For most of human history, in cultures all around the world, marriage was permanent. There were particular loopholes, if you accidentally married your sister for example. However, for the most part, once a lady entered into a marriage it could only be dissolved on the death of one party. Throughout history many women have taken the approach “one of us has to die and its sure as hell not going to be me”. Where possible when committing spousicide its probably preferable not to end up in prison. A knife in the face tends to smack of foul play. However, poison, poison can be used to mimic any number of natural physical complaints. In this series we take a look at how some women decided to separate from their husbands. In this first part we will look at motives like abuse and unrequited love. In the next part we will look at political and financial gain.
Rome, 331 BCE
In 331 BCE, plague ripped through Rome. The general peasantry was hit as expected but this plague seemed unusually inclined toward the nobility. Senators were dropping like flies. It doesn’t appear to have raised many eyebrows. Rome had become accustomed to plague. As the largest city in the known world, in a time before effective public health policy, the streets of this shining example of civilisation and culture were more likely to be paved with shit than gold. However, it was unusual for so many from wealthy households to become afflicted, and only the men.
One day a servant, probably a slave girl, called Ancilla came forward and in exchange for protection, both physical and legal, went to the aedile (Magistrate) and offered to tell all. Her mistress was conspiring with many other high-status women to knock off their husbands. I suspect normally the slave would have been flogged and dismissed. However, the aedile realised there were a lot less senators around these days. In short order twenty noble-women were rounded up, all of whom had been preparing and providing medications to the men in their lives as both protection and cure from the plague.
Medicines of the time were often made of bits of animal, random plants and a liquid. Poisons of the time were often made of bits of animal, random plants and a liquid. Distinguishing one from the other is almost impossible without a bit of a taste test. The women all claimed the cups in front of them contained medicines. The aedile, a chap called Quintus Fabius Maximus offered them a simple way to escape prosecution, take their medicine. Now I don’t entirely get the decision making here, surely, they could just use some of the millions of rats that called the city home to test the liquids. However, I suspect our lad Quintus Fabius, like any good administrator, was considering the paperwork. If the cups were inert, the women could go free, he could record it all as investigated. If the cups contained poison the women drinking it would save him the effort of arranging an execution.
The women seemed reluctant and decided to confer. I’m guessing the conversation started with someone uttering “well … fuck”. They returned, each, in unison, drained their cup and promptly dropped dead. Having clearly made the decision that a quick death from poison was far more pleasant than whatever fate the aedile would prescribe for them after they had depopulated the Roman Senate.
What allegedly followed was nothing short of a city-wide, hysteria driven, witch-hunt, resulting in the arrest of over two hundred high and middle status women. I love the thought that every man who had historically refused to cook for himself suddenly developed Jamie Oliver like skills in the kitchen. “Don’t worry dear, I’ll cook tonight. No, no I absolutely insist”. The fate of these women is unrecorded. However, given their alleged victims were, as Livy reports, “men of importance” I am unconvinced they found mercy at the hands of the law. Some historians believed they were likely exiled. I am more inclined to believe they were all executed.
There are a number of theories presented around the drivers of these events. Its important to note the only narrative we have comes from Livy. Who had a fairly unique approach to recording history and very particular thoughts on the role of women in society. The historian Richard Bauman proposed this was a rebellion against the practice of forced marriage in the Roman nobility. I find this unlikely as a mechanism to introduce long term change as no one knew the men were being poisoned until Ancilla came forward to report the deaths as homicide. Additionally, Livy doesn’t record the men were husbands, just men of importance.
What I find more likely is mirrored two millennia later in Nagyrev.
Hungry had been hit particularly hard during and after World War One. Being one half of an empire that played a significant role in triggering and pressing the war. A huge number of young, able bodied men were killed, and those that remained were changed by their experiences, many bitter and full of impotent rage. This left slim pickings for men seeking suitable matches for their daughters. Accounts of domestic abuse were rife. However, women at the time were little more than chattels, moveable property with no rights. Until they were married, they were the property of their fathers or brothers, and then of their husbands. If they became widowed, they returned as possessions of their families. Between 1914 and 1923 it is believed over three hundred men were poisoned after their wives, who were likely the victims of domestic violence, approached the towns equivalent of a pharmacist. Zsuzsanna Fazekas. Better known as Olah, she provided these women a resolution to their woes. A clear, tasteless liquid, to drop into the offending man’s food or drink. Over time this would mimic a decline in health and eventually death.
Olah employed a rigid screening process, only accepting the cases of women who could prove abuse at the hands of their husband and swore only to use the poison on their abuser. Where the law fell silent at least the poisoners had a sense of morality.
Human nature being what it is, a number of these women didn’t stop at killing their abusers. That bitch Elza, who was showing Ezri up by buying a new dress ended up dead. Katrine who short changed Salmis at the market found herself choking on her porridge. Eventually the Angel-makers were revealed.
Side Note: Zsuzsanna “Olah” Fazekas was one of twelve women convicted after dozens of bodies were exhumed. All twelve received death sentences however only two were carried out. Olah died in prison in her late nineties.
Back to Rome, 60 CE
Agrippina the Younger, Empress of the Roman Empire was well known to be a woman not to fuck with. She was the wife of Emperor Claudius, who was a bit of a dick. Agrippina contracted a specialist. She needed someone skilled with knowledge of poisons, in a day before Manpower or Indeed.com, she went to the best place to find people whose specific skills and limited moral grounding met her needs. In prison she found Locusta, a woman held on poisoning charges. Her first commission was the murder of Claudius, which failed. Poison was sprinkled onto the emperors food and handed to him by his food-taster who was complicit. However, the poison failed, and the murder was eventually undertaken by the emperors personal physician who put a poisoned feather down his throat. One could argue that if the feather was large enough the poison would be unnecessary.
Side Note: Claudius managed to piss off almost everyone in his life to the point where they wanted to kill him. This is probably evidenced by the fact his wife, his food taster, and his doctor were all conspirators to his death.
Following the death of Claudius his adopted son, the son of Agrippina, Nero ascended to Emperor. In the absence of a classical Roman equivalent to Jeremy Kyle, Nero soon drew upon Locusta’s skills to kill his step-brother. Britannicus was the biological son of Claudius and thus had a much better claim and following. As Nero’s rival to the top job, he had to go.
When Locusta’s first poison was taking too long to work, he personally flogged her, she provided something a little more potent, and that was the end of Britannicus. As a reward Locusta was granted a full pardon (as she was still technically facing the original charges of poisoning) and gifted large estates in which she started a school for poisoners.
Side Note: Nero clearly showing the same intellectual capacity as his father by flogging a proven poisoner and murderess. Locusta was not someone I would be particularly keen on pissing off.
There are at least eight conflicting contemporary accounts of these events, some say the poison on Claudius worked on the first attempt, some implicate the doctor. Agrippina is an incredibly interesting historical figure and I highly recommend Agrippina by Dr Emma Southon as further reading.
Brighton, 1871 CE
Christiana Edmunds has been discussed in previous posts and I was reluctant to include her in this list as her campaign of mass-poisonings was at least influenced by extremely poor mental health. Her actions were criminal, but the idea of criminalising mental health can lead us down a very dark road.
Born in Margate, Christiana suffered poor mental health from around the time of her adolescence. Her doctors assessed her to have a common complaint of the day, that dreaded malady, women’s troubles. Things only got worse for Christiana and ultimately her mother, having recently lost Christiana’s father in an asylum, made the move to Brighton in the hopes that it may prove restorative for her. For a time, it did.
Side Note: Hysteria was a broad diagnosis only applied to women. It covered recognised modern day conditions ranging from epilepsy to anxiety. There is a great satire on the concept of medical hysteria I can recommend, Hysteria (2011). Whilst I don’t want to make light of the incredible societal neglect these women suffered either through misdiagnosis or maltreatment, I do feel the best thing we can do is ridicule this part of our medical history, and ensure the world knows its fucking stupid, so we should never think that way again. “Bitches be crazy” is not medicine or science.
However, eventually she needed the attention of a medical man for some minor complaint. That man was Dr Charles Beard. I remain entirely unapologetic about the number of ZZ-Top jokes you are about to endure dear reader. Christiana became absolutely obsessed with the doctor. It is unclear if anything sexual passed between the two, however Christiana would later report it had, and there were some fairly saucy letters kicking about to substantiate this. There was just one problem. Dr Beard was married. Christiana considered this only a minor setback and soon set about freeing him of his marital obligations.
What makes this all creepier is that in her obsession with Doctor Beard she had spent time at his house and actually struck up a friendship with his wife. The wife she now had no compunctions about killing.
She bought a box of luxury chocolates from Maynard’s, the local confectioner. She also obtained strychnine from a local chemist. The poison was fairly freely available for pest control at the time, and she claimed she needed to dispose of some stray cats, which is roughly where my sympathy for her ends. Yes, she was tortured by afflictions of the mind, yes, she was probably sexually exploited by the good doctor, and her childhood sounded less than pleasant, but poisoning cats is a step too far.
She introduced the poison into one chocolate, selecting a time she knew Dr Beard would be working away, and delivered the chocolates to his wife as a gift. It is hard to describe in our time of plenty how rare and extravagant a gift of chocolate would have been to a nineteenth century lady. The gift was readily accepted. Christiana even went as far as popping one in the surprised ladies mouth, it tasted a bit funny, so Mrs Beard spat it out. She experienced a short period of mild sickness but recovered well.
When the doctor returned and heard the events leading to his wife’s sickness, he had no doubt about what had happened. He confronted Christiana the next day. She refuted the claims entirely. Immediately she knew how to remove suspicion from herself, she was going to poison a lot of people, random people, all with treats from Maynard’s confectioner. Because the answer to one failed poisoning is to poison EVERYONE!
She paid local children to obtain Maynard’s chocolates for her, laced them with more poison and asked the children to take them back, claiming they weren’t the chocolates she wanted. Something as high value as luxury chocolate inevitably ended up back on the shelves. She also travelled back to Margate and sent various high-profile persons in Brighton packages of poisoned Maynard treats under a false name. She even sent herself a box with a lower dose of poison and deliberately misspelled her own name. When she returned to Brighton, she consumed the chocolates and became ill.
There was an unusually adept police officer on the case however. Having surreptitiously obtained samples of Christiana’s handwriting and utilising the skills of Britain’s pioneering graphology expert. He dissected her statements for contradictions and revisited the chemists of Brighton with her physical description rather than her name. Given the standard of policing at the time was to locate the nearest foreigner, this mind-blowing level of competent police work was unique.
She was tried and convicted. Ending her days in Broadmoor, a prison for the criminally insane.
Some Final Thoughts ….
The situation in Rome has the feel of the second book in Ellis Peters Cadfael Series ‘One corpse too many” where a murdered mans body is hidden amongst those of nearly one hundred executed. History is replete with pandemics, wars, sieges, church and state sanctioned genocides. I would not be surprised if murders hidden amongst the sanctioned dead were commonplace. In both Rome and Nagyrev authorities were entirely oblivious to the murders until someone spoke.
Poison has always been a favourite of assassins and murderers. Whilst not always reliable you can mimic slow natural illness, and ensure you are somewhere else with lots of witnesses at the time of death. It’s a mechanism that doesn’t rely in strength or any great physical ability. In addition to all of this, societies natural resistance to understanding anatomy and physiology made detection very hard. For most of human history, regardless of culture or religion, most societies have rendered cutting on the dead illegal. There may be a forgotten link to preventing the spread of pestilence here. However, recognising a poisoning was extremely hard with little prior study having been lawfully conducted.
Amid the high theatre of senate politics, the Romans often preferred poison to a knife. Their favourites being organic; Atropines from Deadly Nightshade, Aconite from Monkshood, Hemlock, Hens bane, amongst others. For the uneducated poisoner in a hurry there was always easy access to poisonous mushrooms. The events of 331 may have contributed to the emperor appointing a permanent food-taster. This makes sense given many of the men who were poisoned were Senators. However, soon having a food-taster, just like the emperor, became a status symbol. Any politician who was aiming to impress, regardless of how few people actually cared if they lived or died, appointed food-tasters.
Agrippina may seem an odd inclusion into this list, however she was sorely used throughout her life and her name took a near endless battering for the two millennia following. Added to this Locusta was as much victim as perpetrator in this story.
The tale of Christiana Edmunds was so laden with sorrow that it would make a good opera. Her father, a successful self-made man ended his days in a state asylum. Her brother followed this fate and then eventually she was committed to Broadmoor. Little is recorded of the fate of her mother who seemed to advocate for Christiana throughout these events. Christiana Edmunds was a victim of an abusive system which failed to recognise mental health or the rights of women. She was then the victim of a doctor who, in all likelihood took sexual advantage of her and then discarded her when she became too much hassle.
All of these women, who lived across thousands of years, existed in societies where they were not granted any agency. They were property to be bartered, used, discarded. The law offered no protection from abuse nor any means for them to flee their abusers. What I still find curious is that in a world where women are not granted agency or autonomy, how can they be punished for breaking the law. The system denies them the recognition of free will necessary to make a conscious decision to break the rules and yet ultimately all of the above suffered penalties as prescribed by law.
Any one of these stories could fill a post. All in fact have been the subject of numerous books. I couldnt hope to do them justice by exploring the individual cases. However, I do hope I have highlighted some interesting themes.