteen died as they crossed the Atlantic, a relatively high mortality rate, due in part to Captain Stinson’s failure to engage a ship surgeon for the voyage. Instead, when people were confined to their berths with fever, he consulted a pamphlet he carried in his breast pocket and prescribed them bacon, which did precious little to help those suffering with measles and typhus below deck.

Many captains skimped on surgeons and provisions, and got away with it, but it was when the ship reached the Bahamas that Stinson’s true character – or lack of it – was revealed. He chose to sail through the treacherous shallows of the New Bahama Channel, an area notorious for its hazards and shipwrecks, and the William & Mary was soon impaled on a rock. The ship was washed onto another rock nearby then an enormous wave freed her, allowing the water to pour in through the hole in the hull. They were sinking.

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Lotgevallen van den Heer O.H. Bonnema (1853)

Stinson strode about the crowded deck in his slippers, threatening the emigrants with his own desertion, and lying about the depth of water in the hold, doubling it and panicking the passengers. The exhausted emigrants pumped through the night while the crew devised a plan of escape and quietly removed provisions (and themselves) to the least leaky lifeboat. The distress flag was taken down from the mast and hidden, ensuring that any passing sailors would assume all was in hand, and while the passengers were distracted, Stinson changed his slippers for boots and abandoned ship. Some of the unlucky emigrants attempted to follow, swimming for the lifeboat, only to be hacked at with hatchets and murdered before their families’ eyes. The captain stood, raised his hat, and called “Friends, may you fare well” as his crew rowed him to safety.

Stinson’s lifeboat was soon picked up by a ship on its way to New York. He reported the William & Mary as lost before his eyes, then disappeared when journalists pressed for details. The New York Times of 18 May 1853 smelled a rat:

“…the cause [of this wreck] is traceable to culpable negligence and carelessness. Had the officers in charge kept a bright watch for dangers, there is nothing to indicate that the reef might not have been avoided; had the Captain taken more effective measures for the preservation of his passengers and his papers, the loss would have been less serious. And, finally, the silence and speedy exodus of Captain STINSON argues that there is little to be offered in extenuation. That a sea-captain should coldly report that his vessel had ‘gone down’ and ‘it is supposed that all on board perished,’ is altogether too systematic and provokes disagreeable emotions. It was at least due to the public that a statement duly authenticated by the survivors, should have been prepared and published by the Master, before he found it convenient to leave New-York for his home in Bowdoinham. If there is a reason for this silence, or an explanation for this seeming carelessness, the public will be glad to hear it.”

Newspapers gave brutal assessments of his character, and the Irish newspaper the Freeman’s Journal of 31 May 1853 referred to the incident as “convincing proof of the cowardice or insensibility of Captain Stinson”.

Why, in a time of chivalry and strict salvage laws, would this captain and crew have done such a thing? It is impossible to tell for sure after over 160 years have passed, but it appears as if Captain Stinson, whose father-in-law was part-owner of the ship, was attempting to bury all evidence of his mistakes – and save the owners money while he was at it. If the passengers died, little or no compensation would have to be paid out, and by leaving the people in his charge on a sinking ship with no provisions Stinson could be reasonably sure that only his version of events would survive.

He must have been shocked to the core to find his attempt at mass murder had failed.

“No news item of the month has been so worthy of rejoicing over, as the intelligence of the rescue and safety of the emigrant passengers of the ship William and Mary, wrecked amongst the Bahamas on its way from Liverpool to New Orleans. About one hundred and seventy human beings, given up to the waves and monsters of the deep, rescued by wreckers, it seems, while their sinking coffin was tumbling about among rocks and breakers and just ready to make the fatal plunge, are thus happily saved.” (Spirit of the Times, 7 June 1853)

Thanks to the courage of a crew of wreckers who saw the sinking ship two days after the hull was holed, and the perseverance and sheer will to survive of those on board the William & Mary, the majority of the emigrants were saved. The cowardice of Captain Stinson did not kill them, and the story of what happened on this ordinary emigrant ship full of extraordinary people is lost no longer.

The Lost Story of the William&Mary - Gill Hoffs - hi res image.jpgGill Hoffs is the author of Wild: A Collection (Pure Slush, 2012) and two shipwreck books, The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’ (Pen & Sword, 2014, 2015) and the recently released The Lost Story of the William & Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson (Pen & Sword, 2016). She lives in Warrington, England, with Coraline Cat. If anyone has any information regarding these shipwrecks and the people involved, they can email her at gillhoffs@hotmail.co.uk or find her on twitter @GillHoffs.