Baroness Orczy: “The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway”

Plot Summary: This story is part of “The Old Man in the Corner” series created by Orczy, which feature an (you guessed it) old man telling sensational mystery tales in the A.B.C. Teashop.  This time he tells Polly (a journalist) about the death Mrs. Hazeldene, who was found dead on a car in the underground railway.  Although it is clear she died from an injection of poison (prussic acid), it is unclear how.  The old man clears up the mystery, when he explains to Polly that she was killed by a poisoned ring: “A ring–yes! a ring, which has a tiny hollow needle capable of holding a sufficient quantity of prussic acid to have killed two persons instead of one.  The man in the tweed suit shook hands with his fair companion–probably she hardly felt the prick, not sufficiently in any cause to make her utter a scream” (236).   The man in “the tweed suit” turns out to be Mrs. Hazeldene’s husband, who relies on the “ordinariness” of his personal appearance (and a lack of close observation by people in general) to murder his wife in the presence of witnesses.

Themes/Keywords: Poison, rings, uxoricide, prussic acid, detective fiction, short story

Comments: This is a rather ordinary detective story in many ways, with the exception of the use of the ring as a murder weapon.  Poison rings certainly held a fascination for the Victorians, and appear several times in nineteenth-century crime fiction, most notably in Edward Bulwer’s Lucretia.  There were also numerous mentions of poison rings in periodical articles, often linking them to the Borgias and Renaissance Italy.  A typical example can be found in an article on “Finger-Rings” in The Antiquary:

Rings have been used in certain cases for deadly purposes, as they frequently contained virulent poison, with which the wearer speedily removed himself from the troubles and dangers of this life.  Others contained a secret spring, which darted poison in grasping very affectionately the hand of an enemy. In Italy they were in frequent use, and were called ‘Death’s rings.’ (251)

This interest in the crimes of Renaissance Italy has much to do with the inclusion of poison rings in nineteenth-century crime fiction, but the obsession with symbolic jewelry is also at play here.  The Victorians often liked their jewelry to remind them of death (memento mori jewelry) or of deceased loved ones (mourning jewelry) and a ring that not only symbolizes–but also causes–death was probably just too tempting to pass up.  The sexual implications in this particular story are also interesting–as the wedding ring binding the couple gets replaced by a a ring symbolizing death and separation.  Also note the sexual implications of the barbed ring “penetrating” the wife and causing her death.  As is so often the case, poison is used to expose diseased marriages and domestic crimes.

 Sources:

“The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway.”  The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Early Detective Stories.  Ed. Hugh Greene.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1970: 217-37.

Westropp, Hodder M.  “Finger-Rings.”  The Antiquary.  17(1888):  248-53.

 

 

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