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JANUARY 1, 1857.
ART. I.-(1.) The great Oyer of Poisoning; the Trial of the Earl of Somerset for the Poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury in the Tower of London, and various matters connected therewith, from Contemporary MSS. By ANDREW Aмos, Esq. London: Bentley. 1846.
(2.) A complete Collection of the State Trials and Proceedings for High Treason, and other Crimes and Misdemeanors. Fourth Edition. By F. HARGRAVE, Esq. London: 1776. (3.) The Queen v. Palmer. Verbatim Report of the Trial of William Palmer. London: J. Allen; and Cockshaw and Yates. 1856.
THE recent trial of Palmer for murder by poisoning, and the suspicion which attaches to him of having, by the same means, caused the death of several other persons, recals to mind the wholesale poisonings which, during the latter part of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries, prevailed to such a fearful extent in France and Italy. Not that these wholesale crimes were then first known; for Beckmann shows that they were practised by the Greeks, the Romans, and the Carthaginians; but only that they were, at the above mentioned periods, become so notorious, as to have attained for their authors the infamous celebrity which has since attached to them in the annals of crime.
In Italy poisoning had become a trade. Tofana at Palermo and Naples, and Hieronima Spara at Rome,† supplied, for a consideration,' the deadly potions by which Italian ladies got rid of disagreeable husbands. Tofana confessed, previous to her execution, to having caused the death of six hundred persons.‡
* In the first half of the eighteenth century.
+ In 1659.
+ Beckmann's History of Inventions. Title, 'Secret Poisoning.' NO. XLIX.
The number of Spara's victims is not mentioned. She, with many of her associates, suffered death for these crimes.
From Italy the dreadful secret of preparing the poisons travelled into France, where one Exili, a prisoner in the Bastile, communicated it to Saint-Croix, who had made himself remarkable in Paris by his amour with the Marquise de Brinvilliers, a married woman. After a year's imprisonment, Saint-Croix and Exili were both set at liberty. Saint-Croix having perfected himself in this black art, separated from Exili, and initiated the Marquise into its mysteries. This abandoned woman proved an apt scholar, and, under the semblance of charity and the garb of a nun, she tried, with barbarous coolness, the effects of the poisons by mixing them in the food of the sick whom she nursed at the Hôtel-Dieu. Beckmann repeats a satirical saying that was then current in Paris, namely, that no young physician, in introducing himself into practice, had ever so speedily filled a churchyard as Brinvilliers.' Her own father and brother were among her victims; and, if her sister escaped, she was indebted for her life, not to the affection of the Marquise, but to her own caution and suspicions.
Saint-Croix perished accidentally from the fumes of a poison which he was preparing,* and his death led to the discovery of the guilt of the Marquise. In his laboratory was found a small box, to which was attached a written request, dated May 25th, 1672, that the box might be delivered to the Marquise Brinvilliers, or in case of her death, that it should be burnt unopened. This writing operated only as a stimulus to curiosity. The box was opened, and found to contain poisons of various kinds, properly labelled, and registers of their effects.† Brinvilliers, after an ineffectual attempt to obtain possession of the box, fled from Paris, but was arrested in a convent at Liège, whither she had been pursued from England. She was convicted, and after confessing her guilt, was beheaded, and then burnt.
A few years later, two women, named respectively Le Vigoureux and Le Voisin, were detected in supplying persons with poison after the Italian fashion, and were put to death. The frequency of the crime in France led to the institution of a court whose office it was to detect and punish crimes of this nature; but the proceedings of this court became so inquisitorial, that after being in activity about a year it was finally closed.
In all the cases above mentioned, poisoning was carried on systematically in all of them the actors were principally women;
* The glass mask he wore on these occasions falling off, he was suffocated, and was found dead in his laboratory.
†The poisons were corrosive sublimate, opium, regulus of antimony, and vitriol.
The Overbury Murder still a Mystery.
in all but the case of Brinvilliers the infernal trade was carried on from sordid motives, without any personal animosity towards the numerous victims, or even without personal knowledge of them. They supplied poisons with the same indifference as a chemist would make up a prescription for an unknown person. There is yet another point which we cannot contemplate without surprise, namely, the number of persons that, in the cases of Tofana, Spara, Le Vigoureux, and Le Voisin, must have been cognisant of their crimes, and the secrecy which was observed respecting them.
There is a fashion in crime, as in more harmless affairs. One murder by the knife is sure to be followed by several: if a man beat his wife to death, or shoot at his sovereign, others follow his example; one crime, like one wedding, is the precursor of many. At present, poisoning seems to be the favourite mode of disposing of obnoxious individuals. Amid the excitement occasioned by the discovery of Palmer's crimes, Dove availed himself of the information made public regarding strychnine, to poison his wife with this powerful drug. And while his trial was still pending, we heard of antimony sold in doses under the expressive name of 'quietness,' to the labouring women of Bolton, who use it as a quietus for drunken husbands! Has there been a Tofana, a Le Vigoureux, or Le Voisin among the women of Bolton, stimulating them to the commission of these foul acts? It used to be our boast that poisoning was an un-English crime; alas! it can be said so no longer!
Although the criminal annals of England in former times have produced nothing so atrocious as the poisoning systems of Italy and France, yet there is one dark spot in our history, one mysterious crime in which there were many actors-two of them women -and but one ostensible victim, around which still hangs a veil of obscurity, which the researches of the historian and the archæologist have not yet been able to penetrate. This crime, which, in some points of view, partakes of a political aspect, while in others it appears to originate in the private motives and malice of individuals of exalted station, was the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury in the Tower of London by poison. 'In the 'annals of crime,' says Lord Campbell, there is not a murder 'more atrocious for premeditation, treachery, ingratitude, and ' remorselessness than the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury by 'the Somersets. The ramifications of the crime, coupled with its manifest connexion with state secrets, that have never yet been revealed, are so intricate-the parties implicated so numerous, and some of them so exalted in station, that the crime against the individual acquires the character of a plot or con