Chocolate, darling? The enduring fear of the female poisoner
Last month, Elle magazine published a letter to columnist E. Jean seeking marital advice. “I suspect,” confided the reader, “he’s putting something in my coffee.” If that weren’t enough, her skin showed alarming reactions to the usual lotions. Would a hidden camera catch hubby in the act? The reader was advised to get an attorney posthaste and check her bank accounts: “A husband who tampers with a wife’s moisturizers,” warned E. Jean, “will tamper with her money.”
Poison is an ancient method of dispatching a spouse or lover. But when we think of plots involving philters and powders, a female usually springs to mind, like the fabled Black Widow. Is poison becoming egalitarian in an age when more women hold the power and the purse strings?
Men are still by far the deadlier species, regardless of method: the U.S. Justice Department reports that in 2008 they committed seven times more murders than women and made up 60.5 percent of poisoners from 1980 to 2008. Of 130 poison homicides between 2000 and 2010 listed in the Wall Street Journal’s “Murder in America” database, 71 of the identified killers were male, while 62 were female. During the same period, women pulled the trigger in firearms killings more than 5,000 times. Like men, they overwhelmingly prefer guns. Women are a bit more likely to choose poison, but the numbers are so negligible they hardly justify the stereotype of the female poisoner. You are far more likely to be knifed by a woman than poisoned by one, through slightly less likely to be defenestrated.
The lady poisoner, however, remains vivid in the popular imagination. In a recent Wired piece, Deborah Blum explored the persistent association of poison and women, perpetuated in everything from Sherlock Holmes movies to George R.R. Martin’s novel A Game of Thrones, where poison is declared the preferred weapon of “women, cravens and eunuchs.”
The popular “Deadly Women” television series on Investigation Discovery revels in the panoply of female poisoners, like the notorious Jane Toppan, a 19th century nurse who offed more than 30 patients with morphine. She told police it gave her a sexual thrill. Temptresses play prominently in the series, like petite, blonde Dena “Winky” Thompson, who enticed victims through lonely-hearts columns only to serve them deadly doses. British detective Martyn Underhill summed up the general reaction to Thompson’s activities: “This woman is every man’s nightmare.” Yet even that horror pales beside a recent report of a Brazilian woman who supposedly poisoned her private parts trying to kill her husband, sending sensational headlines like wildfire across the Web.
Female killers offer more drama than their male counterparts, perhaps because of their rarity and perceived transgression. Women’s historic roles as trusted givers of food and medicine have given them ample opportunity to dish out little surprises. Their tempting bodies, replete with secretions and cavities, spark both fear and desire. The female poisoner is a stock mythic figure, like the lovely Circe of Greek mythology, whose magic herbs transformed her guests into swine. Even the biblical story of Eve, who brings devastation to her husband by giving him the wrong thing to eat, carries the germ of the idea.
Eve is the starting point of the Christian focus on women as vehicles of evil, poison and sorcery. Some, including the 16th century witchcraft debunker Reginald Scot, have argued that English bibles contain a mistranslation of a famous line in Exodus: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” The correct word, argued Scot and his followers, should be “poisoner.” The translation chosen by King James’s scholars for the definitive English version may have simply reflected the atmosphere of the day, but for centuries the belief has persisted that it was done so the king could gin up charges of witchcraft against foes like Jane Douglas, Lady Glamis. The passage certainly helped speed vast numbers of people, mostly women, to fiery deaths. Widows and poor women caught the brunt of the witch-hunting fury, though ironically the Exodus passage is followed by a promise of terrible punishment to those who oppress widows. Selective reading was popular in the Renaissance, just as it is today.
Poison and witchcraft make the powerful tremble. They are the weapons used to secretly and quietly turn the tables on the oppressor. Such anxieties exploded in 17th century France with a bizarre episode in which Louis XIV discovered high-born women in his court hatching plots with poison and love potions. In the “Affair of the Poisons,” hundreds were imprisoned, 36 executed and several courtiers implicated, including Madame de Montespan, the King’s mistress. These events, like the intrigues of King James’s court, revealed a fear that women were not staying in their proper place.
Sociologist A.R. Gillis has argued that the fear of women poisoning men helped to legalize divorce in France after the widely publicized case of an upper-middle-class young woman named Marie LaFarge, who ended her unhappy marriage by offering her husband poisoned eggnog. The fear that a woman will resort to poison to free herself or correct an injustice keeps the oppressor forever looking over his shoulder. Plantation owners nervously eyed the women who cooked their food. In Pearl Cleage’s play Flyin’ West, two post-Civil War black women in Kansas rid themselves of a male abuser using a poisoned apple pie recipe passed down by their foremothers for just such emergencies.
When anthropologist Edward B. Harper studied the Havik Brahmins of South India in the 1960’s, he discovered that widows, who occupy the lowest status position within the caste, were thought to have the power to magically poison others at will. Widows, like menstruating women and others whose situations tend to emphasize their femaleness, are considered dangerous and impure in many belief systems. Harper suggests that this might be a way of showing the guilt society feels toward those it treats unfairly. The lower the status of women, the more fear they invoke — even when there’s little practical reason for it.
On the flip side, the fear of female poisoners should fade away as women acquire wealth, freedom and higher status in a society. Something to think about as you’re opening that box of Valentine chocolates.
PHOTO: A woman writes a love message on a small chocolate heart to be added to a large heart-shaped chocolate piece made in Romania by a local factory, ahead of Saint Valentine’s Day near Bucharest February 9, 2013. REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel