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ARSENIC AND MATRIMONY: The Cases of Marie Lafarge and Euphémie Lacoste
Adjustment to marriage may never have been a simple matter, but in nineteenth- century middle-class society the ordeal was intensified, especially for women. At no time before or since has popular self-consciousness about marriage and the "marriage market" reached such heights; and it is no wonder, since for larger numbers of people than ever before, marriage held out the great hope for bettering oneself in society. For the majority of women, whose destiny was the domestic sphere, changes in actual social roles as well as in the image of the ideal wife made initiation to marriage, even at best, an awkward and uneasy time. At worst, the new pressures of matrimony could lead to disaster, as they did in the cases of two young French women of the 1840s, Marie Lafarge and Euphémie Lacoste.
The details of the tensions of their early married lives would have gone unrecorded, save for the fact that both their husbands died rather suddenly and under peculiar circumstances. Suspicion settled on the wives who, in the end, were tried on charges of poisoning their spouses with arsenic. The evidence against the women was circumstantial, as it is bound to be in the very private crime of poisoning, but many found that evidence to be compelling. Still, Mmes. Lafarge and Lacoste each publicly and repeatedly denied the charges, and one of them, at least, may have been telling the truth.
Marie Lafarge and Euphémie Lacoste were both members of the bourgeoisie, but each came from a distinctly different segment of the class. Mme. Lafarge, the wife of an iron manufacturer who owned a forge in the Limousin, was a Parisian with an excellent education and upper-middle-class and aristocratic connections. Mme. Lacoste, by contrast, was a provincial woman from the tiny village of Mazerolles in southwestern France. Married to a small tradesman who had retired to live off the proceeds of an inheritance, she inhabited a far more traditional world than Marie Lafarge. Yet both young women were obliged to face a variety of new experiences, many of which were peculiar to a transitional class. Their responses to the bewildering pressures of change in their lives, as well as the responses of their societies to their behavior, reveal stresses which could hardly have been unique to the two women. At a time when the bourgeois "mistress of the home" was being set up as the new class ideal of womanhood, the cases of Marie Lafarge and Euphémie Lacoste suggest some of the obstacles women were encountering as they moved toward that elusive ideal.
Of the two affairs, that of Mme. Lafarge was clearly the more sensational. By the summer of 1840 the literate public all knew at least the outlines of Mme. Lafarge's life, and women, it was reported, talked of little else. One of the most celebrated trials of the century, the Lafarge case has continued to arouse an interest which is reflected in a steady stream of publications. Its central figure was an elegant, dark-haired twenty-four-year-old woman. If the male commentators (who, as was usual in the case of an accused woman, addressed themselves first to her physical appearance) disagreed over whether she was beautiful, most concurred in praising her intelligence, talent, and charm. Some observers did remark that her profile was not really good, that her forehead was too prominent, and her nose and mouth too large. But nearly everyone agreed that her eyes were extraordinary, her smile enchanting, and her soft, deep voice both appealing and seductive. The interested public learned, too, that the accused was a woman of considerable cultural achievements; she sang and played the piano, read the fiction of George Sand and Victor Hugo, and even wrote poetry. Marie Lafarge, in other words, was a recognizable romantic heroine— or so it seemed.
Born Marie Fortunée Cappelle in Paris in 1816, the young woman was the daughter of an artillery officer who had served in the Imperial Guards. She was illegitimately related to the reigning royal family, since her maternal grandmother was one of the natural daughters of the king's father, Philippe Egalité, and Mme. de Genlis. Her father died in 1828, when Marie was twelve, and her mother, who remarried two years later, died in 1835.
Marie, at eighteen, was sent to live with her mother's sister, who was married to the secretary-general of the Bank of France. But despite the advantages of wealth, comfort, and opportunities to develop her interest in literature and music, Marie complained with some justice that her aunt disliked her and made her painfully aware of her status as the "poor cousin." The dowry of 90,000 francs left her by her parents was not impressive in her aunt's social circles, and Marie soon realized that her relative regarded her as a marriage liability.
The problem of finding a husband for this orphan was first taken in hand by an aristocratic married friend of Marie's, who arranged a meeting with the brother of her former governess. Though the man was a respectable subprefect, Marie understandably considered him beneath her and confessed her delight when a former friend of her father advised her that no marriage contract should be made with a man whose only income was his salary as a subprefect. In the meantime, however, one of Marie's uncles had engaged the services of a matrimonial agency, which proposed an apparently more suitable candidate in one Charles Lafarge, son of an honorable justice of the peace from the Limousin. His dossier included warm letters of recommendation from his priest and the local deputy from Uzerches, as well as flattering watercolors of Le Glandier, his estate, which had originally been a Carthusian monastery. Advertised as a wealthy ironmaster with property worth at least 200,000 francs and an annual income of 30,000 from the forge alone, Lafarge was praised as the mayor of his commune and a pillar of the community.
To prevent Marie's learning that Lafarge had been turned up by an agency, the uncle arranged a "chance" meeting with his "friend" at the opera. Marie found the twenty-eight- year-old ironmaster both boorish and ugly, but four days after their first meeting in August 1839, her aunt announced that she had published the banns. Fearful that Marie might balk, she even withheld the information that Lafarge was a widower. Within a few weeks the civil and religious ceremonies were performed and the couple set out for the Limousin.
In memoirs published after her trial Marie described the despair and illness she suffered on the trip, the terror inspired by the sexual advances of the stranger who was her husband, and the disillusionment upon arriving at her new home. Her in-laws seemed no more than vulgar farmers and the estate was a shambles. The vaunted ironworks, she would later learn, was bankrupt. In desperation she locked herself in their bedroom on the first evening and composed a letter to Charles, announcing that she had deceived him and that she loved another man, who had secretly followed them from Paris. She added, somewhat implausibly, that she intended either to take arsenic or to depart alone for Smyrna. With credulous horror Charles read the document and ordered the guns loaded and the dogs to be kept on the alert against the interloper. But after a terrible row involving family and visitors, Marie finally admitted her ruse and agreed to stay on. Charles, for his part, promised that he would not demand his "marital privileges" until he had fixed up the estate and arranged for a loan in Paris to finance operations at the forge.
In the ensuing weeks relations between Lafarge and his new wife reportedly improved. On the advice of his lawyer Charles saw to it that Marie, in deference to her Parisian background, was provided with subscriptions to newspapers, membership in the local lending library, numerous visits, and renovated surroundings. In November 1839, as remodeling proceeded at Le Glandier, Charles left for Paris with two projects: he intended to apply for a patent on a new smelting process he had developed, and he planned to negotiate a loan to perfect the process in his forge and publicize it for sale to other ironmasters. He did manage to receive the patent, but as the weeks passed, his efforts to get the loan proved fruitless. He returned home early in January 1840 complaining of an intestinal illness from which he said he had suffered ever since mid-December. Indeed, he traced the condition to the very day on which he had received a cake sent to him by his wife.
After his return home Charles's condition worsened; he suffered constant attacks of cramps, vomiting, and nausea which kept him in bed from the evening of his arrival. Marie attentively watched over her husband, brought him food and drink, and summoned doctors, but Lafarge's health continued to deteriorate. A friend visiting at Le Glandier a week after Charles's return claimed to have seen Marie stirring a white powder into a drink intended for her husband. Marie insisted that the powder was merely gum arabic, a substance commonly used for intestinal complaints, but her mother-in-law confided fears of poisoning to a friend, who suggested that a local chemist examine the dregs of a now suspect eggnog. Analysis revealed the presence of arsenic, and Marie was forbidden to minister further to her husband. Charles, however, died the day after the test was conducted. His family then launched an investigation which culminated in Marie's indictment for murder. After a trial rich in social and psychological revelations, but almost universally condemned as a travesty of justice, Marie Lafarge was found guilty with extenuating circumstances and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Four years later, in July 1844, news of another alleged arsenic poisoning of a husband by a young wife, this time in the southwestern department of Gers, prompted the press to speak of a new Lafarge affair. But the case of Euphémie Lacoste was a very different matter. True, the young Euphémie had married a man who never would have been her choice, one who had been married before and whom she found ill-mannered and difficult. She had also nursed him practically alone through a fatal gastric illness, and her suspected resentment of her husband did arouse gossip. Still, the only feature of the case which echoed the romanesque flavor of Marie Lafarge's story was Euphémie's disappearance after a warrant was issued to bring her in for questioning. Rumors spread that she had fled to Spain, where she had either joined a religious order or become a shepherdess, and when she finally returned voluntarily with her hair cropped short, there was much speculation that she had been masquerading as a boy. In its other particulars, however, the case was more prosaic in appearance, although no less puzzling.
The daughter of small landowners in the department of the Hautes-Pyrénées, Euphémie Vergès was twenty-two years old in May 1841 when she married her sixty-eight-year-old great-uncle, Henri Lacoste. Several years before her parents had received an offer from Lacoste, a retired shopkeeper, who had informed them that he stood to inherit a considerable amount of money and property from an elder brother who owned vineyards near the village of Riguepeu in the neighboring department of Gers. Seeing an opportunity to provide well for their daughter and to ensure their own future security, Euphémie's parents agreed to the match and offered a dowry worth 20,000 francs. Lacoste, in turn, agreed to pay for the education of his intended bride at a convent school in Tarbes. In this instance, as in many similar ones among the wealthier peasantry and lower provincial bourgeoisie, the parents made the marriage agreement without informing the daughter; Euphémie learned of her forthcoming marriage only a few months before the wedding took place.
Mlle. Vergès, a dutiful daughter, apparently put up no resistance. As neighbors and friends subsequently testified at the trial, the marriage initially seemed to be a happy one. Admittedly, there were rumors that the young bride, in marrying an uncle more than three times her age, had sacrificed her inclinations toward a young grocer from Tarbes, but most agreed that she was very solicitous to her new husband. Even for this part of France, where bourgeois women were frequently noted to be "merely the first among their husband's servants," Euphémie stood out as especially attentive. Lacoste boasted to his friends that his new bride was perfection itself, that she shaved him, washed his feet, and even cleaned his fingernails. He promptly made out his will, leaving everything to Euphémie, and announced that he hoped soon for a son and heir.
Two years passed, however, and Euphémie failed to become pregnant. Lacoste reported his concern to his friends and began to complain that his wife had become difficult and moody. Euphémie, in turn, confided to their friend, the local schoolmaster, that her domestic life was increasingly trying. Henri, she said, was not only parsimonious, he was jealous; he refused to allow her to see friends or even to make visits alone to church. Moreover, there were rumors that Lacoste had attempted to proposition two of the maidservants, who subsequently had left service with the couple. Neighbors assumed that Euphémie had discharged them because she was worried that her husband intended to father a child and disinherit her.
Henri Lacoste was suddenly taken ill in mid-May 1843, after the couple had attended the local fair in Riguepeu. His attack, which was attributed by his wife to indigestion after a meal of beans, onions, and garlic, resulted in vomiting and weakness, but since he distrusted doctors, Lacoste allegedly refused medical help. When his condition worsened three days after his first attack, he finally had Euphémie write to a doctor and request a written diagnosis of his symptoms. In the meantime he was visited by a public health officer summoned by Euphémie. But the numerous plasters and purges did not avail. Lacoste died a few days later.
His widow, according to local reports, was not unduly troubled over her loss. As the maid put it, "Madame shed a few tears and then promptly went off to look for the will." Euphémie's subsequent behavior was also regarded as suspicious by the townspeople. She decided to move into nearby Tarbes, first staying in rooms which she and her husband had rented for their visits to that city and later renting a larger apartment. Local gossips talked about how she had made extravagant purchases, including a coach and ponies, and they also claimed that she was entertaining young male visitors as late as midnight. This was highly improper behavior, especially in the provinces, where new widows were expected to spend two years in full mourning.
The growing rumors that Lacoste had not died of natural causes finally reached the public prosecutor, and when the body was exhumed the following December, it was discovered to contain traces of arsenic. Acquaintances recalled that on the day he took ill Lacoste had complained of a foul glass of wine given him by the schoolmaster, Joseph Meilhan. This, in conjunction with the discovery that the widow had provided Meilhan with a small pension, was sufficient for the authorities to bring an indictment for murder against the pair. However, testimony at the trial failed to produce any evidence of a conspiracy between Euphémie and the seventy-year-old schoolmaster, and the two were ultimately acquitted. The decision was prompted in part by the fact that experts who testified on the presence of arsenic disagreed sharply about the source of the poison and about the quantity discovered in the body. But Mme. Lafarge, from her prison cell in Montpellier, had a different opinion on the acquittal of the accused. "My condemnation," she declared, "saved Mme. Lacoste."
The evidence in neither case allows for a conclusive determination of the actual guilt or innocence of the young women, although in both cases it is possible to make a considered judgment. It should be noted that the number and variety of sources of evidence for the Lafarge case far exceeds that for the Lacoste affair. The testimony in Marie Lafarge's case permits a more detailed reconstruction, partly because more persons witnessed the events. At the time of the alleged crime the residents at Le Glandier included the young couple, Lafarge's widowed mother, a cook, two male servants, Lafarge's hired business associate and his wife, a niece of Lafarge who was visiting Marie, Marie's servant Clémentine Servat, and a spinster friend of the family who was staying there while she painted portraits of Marie and the niece. In addition, throughout Charles's illness there were numerous visits from friends, relatives, and doctors. In the Lacoste home, on the other hand, there was, in addition to the couple, only one servant, the housemaid Jacquette Larrieu. Visitors were limited to a few friends and the public health officer.
Excerpted from Victorian Murderesses by Mary S. Hartman. Copyright © 1977 Mary S. Hartman. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted August 12, 2014
Given To Me For An Honest Review
This book is about 13 French and English Murderesses. Mary Hartman does a good job setting up a classic study at once with history
and story telling about a time when women did not murder. Great archival history and once you begin you will continue turning the
pages until you are finished. I do recommend it.