The Madeleine Smith Affair

2007 marks the 150th anniversary of one of Scotland's most gripping murder cases, one which still remains unsolved.

In Glasgow in the early hours of 23rd March, 1857, Emile L'Angelier, an apprentice nurseryman from the Channel Islands, was found dead from arsenic poisoning in his Glasgow lodging house. His lover, the upper-class socialite Madeleine Smith, was quickly arrested and tried for his murder.

Smith had been conducting a secret affair with L'Angelier for over two years, but tried to end it after her father found her a more 'suitable' fiancé. L'Angelier threatened to publish the passionate love letters he and Smith had exchanged over the years. Just six weeks later, L'Angelier was found dead.

The resulting trial scandalised Victorian Britain - a heady mix of class, sex and murder. But all the evidence against Smith was circumstantial, and the jury returned 'the bastard verdict', not proven.

Released from prison, Smith fled to London, and eventually, it is said, to America.

The scandalous nature of the case - it was the 'O.J. Simpson' trail of its era - combined with the notorious not proven verdict, has kept the case in the public eye.

The story of Madeleine Smith is revisited in Douglas MacGowan's new book, The Strange Affair of Madeleine Smith. In this short essay MacGowan explains how he came to be fascinated by the 'strange affair' of Madeleine Smith, and the challenges in researching the story from his base in California.

The Strange Affair of Madeleine Smith

Madeleine Smith and I first 'met' in 1995 as I read a book containing a collection of letters by Scots from medieval to modern times. The brief biographical paragraph that accompanied her letter intrigued me enough that later I tracked down a few biographies of her through libraries and used book sellers. And the further I went into the particulars of the story, the more fascinating it became.

I eventually wrote several articles about her for various periodicals, but never considered expanding my research into a book until I came across pieces of crucial information that had not been available to previous biographers. That information brought into serious question some of the believed 'facts' about Madeleine and about Emile L'Angelier's death and I wanted to be the one to bring that new information to the many people still interested in the 'did she or didn't she?' mystery of the tale.

I live in California, and there were multiple inherent problems in researching an alleged crime that took place 5,000 miles and 150 years away. But I continued to accumulate biographies and analyses of the case and also unearthed the trial transcripts and contemporary newspaper articles in the microfilm archives of various libraries. The internet gave me access to new information such as census records and ship passenger logs that caused me to question even more of the accepted beliefs about Madeleine. All of these sources helped me separate the facts from the lore that had built up over the previous 150 years.

After more than ten years of research, I still have not come to a firm opinion on her guilt or innocence: as soon as I approach one conclusion, I encounter significant obstacles of fact, trial testimony, or logic that contradict any solution.

Given that, my book takes a different approach to the story. Previous biographers and analysts of the case took a definite stand about Madeleine's guilt or innocence and about the character of Madeleine and Emile and then tried to support those conclusions. I want to let the reader decide for themselves what happened on that cold night in March of 1857. My book presents the known facts, includes enough of Madeleine's infamous letters to give a clear idea of the personalities of the two lovers, and reviews the full spectrum of interpretations previous biographers have come to. Most importantly, I detail the intriguing new information that brings into question long-accepted beliefs about the alleged murder, the trial, and Madeleine's later life.

The sesquicentennial of Emile's death and Madeleine's trial is a very good time to take a new look into this story that has never ceased to perplex and mystify.

Douglas MacGowan

  • Cover scan of The Strange Affair Of Madeleine Smith
    The Strange Affair of Madeleine Smith: Victorian Scotland's Trial Of The Century - Douglas MacGowan - Paperback
    Madeleine Smith, a young woman from a prominent Glasgow family, stood accused of the murder of her lover. The evidence against her seemed overwhelming. But after what was described as Scotland's trial of the century, Madeleine received the verdict of 'not proven' and walked free from the courtroom.

Other books about the Madeleine Smith affair include The Case of Madeleine Smith, a graphic novel. The story has even spawned a movie, in 1950, and an Edinburgh Festival Fringe play, A Most Curious Murder, in 2003.

  • Cover scan of The Case Of Madeleine Smith
    The Case Of Madeleine Smith - Rick Geary - Hardback
    A beautiful heiress jilts her secret lover when she is courted by a successful businessman, and the lover subsequently dies from arsenic poisoning. The murder of Emile L'Anglier & the trial of Madeleine Smith scandalised 19th century Scotland.