Review: ‘The Secret Poisoner’ by Linda Stratman


Published By: Yale University Press

Publication Date: 22nd March 2016

ISBN: 9780300204735

R.R.P. (hardback): £20.00 (but it’s cheaper online)

Another one from


Murder by poison alarmed, enthralled, and in many ways encapsulated the Victorian age. Linda Stratmann’s dark and splendid social history reveals the nineteenth century as a gruesome battleground where poisoners went head-to-head with authorities who strove to detect poisons, control their availability, and bring the guilty to justice. She corrects many misconceptions about particular poisons and documents how the evolution of issues such as marital rights and the legal protection of children impacted poisonings. Combining archival research with a novelist’s eye, Stratmann charts the era’s inexorable rise of poison cases both shocking and sad.

My Review

I think I have a macabre streak because I love true life murder and how science developed the means to solve murders. I can’t get enough of programmes about the history of forensics, it’s absolutely fascinating to see abstract theory applied to real life situations. This book widened my knowledge on the subject.

Poison was especially difficult to detect before the nineteenth century, partly because  scientists didn’t have the tools to identify them and partly because professional toxicologists didn’t exist. This book covers the development of analytical techniques and the social contexts in which poisoning occurred, using real cases and written with a novelists flair for description and character drawing.

Using documentary evidence of the time, Stratman explores social attitudes to poisoning – the fears of a poisoning epidemic, the belief that poison was the tool of women, the attempts to limit sale of poisons to the ‘lower orders’, the efforts of professional organisations to legitimise their positions – as well as the actual cases of murder by poison, and the developments that lead to improved detection with the rivalries between analysts that helped or hindered progress and prosecutions. It is all woven in to a chronological tale that enthrals and informs the reader.

It’s definitely a good bit of popular science writing, being accessible but covering plenty of detail and showing how the science applied to wider society.




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