The trial of Madeleine Smith for the murder of her lover, Emile Pierre L’Angelier, might have happened over 150 years ago, but it is still a tale that still holds people in it’s thrall today. A tale of lust, sex, obsession and poison, it shook up Glasgow’s high society and challenged Victorian norms, and later, led to the odd ghost sighting or two.
Madeleine Smith was born in Glasgow in 1835, the eldest daughter of architect James Smith and his wife Janet. A prominent family, Madeleine’s maternal grandfather was David Hamilton, a highly regarded Scottish architect who designed famous buildings such as the Gallery of Modern Art in Royal Exchange Square, Glasgow and Kincaid House and Lennox Castle, Milton of Campsie, East Dumbartonshire. Hamilton also came third in a contest to design the Houses of Parliament in London in 1835, winning £500. As the eldest daughter in such a family, Madeleine was expected to follow a rigid social etiquette and to one day make a good marriage. This was a time when men were to be served by women, particularly those on the make in the status conscious lower and upper middle class. Gloves had to be worn in public and on formal occasions. It was seen as vulgar to reveal a little bit of ankle, so a woman could only hold her skirts up with one hand. Women were not supposed to say an adults first name in public and were expected to spend lots of time in their dressing room making themselves look good for their husbands. It was even seen as inappropriate for a woman to wear her hair down, hence the painful looking ‘up’ styles of the era.
The slightest deviance from this could cause a scandal. In order to have this properly dinned into her, Madeleine Smith had been sent to a Finishing School in London, and was now ‘ready’ for society. This went a little pear shaped in 1855, when Madeleine met Emile Pierre L’Angelier. He was a clerk on minimal income hailing from St Helier on the Isle of Jersey. Born in 1823, he had come to Scotland at the age of 18 to train as an Estate Manager, and since then had spend time in Paris and Edinburgh before coming to work in Glasgow. He was not the sort of person the Smiths would have seen as suitable marriage material for their daughter.
It was pretty much a strong attraction from the start, Madeleine and Emile falling in love very quickly. Owing to their differing social status, the affair was kept secret. Emile would quietly meet with Madeleine late at night through her bedroom window in the basement of the Smith family home at 7 Blythswood Square. There were also secret assignations near their country house, Rowaleyn, just outside Helensburgh. It was during one of these meetings that Madeleine lost her virginity to Emile, strictly against the social norms of the time. The two exchanged around 200 passionate love letters, with Madeleine signing herself as Emile’s wife. She had agreed to marry him. But she didn’t tell her parents.
And so, things continued until early 1857, when a wealthy Glasgow businessman and neighbour of the Smiths approached the family for Madeleine’s hand in marriage. Her parents readily agreed to this, as did Madeleine herself. It’s thought that she found Minnoch very attractive. It could also be the case that she had something of a wake up call regarding her affair with Emile. In February 1857, she wrote to Emile, ending their affair and asking for him to return all the letters she had sent him. Emile had different ideas. He kept the letters, perhaps with a view to blackmailing Madeleine into marrying him as she had promised. The two continued to meet, Emile refusing to give up on Madeleine easily.
It was about this time that Madeleine was seen going into three Glasgow chemists to purchase arsenic, which she said was to kill rats in her home. She signed the poisons book ‘M.H Smith’, a register used to keep track of the purchase of dangerous substances. Emile was also apparently a regular user of arsenic, believing it to help his stomach. As it was, he died at his lodgings on 23 March 1857. An autopsy showed he died from arsenic poisoning. Police searching his room found the letters Emile had withheld from Madeleine. Further investigation revealed Madeleine’s trips to the chemist for arsenic, causing the police to come to a few conclusions.
In the meantime, Madeleine made an attempt to flee Glasgow on hearing of Emile’s death. She was brought back by William Minnoch, but refused to tell him or her family why she tried to leave. It soon came out when the police arrested her for the murder of Emile. Under questioning, Madeleine denied having seen Emile during the final three weeks of his life. She confirmed their affair, writing the letters and agreeing to marry him. Additionally, she confirmed her purchase of arsenic, stating that she had lied when she told the chemists it was to kill rats. She had been too embarrassed to admit that it was actually for cosmetic use. It was common at the time for women to dilute arsenic in water and wash their arms and faces with it to improve their complexion. Madeleine said she had no intention to use her arsenic to kill Emile.
The case brought wide interest, and as a result, the trial was moved to Edinburgh, where it became something of a soap opera. The contents of Madeleine’s love letters were read out in court, causing much furore as they were quite salacious. Added to the mix was Madeleine freely admitting she had enjoyed sexual relations with Emile. The trial lasted nine days, and the court was swamped indoors and out by press and people trying to catch a glimpse of Madeleine. At the end, the jury returned the verdict of Not Proven. This is unique to Scots Law. In this case it meant that the jury believed Madeleine had poisoned Emile, but that the prosecution’s case against her was flimsy. The evidence was circumstantial and relied heavily on Madeleine’s love letters. This failed as none of her letters were dated, nor were they placed with the correct envelopes, so the post mark dates were wrong.
At the end of it all William Minnoch broke off his engagement with Madeleine. She was forced to leave Glasgow because of the notoriety of the case. She moved to London, and in 1861 married an artist, George Wardle. They had two children, but divorced in 1890. Madeleine then emigrated to America and lived in New York city. It’s believed that she died there in 1928 under the name, Lena Wardle Sheehy. Emile was discreetly buried in the Ramshorn Kirk graveyard in an unmarked grave, which can still be seen today
There are numerous theories as to what really happened to Emile. The simplest is that Madeleine really did poison him. The most complex is that Emile committed suicide by poisoning himself, so that it would cause Madeleine great misery, and knowing that she had recently bought arsenic, place her in the frame for murder. If that is the case, it certainly worked.
Years later, the case has sank itself, not only in the subconscious of Glasgow, but the rest of the world, with several books and dramatisations, including the 1950 film Madeleine, directed by David Lean. The ghost stories also form part of this legacy. Emile’s ghost reputedly can be seen strolling down Sauchiehall Street, cane in hand, following the old route he used to take in life when paying a secret visit to Madeleine. Some legends have it that he also haunts Blythswood Square too. The family of a former curator of the Botanic Gardens in the West End of Glasgow used to see a ghost flit about the Kibble Palace. They believed it was Emile, as it bore a resemblance to him and he apparently used to lodge in the Curator’s House, where they lived.
Madeleine has been a little more active in her afterlife activities. Her former family home at 7 Blythswood Square, like the rest of the old town houses there, have been converted into offices. In 2001, a recruitment agency had it’s offices in Madeleine’s house. Geoff Holder notes that the Daily Express newspaper carried a report to the effect that the agency staff were terrified as they believed Madeleine haunted the office. Kettles would go on and off by themselves and strange noises were heard. Some people were supposed to have seen the apparition of Madeleine walking the corridors. One particular room was always extra cold and wouldn’t heat up – the same room Madeleine used to have and where she would meet Emile at the window. Also the room from which she is believed to have poisoned him.
The Daily Express reported that staff were very keen to leave at 5pm each night, quoting one employee saying no one wanted to be the last in, especially on dark and dreary nights. It was a horrible thought to be alone in there knowing that Madeleine could be standing behind them…