The nineteenth century was, we have been told, the “century of the poisoner,” when Britain and the United States trembled under an onslaught of unruly women who poisoned husbands with gleeful abandon. That story, however, is only half true. While British authorities did indeed round up and execute a number of impoverished women with minimal evidence and fomented media hysteria, American juries refused to convict suspected women and newspapers laughed at men who feared them.
This difference in outcome doesn’t mean that poisonous women didn’t preoccupy Americans. In the decades following Andrew Jackson’s first presidential bid, Americans buzzed over women who used poison to kill men. They produced and devoured reams of ephemeral newsprint, cheap trial transcripts, and sensational “true” pamphlets, as well as novels, plays, and poems. Female poisoners served as crucial elements in the literary manifestos of writers from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe to George Lippard and the cheap pamphleteer E. E. Barclay, but these characters were given a strangely positive spin, appearing as innocent victims, avenging heroes, or engaging humbugs.
My guest today is Sara L. Crosby and she will explain how Jacksonian America used the figure of the female poisoner.
Sara L. Crosby is an associate professor of English at Ohio State University, where she works on early- and antebellum-American crime writing and print culture. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame and is the author of Poisonous Muse: The Female Poisoner and the Framing of Popular Authorship in Jacksonian America.