Another look at murder trial 150 years on

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madeleinesmithmono-wONE of the great tales of Scottish Law, the trial of Madeleine Smith for murder after a love affair which mostly took place in Rhu, was being commemorated in July 2007 by Scotland’s Faculty of Advocates.

Madeleine was tried for the murder of her lover, Pierre Emile L’Angelier, at the High Court in Edinburgh. The trial began on June 30 1857, and finished on July 9. The case was found not proven, that unique Scottish verdict.

“The Faculty was not re-examining the evidence but rather marking the 150th anniversary of this most interesting case,” Faculty Library staff member Sharron Wilson said.

Although the Faculty consider it to be ‘The trial of the century’, the event was for Faculty members only, and not open to the general public. Hopefully some of the information presented will become publicly available in due course.

Sharron says: “The short re-enactment was organised by the Court of Session Social Committee along with Advocates Library Staff.

“The Library staff exhibited some highly relevant and interesting material from their own stock such as rare book stock and court papers. We have a selection of photographs and interesting newspaper articles that have been published since 1857.

“We have been kindly donated copies of a number of new book publications and these were included in the exhibition.”

Madeleine was born in Glasgow in 1835, the eldest of five children. Her father, distinguished architect James Smith, designed and built the large country house Rowaleyn, now Invergare, at the top of Glenarn Road, where, like many well-off Glaswegians, the family spent the summer months.

Jersey-born Emile, whose Roman Catholic family owned a seed shop, came to work in an Edinburgh nursery, then went home and to Paris and Dundee before settling in Glasgow. The couple were introduced in 1855 by her middle-aged neighbour Miss Mary Perry, who herself had become close to Emile.

In an account of the case in the Helensburgh Heritage Trust book ‘200 Years of Helensburgh’, Joe Craig writes: “When Emile first saw Madeleine, he was immediately smitten.

“He was well aware that he was attractive to women and resolved somehow to make the acquaintance of Madeleine in spite of the social chasm that divided them.

“When they eventually met, Emile’s French flair and flamboyant style obviously captivated Madeleine, and from that brief encounter began a series of clandestine meetings.

“She was only 19 when she wrote the first letter. It was written from Rowaleyn and expresses the charming walks which would be better enjoyed in his company, although she stipulated that he must not turn up at Rowaleyn.”

When her father found about the relationship he was very angry, but despite this, passionate letters went to and fro — Emile’s pet name for her was ‘Mimi’ — and they became secretly engaged. Eventually she confronted her father at the Garelochside mansion and declared her love and desire to marry.

But the family totally ruled out such a match, and she had to give her word of honour not to communicate with Emile. She did, of course, and they met at the Smith home in Glasgow’s India Street and also at Rowaleyn where they first made love in the early summer of 1856.

James Smith’s business prospered, and they moved to an address which was to become famous, 7 Blythswood Square. There one of his business friends, the wealthy William Minnoch, became looked on as a potential husband for the wayward Madeleine.

On January 28 1857 William proposed, and Madeleine accepted. She wrote to Emile breaking off their engagement and asking for her letters back. Emile was enraged, and a fraught few days followed before letters and meetings resumed.

The stuff of romance perhaps, but from February 22 it seems to take a sinister turn. Madeleine bought arsenic from a Sauchiehall Street chemist, and Emile, who had periodic stomach disorders, had a bout of illness.

On March 6, with a friend, she went to another Sauchiehall Street chemist and bought an ounce of arsenic, ostensibly to kill rats.

Emile was making remarks to friends that he was being poisoned, but Madeleine still wrote affectionately to him — though she had set a June date for her wedding to William.

In the early hours of March 23 Emile arrived home and was obviously ill. Despite medical attention, he died a few hours later. Three days later he was buried in an unmarked grave, although there were suspicions about the cause of death.

That day Madeleine fled to Rhu, where she was joined by William and her brother Jack for a brief visit before they returned to Glasgow. Police investigations continued, and on March 31 Madeleine was arrested and taken to prison, and Emile’s body was exhumed.

The press had a field day, and it became the talk of the steamie. There was huge national and international interest in the trial as Madeleine, now 22, steadfastly declared her innocence.

She was defended brilliantly by John Inglis, one of the best legal minds of the time, and when the case was found not proven, cheers rang out in the street outside the court.

Since then it has been generally assumed that she was guilty, but modern research has cast doubt on this, especially as Emile often spoke of suicide and was also believed to be blackmailing his lover. Indeed a book, entitled ‘A Scottish Murder - Re-writing the Madeleine Smith Story’, was published on July 1 2007 by Tempus Publishing.

They claim: “Jimmy Powdrell Campbell’s amazing forensic discoveries turn the case on its head. In this myth-shattering account, he proves the young Scot’s innocence beyond any doubt and rewrites one of the most intriguing murder trials of all time.

“Set in the prim world of Victorian Scotland, the murder of Madeleine’s lover shocked a nation, but this look at the intricacies of the case is even more eye-opening, as the true tale of deception, lust and revenge is finally revealed.”

Madeleine moved to London where, as Lena Smith, she married George Wardle, a London drawing teacher and pre-Raphaelite painter, and they had two children. After a divorce, she went to America and, at the age of 70, married a Mr Sheehy.

She died in New York on April 12 1928 at the age of 92, and her gravestone carries the name Lena Wardle Sheehy.