The Imperfect Myth of the Female Poisoner
Early this January, a Kentucky man pleaded guilty to attempting to kill his wife. The plea by the accused husband, William Cain, as reported by local media, went like this:
Cain: “Well, I put a little rat poison in her coffee.”
Judge: “You did what?”
Cain: “Put a little rat poison in her coffee.”
I especially like that moment for the judge’s double-take and for the defendant’s hopeful belief that “just a little” poison made his action somehow more acceptable than “just a whole lot.” Never mind that the amount is debatable as the poison turned the coffee a slightly oily green and she didn’t drink it. Still the charge was only attempted manslaughter – on all counts, a better ending than a case in Long Island a few years ago in which a man spiked his wife’s coffee with potassium cyanide, killed her, and went to jail on a murder charge.
But my point here is not that we’re seeing an epidemic of spousal coffee poisoning. My interest is in a different pattern, the people who seem to be poisoning coffee. And, as you’ll notice, in both these cases it was the husband not the stereotypically predicted wife. There’s a popular idea in our culture — certainly an idea promoted by popular culture — that poison belongs to the female killer. In the 1945 Sherlock Holmes movie, Pursuit to Algiers, Holmes (Basil Rathbone) considers it obvious: “Poison is a woman’s weapon.” And you hear that same thought echoing down the decades, surfacing, for instance, in George Martin’s Game of Thrones in which poison is described, as the preferred weapon of women, craven and eunuchs.
We could decry the latter as just a description with a somewhat misogynistic tang. But let’s not. Let’s decry it as simply wrong. Because if you actually bother to scroll back through famous poisoners of history or to check the crime statistics you will realize first that 1) poison is a gender-neutral weapon and, perhaps more central to my point, 2) a greater proportion of poisoners are men. Let’s put this in the context of some relatively recent context. The U. S. Department of Justice’s report on Homicide Trends in the United States (1980 to 2008) offers up this statistical insight: of all poison killers in that time period 60.5 percent male and 39.5 percent female.
“Contrary to popular belief, the majority of convicted poisoners are men, overwhelmingly so when the victim is a woman. When the victim is a man, the poisoner is equally likely to be male or female,” writes Joni Johnston in “The Psychological Profile of a Poisoner”, published last year in Psychology Today.
Of course, most murderers, period, are male. The justice department’s homicide trend report I cited, finds, that killers are statistically 89.5 percent males and 10.5 percent females. And there’s another point, I think, to be gleaned from this criminal justice overview. In other violent crimes, male dominance is much more pronounced than in poison killings. Over all for felony murders? That’s 93.2 percent male offenders, 6.8 percent female. And if we consider our country’s weapon of choice, the firearm? Gun homicides stand at 92.1 percent male, 7.9 percent female. And this more extreme ratio holds across the other DOJ categories, from arson to workplace argument.
This reminds us that men are overall more dangerous, more inclined to respond with violence. But when women do turn to murder then, yes, poison becomes more of an equal opportunity weapon. The science historian Daniel Kevles made this point some years back in a Slate piece on the history of poisons. Looking back to the 19th century, Kevles calls poison “a great equalizer.” Noting the place that women held in society, he explains: “Murder required administering a poison in repeated or large doses, tasks that women could conveniently perform since they were trusted with the preparation of food and the administration of medicines.”
Further, some of the best homicidal poisons were readily available to those charged with the household shopping chores. The lethal arsenic compound arsenic trioxide (AsO3) could be found in everything from cosmetics to colored candy (arsenic was used in green dyes of the time). The fast-killing poison strychnine was mixed into medicinal “pick me up” tonics. Cyanide could be found in silver polishing compounds. Murderous chemistry was basically a trip to the market away. Some of the most famous female poisoners can indeed be found in this time period – I’m thinking, for instance, of the British serial killer Mary Ann Cotton, who poisoned 21 people with arsenic, including husbands (plural) and children, before being caught and executed. Or lesser known killers, like Martha Grinder of Pittsburgh (you’ll find the cover of an 1866 newspaper supplement about her above), who combined arsenic and the poisonous metal antimony to kill both family and friends.
But many of the most famous male poisoners thrived here too. The last public hanging in Scotland was that of Edward Pritchard, known in the press as “The Human Crocodile”, who was executed in 1865 for the arsenic murder of his wife. The Victorian serial killer, Thomas Neill Cream, whose favorite weapon was strychnine and who was finally caught and hanged in 1892. The wife-dismembering poisoner, Hawley Harley Crippen, who was captured with the help of newly invented wireless communication while fleeing Britain on an ocean liner in 1910.
Katherine Watson’s 2004 book on the subject, Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and Their Victims, looked at 540 poison murder cases in England, from 1750 to 1914, a study that includes the killers I’ve cited above. (excepting Grinder). Her analysis found that the killers in these cases consistently split fairly evenly between men and women. It is a balance not so different from the justice department finding I cited earlier. Over the centuries, both men and women have chosen it to kill in at least equal measure. But because women seem to preferentially chose poison, when they do turn to murder, its reputation has come be that of an almost purely feminine weapon.
We can find plenty of explanations for the way that women use poison as a weapon. That they seek to avoid the risks of physical confrontation. Or that they seek to avoid the ugly, bloody havoc left behind by bullets or knives. But our woman’s weapon mythology, I think, obscures the more real portrait of all successful poisoners, all those killers counted up in the U.S. crime statistics, male and female alike. They are planners and plotters, killers who do their homework. They are cold, they are devious, and they believe that this is a method that will allow them to get away with their murder. It’s not, you see, that poison is a woman’s weapon.
It’s that it is an evil one.
Image: The Unknown History of Misandry/ reprinted from The Troy Times (NY) March 3, 1866.
Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer and the author of five books, most recently the best-seller, The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. She writes for a range of publications including Time, Scientific American, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times (and even the literary journal, Tin House). She is currently working on a sixth book about poisonous food.
Follow @deborahblum on Twitter.