Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Poison - hidden weapon of the Tudor wife

by Deborah Swift

The population of early modern England regarded poisoning as the most cowardly and unsporting method of murder:

of all murders poisoning is ye worst and most horrible 1. because it is secrett 2 because it is not to be prevented 3 because it is most against nature and therefore most hainous 4 it is alsoe a cowardly thing                                                                                  ~Sir John Coke

17th century poison cabinet or cunning woman's book

In 1663 Mary Bell was accused of killing her husband - six years earlier she had put poison into his food. This demonstrates one of the difficulties of poisoning - that it is an 'invisible' crime. Poison is a unique method of murder because it allows no self-defence, no chance for the victim to understand what is happening, and is often done secretly over a long time frame. Because poisoning involved planning and was done in cold-blood, it was perfect for those without social power. 

The servant classes, women and the weak were always the prime suspects in poisoning cases. Poisoning was a skill often linked to witchcraft - akin to the mixing of potions and charms. It was considered almost exclusively a wife's weapon because her main duty was to provision the house, and she alone was in charge of the cooking. Poison has always been linked with femininity.

In Tudor and Stuart England poisoning a husband or employer was seen as a kind of petty treason. This is because it challenged the husband's superiority, masculinity and domestic power. Men had a huge fear of being poisoned by their wives, but in actual fact there were very few cases. The cases that did come to light received enormous publicity, and poisoning was often featured in chapbooks of the time. In 1677 a pamphlet records a sixteen year old girl who admitted to poisoning her mother. Much was made of her treasonous behaviour, her cold-blood, her malice and wickedness, blurring the lines between witchcraft and murder.

Aqua Tofana, a poison, was known in Italy as 'inheritance powder' - a tool used by rich wives to murder their husbands. Supposedly Mozart died of Aqua Tofana poisoning. 

Right up until the Victorian era women had no legitimate outlet for violence in this society where men carried guns and swords and were allowed to use them in anger or to defend themselves from another's violent attack. Men's violence was seen as hot, the result of choler and anger; women's as cold, the result of bile and bitterness. Women could be beaten, within the law, but had little chance of retribution.

Men feared being poisoned because women were seen as harbouring a wickedness (thanks to Eve) that was waiting to erupt. In 1654 Jane Scales was supposed to have poisoned her baby. She said she had fed the baby sugar, but after the baby grew ill and died, the white powder was believed to be something far more sinister. Although she had no credible motive, she was found guilty, and the motive was malice or random wickedness.

The threat of the maidservant was equivalent to that of the wife. Resentful servants such as Liddy Wilson poisoned a whole household with ratsbane. Ratsbane was a common poison in this period, as was henbane, monk's blood, nightshade and arsenic. 

A 17th century peddler hawking his apothecary's wares

Poison was easy to obtain - there were no regulations governing its purchase, and many plants could be found wild. It was very difficult to detect once ingested, leading to physicians searching for 'signs' through an external examination. 'Signs' included altered skin colour, vomiting, strange bruising of the skin, even bleeding wounds. In 1662 the first autopsy to discover poison was performed on Anne Mennin by David Shevell and Charles Clerke. What the actual evidence was is not on record, but they pronounced that they had found 'the poison'. Nightshade berries perhaps?

In the case of Mary Bell, where it took six years to come to a verdict - the extra evidence was supplied by witnesses. Often witnesses were the main form of evidence. Margaret Armestronge said that the chickens ate Mary Bell's husband's vomit and they promptly keeled over and died. Such tales to bolster the evidence were very common and taken as tangible proof.

Because there was such fear of poison, the prevention and cure of poisoning was big business in Tudor and Stuart England. It was quite common to have mistakenly eaten poisonous roots, fungi or herbs, and physicians often diagnosed poison as the cause in the event that the patient deteriorated and their cures failed to produce better health. Add to this the nation's fear of poisoning, and you have a large market for peddling a cure.

Weird cures involved unicorn horn and Bezoar stones. A Bezoar stone (often from the Far East) was like a gallstone from the intestines of  a llama, goat or stag. The stone was said to detect and cure poison, and the stones were mounted like a jewel on a chain and dipped into drinks to counter the effects of poison. Queen Elizabeth I kept a Bezoar stone 'sett in golde hanging at a little Bracelett … The most parte of this stone being spent' implying that the Queen used it well.

17thC Bezoar stone mounted in gold
Needless to say, I shan't be dunking one of those in my morning coffee!

Murder in Shakespeare's England by Vanessa McMahon
The Recipes Project - cures for poison 
A Blast From the Past - Mike Dash's blog 
Early Modern England - Sharpe

chat to me on twitter @swiftstory


  1. I would really like to get my hands on that book that you open up and it has all the hidden potions on there. Thank you for sharing all this wonderful information

  2. I would really like to get my hands on that book that you open up and it has all the hidden potions on there. Thank you for sharing all this wonderful information

    1. So would I! Though I think it was designed to hold medicines to cure rather than kill!

  3. So Bezoar stones aren't just an invention of J.K. Rowling? Interesting....

  4. According to Wikipedia, Gustaf Arrhenius and Andrew A. Benson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have shown that Bezoar stones could remove the poison when immersed in an arsenic-laced solution. The two poisons in arsenic are arsenate and arsenite. The Bezoar stone acts differently, but effectively, on both. Arsenate is neutralized by being exchanged for phosphate in the mineral brushite (a crystalline structure found in the stones). Arsenite bonds to sulfur compounds in the protein of degraded hair, which is a key component in Bezoar stones.[8]
    8 ^

  5. Well, they do say that poison is a woman's murder weapon :-D.



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