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Infamous Scots. / Writings · 5 June 2022

Infamous Scots. Madeleine Smith.

Madeleine Hamilton-Smith (29 March 1835 – 12 April 1928) was a 19th-century Glasgow socialite who was the accused in a sensational murder trial in Scotland in 1857.


L’Angelier’s rooming house.

Smith was the first child (of five) of an upper-middle-class family in Glasgow; her father, James Smith (1808–1863) was a wealthy architect, and her mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of leading neo-classical architect David Hamilton. She was born at the family home at 81 Wellington Place in Glasgow.

In 1855 the family moved from India Street to 7 Blythswood Square, Glasgow, living in the lower half of a house owned by her maternal uncle, David Hamilton, a yarn merchant.[3] The house stands at the crown of the major development led by William Harley on Blythswood Hill, and they also had a country property, “Rowaleyn”, near Helensburgh.

Smith broke the strict Victorian conventions of the time when, as a young woman in early 1855, she began a secret love affair with Pierre Emile L’Angelier, some ten years her senior, an apprentice nurseryman who originally came from the Channel Islands. He worked as a packing clerk in a warehouse at 10 Bothwell Street nearby.

The pair would meet late at night, at Smith’s bedroom window and also engaged in voluminous correspondence. During one of their infrequent meetings alone, she lost her virginity to L’Angelier.

Smith’s parents, unaware of the affair with L’Angelier (whom Smith had promised to marry) found a suitable fiancé for her within the Glasgow upper-middle-class, William Harper Minnoch.

Smith attempted to break her connection with L’Angelier and, in February 1857, asked him to return the letters she had written to him. Instead, L’Angelier threatened to use the letters to expose her and force her to marry him. She was soon observed in a druggist’s office, ordering arsenic, which she signed for as M.H. Smith.

Early on the morning of 23 March 1857, L’Angelier died from arsenic poisoning. He is buried in the Ramshorn Cemetery on Ingram Street in Glasgow.

After his death, Madeleine Smith’s numerous letters were found in the house where he lodged, and she was arrested and charged with his murder.


A sketch of the trial proceedings against Smith.

At trial, Smith was defended by advocate John Inglis (later known as Lord Glencorse). Toxicological evidence, confirming that the victim had died of arsenic poisoning, was given by Andrew Douglas Maclagan.

In the trial, the two most positive elements in her defence were the two druggists both testifying that they coloured their arsenic to avoid an accident (and the autopsy having not found this), and L’Angelier’s valet testifying that L’Angelier had considered suicide at least once. There was therefore a strong suggestion of suicide.

Although the circumstantial evidence pointed towards her guilt (Smith had made purchases of arsenic in the weeks leading up to L’Angelier’s death, and had a clear motive) the jury returned one verdict of not guilty on the first count and a verdict of “not proven” on the second count.

Crucial to the case was the chronology of certain letters from Smith to l’Angelier, and as the letters themselves were undated, the case hinged to some extent on the envelopes. One letter, in particular, depended on the correct interpretation of the date of the postmark which was, unfortunately, illegible, and attracted some caustic comments from the judge, but the vast majority of these postmarks were quite clearly struck. It transpired that when the police searched L’Angelier’s room, many of Smith’s letters were found without their envelopes and were then hurriedly collected and stuck into whichever envelopes came to hand.

Later life

6-7 Blythswood Square. Madeleine Smith’s house. 2020.about:blankImageUpload an image file, pick one from your media library, or add one with a URL.UploadSelect ImageInsert from URL

Following the scandal, her family were forced to quit their Glasgow home and their country villa Rowaleyn in Rhu and moved to Bridge of Allan in central Scotland. They moved again in 1860 to Old Polmont. Her father died in Polmont in 1863 aged 55, broken by the whole affair.

On 4 July 1861, she married an artist named George Wardle, William Morris’s business manager. They had one son (Thomas, born 1864) and one daughter (Mary, called “Kitten”, born 1863). For a time, she became involved with the Fabian Society in London and was an enthusiastic organiser. As she was known by her new married name, not everyone knew who she was, but a few did.

After many years of marriage, she and her husband separated in 1889 and Madeleine moved to New York City. Around 1916, she married a second time to William A. Sheehy and this marriage lasted until his death in 1926.

She died on 28 April 1928 aged 93 and was buried under the name of Lena Sheehy. She is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson in New York State.

Later theories.

As in the case of Lizzie Borden, scholars and amateur criminologists have spent decades going over the minutiae of the case.

Most modern scholars believe that Smith committed the crime and the only thing that saved her from a guilty verdict and a death sentence was that no eyewitness could prove that Smith and l’Angellier had met in the weeks before his death.

After the trial, The Scotsman ran a small article stating that a witness had come forward claiming that a young male and female were seen outside Smith’s house on the night of l’Angellier’s death. However, the trial was already in progress, and the witness could not be questioned during it.

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