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.