by Sarah Penner
Sherlock Holmes said it best in the 1945 movie, Pursuit to Algiers: “Poison is a woman’s weapon.” It’s a statement not without evidence – historical records tell us that female poisoners were prevalent. Throughout England in the 18th and 19th centuries, the largest population of accused poisoners consisted of wives, mothers, and female servants, between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine. Motives ranged widely; grudges against employers, the removal of inconvenient spouses or lovers, death benefits or the inability to financially support a child.
As I state in the historical note at the back of The Lost Apothecary, death by poison is an intimate affair; an element of trust generally exists between victim and villain. Easy access to both victims and poison cannot be underestimated when considering the prevalence of historical women poisoners. Think of the household roles common for women before the 20th century: a fatigued mother, a betrayed wife, the caretaker of a convalescent, begrudged cooks or servants. These roles permitted women not only intimate access to members of a household, but to an array of food and drink, medicine, even pest control toxins. Women have always been closest to the victim and the victual.
And let’s face it: women simply evoke less suspicion. Who really believes a young, sheepish housemaid capable of killing her prosperous employer?
Poison, when done right, leaves no trace: no wound, no evidence. This would logically appeal to a female killer who, fearing she may be physically weaker than a man, needs to avoid a direct confrontation. Said another way: poison lets a woman be sly about things.
Arguably the most well-known historical female poisoner is Giulia Tofana, an Italian woman who lived in the mid-17th century. She invented the concoction known as Aqua Tofana, which contained arsenic, lead, and belladonna. It was colorless and tasteless and therefore easily mixed with food or wine. Aqua Tofana was an especially cunning poison because it did not kill the victim immediately, but rather multiple doses were necessary, giving indication that a patient grew ill over a period of days or weeks.
Giulia Tofana was known to frolic with apothecaries, hence her strong knowledge of toxins and their uses. She sold her famous concoction to women who wanted to escape their abusive or inconvenient husbands. Ultimately, under torture before her death, she confessed to killing 600 men.
I’m often asked if Giulia Tofana inspired the apothecary poisoner in The Lost Apothecary, and the answer is no. I centered my research around English poisoners in the 18th and 19th centuries, and I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I didn’t learn about Giulia Tofana until well after the book had been written.
Still, there’s a reason I was drawn to the idea of women poisoners and, more importantly, the ways that women sought agency in a historical sense. The Lost Apothecary is an exploration of women rebelling against the patriarchy and exerting power in one of the only ways available to them. Prior to the mid-20th century, leaving a marriage or household employment due to abuse or betrayal was not really an option. It meant poverty, homelessness, physical abuse, even legal repercussions. In The Lost Apothecary, I propose an alternative: don’t leave, just get rid of the man. I provide a few (fictional) examples of this, such as a young housemaid seeking vengeance on her employer, or a disgruntled wife whose husband is having an affair, or a sister who discovers that her brother intends to kill their beloved father.
The Lost Apothecary takes place in 1791. The late 18th century was an ideal time to set a book about an apothecary poisoner, because it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that early toxicologists were able to reliably detect poison in human tissue. In bills of mortality prior to this time, poisoning homicide is little more than a footnote. Yet after this science came to fruition, poisoning deaths skyrocketed. Coincidence? No. People had always used poison to seek vengeance, but these deaths were chalked up to other causes. Further proof that poison really is the perfect murder weapon, at least two hundred years ago.
One of the characters in The Lost Apothecary says it quite succinctly: A killer need not lift her long, delicate hand. She need not touch him as he dies. There are other, wiser ways: vials and victuals.
Leave it to the women to find a way to kill a man without so much as touching him.
Join Sarah Tuesday, May 10 at 1pm Eastern for her webinar: Unburying the Secrets of The Lost Apothecary. Our webinars are free to The Herb Society of America members and $5.00 for guests. Become a member today, and enjoy all of our webinars for free along with access to the webinar library with over fifty program titles. To register, visit https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-education/hsa-webinars/
Photo Credits: 1) The Love Potion, by Evelyn De Morgan (public domain); 2) A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia, by John Collier (public domain); 3) Sketch of Circe, by John William Waterhouse (public domain); 4) Sarah Penner and The Lost Apothecary (courtesy of the author).