Analysis of the case
The Madeleine Smith Story - Analysis of the CaseThe Smith's front doorkitchen windows (front area)Minnoch's DoorMinnoch's apartmentsBessie's bedroomMadeleine's bedroom windowsJohn's bedroom windowSmiths' drawing roomSmiths' dining room
      
 

To a great extent, the Madeleine Smith story has survived in popular mythology because of "the riddle" - certain curious facts which have intrigued students of the case since 1857. At first sight, the case couldn't be more straightforward. L'Angelier is in the habit of visiting Madeleine Smith and taking coffee or chocolate drinks from her; she wants rid of him; she buys arsenic; he dies of arsenic poison after making a special journey from Bridge of Allan, clearly for the sole purpose of seeing her. So, as one recent "student" of the case, about to embark upon the well-trodden path of research into the story, confidently declared, "it's safe enough to start out with the assumption that she was guilty."

The following facts, however, especially when taken together, have understandably given rise to some speculation that all is not necessarily as it seems:

So what really happened?

The whole case turns on a few days over a period of a fortnight:
Wed 28 Jan Madeleine accepts William Minnoch's offer of marriage.   She writes to L'Angelier.     He just returns the letter to her.
Mon 02 Feb The return of the letter gives Madeleine the excuse she needs to write to L'Angelier and end the affair.
"I felt truly astonished to have my last letter returned to me. But it will be the last you shall have the opportunity of returning. When you are not pleased with the letters I send you, then our correspondence shall be at an end, and, as there is a coolness on both sides, our engagement had better be broken. ... ... bring my letters and likeness on Thursday eve., at 7."

Tue 03 Feb

L'Angelier receives Madeleine's letter - doesn't reply immediately - tells Thomas Kennedy, with tears in his eyes, that he would "never allow her to marry another man as long as he lived."
Mon 09 Feb 

Madeleine, still having had no reply from L'Angelier, and still unaware of the danger she is in, sends him an abrupt note (deliverable Tuesday).
"I attribute it to your having a cold that I had no answer to my last note. On Thursday evening you were, I suppose, afraid of the night air. I again appoint Thursday night first - same place - street gate, 7 o'clock."

After she has posted it, L'Angelier's blackmail letter arrives (threatening to show her letters to her father). She writes again, this time pleading with him not to carry out his threat and telling him that she will be disowned.

Tue 10 Feb
L'Angelier receives both of  Madeleine's letters.  He knows, today, for the first time, that he has no hope of marrying into the Smith family (marriage to a disowned Madeleine was not what he had in mind).

The last time he was jilted by a wealthy girl (the "Lady in Fife") he had all but lost his mind. He later resolved and avowed that if the same thing should ever happen again, he would not be the one to suffer - he said he would take revenge. To his mind, Madeleine had robbed him of his future - and she would now pay the price.

Wed 11th

L'Angelier now wasted no time putting a plan for revenge into action. He made the first entry in a diary. The diary has no future appointments, only retrospective notes but it actually fails to be convincing in that respect not merely because it only started on the day after she wrote to end their relationship but because, as a retrospective record of events in his life, it makes no mention at all of this traumatic turn of events. The entry on Wednesday 11th February gives no indication of the crisis that he was living through on this, the very day after learning that everything he had worked for, for the past two years, had been lost.   All it says is a very casual and matter of fact, "Dined at Mr Mitchell's; Saw M. at 12pm in CH Room."  The casual tone of his notes contrasts sharply with the turmoil of his life at that very moment.

That, in itself, should have been enough to draw the attention of Madeleine's defence team but the most striking feature of this diary is that this entry - Wednesday 11th February - was the very first entry in the diary.   There are no previous entries.   From the first moment of putting pen to paper, this diary had only one purpose: to put a noose around the neck of Madeleine Smith.

The unsuspecting victim

His scheme was so transparent - the diary is such an obvious fabrication - that it is hard to believe anyone could be taken in by it but, in the minds of all involved in the case - both prosecution and defence - his arsenic ridden corpse established the plain, obvious, and seemingly indisputable fact that he was the victim. How could it possibly be otherwise? As with all the best riddles, we are tricked by our own assumptions.

From that day on, firstly by making it known that he was suffering from unaccountable illnesses after visiting Madeleine and by priming his friends with heavy hints of poisoning, he set about creating a well of suspicion against her, and the diary, he believed, would put her guilt beyond doubt.

  1. Thu 19th February  (Diary) - "Saw Mimi a few moments was very ill during the night."
  2. Fri 20th Feb   (Diary) - "Passed two pleasant hour with M. in the Drawing Room." Sat 21st Feb   (Diary) - "Don't feel well."
  3. Sun 22nd Feb   (Diary) - "Saw Mimi in Drawing Room  - Promised me French Bible. Taken very ill."
  4. Mon 23rd Feb   Emile tells Thomas Kennedy, "I am very ill," and gets sent home. ..Emile calls on Dr Thomson. Thuau visits Emile.
  5. Mon  2nd Mar   Emile tells Mary Perry he had been very ill, after his last meeting with Madeleine - "Well, I never expected to see you again."
  6. Mon 9th Mar - The most telling evidence of all - Emile gets leave of absence... takes tea with Mary Perry and informs her about a cup of chocolate which had made him ill... "I can't think why I was so unwell after getting that coffee and chocolate from her."  Evidently, however, Miss Perry is not quite catching on so he tells her, "it is a perfect fascination I have for (Madeleine) - if she were to poison me I would forgive her."
  7. Mon 16th Mar L'Angelier visits Mr and Mrs Towers in Portobello - he talks "almost the whole time about his health" - he talks about being very ill and he then declares that he believes he may have been poisoned.

And now, one more bizarre fact which had emerged in testimony falls in to place: L'Angelier, who was brought up in the gardening business in Jersey, was unusually familiar with arsenic [DeMean; Ogilvie; Hill]. He not only knew it as a weedkiller and insecticide - he used it as a drug. He had boasted about how much arsenic he could hold without any ill effect. The cholera-like symptoms, indicative of arsenical poisoning, which he reported in the weeks prior to his death were exactly the same as had been witnessed by acquaintances long before he even met Madeleine Smith. He was well aware of the effect of taking more than a small dose of arsenic. He had also spoken about how it could improve the complexion (even the Lord Justice-Clerk observed that there is no doubt he had previously mentioned to Madeleine it's use as a cosmetic).

Reading through Madeline's letters to L'Angelier, one of the most prominent features to mark their unusual correspondence is her almost slavish response to his harping and advice on all matters, particularly regarding her behaviour and appearance. If there was an enduring and defining theme of their relationship, it was Madeleine's expected obedience to L'Angelier's wishes and advice. Now, with the threat of making her letters public, he had her more completely in his power than ever before. He only has to make an issue of her failure to pay attention to his advice and remind her of his suggestion that she use arsenic for her complexion. She was no longer in any position to ignore his advice. Right on cue, we find her writing to L'Angelier, "My head aches and I'm looking so bad… but I'm taking some stuff to bring back the colour."

21st February On the 18th of February, Madeleine tells L'Angelier that she has tried the arsenic, as he advised... but she was lying. On the 19th, believing that she is now in possession of the poison, L'Angelier reports his first "illness" but in fact it was two days later, on the 21st, when Madeleine made her first purchase.

On the 6th of March, Madeleine again bought (stained) arsenic from the chemists. On the same day, L'Angelier visited the Botanic Gardens where he used to lodge and where, at that time, - we have now (140 years after the event) established - white arsenic was being used as a weedkiller. The Prosecution's agents made enquiries of Glasgow chemists to ascertain if anyone by the name of L'Angelier had signed his name on any of the poison's registers! Unbelievably, no attempt was made by Madeleine's defence team to put L'Angelier with a source of white arsenic. They knew he was at the Botanic Gardens on the 6th of March but they never made the connection.

For all his planning, L'Angelier still had one problem. No-one was taking his poisoning talk seriously. He needed someone to point the finger and to achieve that end, he would have to take a bit more arsenic than usual. That was not without danger. The later he could postpone taking the dose, the better. Rather than take an extra-large quantity of arsenic at the time of his usual visits to Madeleine, he was forced to take it much later in the morning. (He actually arrived at his lodgings at 2.30). So how did he solve the problem of the time difference? He couldn't expect to be seen visiting her outside her window at 2.00am but there was another way to prove that he had visited her that night. He firstly, writes to Madeleine and hints that he's about to do something about the rumours; he gets her really worried about what he's about to do. He knows that she will respond anxiously and urgently, requesting a meeting.

Wednesday 18th March - Madeleine buys more arsenic from the chemist.

Thusday 19th March He then goes off on a short holiday (19th March) but, before he goes, he tells Mrs Jenkins and Thuau that he's expecting an important letter and if it arrives while he's away, they are to send it on to him. As he knew it would, Madeleine's letter arrives while he's in Bridge of Allan. Perhaps deliberately, perhaps it arrived to late for him to take any action, but he does nothing. She writes a second letter (now she's really worried) asking for a meeting - and remember, she doesn't know he's gone to Bridge of Allan. This one is exactly what he's been waiting for:

"Why, my beloved did you not come to me? Oh, beloved, are you ill? Come to me sweet one. I waited and waited for you, but you came not. I shall wait again tomorrow night, same hour and arrangement. Do come, sweet love, my own dear love of a sweetheart. Come, beloved and clasp me to your heart. Come and we shall be happy. A kiss, fond love. Adieu, with tender embraces. Ever believe me to be your own ever dear fond Mini."

In the interim, he has written to Miss Perry and others, making it clear that he intends to be home no earlier than Wednesday or Thursday.

Sunday 22nd March On the Sunday afternoon, he gets the train back from Bridge of Allan. He arrives at his lodgings and tells Mrs Jenkins that the letter that she had sent on to him had brought him back early. To reinforce the idea that he has only returned for this one purpose - he doesn't actually say what it is, only that the letter brought him back (he thinks he's subtle)! - , he tells her that he intends to return to Bridge of Allan, first thing in the morning. When he leaves to go out, he asks for the pass-key since he might be back late. Having established in the minds of several individuals that he had returned for the sole purpose of the meeting, there was no longer any need to actually visit Blythswood Square that night. He could take the arsenic at a time of his choosing - after 2.00am.

Mon 23rd March As he is attended by the doctor in his final hours, he now makes absolutely no mention of that which has been such a favourite topic of conversation for the past few weeks - coffee, chocolate, poison and Madeleine Smith. Obviously, he now has no choice but to feign ignorance. Had he made any mention to the doctor of his "suspicions," the question would immediately have arisen, "but why, if you thought you were being poisoned, did you take more?" In fact, the role of accuser has been assigned to Miss Perry. She, by now, was well primed for the task and, had she arrived earlier that morning, she could have informed the doctor that the possibility of poison must be considered, and his life might have been saved. He waited until daylight before sending for Miss Perry but, for whatever reason, Miss Perry did not come immediately. The best laid schemes of mice and psychopaths gang aft aglee. Under the combined influence of arsenical poisoning and the morphia which the doctor had prescribed to alleviate the pain, he fell asleep, never to wake.

John Inglis' defence of Madeleine Smith has gone down in legal history. His skilful and eloquent address to the jury has commanded the respect of generations of young lawyers. It is impossible to read that address without being impressed by the man's eloquence and by his force of argument. Madeleine Smith had, possibly, as good a defence as a murderess ever had but that was the problem - John Inglis believed that he had succeeded in getting a guilty woman her freedom. In actual fact, he condemned an innocent woman and her family to the stigma of suspicion which has persisted to this day.

There remains one mystery and it was pointed out to me a few years ago, by a Scottish journalist:

"why has it taken us all this time to see through the twisted little bastard?

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copyright © 1999 Jimmy Powdrell Campbell

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