Excerpted from The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder by Linda Stratmann. Copyright © 2016 by Linda Stratmann. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved.

On 30 July 1823 M Demoutiers, an examining judge of Paris, concerned that a serious crime had taken place, sent for the celebrated Professor Orfila and posed two questions. Was it possible to discover whether a person had been poisoned after the body had been buried for a month? If the answer was yes, the second question, an important one before the development of safe and effective antiseptics, was: would there be any danger to the investigator? Orfila replied with his accustomed confidence that it was easy to discover poison at the end of a month or an even longer period, especially if a mineral poison had been used, and while the operation was potentially dangerous it could be performed without risk if suitable precautions were taken.

Exhumation in a case of suspected murder was not something to be undertaken lightly, and was rarely contemplated unless only a few days had elapsed since burial. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century it was generally believed that the bodies of poison victims decayed faster than usual, the hair and nails often falling off the day after death, the tissues rapidly liquefying into a pulp. In 1781 when Thomas Lonergan stood trial in Dublin for the murder of Thomas O’Flaherty who had died three years earlier from what was then assumed to be natural disease, there was never any suggestion of exhuming the body. The openly intimate relationship between Lonergan and O’Flaherty’s widow Susannah had led to rumors that her husband had been poisoned, and when Lonergan tried to quash the accusations he was arrested. The evidence presented in court consisted of the symptoms of O’Flaherty’s fatal illness, the fact that other people had been similarly affected after sampling a custard pudding which they had been warned was intended only for the deceased, and Lonergan’s attempts to prevent any enquiry into O’Flaherty’s death.

The Solicitor General for the prosecution, unfazed by a complete lack of forensic evidence and the usual absence of any witness to the actual poisoning, commented that while “this was a case in which positive direct proof, could not from the secret nature of the transaction be adduced,” nevertheless “a train of well connected concomitant circumstances, established by a number of witnesses, must carry with them such an internal conviction as would by far exceed the most positive evidence.” Evoking the peculiar horror of poison murder, he told the court that “in all other modes of attack, the party assaulted has an opportunity to defend himself against open violence; . . . but in this dark and secret transaction, a man becomes prey to the machinations of those on whom he would have relied for assistance if attacked by any person.” Lonergan was found guilty and hanged.

The ability of arsenic to enable bodies both to resist decay and to decay in an unusual manner was first remarked upon by the medical inspector of Berlin, Dr Georg Adolph Welper, who made it his particular study. In 1803 Sophie Ursinus, the widow of a Prussian privy counselor, made several attempts to poison her servant, with whom she had quarreled. Her scheme was exposed when the servant survived and took some plums she had given him to a chemist, who found they were contaminated with arsenic. Sophie was arrested and enquiries were launched concerning the fate of her husband, who had died in 1800, a lover who had predeceased her husband by three years, and an aunt from whom she had inherited a fortune in 1801. On investigation it was decided that the lover had probably died of consumption, but Welper ordered that the bodies of the husband and aunt be exhumed. The remains, which were found to be not putrid but dried up, were examined by chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth and his assistant, Valentin Rose. Although they were unable to detect arsenic, the stomachs showed the visible evidence of contact with an irritant poison. The physicians who had attended Herr Ursinus were firm in the belief that his death was from natural causes. In the case of the aunt, however, the chemists were certain that she had been poisoned. Frau Ursinus, who had purchased arsenic under the pretext of needing it to kill rats, of which there were none in the house, confessed to the attempt on her servant and at her trial, which took place in September 1803, she was found guilty of that offence and the murder of her aunt. She was sentenced to life imprisonment. This case may well have been the stimulus which prompted Valentin Rose to develop his method of boiling the stomachs of poison victims to extract arsenic from the tissues. Working in Berlin in 1806 he cut up the stomach of a man who had been poisoned, and boiled the pieces in distilled water. The resulting soup was filtered, then all traces of organic matter were removed using nitric acid. Rose eventually produced a precipitate from the liquid, which he tested using Metzger’s method, obtaining the telltale mirrors of arsenic.

Welper asked an acquaintance, Dr Klanck, to conduct experiments on animals. Klanck poisoned some dogs with arsenic and left the bodies in a cellar; some he buried while others were left exposed to the air. Two months later the flesh and intestines of the animals was red and fresh as if pickled. Eight months later, even after the cellar had been flooded, the intestines were entire and red, the muscles largely unaltered, and the fat converted into adipocere, a waxy substance formed by the saponification of fatty tissue. Only those muscles directly affected by the water were soft and greasy. Klanck also carried out comparative experiments on dogs that had either been killed by blows or poisoned with corrosive sublimate or opium, and buried them in the same place. After a similar passage of time to the previous experiment, the soft parts of the carcasses were converted to a greasy mass. In the following year he repeated the experiment, leaving the bodies of poisoned dogs unburied in the cellar. Signs of putrefaction appeared in ten days, and the flies that settled on the carcasses died. The bodies remained unchanged for eight to ten weeks; then the soft parts became firmer and drier and the smell of decomposition was succeeded by a garlicky odor that became unbearably strong when the carcasses were removed to warm air. Three years later the bodies were still dry and undecayed.

In 1823, however, the work done on the effect of arsenic on putrefaction and the ability to find it in a long-dead body was little known outside Germany, and when M Demoutiers sent for Professor Orfila he was clearly unsure whether a month in the ground would render testing useless. Orfila had no difficulty in finding enough white arsenic to constitute a fatal dose in the stomach of the exhumed month-old corpse of M Boursier, a grocer whose wife had become enamored of a handsome Greek adventurer. Both she and her lover were tried for murder but despite a strong case during which the forensic evidence was not contested, both, to the astonishment of everyone including the judge, were acquitted.

In June 1829 Orfila was once again asked if it was possible to find poison in a long-buried corpse and, if so, how that might be achieved. In this case the death had occurred seven years previously.

Orfila, unfamiliar with a poison case of that antiquity, said that the body had by now very probably been reduced to ashes, but if “a sort of blackish coom” (dust) could be found at the side of the spinal column this would give material suitable for testing.

The deceased was Pierre Joseph Bouvier, a wealthy and respected attorney of Bourg. A widower, he had one daughter, Josephine, who in 1817 had married Alexandre Marie Henri d’Aubarède. Josephine should have been her father’s sole heir; however, her father, for reasons that were never revealed, intensely disliked his son-in-law’s family. In 1822 Bouvier was contemplating marrying a lady with whom he had a long-established liaison. Josephine feared being disinherited, and must have made her feelings plain, for some months before his death her father had confided to an associate that he thought his daughter wished him harm. He does not appear to have taken seriously the idea that she might translate her desires into action. Josephine and her husband lived in Longchamps, about two miles from Bourg, and that autumn while her father was staying with them Josephine travelled to Bourg to purchase arsenic, which she said she required to kill rats. The chemist refused to make the sale without a guarantor, so on 7 September she returned to Bourg accompanied by her husband, and this time was able to obtain the arsenic without difficulty.

Josephine arranged for a large dinner party to take place on 16 September, and on the night before this event ordered the cook, Marie, to prepare a dish of bread and boiled milk for her father’s breakfast the following morning. At 8 a.m. Josephine took some of the milk for herself, the rest being left for her father in the pantry. An hour later Marie saw Josephine in the pantry with a paper in her hands. At ten, Bouvier called for his breakfast. A skin had formed on the milk as it stood, and before serving it to her master Marie skimmed it off and ate it. Soon afterwards she was seized with painful colic and a desperate need to vomit. She rushed out into the garden where she vomited so noisily that Josephine heard, and looking out of her boudoir window asked the cook if she had been tasting her father’s breakfast. This question struck Marie at the time as rather extraordinary, especially later on, when she learned that Bouvier was experiencing the same symptoms, only far worse.

After breakfasting on bread and milk the unfortunate attorney began to suffer agonizing stomach pains, which were soon followed by repeated and relentless vomiting. He demanded that a physician be summoned, and a local doctor was called, who recommended bleeding the patient, but Josephine refused to permit it. Another medical man, M Vermandois of Bourg, arrived accompanied by a nurse called Brun, who had previously ministered to the family. Vermandois prescribed a number of sedative and antispasmodic remedies and asked to be sent for early next morning if the patient did not improve. Nurse Brun had her own ideas as to how to treat the patients. She made Marie drink large quantities of milk, which had the effect of easing the vomiting and relieving the colic. Encouraged by this success she hurried to give the same remedy to Bouvier, but Josephine was annoyed and spoke haughtily to the nurse, accusing her of giving useless remedies to the cook and forbidding her to give anything similar to her father. Meanwhile the dinner party went ahead as planned and before the large company Josephine was able to spread the idea that her father was the victim of a natural indisposition.

Bouvier spent a night of sheer torture, with an inflamed face, pounding pulse and painfully tender stomach. His urine dried up, and the irritated bladder contracted with such force that it ruptured. Josephine did not send for Vermandois again until midday so he was unable to reach Longchamps until the afternoon, only to discover that the patient had not been given any of the remedies he had prescribed. Bouvier was by then beyond help, and shortly afterwards became delirious. The violence of his convulsions was so extreme that four men were needed to hold him down on the bed. The torment continued until ten that night, when he died. Josephine did not remain to tend her father’s body; having more important things on her mind, she hurried to his home in Bourg to ransack his coffers and gain possession of his papers. In her absence the nurse who had been ordered to lay out the body found marks on Bouvier’s chest and neck. These may well have been due to the attempts to hold him down during his convulsions; however, on seeing them she became suspicious, and tried two or three times to suspend the preparations for the funeral. It was only with some difficulty that she was prevented from reporting her observations to the police. Rumors that Bouvier and the cook had been poisoned flew rapidly around the neighborhood, but ultimately Josephine’s fortune and position in society triumphed, and no enquiries were made.

A few days after the death of M Bouvier Marie had a long conversation with her mistress, telling her that she was well aware of what she had done. She then uttered a terrible curse: Josephine would be deprived of health for the rest of her days, and find death preferable to life. At this, Josephine wept and promised to compensate Marie if she divulged nothing of what she knew. She gave Marie two bills, one for 4,000 francs and one for 2,000 francs, payable with interest nine or ten years after the date. This was to be in addition to the legacy left to Marie by M Bouvier of 4,000 francs, which was payable without interest five years after his death. This delayed recompense seemed to satisfy Marie, who agreed to remain silent.

Josephine took no notice of her public notoriety and continued to live in Longchamps. The years passed, but when Marie was due to receive her legacy, Josephine, despite repeated applications, refused to pay. She had underestimated Marie, who revealed what she knew to the authorities. When Josephine, who had thought that the passage of time had made her safe from prosecution, found that she was in danger of arrest she sold all her property and fled the jurisdiction of the French courts.

The body of M Bouvier was disinterred and found to be in such a remarkable state of preservation that it was recognized by the priest, the gravedigger and some of the National Guard who had fired a salute at the burial seven years before. The chest had sunk in and the heart and lungs were blended together and looked like a “dark ointment,” but the stomach was intact, and there was no smell. Two expert chemists of Bourg, M Ozanam and M Ide, decided to remove only the trunk for examination, the head and remainder of the body not being considered necessary. A portion weighing nine pounds was reserved for experiments. It was assumed from the start that they were looking for arsenic. The material was boiled to obtain a solution, which was then subjected to a series of processes to remove the organic matter. Precipitate tests suggested the presence of arsenic, and when the solid residue was heated in a test tube with charcoal, “small grey-colored and brilliant points were seen.” They had obtained a grain of metallic arsenic. This and other experiments more than proved that the deceased had ingested a considerable amount of arsenic, and this, stated The Times, which reprinted the account of the case published in the London Medical Gazette, afforded “a striking illustration of the importance of toxicology in forwarding the ends of justice.”

On 20 and 21 November 1829 Josephine was tried in her absence for the murder of her father at the Ain Assizes held at Bourg. Counsel for the defense asked for a six-month postponement in view of the prejudice against his client, adding that he had employed chemists at Lyons, Montpellier and Paris who had said that the substance found in Bouvier’s stomach was not arsenic. He also promised that if the delay was granted his client would come forward to stand trial. The public prosecutor observed that since the accused had sold her property and fled justice it was not credible that she would come forward. The court agreed, and the trial proceeded without the defendant. Josephine was found guilty. She was ordered “to be conducted to the place of execution en chemise, with naked feet, and with her head covered with a black veil – to be exposed upon the scaffold while an officer shall read the sentence to the people – to have her right hand cut off, and then to be immediately executed.”

Josephine D’Aubarède spent nearly three years of a more or less nomadic existence, travelling through England and Belgium, while her husband, to whom no suspicion attached, remained in France. In the summer of 1832, however, she was back in France, and on 25 August she appeared at the Assizes of Bourg to answer the charge. It is unknown if any promises or inducements had been offered to ensure her return.

The new hearing lasted four days and on the 27th it transpired that although Messrs Ozanam and Ide were still certain that the tests they had carried out had produced arsenic, they now disagreed as to its origins. M Ozanam stood by the conclusions of his original report, and believed that the arsenic came from the body of M Bouvier, but M Ide had retracted his original statement and now thought that the arsenic had come from the charcoal used in the last experiment. A lawyer friend of M Bouvier testified that the dead man had led a life of licentiousness in which he had made use of strong liquor, stimulants and cantharides beetles, a reputed aphrodisiac. When he had tackled Bouvier about this his friend had replied that he would rather live an enjoyable, if short life than a long, dull one. A doctor revealed that some time before his death Bouvier had suffered from colic, inflammation and retention of urine. Marie’s version of events came under attack and it was alleged that she had been having an affair with M Bouvier. On 28 August, after listening to impassioned speeches on both sides, the jury retired. It took them half an hour to find Josephine not guilty. She walked from the court into a neighboring room where her husband was waiting for her.