The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder

Written by Linda Stratmann
Review by Ken Methold

During the 19th century, convictions were difficult to obtain in cases of murder by poisoning. Arsenic, in particular, was used for many legitimate purposes and was widely and cheaply available. It was insufficient, therefore, to obtain a guilty verdict simply by proving that the accused had purchased it. There had to be proof that the victim had died from arsenic poisoning, and that there was evidence – usually provided by a witness – that the accused had administered it. Evidence that the accused had a motive for doing so was helpful but not essential.

This book is a fascinating account of how developments in forensic toxicology and medical jurisprudence increased the number of successful prosecutions and reduced the alarming incidence of murder by poisoning. The narrative can be followed and understood by non-scientifically-minded readers because of the inclusion of many memorable case histories. For example, there were shocking instances of women poisoning their children for the sake of the few pounds they were entitled to as burial money from a Friendly Society. A remarkable work of scholarship. Recommended for readers with strong stomachs.