The trial of Madeleine Smith for murder began in Edinburgh on the 30th of June, 1857.
The trial of Madeleine Smith is one of the most intriguing unsolved murder trials of all time. Set in the prim and proper world of Victorian Scotland, the murder of Madeleine’s alleged former lover shocked the nation and her trial in Edinburgh was perhaps the most sensational of the century. Madeleine was the twenty-two year old daughter of a Glasgow architect and an eligible society lady. In 1857, she was accused of murdering Emile L’Angelier by poisoning him with arsenic.
Prior to the trial, salacious revelations of pre-marital sex had been making headlines in Scottish newspapers. The affair even ousted the Indian Mutiny from the pages of ‘The Scotsman’ and relegated that event to a few lines on the front page. The evidence presented in court included explicit love letters, with which L’Angelier had threatened blackmail. These seemed to provide enough of a motive and there was widespread belief in her guilt. However, by the end of the trial, public sympathy had swung her way and the crowds cheered at the news of the uniquely Scottish verdict of ‘Not Proven’. Madeleine was free to leave, but she was never free from suspicion.
Magdalene (Madeleine) Hamilton Smith was born on the 29th of March, 1835. She had a privileged upbringing as her father, James Smith, was a prominent Glasgow architect. The family lived at their town house at 7 Blythswood Square and also had a country retreat on the River Clyde, near Helensburgh. At the age of sixteen, Madeleine was sent to Mrs. Alice Gorton’s Academy for Young Ladies for two years, where she was expected to acquire the poise and manners to attract a rich husband. Instead, in 1855, she embarked on a torrid, two-year affair with Pierre Emile L’Angelier, an older, handsome, but low-ranking clerk of French extraction, originally from the Channel Islands.
The couple were introduced by Mary Perry, Madeleine’s middle-aged neighbour. They started to meet in secret and became prolific letter-writers; correspondence which revealed an “indecent” passion and physical intimacy shocking to the prudish sensibilities of Victorian society. In fact, some of Madeleine’s letters were excluded from the trial, because various passages were “unfit” to be read out in court.
As you might expect, Madeleine's parents strictly forbade the relationship on the grounds of L’Angelier’s financial prospects and social background, denouncing him as a fortune hunter. However, they continued to meet and in June, 1856, after they had become lovers, Madeleine promised to marry L’Angelier. The implications of that, an unthinkable taboo in Victorian times, would likely have resulted in her having to give up her inheritance.
Meanwhile, in ignorance of the ongoing affair, her parents came up with an acceptable suitor. William Harper Minnoch was one of her father’s wealthy business associates and after courting Madeleine for some time, he proposed marriage, which she accepted in late January, 1857. During that courtship, the secret romance with L’Angelier began to fade and in February, Madeleine asked him to return her letters. She wrote, “…we had better, for the future, consider ourselves as strangers.” The letter continued, “I trust your honour as a gentleman that you will not reveal anything that may have passed between us”. She also asked him to “[bring] me my letters and likeness.”
Emile’s response was a thinly veiled blackmail attempt, suggesting that he would give her letters to her father unless she married him. Curiously, as well as keeping copies of his letters to Madeleine, Emile kept a diary, which referred to his being ill after visiting Madeleine in Glasgow. He also confided to friends that he believed he was being poisoned. After returning home and collapsing outside his lodgings in the early hours of the 23rd of March, his landlady called the doctor, but by midday he was dead. A post-mortem showed an enormous amount of arsenic in his stomach.
When the police investigated and found Madeleine’s letters to Emile, she was arrested and charged with his murder. Some months later, on the 30th of June, 1857, her trial began. The Glasgow Herald described her entry before the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh as follows: “…a very pretty girl… She was dressed in a white straw bonnet, black silk mantle, grey cloak, brown silk gown, lavender gloves, and carried a silver mounted smelling-bottle in her hand. She was pale but quite composed.”
The evidence against Madeleine stemmed from the content of her letters, which obviously threatened a scandal she wanted kept secret. In addition, she had insisted that Emile meet her, which was confirmed by his diary. Potentially damning evidence was that she had bought three doses of morphine shortly before Emile died. Also, on the morning of Emile’s death, she fled her home and travelled alone to the summerhouse in Rhu and when her fiancé Minnoch caught up with her, she said she was ashamed of something she had done. Finally, she had carried out a clandestine love affair and was, therefore, clearly capable of deceit.
However, that evidence should be stacked up against the fact that killing Emile would not have averted any scandal as Madeleine was in no position to recover the letters. There was only Emile's diary to prove that they did actually meet, with no witnesses to any meetings. The first dose of morphine that Madeleine bought was purchased after Emile first recorded feeling unwell and talking about it to Mary Perry. Significantly, the morphine she bought was coloured with soot, whereas the morphine found in Emile's stomach was white (arsenic sold in chemists was routinely mixed with soot or indigo to keep it from being confused with other benign household products like flour). Emile's friends testified to his use and knowledge of arsenic and he told those same friends that he wanted revenge on Madeleine. It is possible that Emile ‘coached’ Mary Perry into becoming an unconscious witness by talking about poison. On the night he died, he had specifically asked for her, perhaps in the expectation that she would mention poisoning, thus saving his life and implicating Madeleine. Mary did arrive, but too late.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the jury returned a verdict of ‘not proven’, which is a peculiarly Scottish verdict that does not establish the innocence of the defendant; it simply concludes that the prosecution have not been able to prove guilt. Because of that ambiguous verdict, speculation has been rife ever since.
Not surprisingly, Madeleine left Scotland after her trial. She took the name Lena, married George Wardle and had two children before they separated and she moved to New York to live with her by then grown up son. After George died, Lean Wardle married an American called Sheehy, whom she outlived. She died on the 12th of April, 1928, and was buried at Mount Hope Cemetery, Westchester County.