Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Madeleine Smith Story

The Trial of the Century

William Minnoch stopped by the Smith home late that Thursday morning to pay a call on his intended bride. Finding the family and servants in a panic, and hearing that Madeleine had gone missing, he suggested that she might have gone to the Smith's summerhouse on the Clyde. The family agreed this was possible, and Minnoch proposed that he and Madeleine's brother Jack travel to the summerhouse the rest of the family remaining at home, in case she returned.

Minnoch and Jack took the next train from Glasgow to Greenock, and there caught a steamer headed for Helensburgh. Moving through the crowds of people on the boat, they found Madeleine sitting calmly and looking out at the water. She had boarded the boat earlier, in Glasgow, and showed no particular surprise at seeing the two of them. Sitting down next to her, Minnoch gently asked her why she had fled and caused such worry to her family and friends. She began to respond, but Minnoch told her to wait, as there were too many people about who might overhear.

Once in the privacy of the large summerhouse, Minnoch asked again for the reason behind her flight. Madeleine cryptically told him that she was afraid her parents would be very upset at what she had done, and promised to tell him more at a later time. In a long carriage ride broken by only infrequent conversation, the three rode back to the candlelit windows and gas lamps of a Glasgow evening.

On March 31st, based on the stacks of letters found at Emiles lodgings and office, Madeleine was arrested and gave a lengthy statement to the Sheriff-Substitute of Lanarkshire stating that she had last seen Emile three weeks previous to his death. She did not deny that they had been lovers, that she had written the letters to him, or that they had seriously discussed marriage. Neither did she deny making three purchases of arsenic in the previous month. She had mixed the arsenic with water and washed her arms and face with it, a cosmetic use she had learned while at school. She had lied to the apothecary about the arsenic's use, she said, because she was too self-conscious to say that it was for her complexion. She said that she "never administered, or caused to be administered, to M. L'Angelier arsenic or anything injurious and this I declare to be truth."

Inside the Courtroom
Inside the Courtroom

Because of the immense and sudden popular interest in the case, the trial was moved from Glasgow to Edinburgh and began June 30, 1857. Madeleine was represented by a team including one of the greatest legal minds of the time, John Inglis. Due to the court rules of the time, Madeleine was not allowed to take the stand in her own defense, but had to rely solely on her legal counsel and on her deposition. During the trial, people swarmed the courthouse to catch a glimpse of Madeleine, and crowds lined the streets every night as her carriage took her back to the East Jail of Edinburgh. The newspapers carried detailed descriptions of every aspect of the trial, and the proceedings became the chief topic of conversation throughout Scotland.

Outside the court
Outside the court
The Prosecution argued for the court to admit all of Madeleine's letters and all of Emile's papers as evidence. Inglis argued that her letters could be presented, but that a diary found in his room should not be admitted into evidence. The Prosecution stated that the diary should be admitted, as it contained notations that possibly indicated that Emile had seen Madeleine right before his first and second attacks of the stomach illness. But with the author of the diary now dead, Inglis argued, the written entries could not be questioned or properly cross-examined. The reasons were persuasive on both sides, but Inglis won and the diary was withheld from the jury.

The trial went on for nine days and many witnesses; including Madeleine's sister Janet (who testified that she did not recall Madeleine ever getting out of bed the night of March 22nd) and William Minnoch (who had quickly withdrawn his marriage proposal) took the stand. The Prosecution called witnesses to testify about the contradictions in Madeleine's story but the Defense countered with experts who discussed arsenic's cosmetic uses and called witnesses who claimed Emile had made statements to them regarding several prior suicide attempts.

Madeleine showed remarkable calmness and poise during the trial, refusing food and water while in court, but keeping a small vial of smelling salts, which she never had to use. She followed the questioning of witnesses closely and only showed discomfort when the text of some of her letters to Emile was read aloud.

The Prosecution argued that Madeleine had already lied at least once about the real purpose of the arsenic to the apothecary and stated that Emile's refusal to return her letters and end the affair was motive enough for killing him. Inglis countered by saying that nobody could solidly disprove Madeleine's claim that she had not seen Emile in the three weeks before his death. And, Inglis pointed out, Emile had his first attack two days before Madeleine's first recorded purchase of arsenic.

The Prosecution and the Defense both argued brilliantly, but due primarily to the fact that it could not be shown that Madeleine and Emile had actually seen each other before any of his three attacks, the jury deliberated for only 30 minutes on July 9th and then reached a verdict of "not proven" (a unique verdict in Scotland that signifies that the accused was not found innocent, but the prosecution had not made a strong enough case to convict), and Madeleine went free that afternoon and returned to the Smith home.

What actually happened on the night of March 23, 1857, will never be known. Letters about the crime were prevalent in newspapers at the time of the trial and for many months afterwards, and most contemporary British newspapers took a side regarding the verdict:

The Glasgow Sentinel: "[Madeleine Smith was] as much the seducer as the seduced. And when once the veil of modesty was thrown aside, from the first a very frail and flimsy one, the woman of strong passion and libidinous tendencies at once reveals herself.... [Madeleine is] one of those abnormal spirits that now and then rise up in society to startle and appall us...."

The Glasgow Citizen: "In her first efforts at retrieval [of her letters], she found herself not in the arms of a protector but in the coils of a reptile."

The Scotsman: "[Madeleine Smith is] either the most fortunate of criminals or the most unfortunate of women."

The Examiner: " Madeleine Smith alone his horrible death seems to have been no shock, no grief, and she demeaned herself [at] her trial as if L'Angelier had never had a place in her affections. If it had been a trial for poisoning a dog the indifference could not have been greater."

The notoriety of the trial did not cool and eventually necessitated Madeleine's leaving Scotland.

She went to London and eventually married George Wardle, a draftsman and the business manager of the artist William Morris, in July of 1861. She continued to remain silent about the trial and her accused crime, although newspapers and curiosity-seekers hounded her. After many years of marriage and two children, Madeleine and George separated.

Madeleine's trail after her separation from George is murky, and wild rumors of her living (or dying) in places such as Australia and France appeared from time to time in various newspapers. A common theory, that she died under a different name (Lena Wardle Sheehy) in New York City in 1928, is strongly contradicted by Mrs. Sheehys death certificate, which states she was almost 30 years younger than Madeleine would have been.

Wherever and whenever Madeleine passed away, she took whatever she knew about Emile's death with her to her grave.


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