Poison Pen

It is a confession of essential frivolity of mind, perhaps, to admit that my favorite reading is in the annals of crime. Of course, as a former prison doctor and expert witness in murder trials, I can claim a legitimate professional interest, but to do so would not be altogether honest. Like 99 percent of people, I am prurient; indeed, the only people uninterested in crime probably suffer from autism.

I have a large library devoted to crime, and the other day picked up a book, thus far unread by me, by an author called Pierre Bouchardon (1870–1950), who, as well as being an eminent and busy judge, was for many years France’s most prolific writer on crime. He wrote sixty books and, a fine stylist, he is always worth a read.

How good the French were at crime in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, and how fortunate in his subjects was Pierre Bouchardon! The French were the equal of the British in rococo wrongdoing, which is the highest praise I can bestow. Their crimes were not merely sordid and shallow, as today’s crimes tend to be, but had what Sherlock Holmes called points of interest, that is to say aspects of historical, sociological, psychological, or philosophical significance.

This book was about Hélène Jégado, “the Breton poisoner,” who, starting early in the 1830s, when she was nearly 30, poisoned her way through at least thirty victims—with arsenic, of course—until 1851, when she was finally caught. She was guillotined the following year.

“The only people uninterested in crime probably suffer from autism.”

She was illiterate but intelligent and cunning, a member of the servant classes. Wherever she found a job as a cook or kitchen maid, death followed in the household sooner rather than later. Sometimes several members of a family, including children, would die under the very eyes of the family doctor. Sudden illness issuing in death was common in the 19th century, and some of the symptoms of arsenic poisoning, such as profuse diarrhea and vomiting, were almost routine and resembled the cholera that had appeared in France at about the same time as Ms. Jégado began her career as a murderer (one must not call her Miss or a murderess, for fear of offending the feminists). Where life hung by a much thinner thread than it does today, recognizing unnatural death was correspondingly more difficult. Moreover, medical diagnosis was primitive, as was treatment: Bleeding or the application of leeches was still practiced.

By the time of her trial, there was no doubt as to her guilt. It was not in the puzzle of detection in which the interest of her case lay, but in the explanation of her conduct.

It seems that Hélène Jégado, who was a slatternly secret drinker and small-time thief as well as a murderer, poisoned almost everyone who annoyed her in any way, for example by speaking roughly to her, giving her too many orders, or threatening her with dismissal for dereliction of duty. The annoyance had only to be very slight for a victim to be killed, and sometimes she killed a child to revenge herself on the mother. She was also envious of her fellow servants, especially if they found favor in their employers’ eyes. They too had to be shuffled off this mortal coil.

Hélène Jégado delighted to make fools of the doctors. When they said that their patients would get better soon after she had begun to poison them, she always prognosticated death, and since it was she who was to bring it about, she was always right. Perhaps the most repellent aspect of her character was her insistence on nursing her victims during the last stage of their fatal illnesses, and of plying them not only with further poison, but with saccharine religious sentiment, giving them a crucifix at the last moment and calling on them to accept Christ as their Savior.

A very curious aspect of the affair is that some of her victims actually suspected that she was giving them poison in food or drinks, but continued nonetheless to take it. If they began to feel a little better, they had only to take something given or prepared by her to relapse worse than ever. I suppose this points to the sheer power of social convention. It is not easy (unless you are mad) to accuse someone of poisoning you. I have experienced the strength of this convention myself: I was once driven by my host in Germany, who was clearly drunk, in his powerful car at 140 miles an hour, and I was far too polite to say anything, such as “Please slow down,” though I was quite reasonably in fear of my life. It does not do to tell a drunk that he is drunk, it is impolite.

At her trial, the only real question was whether Jégado was fully responsible for her actions. Her motive—petty resentment—was so disproportionate to her crimes, which were so numerous, that she was described by her capable defense attorney as a human monster, whose conduct was so outside the normal range that she must be considered insane and therefore not fully responsible for her actions. I have heard this very argument used in court more than a century and a half later, sometimes with success and sometimes not. It has a plausibility about it, because nine people out of ten will say, if not by madness, how is such behavior to be explained?

But the argument is circular. In the case of Jégado, she displayed no other signs of madness. She knew what she was doing; she was not acting under any delusion, for example, that the arsenic she was administering was really an elixir of life, or that she was acting in self-defense because in fact it was her victims who were trying to poison her (Poison, lest ye be not poisoned). Those who would have excused her on the grounds of madness thought she must have been mad to do what she did, and that she did what she did because she was mad.

If nothing else, she was a woman of spirit. On the very eve of her execution she admitted that she was guilty of all the crimes of which she was accused. She had not been accused of many of her other murders, however, because of a statute of limitations. She admitted to those also, except for three, which she attributed to a woman in the village where they took place, whom she said had taught her the use of arsenic. Obviously, if she had been believed (a dying confession often being taken as inherently true), this woman would herself have faced execution. But she was innocent. It was Jégado’s attempt to commit a murder from beyond the grave.

She must have been mad. What other explanation could there be?

Theodore Dalrymple’s latest book is Embargo and Other Stories, Mirabeau Press.



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