In 19th century Britain newspapers were influential often having a large effect on public opinion and the outcome in criminal trials. This was the case with the trial of Madeleine Smith who was accused of killing Pierre Emilie L’Angelier. The sensational love story that the newspapers told encouraged a divided public and insatiable curiosity for the case.
Smith was born into an upper-middle class family on March 29, 1835 in Glasgow, Scotland. Her father, James Smith, was a respected and wealthy architect who provided her with a privileged life. At the age of twenty, she was introduced to Pierre Emilie L’Angelier by a mutual friend and was intrigued by his dashing exotic good looks. L’Angelier was born on the Channel Islands to a working-class family in 1823 and came to Edinburgh, Scotland to work as a nurseryman in 1842. He moved to Glasgow in 1852 to continue in his field.
Smith and L’Angelier soon after meeting in 1855 initiated a secret courtship, as class distinction made L’Angelier an unsuitable potential partner. They would meet late at night, with L’Angelier sneaking to her bedroom window to spend time together. Eventually their relationship progressed and Smith lost her virginity to him. They remained in regular contact through letters though. L’Angelier encouraged Smith to burn his so as to avoid detection but he kept each one she wrote him. The letters detailed their love and devotion to the other, with plans being made to be married.
However, Smith’s parents, unaware of their daughter’s love affair, had found a more eligible suitor, William Harper Minnoch. After spending some time together, Minnoch proposed and was accepted by Smith who knew he would be an approved partner to her family and society.
Smith then had to get rid of L’Anglier. She wrote to him asking for him to respect that she no longer loved him and to quietly separate their lives by burning their love letters. He refused and threatened to expose her unless she marry him. Smith allegedly then decided to take matters into her own hands. Throughout February and March, she went to an apothecary and bought arsenic signing her name as M.H Smith, as was law to do so. L’Anglier suffered stomach pains during these months but recovered twice. On March 23 he was found dead of arsenic poisoning.
The police came to the scene and upon searching his lodging found the love letters from Madeline Smith. She was arrested as a main suspect and the trial took place soon after. The trial was sensational with people surrounding the courthouse and lining the streets to get a glimpse at the accused, and the newspapers covering every detail. The story of a forbidden love ending in murder was simply delicious for the public.
Crucial to the case were their love letters as they proved their connection, but they were not dated so the envelopes in which the letters were contained became key pieces of evidence. However, some of the dates on the envelopes were illegible and it came to light that there was mishandling of evidence by the police when they searched the victim’s room as they places the letters in envelopes that were at hand.
Ms. Smith was calm throughout and did not deny that they were lovers or that she had bought the arsenic, but argued that she used it for cosmetic purposes as a face wash by mixing it with water. After a nine day long trial, the jury came back with a verdict of “not guilty”. The disorganization, mishandling of evidence and failure to prove guilt beyond doubt by the prosecution contributed to this decision.
The trial was so famous that Smith had to leave Scotland to remove herself from the scandal. In July 1861, she married an artist named George Wardle. They settled in London, England having two children and her identity relatively unknown. They separated in 1889, and she moved to New York City. She met William Sheehy and married him in 1916. She lived the rest of her life there, dying in 1928.
The case captured the minds of Victorians because the actions of a privileged young woman in a forbidden affair who potentially murdered her lover was simply unfathomable. She had it all, so why had she thrown it away?
Madeleine Smith, photo:
Pierre Emilie L’Anglier, photo:
The Times Digital Archives. April 18, 1994, pg.17.