The Poison Thread: A Novel

The Poison Thread: A Novel

by Laura Purcell


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"[An] uncanny Gothic mystery... Satisfying."New York Times Book Review

"A romping read with a deliciously dark conceit at its center... Reminded me of Alias Grace."—Kiran Millwood Hargrave

From the author of The Silent Companions, a thrilling Victorian gothic horror story about a young seamstress who claims her needle and thread have the power to kill

Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy, and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor, and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea's charitable work brings her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted by the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person's skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets one of the prisoners, the teenaged seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another strange idea: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread—because Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.

The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations—of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses—will shake Dorothea's belief in rationality, and the power of redemption. Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer? For fans of Shirley Jackson, The Poison Thread is a spine-tingling, sinister read about the evil that lurks behind the facade of innocence.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143134053
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/18/2019
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 220,486
Product dimensions: 5.05(w) x 7.72(h) x 0.59(d)

About the Author

Laura Purcell is the author of The Silent Companions. She worked in local government, the financial industry and a bookshop before becoming a full-time writer. She lives in Colchester, the oldest recorded town in England, with her husband and pet guinea pigs. Fascinated by the darker side of royal history, Laura has also written two historical fiction novels about the Hanoverian dynasty.

Read an Excerpt





My sainted mother taught me the seven acts of corporeal mercy: to feed the hungry; refresh the thirsty; clothe the naked; shelter the traveller; comfort the sick; visit those imprisoned; and bury the dead. Most of these we undertook together, while she lived. Then Papa and I buried her, so that was another one checked off the list.


A single merciful act eluded me: visiting those imprisoned. A lady in my position has ample opportunity to feed and clothe, but who can she call upon in gaol? Which of her genteel acquaintances is ever incarcerated?


I mentioned the difficulty to my father once, at breakfast. My words hung in the air with the steam from our tea; hot, uncomfortable. I can still see Papa's grey eyes narrow over the pages of his newspaper.


'Charity is not a competition, Dorothea. These "acts of mercy" - you do not need to perform them all.'


'But, sir, Mama said-'


'You know your mother was a . . .' He looked down at his paper, searching for the word. 'She had odd notions about religion. You must not take what she said to heart.'


We were silent a moment, feeling her absence in the empty chair at the end of the table.


'Mama was a Papist,' I told my toast as I buttered it. 'I am not ashamed of that.'


Had I sworn before him, he could not have flushed a brighter hue. His cheeks went puce.


'You are not scampering around prisons,' he barked. 'Never mind your mother - I am your father. And I say you are a Protestant. That is my final word on it.'


But Papa never really has the final word.


When I came of age, I inherited my own money from Mama to spend as I pleased. Papa could do nothing when I decided to lay it out in improvements for prisons.


Prison, along with Mama's Catholicism, was attractive to me because it was forbidden, because it was dangerous. I sat on women's prison boards, set up committees to help the poor wretches in Newgate and purchased pamphlets on Elizabeth Fry.


I cannot say these actions made me a darling of society, but I acquired friends enough for my liking: charitable spinsters, rectors' wives. Far worthier people than the fashionable young ladies Papa wished for me to associate with.


'How do you expect to find a husband,' he said, 'when you are always off on these squalid sallies to gaol?'


'I am fair and I have an ample dowry from Mama,' I retorted. 'If any man is fool enough to be put off by a few charitable enterprises, he does not deserve me.'


So I won my way, as I always do.


Two years ago the Oakgate Charitable Women's Society began a project to dismantle the old, sinking hulk that passed for a penitentiary in these parts and build a new prison. That was my chance. When the women's wing was complete, the Society ruled it would be beneficial for lady visitors to call upon the inmates and improve them with edifying conversation. Naturally, I volunteered.


In my visits, I have seen many wretches. Desperate, friendless, craving comfort. But I have never met a criminal quite like her.


I was feeding Wilkie, my pet canary, this morning when the note from Matron arrived, informing me we had another one. I knew she meant the worst of all criminals: a taker of human lives. My blood began to hum. I ordered the carriage and dashed for my hat and gloves.


Anticipation dried my mouth as I rumbled along in the carriage towards the prison. One never knows what to expect with a murderer. When I was young, I used to imagine they all had compelling reasons to commit their deeds: a stolen lover; vengeance for a parent; betrayal; blackmail. This is a fallacy. Murder can have the strangest, most mundane of motives - or sometimes none at all.


I remember Mrs Blackwood, who maintained that she 'never drowned those poor dear children, it was them that came and did it, they were always killing and they always made her watch'. Then there was Miss Davies, who told me she 'bore no malice to the young black, never did mind his kind, but alas it was necessary for him to die, a sacrifice had to be made'. Most chilling of all, I think, was Mrs Wren. Yes, she had killed her husband. Did he beat her? No. Visit other women? Oh no, never. Had he in fact done anything to merit his death? Certainly, the brute - he had criticised her cooking. Not in general, no, just the once. It was enough. What wife would not kill him, she wanted to know.


Phrenology is the only answer to the behavioural patterns of these women. They are born with the propensity to kill. It is all there, mapped out on the cranium. If precautions are not taken, or the wrong organs become inflamed, they give way to vice. Our society is at fault in neglecting this essential science. Had we measured the heads of these females whilst they were young, we might have averted their crime by careful instruction and conditioning. Alas, I fear the cerebral malformation has now progressed too far. And if we cannot change their characters, what hope for their souls?


New Oakgate Prison reared up from the horizon, its stone shining white as redemption. Scaffolding covered the unfinished male wing, but within it I discerned the contours and the gaps where the windows would eventually gleam. On the women's side, we have them shaped like portholes, giving the place the feel of a great steam paddler. Saplings ring the high, iron fences. One day they shall grow and cover the exercise yard in green shade. It looks like a hopeful place, a place where perhaps all is not lost.


The porters opened the gates, which did not whine or clank but glided easily on their fresh hinges. As I climbed out of the carriage and arranged my skirts, another porter met me and marked my name off in his ledger. Then came one of our warders to guide me through the limewashed corridors I know by heart, straight to the office of our principal matron.


She was sitting at her desk. When I entered she rose with a clink, drawing my eyes to the leather belt about her waist and the keys suspended from it. They did not look like instruments of incarceration. They were polished, shining with the same spanking newness of the gaol. Her office smelt fresh, of wood and lime.


'Miss Truelove. How prompt you are.' She offered me a curtsey and another metallic jingle.


'But of course, Matron. I am all eagerness to meet our new inmate.'


Her face moved into an expression - I am not sure what it was, but it was certainly not a smile.


Matron is one of those unreadable women who fade so easily into the mechanics of an institution: age indeterminate; features regular and without distinction; voice monotonous. Even her skull remains concealed beneath a starched cap, showing no discernible bumps. If I was forced to reach a conclusion, I would say she does not like me - but of course she offers no evidence, nothing tangible for me to base this on.


'I must urge you to observe caution, Miss Truelove. This one is dangerous.'


A thrill chased up my spine. 'Murder, I think you said?'


'Yes indeed.'


'Was it dreadfully grisly?'


'No.' Her mouth tightened, but her voice did not change. 'Devious. She killed her own mistress. Slowly, by degrees.'


Not an act of passion, then. I yearned to ask how she committed the deed, but I reined in my curiosity. Matron is not like me; she does not question motives and hope for change. It is enough for her to ensure the women are fed and clothed - she does not appear to believe the prisoners possess souls.


'A maid, I presume? What age is she?'


'That is the worst of all. She is but sixteen years old.'


A child!


I had never met a child murderer. This would enhance my work greatly - to assess the tender skull and see if the criminal organs had already grown to their full extent.


'Her name?' I asked.


'Ruth Butterham.'


I appreciated that plosive surname: it seemed to strike the air like a fist.


'Perhaps you will take me to her cell?'


Matron obeyed in silence.


Our footsteps crunched on the sanded floors, stopping finally outside a barrier of iron. Such a large door, I thought, to keep a child in. The enamel plaque swung blank - Ruth had not been there long enough to have her name and sentence inscribed.


Matron creaked open the iron observation flap on the door. Holding my breath, I leant forwards and peeked through.


I shall never forget that first sight of her. She sat on the side of her bed, fully dressed, with a spiral of tarred rope on her lap. Her head was bent, her shoulders stooped, so I could not make out her height, but it seemed to me she was no more than the average size. Wiry black hair fell about her temples. The staff crop it short, to the chin. This helps keep the prisoners free of vermin and gives them the look of a penitent. Yet somehow the operation had the opposite effect on Ruth Butterham - she appeared to have more hair than an innocent woman, for it frizzed and expanded into a dark aureole around her head. I could not glimpse the criminal organs of the skull beneath. Perhaps the centre of Murder above the ear was engorged, but I would have to feel with my hands.


I did not despair of her letting me perform such an experiment. The picture she presented was one of tranquillity. Her hands moved smoothly as she picked at clumps of oakum. Certainly, the arms were muscular, but not in a menacing way, the definition of the biceps being a natural occurrence in those who work for their bread.


'You want to talk to her, I suppose. We've been short on murderers, since the hangman took Smith.' Matron did not wait for my response before she clanked her keys and let us in.


The girl glanced up as I entered. Dark eyes, framed by stubby lashes, tracked my movements. Her hands stopped their motion. The rope fell slack. I swallowed, feeling every tendon in my throat. How could she bear to hold the thing, knowing her life might end with such a rope around her neck?


'Butterham, this is Miss Truelove,' said Matron. She gave a sniff that might have been disapproval. 'Come to visit you.'


I sat down on the one chair provided in the cell. Its legs were uneven; I had to adjust my skirts.


Ruth looked me full in the face. Not impertinent, precisely, but curious. I must confess to a twinge of disappointment. She was a plain creature, almost masculine, with a strong jaw and eyes set too far apart in her head. The nose was curiously flat. Flat nose, flat mind, they say. But then I have noted that murderous thoughts seldom trouble the pretty and the fashionable.


'I don't know you,' she said.


'Not yet.' I tried a smile - it felt rather foolish. She did not speak with a child's voice. Hers sounded tired, harsh. Something in its depths caused the hair on my neck to prick up. 'I come to visit all of the women. Especially those with no kin.'


'Well, you can suit yourself, I suppose, a rich woman like you.'


She began to pick at the rope again. As her hands moved, her eyes drifted over the mug, trencher and Bible neatly laid on the windowsill. I noted how deft she was, how continually handling the oakum had stained her nails and the creases in her fingers black. 'Perhaps I do have the liberty to come and go as I please. But I do not attend for my own amusement. I come for you. To offer some comfort.'




She did not believe a word of it. Perhaps there has been no kindness in her short life.


'I'll stand outside,' said Matron. 'The observation hatch is open. No funny business, Butterham.'


Ruth did not deign to reply.


The door clanged shut, and I was alone with the child murderer.


Strange to say, I have never called upon a prisoner who had more self-possession. Grown women like Jenny Hill have sobbed on my shoulder, or begged me for mercy. Not she. This was no weeping girl, no child in need of mothering. The more she picked at the rope, the more it seemed to resemble a pile of human hair in her lap.


She killed her slowly, by degrees.


I shook myself. I must not leap to conclusions: not all silences are sinister. After all, the crown of her head looked enlarged beneath that fuzzy hair - it might be that her organ for Dignity was overgrown. Or that she had never known the meaning of the word comfort. How could I expect her to turn her thoughts upwards and repent if she had been starved of sympathy? She needed to learn what it was to have a friend. She needed me.


I cleared my throat. 'Matron calls you Butterham. It is the way of the staff here, I believe. But I should like to address you by your Christian name. You do not object to my calling you Ruth?'


She shrugged. The muscles on her shoulders pulled at her serge gown. 'If you like.'


'Do you know why you are here, Ruth?'


'I'm a murderess.' No pride in the title - little shame, either. I waited, sure of more to follow. But she just went on impassively picking, with none of that torrid explanation or madness I have come to expect.


It chilled me.


'And who was it that you killed?'


Her brow clouded. She fluttered her short lashes. 'Oh, I suppose - a great many people, miss.'


I was not prepared for that. Were there others the police had not discovered?


The blasted rope dust irritated my eyes, making it hard to think. Perhaps Ruth did not know the exact allegations against her? We have had instances where the enormity of a prisoner's deed wipes their mind of the incident. Had she suppressed the memory of killing her mistress? Did she merely parrot the keepers when she told me she was incarcerated for murder? I decided to tread cautiously.


'Indeed? And are you sorry for what you have done?'


Two yellow teeth worried her bottom lip. 'Yes. Well, I mean, it depends, miss.'


'Upon?' I could not prevent the note of incredulity that crept into that word. 'Are there qualifications for remorse?'


'Some I never meant to kill. The first, they were an accident.' Her voice hitched, the first crack in her facade. 'Then there were others . . . I tried to stop. I tried to stop it, but it was too late.' A sigh. 'I'm sorry for those ones. But . . .'

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