Women and the Crime of Poison Discussion/March 1998


Query From Bela Bodo bbodo@yorku.ca 11 Mar 1998

I am working on an interesting story that shook Hungarian and European public opening in 1929. In [a] nutshell the story: in a remote part of Hungary, women poisoned their husbands and sick parents for three decades. The main character was the midwife who provided women with arsenic that she gained by dissolving flypapers. During the trials the village community generally protected its members; their defence of the accused ensured that only four women were sentenced to death and six received prison sentences.

I wonder whether anyone knows about similar cases. I am especially interested in the connection between poisoning and women. Was it a typical female crime and why. Does anyone know about books that discuss the role of midwives in traditional peasant societies? I would also appreciate books on family violence especially during the interwar period. Thank you.

Responses:

From Lesley Hall lesley_hall@classic.msn.com 11 Mar 1998

There is an interesting article by George Robb, 'Circe in Crinoline' about domestic poisonings in the UK--I don't have the exact citation to hand but believe it came out quite recently. Mary Hartmann's book _Victorian Murderesses_ may be helpful on traditions of women poisoners.

From Wendy Waters wwaters@axionet.com 11 Mar 1998

...In many Mexican villages, at least through the 1960s, women were believed capable of sorcery through food. Cooking is/was an inherently feminine activity in Mexican villages, and therefore considered a source of feminine power. Preparing everything from scratch was seen as a form of protection against sorcery, as was being careful at the market so that no one else cast a spell on their food (and thus there was much secrecy around shopping and food preparation.)

Legends said that women could control men through food by slipping herbs gained from the local curandera (healer) or from a witch. Stories have brutal husbands [who] suddenly mellow after the wife slipped some herb into his drink.

Mothers worried about their cavorting sons falling under sorcery and constantly warned them not to accept food from women outside the family; there are even stories of women preparing special "vaccines" against sorcery through the meals they cooked their sons.

These examples come from anthropological work done in the village of Tepoztln. See Oscar Lewis _Life in a Mexican Village_pp. 324-25, 199. Also, there is a great fictional account of the interaction between strong women and outside anthropologists, that addresses the legends surrounding food, called _500 Scorpions_(NY: Warner Books, 1987)--it's an entertaining and informative read.

From Joy Hammersla hammersl@spu.edu 11 Mar 1998

The play entitled _Flying West_ by Pearl Cleage, about the establishment of a black-owned community in Kansas after the Civil War, includes poisoning. A greedy and manipulative exploiter who would have done the citizens out of their property was poisoned by a couple of women---especially an old grandmother (as I recall). The "recipe" for the poisonous apple pie had been brought from the South by this old woman for just such a necessary occasion.

The Kansas settlement is historically correct. I have no idea whether the poisoning was based on real events.

From Julie Johnson-McGrath mcgrath@fas.harvard.edu 12 Mar 1998

It's difficult to find historical evidence or citations for the association of women and poison, because the association stems from the "common sense" of traditional Christianity's characterizations of women as vessels of evil and duplicity--when they weren't being angels of the hearth! Female poisoners, like other female criminals, often drew attention disproportionate to their numbers because their crimes transgressed the domestic angel role: usually poisons were administered through food the women cooked, or beverages they prepared and served, in the role of wife, mother, or nurse. (Up until the 20th century, when gastro-intestinal illnesses were common, arsenic poisoning was easily misdiagnosed by physicians as a g-i problem.)

One of my students at Harvard came up with a wonderful explanation for why the rate of domestic poisoning declined precipitously in the 20th century: the change in the locus of care for the ill from the home to the technology-laden hospital, in which the quality and quantity of bodily fluids came under scrutiny, and the patient came under the care of medical and nursing professionals. (The most recent cases of serial poisoning, suffocation, and other forms of murder have featured nurses and doctors; and those that don't, such as the case of Waneta Hoyt, the woman whose children's' deaths were attributed to SIDS rather than her active intervention, plays upon our culture's gender stereotypes: no woman, especially a nice, white, middle-class suburban one, who showed such extremes of grief at her children's' deaths, could have killed those same children. (Unless, as was the case, she craved the attention and sympathy offered to a grieving mother.))

Time to sign off before I lose track of my parentheses. I'd focus my search for citations about women and poison in the 19th and early 20th century criminology literature, which codifies all the traditional notions of female duplicity under the umbrella of "science.

From Jenny Lloyd JLLOYD@acspr1.acs.brockport.edu 12 Mar 1998

The citation for George Robb's article "Circe in Crinoline" is Journal of Family History, Jan. 1997.

From Donna Cooper Graves dgraves@utm.EdU 12 Mar 1998

I've studied women and crime for years, both in the English and US context, and yes, poisoning is a crime associated with women. Besides Victorian Murderesses, you might check out Ann Jones' Women Who Kill and Otto Pollack's The Criminality of Women, for starters.

From Miriam Reumann reumann@aol.com 13 Mar 1998

You might want to look at Judith Leavitt's excellent recent book on Typhoid Mary. It is not specifically about poison, of course, but Leavitt does a lot of tracing early 20th c. association between women and certain kinds of criminality--since Mary Mallon was a cook for middle-class households, her exposure of her employers to typhoid was seen as a transgression against domestic duty and familialism.

From Bronwyn Dalley bronwyn.dalley@vuw.ac.nz 13 Mar 1998

Yes, poisoning was often seen as a 'typically' women's crime: the strong connections with food and women's domestic roles were important in this regard. But also significant in the links between women and poison was the fact that poisoning was interpreted as a sly, secretive, sometimes slow and underhanded way of disposing of someone - regarded by some 19th century criminologists and other commentators on crime as particularly female traits.

In addition to Mary Hartmann's _Victorian Murderesses_, you might want to look at Ann-Louise Shapiro's _Breaking the Code_, and Angus McLaren's _A Prescription for Murder_(which discusses the complexity of a male in the poisoner role).

From Rebecca Ann Hartkopf rah5acpub.duke.edu 13 Mar 1998

If you are interested in comparative work, you might want to take a look ate Ann-Louise Shapiro's work, most specifically _Breaking The Codes: Female Criminality in Fin-de-Siecle Paris_ (Stanford U Press, 1996). Shapiro also gave a paper on female poisoning at the 1995 Society for French Historical Studies Conference in Atlanta.

From Adele Fletcher a.fletcher@phil.canterbury.ac.nz 13 Mar 1998

Francois Mauriac's novel _Therese_(1927) about a woman in a rural French village who poisons her ailing husband was (if memory serves me correctly) inspired by a real life case.

From Emily Daniell Magruder magruder@humnet.ucla.edu 13 Mar 1998

This may be a little outside the realm of the original inquiry, but as I read the responses it occurred to me that in the Henry James' novel, _The American_, one of the terrible secrets that Christopher Newman learns about the European aristocratic family he wants to marry into is that Madame de Bellegarde poisoned her husband, presumably to get him out of the way so that her favorite son could be the head of the family. I don't know anything about James' sources for that story, but I would bet that he didn't just dream this plot up out of the blue.

From Julie A Landweber jlandweb@compuserve.com 16 Mar 1998

Don't forget _Arsenic and Old Lace_...

From Bud Burkhard bud@qis.net 16 Mar 1998

Other works:

Edward Berenson's _The Trail of Madame Caillaux_(California, 1992), and Ann-Louise Shapiro[See above references to her work]

From Padma Anagol anagol@cardiff.ac.uk 16 Mar 1998

I have worked on 'women and crime' in the context of Indian feminism in the 19th century. Perhaps what I have to say will interest the person who queried on this topic from a cross-cultural and comparative perspective.

Almost all the cases I came across were associated with women, suggesting that the crime of poisoning was a preferred method for women. The motives were usually desperate unhappiness within the extended family caused by mother-in-law, husbands; co-sisters-in-law and so on. Sometimes it is also due to extra-marital affairs. Arsenic is cited often as the ingredient used but more frequently powdered glass (probably because of its easy access). An interesting dimension that surfaced when I compared spouse murder by men was the legal system was informed by notions of differences in method of violence used by men as opposed to women. It was assumed that men used physical violence (axes, swords and so on) in comparison to women (by mixing poison in food) and the earlier defined as 'overcome by passion' whilst the latter defined as a 'deliberate act'. The end result was that women came out of it with harsher sentences.

From Patricia Morse pmorse@midway.uchicago.edu 16 Mar 1998

I did not see the original query, but something that might be of interest is an article that appeared in the "American Journal of Sociology" about two years ago by A.R. Gillis. In it he argues that it was fear of women poisoning men that mobilized the movement to legalize divorce in France. It was feared as a widespread phenomenon. If this is of interest and isn't enough information to find it, let me know and I'll dig out the actual citation.

From Marian H. Nuedel mnuedel@acfsysv.roosevelt.edu 16 Mar 1998

Poisoning has always, from at least biblical times, been considered primarily a "woman's crime", presumably both because it requires no physical strength, and because it is generally committed in the kitchen, the traditional woman's realm. It is also, of course, a crime especially available to herbalists and physicians--those who have to know what substances can kill and/or cure. The annals of crime in 19th- and early 20th-century Europe, especially England, are replete with female poisoners. I was actually acquainted for some years with a woman who turned out to be a cyanide poisoner. Many years after I lost track of her, I read an article in Newsweek about her life and ironic demise (at the hands of an even more proficient poisoner). I had always thought she was odd, and possibly crazy, but I never imagined *how* crazy!

From Meg Gallucci mgallucci@mindspring.com 16 Mar 1998

I translated an article from the avant-garde Italian historical journal "Quaderni Storici" for the John Hopkins University Press about a case of poisoning that crosses over into witchcraft. It is by Giovanna Fiume, and I translated it as "The Old Vinegar Lady, or the Judicial Modernization of the Crime of Witchcraft in History From Crime:" Selections from Quaderni Storici, edited by Guido Ruggiero and Ed Muir, (Baltimore, 1994), 65-87. It is a fascinating case.

From Heather Tanner hjtanner@oregon.uoregon.edu 16 Mar 1998

To add to Marian Nuedel's post concerning the persistent image of women as poisoners: I have a colleague here at U of Oregon, Cristina Calhoon, who is examining charges of poisoning against women in the early Roman Empire. In the medieval and renaissance periods, this charge also appears, perhaps the most famous are against Lucretia Borgia.

From Julie A Landweber jlandweb@compuserve.com 17 Mar 1998

I just recalled another excellent fictional item which could be a feminist retort to the ages-old association of women and the crime of poisoning: Dorothea Sayer's detective novel, _Strong Poison_, in which the heroine Harriet Vane is accused of poisoning her (male) lover. In the solution, she is proven innocent when careful sleuthing reveals that a *man* was the actual poisoner. The revelation is made even more cunning by the fact that the poisoning was done through manipulation of food (in keeping with the traditional female-poisoner image), and the final death-dose was actually prepared before the victim's own eyes.

From M.Raichyk mraichyk@aol.com 17 Mar 1998

A side note on women and crime...I met a young woman recently. I think she was from Miami U of the U of Cincinnati, who told me a fascinating little anecdote on their research on women and crimes of domestic violence. Apparently they were noticing a peculiarity in terminology. The word "problem" was frequently used in discussions on this topic.

They tallied the cases where this occurred and discovered that when the woman was a complaining victim of domestic violence, the crime was called a problem. Obviously, it was a problem for the male-dominated judicial system?

From Teresa and Andrew Hobby info@spencewood.com 17 Mar 1998

I would like to add that some women may have been accused unjustly of murdering with poison. Of course, up until recently, people dies of unknown causes, which have been attributed to cold weather, witches, and whatever else that makes them anxious. However during periods of relative freedom of women, many of them were accused of horrific crimes. For example, while suffragettes protested loudly for the right to vote, Lizzy Border went to trial. Before that there was Joan of Arc. Currently reports about women on trial for murder fill our newspapers. Sociological cause and effect can be difficult to determine. Are these women guilty. or are they simply scapegoats? Probably a little of both. The following is an excerpt from my dissertation. I would love to hear informed opinions.

"During the first century A.D. in Rome there were several reported instances of women committing heinous acts against men. These records show that around A.D.4, Empress Livia was accused of killing two of her husband's (Emperor Augustus) sons. Later, in A.D. 48, Emperor Claudius' wife, Agrippina the Younger, was accused of conspiring to poison Claudius twice, because the first time his death was too slow. However, several present-day pathologists have hypothesized that the men probably died from salmonella bacterium poisoning (Tannahill 125). The assumption that women were responsible for these deaths is probably an indication of the heightened male distrust of Roman women who Juvenal wrote were addicted to sex and religion."

Tannahill, Reay _Sex in History_(NY: Scarborough House, Revised Ed., 1992)

From Lori Liggett lorilig@bgnet.bgsu.edu 17 Mar 1998

I'd like to suggest a wonderful film, often overlooked: check out "Montenegro" (1981, d. Dusan Makavelev). Try to get the unedited version if it's available. I wasn't sure how to describe it to you, so I looked it up in the recent Leonard Maltin book: "Bored middle-class housewife (Susan Anspach) becomes sexually liberated when she accidentally falls in with Yugoslav workers who frequent a boisterous bar." Well, that's *half* the story...

From Clare Spark cspark@ix.netcom.com 18 Mar 1998

Wherefore the name Harriet Vane? Harry Vane was a Puritan aristocrat who was beheaded when the Royalists defeated the rebels in the 17th century. Van this be an allusion comparable to the name Eve Harrington in "All About Eve?"

From Julie A Landweber jlandweb@compuserve.com 23 Mar 1998

I had never thought that Harriet Vane might be a name of significance. Do we have any Dorothea Sayers/Lord Peter Wimsey scholars on this list who could address this question?

From Joan R Gundersen gunderj@nyumen.elon.edu 24 Mar 1998

I have been unable to find in the posted logs the original comment about Harry Vane and how Dorothea Sayers may have named her character Harriett for this historical figure. *But* I am a little worried about the thumbnail identification given of Henry (Harry) Vane. There were two historically noteworthy men named Sir Henry Vane, a father and a son. The father was comptroller for Charles I for a while, but very active in the Puritan Revolution and a supporter of the "Independents" and more "radical" religious groups involved in that conflict. His son immigrated as part of the Puritan migration to Massachusetts, became governor of the colony, then returned to England to take part in puritan politics there. When Charles II was restored to the throne, the major puritan leaders were pardoned, except for Harry Vane, who was then executed. I can't see what it has to do with poisoning, but Dorothy Sayers knew British history quite well.

From David Doughan fawcett@lgu.ac.uk 25 Mar 1998

For those who want to follow-up various Vanes, the Dorothy L. Sayers Society has a website: http://www.sayers.org.uk/ with contact details. The membership includes some ingenious and learned types who can probably tell you all about this.

From Maria Elena Raymond M_Raymond@compuserve.com 4 April 1998

After transcribing this thread, I realized no one cited any instance or work which may indicate that women choose to use poison because women are highly intelligent and don't particularly want to be executed or jailed or punished in any other way(depending on the century). I realize that it is hardly scholarly to make assumptions without some kind of citation, but that's what I've done!

Another thought, in popular culture today in the United States...particularly on television, there are weekly series/dramas based on the solving of murders within an hour time-frame (roughly 30 minutes if you remove the commercials). I'm quite aware that women who are portrayed as possible poisoners are still shown as doctors, or lawyers...and recently one was a housemaid. The poisoners just have access to higher technology and fancier concoctions than their foremothers.

From Heather J. Tanner hjtanner@oregon.uoregon.edu 16 Mar 1998

To add to Marian Neudal's post concerning the persistent image of women as poisoners: I have a colleague here at Univ. of Oregon, Cristina Calhoon, who is examining charges of poisoning against women in the early Roman Empire. In the medieval and renaissance periods, this charge also appears, perhaps the most famous are against Lucretia Borgia.