The Madeleine Smith Collection

A collection of thirteen letters from Madeleine Smith, the Glasgow socialite who was the accused in a sensational murder trial in Scotland in 1857, to her lover Pierre Emile L'Angelier.

About Madeleine Smith

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Madeleine Smith

Probably one of the most famous Not Proven cases in Scottish legal history is that of Madeleine Smith, accused in 1857 of murdering by poison, her lover Pierre Emile L'Angelier. Victorian society was scandalised, finding it difficult to cope with the outspoken correspondence quoted during the trial and with the astonishing coolness of the female defendant facing a capital charge.

Madeleine, daughter of a prominent Glasgow architect, James Smith of Blythswood Square, met L'Angelier in 1855. He was a ten-shillings-a-week clerk from Jersey and as such an impossible match for her. Their friendship developed into a clandestine love affair, openly revealed in her letters.

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Madeleine Smith's Blythswood Square residence

The relationship faltered when Madeleine, facing the reality of her future with L'Angelier, became publicly engaged to William Minnoch, a prosperous young merchant. She demanded the return of her letters and photograph, but L'Angelier refused and threatened to show them to her father. The prosecution alleged at the trail that this had given her the motive to poison L'Angelier on three separate occasions, the last being fatal. Although it could be demonstrated that Madeleine had purchased arsenic, it could not be proved that she had been with the victim on the night he died, and consequently the verdict of 'Not Proven' was returned.

Madeleine left Glasgow after the trial and in 1861 married Mr. George Wardle, a highly talented artist then living in London who was an associate of William Morris. He possessed a good social position and considerable wealth and Madeleine soon made a place for herself in the literary and Socialist circles of London. She later went to America to be with her son, Tom, where she lived in relative obscurity as she managed to keep her identity and earlier notoriety a closely guarded secret. She died there in 1928 at the age of 92.

About the letters and the collection

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Sketch of Madeleine Smith at the trial

Madeleine Smith wrote her first letter to Pierre Emile L’Angelier in April 1855. Madeleine was already a prolific letter writer, often writing up to twenty letters per day. The accusation of the poisoning of L’Angelier and the subsequent trial in July 1857 revealed the volume of letters which had secretly passed between them. Madeleine visited the Post Office in Glasgow’s George Square on a regular basis, both to send and collect letters, many of which were delivered within a few hours.

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Pierre Emile L'Angelier

It is impossible to know how many letters she wrote to him, but almost 200 were found in his lodgings and in his office desk. Many letters were undated or dated solely by the day of the week. Her handwriting was difficult to read and often, when she finished a page, she would turn the paper sideways and write over what she had already written, instead of using a clean sheet.

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An extract from one of Madeleine Smith letters. Madeleine crossed and re-crossed her letters, and also wrote several letters in such a short space of time that they were mailed together in a single envelope.

Given the secrecy of their relationship, letters were their main form of communicating. It was difficult for them to meet due to the disapproval of Madeleine’s family, and so they corresponded several times a week. Madeleine’s letters talk of her family and her social life, but also illustrate the passion and intimacy with L’Angelier, their future plans and the problems they encountered on the way to finding true happiness.

At the trial, many of these letters were used as evidence of Madeleine and Emile’s relationship and secret meetings. Despite the objection of the defence, those letters which added weight to the prosecution were selected as evidence in court. These were read out by the Clerk of the Court, taking up almost the whole of the fifth day of the trial on 4th July 1857, and due to their frank expressions of desire and affection, they shocked and excited Victorian society. The letters were also widely published in the newspapers of the time.

Of the letters not produced at the trial (some 216 letters) the Mitchell Library holds 13 letters dating from December 1855 to September 1856.

Finding aid

Madeleine Smith Letters Collection finding aid (PDF, 112KB)

Further reading

Books in the collection

Campbell, Jimmy Powdrell (2007) A Scottish murder. Stroud: Tempus.

Gordon, Eleanor and Nair Gwyneth 2009) Murder and morality in Victorian Britain, the story of Madeleine Smith. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Hunt, Peter (1950) The Madeleine Smith affair. London: Carroll & Nicholson.

MacGowan, Douglas (2007) The strange affair of Madeleine Smith: Victorian Scotland's trial of the century. Edinburgh: Mercat.

Morland, Nigel (1957). That nice Miss Smith. London: Frederick Muller.

Roughead, William (1951). Classic crimes: a selection from the works of William Roughead. London: Cassell.

Related collections

Glen collection. Various papers in connection with the affair of Madeleine Hamilton Smith, compiled by James Glen.

David Hamilton collection. Compiled by Alex Aitken.

Peter Hunt Collection. (PDF, 125 KB) Correspondence between Peter de V. Hunt (1922-62), Research Director, Pinewood Studios and John Dunlop, Depute City Librarian, Mitchell Library about the David Lean film "Madeleine".

Nigel Morland Letters (PDF, 168 KB) Four letters written by Nigel Morland to a Mr Jamieson concerning Morland’s forthcoming book “That Nice Miss Smith” published in 1957.


National Records of Scotland, Open Book blog

•Article on Madeleine Smith in The Glasgow Story.

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