A Scottish Murder – Re-writing the Madeleine Smith Story

Jimmy Powdrell Campbell

Premeditated murder obviously implies a degree of forethought. The general idea is to commit the crime and escape the consequences. That’s what makes it interesting. Murderers can go to great lengths to conceal their actions. They’re illusionists, albeit amateur illusionists, creating often complex scenarios to establish their apparent innocence.

150 years ago in Scotland, Madeleine Smith sat in the dock accused of the murder, by arsenic, of her ex-boyfriend. Since that day, every book on the case has bought into the illusion. The circumstances surrounding the death of Emile L’Angelier have been probed and dissected by countless esteemed crime writers but maybe no-one working to a publishing deadline has the time to get a handle on a story like this. As a writer, deadline or no, you have to get to know the characters. That puts you in the unique position of being able to answer the question: which of these two is the illusionist? You’re now half-way to cracking the case. Whether you know it or not, the key’s in your hands.

In every good riddle, we’re tricked by our assumptions. This case remained unsolved for a century and a half because of the all-but-inevitable assumption that the dead man was the victim. The many celebrated works – I’d have to say works of fiction – based on the Madeleine Smith story have always held a certain fascination but the true crime that led to Scotland’s most famous murder trial of the 19th century spun a web of illusion that almost defies belief. If you’re an advocate of the death penalty, this case might make you think again (then again, if you’re an advocate of the death penalty, maybe thinking has never really been your forte). If you just like a good murder, I promise you will not be disappointed, even although this was a “murder” created entirely by smoke and mirrors; it still has all the ingredients and then some. At the end of the day, we not only get to meet the real victim for the first time, but we get an unique insight into the mind of a psychopath who has managed to escape detection since 1857.

I think I should apologize right now, before you get too far into this. The full story of the Madeleine Smith case used to be set out on this page along with a collection of related information, some of which was almost more fascinating than the story itself.  I began researching the case, around 1990, for a small (but very popular) musical production on the Edinburgh Fringe. When the production was over, the research just continued, without any real purpose, and the information on the case built up to the point that, for want of a better idea as to what to do with it, it eventually wound up on the internet… here.

At one point, I approached a Scottish publisher and explained that I had uncovered what I felt was a fairly important story that overturned some of the central assumptions of one of Scotland’s most famous murder cases but they didn’t think there was much of a market for it; “everyone knows the Madeleine Smith Story.” (Seriously, that’s what he said)! I later scripted a four-part semi-dramatized documentary version for BBC Radio Scotland that was broadcast in 1998 and our research was also featured in the BBC Knowledge channel’s History Fix programme with Rory McGrath. Towards the end of 2006, however, out of the blue, I got an email from Tempus Publishing (now The History Press) asking if I would be interested in writing the book.

The one thing that I didn’t think about was the consequence for the web site of having a book on sale telling what might seem to be the same story that anyone could read on the web, for free. The fact is that the account that used to sit here was in serious need of a re-write since, as I’ve said, the research was ongoing but, nevertheless, it wouldn’t have seemed fair to people who paid good money for the book – Tempus are not cheap – only to find that a free version, even missing a few key elements, was only a quick google away. So… what we have here, at the moment, is a kind of online intro for the book.

I used to say that the best of the internet is free – I still say it – and I used to be able to hold these greed-driven amateur-commercial sites in some contempt – I still do – but I’ve sold out. I think I’ve become one of these people. I’m really grateful to Tempus for the opportunity to tell the story in print and I’m really grateful to every individual who has bought a copy but, at some point, I expect that the sales of the book will tail off (if it hasn’t already happened) and I’m looking forward to being able to re-instate the whole Madeleine Smith story on the web, where it belongs. So, further down the page here, when you get to the bit that says “read more…” (with the obligatory link to Amazon), at least you know it’s coming… (and it’s going, at the earliest opportunity). In the meantime, the role of the web site is to allow those intelligent, perceptive people who have already bought the book to dig a bit deeper into the story, to access more details about both the family and, of course, the real facts behind the greatest trial of the 19th century.

Madeleine Smith Story

from the family portrait - Madeleine aged about 16The Madeleine Smith story is, of course, not just the most famous Scottish murder case of the 19th century; it’s the story of a family and of the tragedy that was inflicted upon them because they happened to be good at what they did. Madeleine’s grandfather, architect, David Hamilton, is remembered with much respect and affection as the ” Father of Glasgow Architecture.” On a personal level, he was an immensely likeable individual. I felt it inappropriate to go into any detail about his life in the book – people want to get on with the story – but, in a way, it’s impossible to understand Madeleine Smith without getting to know her family. The following snippets may help put some more flesh on the bones but a more coherent (and readable) account of David Hamilton’s life is Francis Worsdall’s article for the May 1968 Scottish Field