7 Blythswood Square

Was her lover's cocoa laced with arsenic?

Page content

7 Blythswood Square

The infamous Madeleine Smith case

It was a nice warm day in Glasgow and I was out and about taking digital photographs outside the house at Number 7 Blythswood Square. Looking at the old building, it was hard to believe that of its many occupants over the years, one the most infamous being a young society lady in Victorian times who was accused of poisoning her lover.

After tinkering with the led display on my camera, I looked up and became aware that everything was becoming darker. Day became night. The house was still there, but now there was a gas lamppost at the corner of Blythswood Square and Blythswood Street. I looked down, my camera had gone and instead, I was standing there wearing a heavy coat and I could feel a hat on my head.

“Another fine evening, constable.”

I was startled by this voice, but I recognised it right away. It was Mr L’Angelier, a regular visitor to the Square. “Aye, that it is, sir.”, I replied.

I know who I am.

I am police constable Thomas Harrison – and this is my beat. All the gentry here like me and had insisted that I patrolled this area on the evening shift, because I was more than capable of keeping undesirables away from Blythswood Square, and was not averse to cracking a skull or two with my truncheon if the objects of my attention did not move along quickly enough.

Patrolling Blythswood Square and the streets leading to it, I was smartly turned out with my top hat, three-quarter length coat with nine shiny buttons, trousers, and good hardwearing boots. Oh yes, I looked good, very dapper. Mr L’Angelier had given me another fine cigar, with the understanding that I turned a blind eye and did not report to Mr Smith that his daughter was having secret liaisons with a gentleman he did not approve of.

Oh, I had no qualms about my part in this discreet relationship – I felt sure that Mr L’Angelier was an honourable gentleman, and I regarded the small gifts I received from him as just another gift from a grateful member of the public. Mr L’Angelier was right, it was a fine evening. I stood at the top of the street and watched as he bent down, in the pretext of adjusting the buckle on his boot.

In truth, he was talking to Miss Madeleine Smith through the servants’ window, which was level with the ground. Mr L’Angelier placed a handkerchief on the ground and rested his right knee on it. Miss Smith had the window open and although I could not hear their conversation, I could clearly see Miss Smith’s head, bathed in the light of a candle. After a few minutes, the familiar smell of sweet cocoa came wafting towards me. I saw Miss Smith pass a china cup through the bars of the slightly opened window to Mr L’Angelier.

I closed my eyes briefly to protect them from the strong wind that carried grains of dirt. When I opened my eyes again, I was standing inside the hallway of Number 7 Blythswood Square. My sergeant had stationed me inside the house to make sure there were no intruders while the Smiths prepared to leave Glasgow.

“That’s the trunks ready sir” said one of the porters.

Mr Smith said nothing. He had not spoken a word to anyone since his daughter Madeleine was arrested and put in jail in March awaiting trial, accused of poisoning Mr Pierre Emile L’Angelier. Mr and Mrs Smith did not attend the trial at Edinburgh’s High Court, and had hid away in the house instead, not venturing out. The once-respected family was now scorned by Glasgow society and the Smiths would never get over their shame.

Miss Bessie and Miss Janet, the two younger daughters, came into the hallway where Mr Smith and I were standing. “Father”, Bessie said, “is there anything more we can do to help?”

Again, Mr Smith did not answer. Miss Bessie was 20 and Miss Janet was just 13. Miss Bessie instructed Miss Janet to search her bedroom and to make sure nothing had been left. I was ordered by my sergeant to escort Miss Janet and so I went with her and entered the bedroom that she had shared with Miss Madeleine. As she looked around the room for the very last time, fear was in her eyes. She was so young, and up until that fatal day my colleagues came and took her beloved sister away for questioning, Miss Janet had been happy and carefree. Her family were financially secure; she enjoyed mixing with the elite of Glasgow, sometimes being allowed to attend the many balls and parties held by the Smiths erstwhile friends.

She and her sister Miss Madeleine would strut along Sauchiehall Street, with all the eligible young men doffing their hats to the two young ladies. .Even though Miss Janet was only 13, the young gentlemen always treated her with courtesy, partly to impress Miss Madeleine (a prize catch for any young ambitious man), and partly because the higher echelons of Glasgow society demanded such gentlemanly conduct.

I heard people shouting outside, and I rushed the front door to see what it was all about. It was coming from within the centre of the square. A preacher had come from Edinburgh and was standing on a box, addressing the gathered crowd. He was screaming at the top of his voice, flourishing a bible in his right hand and pointing to number 7 Blythswood Square. Mercifully, the Smith family could not make out what he was saying, but they knew his words would be full of condemnation and hate – just like the letters Mr and Mrs Smith had been receiving every day since the beginning of the trial.

Miss Bessie called to Miss Janet and asked her to join the others in the kitchen. The Smith family were all gathered and I positioned myself by the door, which led into the back court. I was waiting for a signal from my sergeant to move the family out. Eventually I got the nod and ran into the kitchen and told the family to move out the back door quickly but quietly.

The decoy two-horse carriage arrived at the front of the house in Blythswood Square. Six people dressed in respectable clothes, passing as the Smith family (we had concealed them in the library earlier) quickly boarded the carriage. A crowd chased after the carriage and the convoy of two mounted policemen, who had to draw their batons. Two policemen on foot tried to hold the crowd back, but they were quickly brushed aside.

The Smith family and two of their servants followed me and quickly made their way through the back court, then through the close at Mains Street (now called Blythswood Street). Two police carriages were waiting, escorted by four mounted policemen, two at the front, two at the rear. When the family boarded the carriages, they quickly sped down Mains Street, then turned right into Bath Street, heading for the ferry boat on the River Clyde.

That was the last time I saw the Smiths. I decided to walk round to the front and patrol the park. Perhaps the screaming preacher would do or say something wrong, allowing me to collar him. I was hoping he would resist arrest. I knew that for Miss Janet, this was the saddest journey of her young life. Although their country home in Rhu offered security and peace, she loved Glasgow dearly and would miss the busy streets and the hectic social life.

My friend PC McIntosh was accompanying the Smiths and was in the same carriage as Miss Janet. He informed me later that Miss Janet was overcome with grief. Her sister Miss Bessie put her arm around Miss Janet to comfort her. Mr and Mrs Smith looked on dispassionately. They were deep in their own thoughts – hard times lay ahead of them. PC McIntosh told me that hardly a word was spoken on their sad journey to Rhu and the name of Madeleine Smith was not uttered once. I was back inside number 7 Blythswood Square again. The Smiths’ solicitor was locking the front door for the last time. Inside the house, it was dark; all the window shutters had been closed. Although it was sunny day in spring, a cold blanket of gloom pervaded all the rooms. The solicitor and I entered each room in turn, checking they were secure. We entered the basement room that Miss Madeleine used to speak to her lover through the window.

On the window ledge, between the bars of the window, was a brown circular stain, made by a cup that had been placed there a few months before. The routine light dusting carried out by the maid every day had not removed the stain. The window ledge was above eye level, so the stain was not visible.

I was keen to be promoted to a plain clothes detective, although I knew my education and background would preclude any chance of that. But, if I could somehow prove that there was poison still trapped within the hardened cocoa stain; my discovery would make me famous. I had no idea how to go about this, except perhaps to scrape some of the stain off the window and somehow persuade a chemist to analyse the sample.

I was outside Number 7 Blythswood Square again, camera in hand. Standing outside that very window, which had been bricked up long ago. The sun was high in the sky and it was very hot.

No one had paid any attention to me, so this time it looks as if I hadn’t made a fool of myself, as I usually do when I ‘return’. After a few moments, reality finally kicked in, and my little trip back in time soon lost its urgency.

You know, it’s thirsty work, taking photographs. I headed for the nearest hostelry, purely for medicinal purposes you understand. I had a particularly dry throat that afternoon.

© Wishart Frankfield

Further Information:

Glasgow Tales Home button