Reviewed by Susie L. Steinbach (Department of History, Hamline University)
Published on H-Albion (November, 2007)
Maliciously Like Poison
In this short, thought-provoking book, Ian Burney argues that murder by poisoning occupied a special place in the mid-Victorian cultural and psychic landscape, and that as a result, the detection of poison enjoyed a privileged position as well, for a brief period in the 1850s. Using the 1856 William Palmer case as focus, prism, and touchstone, Burney explores "criminal poisoning and the social, cultural, legal and scientific responses it elicited" (p. 3). To address these various spheres, Burney launches a truly interdisciplinary investigation in which medical, legal, philosophical, and historical ways of knowing are put into play against one another. He uses a wide range of sources, including the medical, legal, literary, and general periodical press, expert tomes on poison, and court records, to great effect.
Poison, Detection and the Victorian Imagination follows Burney's earlier work, Bodies of Evidence: Medicine and the Politics of the English Inquest, 1830-1926 (2000), which mapped changes in inquest procedures while exploring the relationship between medical and legal epistemologies. Burney focused on the processes by which various forms of knowledge are produced and painted a nuanced picture of the complex relationship between specialist and general knowledge. The book under review is in many ways an extension of this earlier discussion. While shifting focus from the inquest to the trial for criminal poisoning (in which inquests figured largely), Burney maintains a commitment to the complex interplays between medical and legal ways of knowing and claims to legitimacy, and between scientists and the general public. Because the book is organized around epistemological themes, a narrative arc is not immediately apparent, but can be teased out: the book tells the story of toxicologists presenting themselves as the only foes capable of subduing poison and poisoners, only to find themselves conquered by the powerful narrative pull of criminal poisoning.
The book is organized into five chapters plus an introduction. It begins with the 1856 hanging of William Palmer, the notorious "Rugeley murderer," for the murder by strychnine of John Parsons Cook. Burney argues that the Palmer case reveals much about Victorian culture, and that the topic of criminal poisoning and its detection is "a richly textured example of the application of medical and scientific expertise to matters of criminal law" (p. 3); whether the true topic of the book is criminal poison and its detection, or medico-legal expertise--of which toxicology is one example--remains unclear here and throughout the book.
Following the introduction, the first three chapters of the book are on the Victorian discourse of poison and the scientific experts who detected it. The first chapter introduces readers to mid-Victorian histories of criminal poisoning, its contemporary status as symptomatic of modern civilization, and an exploration of how ideas about poisoning interacted with real instances of it. Although poisoning was rare, Victorian commentators thought that they were witnessing a rebirth of criminal poisoning. Burney's insightful explanation of the gap between numbers and perceptions is an example of his nuanced approach to the ways that ideas and bodies of knowledge are created and shared. Rather than simply asserting that Victorians were wrong about a poisoning epidemic, or explaining away their perception by vague reference to pervasive anxieties, Burney takes popular as well as expert ideas seriously. While in the early 1840s, the typical criminal poisoner as depicted in newspapers was a working-class wife or mother who poisoned family members with food or drink, by the later 1840s and early 1850s the dominant image had shifted from the poisoner who was member of an uncivilized underclass to the middle-class secret poisoner whose crime was a symptom of civilization itself.
Chapter 2 looks at the various responses provoked by poison during this critical decade. Burney supports well his argument for the centrality of criminal poisoning. Poisoning was the only form of criminal violence that was thought to need its own expert; unlike other modes of crime, it needed to be conceptually, operationally, and legislatively "disciplined" (the word correctly indicates Burney's Foucauldian tendencies) (p. 40). In this chapter we meet Alfred Swaine Taylor, whose book On poisons in relation to medical jurisprudence (1848) marked a new age in toxicology. Taylor redefined poison, and in the process created the possibility of the toxicologist as expert. Toxicology based its claim to exclusive expert competence largely on the fact that poison was administered in tiny amounts that were difficult to detect; the poisoned body would yield its secret only to these trained experts. Burney argues that Taylor's and other experts's works on toxicology, though technical and specialized, were broadly influential. They were read by a wide range of medical professionals who might be called on to act as expert witnesses; as a result, toxicology as a field was present at all trials for criminal poisoning even when a toxicologist was not. The process of giving medico-legal testimony was, Burney emphasizes, a performance, one in which the expert was called upon to map scientific fact onto popular belief, and thereby establish a relationship between popular and expert knowledge. But while such a mapping implied that experts were a unified body, and that toxicological expertise was firm, they were not. Chapter 2 ends with a fascinating discussion of English reactions to Styrian arsenic-eaters, who ate what the English perceived as poison to improve their health. This section is typical of the strengths and weaknesses of the book: it demonstrates broad, deep knowledge of poison and insightful interpretation, but feels somewhat tangential and distracts from the main line of an already complex argument.
Chapter 3 looks at the tools that the law, chemistry, and toxicology used against poison. Toxicological experts presented themselves as scientists who brought hard chemical fact into the interpretive, even misrepresentational, world of the law courts, but of course toxicology was itself a field of interpretation and argument. Burney describes various chemical analyses and the key role of chemical "reagents," which he calls "the chemist's equivalent of ... circumstantial evidence" (p. 89). Problems with precision and interpretation were apparently solved by the development of the Marsh and Reinsch processes, but debates within the expert community continued. Burney argues that these debates "can be regarded as a set of contemporary reflections on the breakdown of toxicological signification stemming from a relationship of underdetermination" (p. 102). While this breakdown could be better explained, its effects are fairly clear: once toxicologists admitted that theirs was a field of interpretation, they lost their privileged place among legal experts. Toxicological evidence, once seen by the courts as a uniquely certain form of proof, became just another part of the process of fact-finding. While in chapter 2 we saw that the process of giving medico-legal testimony was a performance, in chapter 3 we discover that even as toxicologists took the stage, the foundations of their science came under scrutiny.
While these first three chapters are very interesting and innovatively argued, they are also demanding; Burney himself describes them as "developed ... in fairly abstract form" (p. 105). As a result the fact that chapter 4 turns back towards "the particular circumstances" of the Palmer case is very welcome (p. 105); the last two chapters of the book are the strongest in their integration of abstraction and lived reality, theory, and example. The Palmer case attracted an astounding level of interest at both the local and national levels. Palmer, a doctor whose true love was speculation, gambled on horses, used credit and bills of exchange extensively, and dabbled in life insurance before being accused of one death and suspected of more. Contemporaries debated the case at length, and saw both Palmer's various forms of speculation and modern criminal poisoning as interrelated negative byproducts of (over)civilization; Burney deftly connects mid-Victorian anxiety about poisoning to larger anxieties about the inhumane nature of capitalism and to medicine's campaign for professionalization. In the courtroom, Burney argues, the status of toxicological evidence itself was on trial; Taylor, called on as an expert witness, argued that chemical evidence was limited and subject to interpretation, and found himself having to defend not only himself but his field. That Dr. Palmer was found guilty and sentenced to death did not establish toxicology as reliable; indeed there was so much uncertainty about the evidence during the trial that the Palmer case not only destabilized toxicology as a stable body of knowledge, but science as form of expertise in English courts of law.
Proceeding chronologically, chapter 5 looks at the fate of toxicology after the Palmer case. The lay and medical presses supported the guilty verdict and "sought to bolster the public image of science as a reliable conduit for truth in criminal courts" (p. 155), but so many questions had been raised that toxicologists no longer seemed the worthy opponents of modern criminal poisoners that they claimed to be. Taylor published a new edition of his textbook On Poisons that re-emphasized the points about the limits of chemical evidence he had made at trial. He was furthered embroiled in controversy when he served as an expert witness in the 1859 Thomas Smethurst case, in which another doctor was accused of criminal poisoning. Taylor came to believe that the arsenic that he seemed to have detected in the sample was a product of the toxicological testing process itself, and he admitted as much. Smethurst was still found guilty, but toxicology now seemed hopelessly unreliable; while the Palmer verdict was broadly supported by public opinion, the Smethurst verdict was widely challenged. Burney calls Taylor's admission of error "a practical and symbolic violation of modern toxicological order" (p. 166), one that introduced significant public doubt about how expert and how certain toxicology could be. A month after his conviction, Smethurst was reprieved, a move that was welcomed by the lay press but seen as an affront by the medical press. The controversies in the Palmer and Smethurst cases created a climate of skepticism around toxicology and its claims to being a "bulwark against ... secret poisoning" (p. 170). No longer were civilized, scientific toxicologists pitted against civilized, scientific poisoners; the attempt by toxicology to tame poison by rendering it fully detectable had proved unsuccessful. Poisoning did not lose "its capacity to fascinate" (p. 174); it remained part of the Victorian imaginative landscape, of which toxicology itself was now an element.
Burney ends his work by arguing that the "emotive force of poison" after the Smethurst case is best seen in literature (p. 174). The discussion that follows of Charles Dickens, his journal All the Year Round (1859-95), and the works of his protégé Wilkie Collins is a provocative coda, but a summative and reflective conclusion would have been more useful. Instead chapter 5 ends with brief concluding remarks about how toxicology itself was in part responsible for the "implosion of [its] project of taming, defining, and disciplining" poison (p. 182).
While Burney uses many disparate disciplines and sources deftly, he could have done more to integrate various aspects of his analysis. The book is divided into a highly theoretical first half and a more grounded, culturally specific second half; integrating these two, so that abstract issues were more closely linked to events, individuals, and popular and expert opinion, would have produced a stronger work. Furthermore, while the book claims in its title to address the Victorian period, it focuses almost exclusively on the 1850s. A longer time span would have made this book more useful to more readers and would have enabled the author to consider other notorious poisoning cases such as the 1848 conviction of Mary May in Essex, the 1876 poisoning of Charles Bravo, and the 1910 Crippen case in light of his fascinating analysis. Fortunately, this complex and well-written book will surely inspire other works on Victorians and poison that will continue the investigation Burney has begun.
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Susie L. Steinbach. Review of Burney, Ian, Poison, Detection and the Victorian Imagination.
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