Below you will find a bibliography of Victorian-era texts which feature poison or poisoners. Among these works are texts by some of the most famous and prolific of Victorian writers, including Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Wilkie Collins. Some of these entries are annotated with plot summaries–especially the rare works that I have found while doing archival research. This list is by no means comprehensive, and I welcome suggestions for additions.
PRIMARY WORKS: FICTION
Adams, Charles Warren. The Notting Hill Mystery. Novels of Mystery from the Victorian Age. Ed. Maurice Richardson. London: Pilot P, 1978.
Possibly the first British detective novel, The Notting Hill Mystery was originally published in 1862. In this work, the fictional detective Ralph Henderson struggles to explain the mysterious poisoning death of Mrs. Anderton. His conclusion suggests that the foreign Baron R* poisoned Mrs. Anderton by manipulating the mesmeric link between her and her “lost” twin Rosalie.
Allen, Grant. “Jerry Stokes.” The Strand Magazine. (March 1891).
Jerry Stokes is a hangman with a clear conscience–until he realizes that the next man he is supposed to execute is not guilty of murdering his wife by poison. Stokes successfully figures out the real perpetrator (a doctor) and gets him to admit to the crime. Stokes resigns his position, as he no longer believes in capital punishment.
Anonymous. “Old Murder.” All the Year Round. (May 1866)
An old country doctor (Dr. Thatcher) is being deceived by his adopted son (Jack), who has been drinking, gambling, and loafing instead of taking care of patients. Jack has also been attempting to poison his aunt so he can inherit her fortune. Dr. Thatcher stops the murder-in-progress and banishes Jack.
Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. The Black Band, or the Mysteries of Midnight. London: George Vickers, 1878.
Features a Moriarty-like villain, Col. Oscar Bertrand, who is involved in several poison plots.
—. The Trail of the Serpent. New York: The Modern Library, 2003.
One of Braddon’s earliest novels, this was reprinted in 2003 with an introduction by Sarah Waters.
Bulwer, Edward. Lucretia; Or, the Children of Night. The Works of Edward Bulwer Lytton. Vol. 26. New York: P.F. Collier and Son, 1901.
Collins, Wilkie. Armadale. The Works of Wilkie Collins. Vol. 8 & 9. New York, P.F. Collier, 1895.
—. Blind Love. The Works of Wilkie Collins. Vol. 28. New York, P.F. Collier, 1895.
Collins’s last novel, which was finished posthumously by his friend Walter Besant, has a plot that has obvious similarities to the more famous The Woman in White. Lord Harry Norland (along with his morally dubious doctor) pull off an insurance fraud by poisoning a poor man (who has a passing resemblance to Norland) and passing off his body as the nobleman’s in order to collect the life insurance payout.
—. Jezebel’s Daughter. Vol. 27. New York, P.F. Collier, 1895.
—. “The Guilty River.” Mad Monkton and Other Stories. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.
—. “The Haunted Hotel.” Vol. 22. New York, P.F. Collier, 1895.
—. The Law and the Lady. Vol. 5. New York, P.F. Collier, 1895.
—. The Legacy of Cain. Vol. 26. New York, P.F. Collier, 1895.
—. The Moonstone. The Works of Wilkie Collins. Vols. 6 & 7. New York, P.F. Collier, 1895.
—. The Woman in White. The Works of Wilkie Collins. Vol. 1 & 2. New York: P.F. Collier, 1895.
Dickens, Charles. “Hunted Down.” The Works of Charles Dickens. Vol. 25. London: Chapman and Hall, 1898.
The poisoner in this work is Slinkton, who poisons his nieces in order to collect the life insurance money. Slinkton is modeled after the infamous Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, who Dickens saw while touring Newgate prison.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. “The Leather Funnel.” Round the Fire Stories. New York: The Maclure Co., 1908: 3-19.
When the protagonist puts the titular object next to his pillow at night, he dreams of the torture of the poisoner Madame de Brinvilliers–who allegedly murdered several family members and tested her poisons on the poor.
Eliot, George. The Lifted Veil. New York: Penguin, 1985.
Griffith, George. Olga Romanoff; Or, the Syren of the Skies. London: Tower Publishing, 1894.
An early science-fiction novel, in which the titular heroine uses poison and mind-control drugs to further her project of world domination.
Landon, Letitia Elizabeth (L.E.L.). Ethel Churchill: Or, the Two Brides. London: Henry Coburn, 1837.
One of the few novels that Landon wrote, Ethel Churchill follows the story of Henrietta, the Countess Marchmont, far more than the titular heroine. Best categorized as a Silver-fork novel, it outlines Henrietta’s unhappiness in an aristocratic marriage and her eventual poisoning of her husband and lover.
Meade, L.T. The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings. The Strand. Vols. 15 & 16 (1898).
Madame Koluchy is the beautiful scientist who runs the “Brotherhood”–a gang of criminals that spans Europe. She doesn’t always use poison for her criminal schemes (in fact she uses some pretty advanced science) but she does use it often.
—. The Sorceress of the Strand. The Strand. Vols. 24 & 25. (1902-3)
Like Madame Koluchy, Madame Sara is beautiful, scientifically adept, and often uses poison in her criminal plots. She is a professional beautifier and has keeps a cosmetic shop and medical practice.
—. “The Wrong Prescription.” Stories from the Diary of a Doctor. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1895: 145-175.
For a plot summary, please click here to visit my research blog.
“A Draught of Poison” and “Another Passage in a Dark Story.” Both published in Bentley’s Miscellany. (September and October 1855).
These linked stories feature a poisonous governess who murders her mistress in order to marry the widower. The husband in question, Dr. Goring, is a surgeon and apothecary and the governess, Miss Howard, gets the murder weapon from his laboratory. Although the town suspects Dr. Goring of the murder, the narrator believes in his innocence and his ignorance of Miss Howard’s infamy. In the sequel, Dr. Goring returns from his honeymoon and it is clear he has endured some sort of shock. He subsequently dies, leaving nothing to his new wife. His message to her in the will, however, intimates that she committed the murder.
“A Draught of Poison” (September), and “Another Passage in a Dark Story” (October). These two anonymous sketches are among the earliest published writings of Mrs. Henry Wood, afterwards the author of East Lynne. They were continued in 1856 (see overleaf), and eventually republished after her death as a connected story, under the title The House of Halliwell (3 vols., 1890).”–from A List of the Principle Publications Issued from New Burlington Street
—. “Mr. Castonel.” Rpt. in Ashley and Other Stories. London: MacMillian & Co, 1901.
This short story is particularly interesting in its presentation of its villain, the doctor Mr. Castonel. Not only is he a serial murderer of his wives, but he poisons each wife in her third trimester of pregnancy–causing a miscarriage before he then fatally poisons his victim.
—. Lord Oakburn’s Daughters. 3 vols. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1864.
This novel is a revisioning of the aforementioned “Mr. Castonel.” Although the villains are similar–for example both are doctors–the novel is toned down from the earlier short story and the pile of bodies significantly reduced.
—. Oswald Cray. London: A. & C. Black, 1864.