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The Subject of MurderGender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer$

Lisa Downing

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780226003405

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226003689.001.0001

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The “Angel of Arsenic”

The “Angel of Arsenic”

Marie Lafarge

(p.54) Chapter Two The “Angel of Arsenic”
The Subject of Murder

Lisa Downing

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the case of Marie Lafarge, and how the treatment she received in a series of cultural discourses, including medical, literary, journalistic, and criminological, differed considerably from that of Lacenaire, despite her own, more prolific output as a writer. Although a feature shared by conservative accounts of both murderers is the focus on the criminal dangers of reading and writing, the gendered specificity of the treatments afforded the reading and writing criminal subject will be given consideration here. There was a general disagreement on whether Lafarge was guilty or not, and this divided French society into two opposing factions: the Lafargistes and the anti-Lafargistes. The extensiveness of the medico-legal investigations concerning the physical evidence of the crime has led to the case being cited as the first instance of forensic toxicology.

Keywords:   cultural discourses, marie lafarge, lacenaire, reading, writing, french society, lafargistes, anti-lafargistes

It is sad but true: among brutes, savages, and primitive people, the female is more cruel than compassionate, although she is not as cruel as the male.

With Christianity begins the heroic period of womanly pity. Christianity certainly did not create women’s compassion, as some claim, since compassion was a slow, evolutionary formation; but Christianity unleashed it, put it in motion, brought it to life.

The female born criminal surpasses her male counterpart in the refined diabolical cruelty with which she commits her crimes.

—(Cesare Lombroso and Guglielmo Ferrero, Criminal Woman, 1895)

In 1839, a young orphaned Parisienne of noble descent, Marie Fortunée Cappelle (1816–1852), was married against her will to a bourgeois, Charles Lafarge. Six months later, he died in mysterious circumstances. In 1840, Marie Lafarge was found guilty of murder by poisoning (the poison having allegedly been slipped into a cake sent to her husband in Paris, and then fed to him incrementally in his sick bed). Marie served a term of life imprisonment, despite the widespread doubt regarding her guilt. During her imprisonment, Lafarge produced Mémoires in two volumes, a collection of correspondence comprising more than 6,000 letters, numerous articles, and a three-part, unfinished text, Heures de prison (Prison time), published shortly after her death.

In the previous chapter we saw how the case of Lacenaire, four years earlier, had provoked polarized commentaries. These were either reverential and admiring, lauding Lacenaire as an artist, or else damning, identifying the killer as a symbol of the perceived revolutionary spirit (p.55) of the age and as proof of the dangers of Romantic philosophy. What both sets of discourses insisted upon, however, to a striking degree, was Lacenaire’s uniqueness, his individuality (even as the ideal of individuality can be revealed as a generic—and therefore communal—prerequisite of Romantic subjectivity). This perception of a unique subjectivity hinged on the coexistence in the character of Lacenaire of murderousness and authorship. In examining the case of Marie Lafarge, we will see that the treatment she received in a series of cultural discourses (medical, literary, journalistic, criminological) differed considerably from that of Lacenaire, despite her own—even more prolific—output as a writer. Although a feature shared by conservative accounts of both murderers is the focus on the criminal dangers of reading and writing, the gendered specificity of the treatments afforded the reading and writing criminal subject will be given consideration here.

French society was divided by the case of Lafarge into two opposing factions: the Lafargistes and the anti-Lafargistes. The matter on which their difference came to rest—nominally at least—was the guilt or innocence of the woman in question of the charges of murder laid against her. The extensiveness of the medico-legal investigations concerning the physical evidence of the crime has led to the case being cited as the first instance of forensic toxicology.1 Renowned toxicologist Mathieu Orfila responded to a letter from Marie’s lawyer seeking his advice about the reliability of the forensic tests that had been carried out with the intention of establishing culpability. Orfila responded with a signed affidavit claiming that the results were meaningless. He was subsequently summoned to Tulle to carry out further tests himself and, to the surprise of the court, this witness for the defense found incriminating traces of arsenic in the body of the deceased. Marie was sentenced to life imprisonment without hard labor. In 1852 she was released from prison owing to the tuberculosis of which she would die later the same year. To the very end she and her supporters continued to proclaim her innocence.

In the newspapers and in literary society, discussion of the affairs of the day focused on little else but the Lafarge case. As the Goncourt brothers commented, a government could keep its population distracted from unrest if only it could provide “two things: a firework display every evening for the masses and a Lafarge trial every morning for the educated classes.”2 And in L’Education sentimentale, Flaubert evokes the zeitgeist of 1840 precisely by referencing the ubiquitous speculation in the salons of Paris surrounding the case: “Monsieur Gamblin immediately (p.56) asked his opinion about Madame Lafarge. This trial, the obsession of the day, never failed to provoke a spirited discussion.”3

Speculation on Lafarge’s criminal intent and the justice of the verdict she received has continued to characterize writing on Lafarge, and much attention is paid to the incompatibility between Marie’s feminine appearance, social respectability, and reportedly charming personality, on the one hand, and the fact of her crime on the other. Even as late as 1951, Edith Saunders’s The Mystery of Marie Lafarge contains the following statement:

A preoccupation with all that is good and beautiful seems to run through the best of her letters, and it is for that reason that so many people have believed that she was innocent. . . . I was, at first, very much predisposed to believe her innocent. The cold-blooded murder seemed so impossible an act for the charming, cultured girl to have performed that I wrote the first half of this book believing she was guilty of theft but not of murder. It was not until I had read the trial for murder for the third or fourth time very attentively that I realised that, had I sat with the jury, I too should have been obliged to say “yes the accused is guilty.”4

I would argue that the real stakes of this debate were slightly different from the ones articulated by both Marie’s contemporaries and later commentators. The concern with Marie’s guilt or innocence with regard to the poisoning of her husband served to cover a different concern of modern society: an anxiety about gender roles and the incompatibility of narrow cultural perceptions of feminine nature with acts that are assertive, aggressive, or violent and, simultaneously, the equally persistent fear that women may embody exactly these qualities. Feminine pathologies, such as nymphomania, frigidity, lesbianism, and most especially hysteria, were coined or gained currency in the course of the nineteenth century, concretizing norms of gendered behavior by marking deviations from them. The criminal woman thus takes her place alongside the pervert in the nineteenth-century catalogue of deviance. The husbandpoisoner in particular occupies a special place in such taxonomies of aberration. The woman who killed her husband from the very seat of the prescribed feminine domain—domesticity—threatened the social order from within. Moreover, masculinized by both her crime and by her writing, and yet insisting upon her own innocence and concerned in her writing (p.57) with all that is, in Saunders’s words, “good and beautiful,” Lafarge offered a disturbing figure of gender and moral ambiguity for her age. Where Lacenaire’s ambivalent murderous mixture of virility/melancholy and grandiosity/failure titillated the Romantic imaginary, Lafarge’s surprising “virility” as a killer, juxtaposed with her feminine appearance and middle-class respectability, was readable primarily as threat. Debates about Lafarge’s innocence or guilt may thus stand in place of unarticulated anxieties about the inappropriately active or masculine woman. At the level of cultural fantasy, if Lafarge could be proven innocent, the existence of the murderous feminine and its threat would be negated.

One term that recurs many times in the discussion of Lafarge, particularly toward the close of the century, is “hysteria” and its derivatives. If Lacenaire was the ambivalent masculine hero of the mal du siècle, Lafarge falls discursive victim to being labeled with the feminine maladie du siècle. As Janet Beizer,5 Jann Matlock,6 Martha Noel Evans,7 and others have explored, hysteria was an extraordinarily plastic label, conveniently describing the exaggerated or excessive manifestation of any qualities deemed typically feminine. As Dr. Charles Richet put it in 1880, “Everything that we are accustomed to attributing to woman’s nervous temperament can be found in the domain of hysteria.”8 Beizer has argued that the construction of hysteria as a medically codified phenomenon in the 1880s must be understood as a retroactive labeling of a long-term cultural unease (going back at least as far as Hippocrates in the fifth century BC) concerning the unpredictability and excess of the feminine. From the notion of the wandering womb to Charcot’s extravagantly spasming female patients, the concept of hysteria is inseparable from a notion of femininity as out of control, teeming beyond the confines of its embodiment— tipping over, almost, into its opposite and becoming threatening, aggressive, unfeminine. The attribution of this label to Lafarge articulates a more widespread phenomenon of unease regarding the “excessive” outcomes of female passions and urges—and few behaviors are more excessive than murder. Hysteria is linked both analogously and causally to murderousness. Criminologist Cesare Lombroso points out that “hysterical women commit a variety of crimes. [They] stab, rob, poison, burn and testify falsely.”9 The inability of women to contain their passions spills into violent behavior, disrupting the masculine social ideal of reason.

Disturbingly and tellingly, this convenient, catch-all labeling of Lafarge (p.58) as hysterical is found in recent critical work as well as in late nineteenth-century accounts. Senelick comments: “She repelled all of Lafarge’s advances on the honeymoon, hysterically believing that to preserve her virginity intact was essential to her survival as heroine,”10 and “these traits [a materialistic selfishness, a neurasthenic exoticism, and an autistic disconcern for others] are less obvious in her correspondence, but her style there is more hysterical.”11 Senelick’s linking of Marie Lafarge’s prolific correspondence with hysteria has particular resonance when one considers its proximity to female creativity in the history of medical discourse: hysteria was often diagnosed by Lombroso in patients or inmates displaying “a mania for letter writing.”12

In Hilary Neroni’s Lacanian study of violence and femininity in the specific context of contemporary North American culture, she proposes the fascinating reading that

nothing can bring up the discussion of proper womanly traits like a violent woman. The character of the media response to a violent woman is, in almost every case, hysterical. Hysteria is a neurotic reaction in which the subject constantly questions the desire and position of the Other, especially as the Other relates to the subject. . . . When confronted with a woman’s violent act, we immediately begin to question her desire, to wonder why she acted violently. In the manner of the hysteric, the media asks again and again what the violent woman wants, while it also speculates endlessly about the definition of femininity.13

The Lacanian (diagnostic) definition of hysteria, as explained here, is of a very specific kind, and differs from the nineteenth-century concept in various important ways. It offers a way of describing a type of relationality between the subject and the other, which is defined by a constant questioning as to the nature of the other’s desire and the other’s intentions toward the subject. Although it is devoid of historical specificity as a primarily structural analysis, Neroni’s reading is a valuable and relevant one for me in that it turns the focus from the supposed “hysterical” nature of the woman killer herself onto the “hysteria” of the criminologist, doctor, journalist—or, indeed, twentieth-century male literary critic—who labels her thus. It helps us to ask what is at stake when the medics, press, judiciary, and public of the time debate in such detail and with such passion the guilt or innocence of Marie Lafarge of the crime of murder, and worry about her tendency to write.

(p.59) Lafarge, Literary Persona, and Romanticism

Several existing works of feminist literary criticism have drawn attention to the importance of the figure of Lafarge for an understanding of gender roles and the treatment afforded women’s literature in nineteenth-century Europe and France. Although the specific purpose of the current discussion of Lafarge is to see how the archetype of the Romantic murderer applies or fails to apply in her case, and to interrogate how her sex and gender trouble the established elements of this archetype, this endeavor is intimately tied up with questions of readership and authorship, such that existing work on Lafarge in this context must first be rehearsed here.

Jann Matlock discusses in detail the links between murderousness and hysteria in discourses about Lafarge and pays particular attention to what is written about her penchant for reading and writing.14 Matlock makes the subtle and persuasive argument that the prospect of educated women reading and writing offered a specter of gender insubordination for the conservative nineteenth-century commentator that chimed with the anxiety occasioned by the prospect of the violent woman. Novels in particular were seen as a threat to young women’s health and moral stability. In her study Victorian Murderesses, Mary S. Hartman describes Lafarge’s much-discussed taste for Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s classic of sensibility Paul et Virginie and for the novels of Sir Walter Scott and George Sand, especially Lélia (1833).15 And Matlock begins her discussion of Lafarge with a reference to the fact that at the time of her arrest, Marie was asleep with Fréderic Soulié’s Les Mémoires du diable(Memoirs of the Devil) (1837) open by her bedside. Parallels were teased out between Soulié’s Sadeian narrative of “sex, madness, prostitution, criminality”16 and Lafarge’s own story by public and press. The fact that a female murderer was physically apprehended while lying with a book by her head seemed to confirm nineteenth-century fears about the dangers for the female reader of the popular novel, that repository of erotic, violent, and criminal pleasures. Matlock argues that male commentators assumed an inability on the part of the reading woman to distinguish between fiction and reality, and self and (fictional) other, such that the desire unleashed by the text spills over into action in the world (much as the hysteric’s desire—in the classic nineteenth-century clinical sense—spills beyond the bounds of her body and erupts into disturbing tics, spasms, (p.60) and symptoms). Lafarge seemed to offer the confirmation of this fear realized in flesh and act.

The gendering of Lafarge as a writer, as well as a reader, has also been the focus of critical feminist work. In a recent monograph on women’s prison writing, Anna Norris has argued that scant critical attention has been paid to the writings of Lafarge in comparison with those of Pierre Rivière and Lacenaire.17 According to Norris, this reflects the broader historical tendency to negate the significance of the female writing voice. For Norris, the refusal of readers to accord Lafarge—and other incarcerated women writers—the status of “author” is an extension of the difficulty of professional women writers such as George Sand (herself a favorite author of the novel-loving Marie Lafarge) to be accepted, until fairly recently, into the canon of French literature. Nineteenth-century male criticisms of the female writing voice are perhaps typified by Baudelaire’s account: “Women write, write, write, with an overwhelming rapidity; they gossip their hearts out. They generally know nothing of art, nor of measure, nor of logic; their style flows like their skirts.”18 About George Sand in particular, or “La femme Sand” as he dismissively terms her, Baudelaire writes acidly: “She has never been an artist. She has the typical flowing style that the bourgeoisie loves. She is stupid. She is heavy. She is gossipy.”19 The charges are familiar ones: women are leaky (hysterical), gossipy, trivial, and nagging—and so is their writing. Henri Didier, critiquing Lafarge’s Heures de prison, writes in similar terms to these that it contains “a breath of poetry, all the while overflowing with minute and frivolous details.”20 The prevalence and longevity of such attributions are disconcerting. As late as 1987, Senelick repeats wholesale the rhetoric of Lafarge’s writing as sentimental, stylistically uncontrolled, and prone to the logorrhea that we have seen in Baudelaire’s critiques of Sand and Didier’s critique of Lafarge, when he writes, “Her autobiography lacks the elegance and terseness of Lacenaire’s . . . and often wallows in unbridled emotionalism after the fashion of her great model Mme Sand.”21

Indeed, writings about Lafarge’s crimes, in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, have shown a tendency to silence her voice, while romanticizing her story and her figure, casting her effectively as the (anti-)heroine of a middlebrow, traditionally feminine genre such as the roman feuilleton. In her own lifetime she was also the barely fictionalized heroine of the popular play La Dame de St. Tropez (The lady of St. Tropez), which played throughout the 1840s. I would argue in contradistinction (p.61) to Norris that Lafarge has certainly not been ignored by commentators (there are more titles in the catalogue of the Bibliothèque nationale and the British Library containing the words “Marie Cappelle Pouch-Lafarge” than “Pierre-François Lacenaire”), but rather that there has been a greater tendency to objectify her in discourse, and to romanticize her as a feminine heroine despite her criminality, rather than to discuss her as the subject and producer of discourse and of crime. This silence on the matter of her active and discursive subjectivity may precisely signal the difficulty for the patriarchal imaginary of accounting for a criminal female presence in any way that is not either romanticized or pathologized. Shearing’s The Lady and the Arsenic (1937) is a typical treatment of Lafarge in that it is “a biography in the form of a novelette,”22 the diminutive “ette” conveying suitable femininity and frivolity. Even a work as recent as Laure Adler’s L’Amour à l’arsenic (Love arsenic style) (1985), nominally a history of the Lafarge case written in a rather journalistic style, begins with the archly novelistic opening lines: “She is brunette, beautiful, adorable. A perfectly oval face, a complexion of an exquisite pallor, a sublime voice. She is intelligent, cultivated, possessed of a mad desire to live and to love.”23

This discourse of the “Romantic woman” as a childlike figure with a naïve and irresponsible desire for pleasure is central to nineteenth-century culture, and is both treated by, and critiqued within, Flaubert’s ambivalent characterization of Emma in Madame Bovary (1857). It is no surprise that Joseph Shearing uses a quotation from Madame Bovary about the disappointments of marriage as the epigraph of his “novelette.”24 The association between these two desperate housewives—one fictional, one real but excessively represented and thereby fictionalized, both driven to extremity by the constraints of their feminine social role—has been frequently drawn, both at the time of the publication and ever since. An obvious difference between them is that Emma Bovary, in taking her own life, violated one less gender and moral code than Marie: she did not do violence to another, but to herself. In Female Perversions, Louise Kaplan has argued that perversions have been theorized in the history of medicine and psychoanalysis as pathological exaggerations of culturally accepted masculine traits (so male perversions are excessive or deviant forms of male agency and aggressiveness, such as sadism and fetishism).25 Kaplan claims that female perversions must likewise be understood as exaggerations of culturally ascribed female passivity, weakness, and masochism. She has theorized the characteristics of Madame Bovary’s (p.62) unhappiness and downfall—the self-destructive pursuit of romantic love and hedonistic pleasure through novels, imagination, and adultery—as a female perversion. In Kaplan’s system, murder would be an exaggeration of masculine sadism, a male perversion. To apply this logic to Lafarge, we can understand how this female murderer, in embodying both a desire for (“feminine”) sentimental escapism and the violent (“masculine”) urge to kill, appears as a disturbingly ambiguous figure for a culture with strictly drawn codes of expected gender behavior—particularly for women.

The Lafarge case could potentially have offered a rallying point for the discussion of women’s issues in nineteenth-century France, focusing on the desperate position of women married against their will. But instead of attracting political interrogation, the moral weighing of Marie in the most conservative terms—as an inadequately feminine woman because a criminal or, conversely, as surely innocent of criminality because a visibly “feminine” woman—was the resort of both female and male contemporaries. Sadly, even Lafarge’s great literary heroine George Sand dismissed her case as irrelevant and uninteresting in a letter in which she wrote about the journalists’ fascination with the affaire Lafarge: “I hadn’t even given it a thought. I don’t understand why such uninteresting and puerile stories are concocted for the public.”26 Given the absence of a sympathetic spokeswoman, one who would not draw on normative discourses about the “nature” of “femininity” to reduce Marie, it is perhaps not surprising that Lafarge was compelled to write so prolifically. Perversely, this attempt to voice an identity in writing simply contributed to the dismissive diagnosis of hysteric, or of unfeminine, woman, as I have already discussed.

Much discursive interest has focused on Lafarge’s refusal to consummate her marriage on her wedding night, or indeed, according to the claims of her memoirs, at any other time (despite her suspicion of a pregnancy in December 1839, which she claims to have thought might be the result of a “miracle”). In a letter written on her wedding night, Marie begs her husband to take her fortune and let her go away, or even to let her kill herself, rather than to suffer the importunity of sex with him:

I will leave you my fortune; may God permit that you prosper from it, you deserve to. Me, I will live off the profits of my work or my teaching. I beg you never to give another thought to my existence. If you want, I’ll take arsenic. I have some. But let you receive my caresses . . . no never!27

(p.63) Rather than highlighting the social injustice of the patriarchal institution of marriage, in which a woman’s bodily sovereignty was annihilated, Marie’s refusal to lose her virginity and her wish to die rather than to consummate the marriage simply suggested colluding evidence of the “unnatural” nature of the female murderer for contemporary commentators.

However, it also formed a cornerstone of the discourse produced by her defenders. A medical expert of 1848, writing in the Revue élémentaire de medicine et de pharmacie domestique, explained the psychology of women such as Lafarge in the following terms, in order to attempt to construct grounds for an appeal:

Delicate flowers, destined to remain barren, they close in on themselves at the least contact, at the slightest breath of love, because a single breath would seem enough to them to tarnish their virginal whiteness; beings, in a word, incapable of loving other than as angels love, a love of the heart and the mind, ethereal and having nothing to do with the vulgarity of corporeal organs.28

In this somewhat romantically, rather than pathologically, expressed medical defense, Marie’s decision not to engage in penetrative sex is transformed into a strange sort of spirituality. The Romantic woman is desexualized and exalted as an ethereal being, without bodily or genital urges. Although Marie’s sexuality is not presented as a specific pathological state by 1848 (frigidity as a taxonomical category not appearing until later in the century),29 the copresence of abnormality revealed by Lafarge’s murder and her refusal to engage in sexual intercourse (couched in similarly flowery language in the letter and the medical statement) are run together as twin symptoms of deviation, and suggest the precise terms in which the idea of the husband-poisoning woman is disturbing: she would be the literal as well as figurative destroyer of heteronormativity, an angel of death refusing fecundity as the outcome of wedded bliss. In this, she presented a particularly powerful threat to the conservative social climate of the July Monarchy.

Lafarge as Lombroso’s “Delinquent Woman”

The heyday of criminal science—the 1880s in Italy—saw an intensification of systematic and scientific attempts to understand the problem of (p.64) female abnormality. Marie Lafarge served as important raw material for Lombroso’s theorizations, providing him with one of his famous head studies (as had Lacenaire before her) and contributing to his theory of inborn female criminality, as excerpts of her well-documented case are used to support several of his tenets regarding the nature of the woman with a predestined inclination to delinquency.

Lombroso’s theory of the female criminal is riven with contradiction and paradox, a fact to which he readily admits, stating that “the most contradictory facts fit together like pebbles in a mosaic, making a full and living picture.”30 Feminist critiques of Lombroso (e.g., by Norris, and by Lombroso and Ferrero’s translators, Rafter and Gibson) have pointed out reasons why Lombroso’s idea of women should lead to such contradictions. In seeking to prove women’s inherent inferiority, both physically and mentally, and therefore their predisposition to fall into the ways of prostitution and crime, Lombroso has to perform argumentational circumlocutions and contortions to explain away the lower rate of crime among women than among men. For if criminals are a less evolved, more degenerate, type and if statistics show that there are fewer criminal women than criminal men, then this would suggest that women are a “higher” and more “civilized” subset than males. Yet clearly, for Lombroso this conclusion would be unthinkable.

In order to perform the rhetorical feat needed, Lombroso first establishes the definition of “normal womanhood.” Lombroso’s idea of the normal woman is one who is physically feminine, maternal, passive, and virtually exempt from sexual desire. (The desire to procreate replaces the desire for erotic pleasure in the “normal” woman, maternity being seen as the highest and most natural achievement of womanhood.) However, Lombroso is also keen to state that as the normal woman is in many ways weaker than a man—intellectually, spiritually, and morally— she therefore has in embryonic form the characteristics of the delinquent woman: a tendency to calculate and manipulate, a limited intelligence, a similarity to children and animals in her simplicity and capriciousness:

We have seen . . . that women have many traits in common with children; that they are deficient in the moral sense; and that they are vengeful, jealous and inclined to refined cruelty when they take revenge. Usually these defects are neutralized by their piety, maternity, sexual coldness, physical weakness, and undeveloped intelligence.31

(p.65) Femininity is constructed here as a mixture of cruelty moderated by maternity and viciousness tempered by a “natural” physical and nervous inferiority to the male.

Lombroso’s criminal woman is a strange hybrid; she embodies the “natural” cunning, deviousness, and duplicity of the “normal” woman to an excessive degree, but she is also disturbingly masculine. The criminologist writes: “The delinquent woman is closer to the man—criminal or not—than to the normal woman”;32 “virility . . . forms the nucleus of the criminal type. What we look for above all in the female is femininity and when we find the opposite . . . there must be some anomaly”;33 and “their eroticism differentiates them from normal women, in whom sexuality is weak and delayed, and makes them resemble males.”34 The excessively sexual woman is seen to constitute a particular threat in that she is too much like a man. The notion that too much female sexuality is masculinizing offers a clear view of the contradictory logic of the discourse as it reveals that for the nineteenth-century sexologist and criminologist, sexual desire per se is masculine, a theory that Freud would develop in his notion of libido as always active, whatever its aim. (Equally however, the lack of “proper” feminine receptivity, such as Marie’s refusal to be penetrated on her wedding night, may be another sign of abnormality and delinquency.)

For Lombroso, the most abnormal woman is the most “masculine” (in one or all of the categories of appearance, sexual appetite, intelligence, and temperament). The masculine type of woman is found in three subsets: the lesbian, the inborn criminal, and the genius. However, on the subject of the genius woman, Lombroso gives with one hand and takes back with the other: Staёl and Sand, he tells us, offer proof of the existence of exceptionally talented women, but on the other hand, these writers are hardly comparable with Balzac and Shakespeare in the “genius” stakes.35 Elsewhere, in typically contradictory fashion, he plays down the possibility of female genius, as in the following strange passage regarding hysteria:

In some women generosity is a by-product of hysterical excitement. In these cases an excitement of the psychic centers of the cortex, provoked by hysteria, expresses itself in a spirit of abnegation and sacrifice. Epilepsy sometimes produces the same effect in men; but more often in them epileptic excitation of the cortex gives rise to genius or criminality. Hysteria, the twin of epilepsy, (p.66) sometimes gives birth to crime in woman, but never to genius. One might say that altruism in women is the equivalent of genius in men.36

Unable to countenance female creativity, then, Lombroso falls back on the stereotype of the nurturing woman as the counterpart of the male deviant-genius.

The personage of Marie Lafarge is used to illustrate the very contradictory nature that universal woman—and, by extension and exaggeration within this logic, criminal woman—holds for Lombroso. It is when he illustrates the paradoxes and contradictions that his ideological position forces him to adopt that he uses the example of Marie. Thus, having explained the inferior intellectual and creative powers of both normal and criminal women, he is forced to consider the exception. Under the heading “Writing and Painting,” he opines: “These two accomplishments are almost totally lacking in female born criminals. . . . We have found only three examples of memoirs by female born criminals: those of Madame Lafarge, of X and of Bell-star.”37

Lafarge also appears when Lombroso has to account for the coexistence of apparent morality alongside criminal tendencies:

The female criminal does not lack a paradoxical and intermittent goodness which contrasts strangely with her usual depravity. Madame Lafarge was extremely kind to her servants. In her own neighborhood she was called the godsend of the poor and she gave succor to the sick.38

This may remind us of the results of Lacenaire’s posthumous phrenological examination, in which his head failed to conform to the criminal model of the vicious type, and revealed instead worshipful benevolence. Moreover, the Romantic rhetoric often used by the Lafargistes of Marie as a gentle, ethereal “angel,” and her common sobriquet in the press, “l’ange de l’arsenic” (the angel of arsenic),39 is evoked here by Lombroso. This is a case, perhaps, of Lombroso’s self-prized “blind observation of facts” and “objectivity”40 being subtly infected by the cult of Lafarge’s persona, created by an amalgam of her life writing and her novelistic and journalistic following. Thus, the Romantic angel invades the scientific text, skewing the results prescribed by the guiding ideology, but in a fascinating example of self-undermining on the part of the scientist. Paradoxically, however, where the defenders of Lafarge sought to normalize her—to emphasize her characteristics of traditional, conformist femininity (p.67) (sweetness, gentleness, etc.)—it is in the criminologist’s account that she emerges as exception to the rule, as bearing the kind of individualism that we have seen attributed to Lacenaire by his literary fans and followers.

Subtle Women Poisoners

Martine Kaluszynski points out that the conclusions reached by Lombroso and his colleagues regarding the nature of the criminal woman correlate directly with contemporaneous European stereotypes and expectations of female sexuality and “femininity”:

It is thus for criminal woman, whose nature appears as an exacerbating factor in the crimes and to whom is attributed a typology of specific crimes: poisonings, theft (domestic or shoplifting), but also adultery, prostitution, abortion or infanticide—all crimes linked to sexuality, to the sex of their perpetrator, and which reveal through analysis the consensus on the danger of woman’s sex.41

The association of women with poison is an old one, certainly one that predates the case of Marie Lafarge. Lombroso proposes evidence of the antiquity of this idea, and of its misogynistic consequences:

Poisoning is one of woman’s most frequent crimes. Caesar tells us that when a man died, the Gauls would burn all his wives along with him if there was even a suspicion that the death was not natural—an efficient procedure which must have originated in frequent poisonings.42

However, the simultaneity of the rise of criminology in nineteenth-century Europe and the fascination in which the Lafarge poisoning case was held throughout the whole century conspired to produce for the first time in history statistical accounts, as well as shared myths and stereotypes, of gendered poisonings. French criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne, detractor of Lombroso’s theory of innate and predetermined criminality, but who did little to question his theories of femininity, reported in 1886 that between the mid-1830s and 1855—the heyday of the Lafarge scandal—poisonings in France were committed by an approximately equal mixture of the sexes; but that between 1875 and 1880, the number (p.68) of poisonings overall declined, but there were 41 women accused as against only 19 men.43 The accuracy of the statistics regarding female poisoners is of less interest and relevance to us than the fact that this question was being asked in the first place, and the answer drawn to academic and civic attention in publications.

In an article that appeared in Le Figaro in 1904, entitled “Femmes criminelles,” Georges Claretie wrote:

Monsieur Lombroso is right: a woman’s crime, a feminine crime, has something particularly odious and more perverted about it. Women kill more readily for revenge, and therefore they bring to their killing a sort of refinement. And the female poisoner has a thirst like a drunkard—with this difference— she pours her drink down the throats of other people.44

Claretie says that women’s crimes are more refined, because they are, by nature, premeditated and cold. Refined crime is a feature we have seen attributed to Lacenaire, but in the context of something to be admired, wondered at, approached with awe. However, the particular refinement of women criminals here is clearly intended to be understood differently. Lafarge and her murderous sisters are not accorded Lacenaire’s status as artist-murderer (a Romantic amalgam of individualist and homme du peuple), but rather the status of duplicitous other. Moreover, where in discourses of the 1830s, raffiné(e), meaning “refined,” may bear positive connotations, by the end of the century it suggests rather the excessive and unnatural refinement of Decadence. Women are associated with poison because it is seen as unnatural and cold-blooded, rather than hotblooded. Although by the end of the century humoral theories of the body (which hold that the woman is naturally cold, while the man is hot) have been surpassed by sexological models of perversion, a ghost of this discourse is clearly visible in Claretie’s rhetoric.

Another version of this is seen as late as 1926 in Jules Marché’s Une vicieuse du grand monde: Madame Lafarge (A vicious society woman: Madame Lafarge):

She embodies the type of the criminal woman. There was something feline in her nature. . . . Women’s crimes have, as their essential trait, a terrible duplicity. Lombroso called them diabolical. They are terribly premeditated. It’s only in crimes committed by women that one encounters this genius for perversity; this prodigious ease in lying.45

(p.69) Genius is finally attributed to the woman—but only a genius for deception. As Matlock has argued, duplicity and deception were to some extent necessary strategic tools if the female subject/agent were to think or write herself into the active voice, in an epoch whose scripts wrote agency (both creative and destructive) as always-already masculine, and in a climate in which deviations from norms of masculinity and femininity were so little tolerated—especially in the case of the masculine woman.46 An aesthetic of feminine murder—by poison rather than by means of the dagger that we have seen fetishized in discourses of Lacenaire—is thus visible here. This is an aesthetic that is projected onto criminal women in which the characteristics of the mechanisms of the crime are synonymous with the perceived nature of the perpetrator.47

Male criminologists concurred on the tendency of female offenders to maintain their innocence after apprehension. Lombroso asserted that

one peculiarity of female criminals, especially female born criminals, is the obstinacy with which they deny their crimes, no matter how strong the evidence against them. . . . Madame Lafarge maintained her innocence to the end, proclaiming it in her memoirs.48

Raymond de Ryckère added in 1899 that men tend to confess while women dissimulate and resist.49 These attributed characteristics construct the woman criminal as more wily and deceitful than the male. Lombroso insists that women deny their crimes because of an innate feminine deceptiveness, not because, in a cultural climate in which femininity bore the burden of signifying passive, gentle, maternal care, the acceptance of one’s own nonconformist violence would result in a monstrous self-identification that was ontologically impossible to assume. If Lafarge’s innocence was a matter of such high stakes to her culture, we can only presume that she, as a product and member of that culture, would have internalized and shared in the fantasy of the impossibility of the murderous feminine.

Paradoxically, though, Lombroso’s assertion also subtly complexifies those familiar discourses that attribute physicality to the female and cerebrality to the male, positing a more calculating, and thereby more reasoned, criminal personality than that of the male killer who is aligned with physical violence and passion—a sexual virility turned in the service of destruction. Indeed Lombroso, concerned throughout his opus with insisting upon the intellectual inferiority of women in comparison (p.70) to men, makes the following point regarding female killers, particularly poisoners:

Criminal women exhibit many levels of intelligence. Some are extremely intelligent, while others are ordinary in this respect. As a rule, however, their minds are alert; this is evidently why; relative to men; they commit few impulsive crimes. To kill in a bestial rage requires no more than the mind of a Hottentot; but to plot out a poisoning requires ability and sharpness.50

However any tacit admiration for this (fantasized) refined female murderer is not articulated within the discourse and remains foreclosed while the diagnosis operates at the level of moral indignation.

Beyond Gendered Logic

We have seen how the case of Marie Lafarge produced consternation and debate—could this pretty and apparently gentle woman really be culpable of murder?—in contradistinction to Lacenaire, who split public opinion along the lines of lionization of a virile criminal hero and demonization of a social deviant. Moreover, we have seen how Lafarge’s creativity became a further factor in her construction as unnatural woman rather than the redeeming counterpart of her criminality, since authorship itself was seen as unwomanly in nineteenth-century Europe, despite the attempts of writers such as Madame de Staёl in the early nineteenth century to celebrate female creativity. Where the male poet-murderer is a glorious Romantic monster, his female counterpart is merely monstrous. To quote Lombroso again:

The female criminal is, so to speak, doubly exceptional, first as a woman and then as a criminal. This is because criminals are exceptional among civilized people, and women are exceptions among criminals. . . . As a double exception, then, the criminal woman is a true monster.51

What horrifies about the female murderer is not her excess, for excess is always-already constructed as on the side of the feminine, but her paradoxical cerebrality, her agency, her creativity. For these are the attributes of the Romantic hero in the nineteenth century, the ideal man. The figure of the murderess is thus an androgynous construction, presented as (p.71) more aberrant than the murderer by dint of her violation of the norms of femininity, as well as her violation of the law, but resisting any principle of neat taxonomy. As a figure, she shows up the anxieties of a culture applying, despite its obvious lack of “fit,” a strictly gendered logic to the attribution of reason/unreason, mind/body, and agency/passivity.


(1) . Lombroso and Ferrero, Criminal Woman, p. 279, n. 39.

(2) . “deux choses: un feu d’ artifice donné tous les soirs au peuple, et un procès Lafarge donné tous les matins aux classes éclairées.” Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Les hommes de lettres (Charles Demailly) (Paris: E. Dentu, 1860), p. 151.

(3) . “M. Gamblin lui demanda immédiatement son opinion sur Mme Lafarge. Ce procès, la fureur de l’époque, ne manqua pas d’amener une discussion violente.” (p.210) Gustave Flaubert, L’Éducation sentimentale (1869), ed. René Dumesnil, 2 vols. (Paris: Société les Belles Lettres, 1942), p. 15.

(4) . Edith Saunders, The Mystery of Marie Lafarge (London: Clerke and Cockeran, 1951), pp. 7–8.

(5) . Janet Beizer, Ventriloquized Bodies: Narratives of Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984).

(6) . Jann Matlock, Scenes of Seduction: Prostitution, Hysteria and Reading Difference in Nineteenth-Century France (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

(7) . Martha Noel Evans, Fits and Starts: A Genealogy of Hysteria in Modern France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).

(8) . “Tout ce qu’on a coutume d’attribuer au temperament nerveux de la femme rentre dans le domaine de l’hystérie.” Charles Richet, “Les Démoniaques d’aujourd’hui,” Revue des deux mondes, 37 (15 January 1880), p. 341.

(9) . Lombroso and Ferrero, Criminal Woman, p. 237.

(10) . Senelick, Prestige of Evil, p. 298.

(11) . Ibid., p. 303.

(12) . Lombroso and Ferrero, Criminal Woman, p. 239.

(13) . Hilary Neroni, The Violent Woman: Femininity, Narrative and Violence in Contemporary American Cinema (Albany: SUNY: 2005), p. 60.

(14) . Matlock, Scenes of Seduction, pp. 249–280.

(15) . Mary S. Hartman, Victorian Murderesses: A True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes (London: Robson, 1977), p. 19.

(16) . Matlock, Scenes of Seduction, p. 254.

(17) . Anna Norris, L’écriture du défi: Textes carcéraux féminins du XIXe et du XXe siècles: entre l’aiguille et la plume (Birmingham, AL: Summa, 2003).

(18) . “Les femmes écrivent, écrivent avec une rapidité débordante; leur cœur bavarde à la rame. Elles ne connaissent généralement ni l’art, ni la mesure, ni la logique; leur style ondoie comme leurs vêtements.” Charles Baudelaire, “Études sur Poe,” in Œuvres complètes, ed. Claude Pichois, 2 vols. (Paris: Gallimard/ Pléiade, 1975–1976), vol. 2, pp. 282–283.

(19) . “Elle n’a jamais été artiste. Elle a le fameux style coulant, cher aux bourgeois. Elle est bête. Elle est lourde. Elle est bavarde.” Baudelaire, “Mon cœur mis à nu,” in Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, p. 686.

(20) . “un souffle de poésie, bien qu’elles abondent de détails minutieux et frivoles.” Henri Didier, “Lafarge,” in Biographie universelle ancienne et moderne (Paris, n.d.), p. xxii.

(21) . Senelick, Prestige of Evil, p. 302.

(22) . Joseph Shearing, The Lady and the Arsenic: The Life and Death of a Romantic: Marie Cappelle, Madame Lafarge (London: Heinemann, 1937), p. 3.

(23) . “Elle est brune, belle, adorable. Un visage d’un ovale parfait, un teint d’une (p.211) blancheur exquise, une voix sublime. Elle est intelligente, cultivée, douée d’un désir fou de vivre et d’aimer.” Laure Adler, L’Amour à l’arsenic: Histoire de Marie Lafarge (Paris: Denoël, 1985), p. 11.

(24) . Edward Shorter has argued that the 1840s saw the rise of a “surge of sentiment” in France, with young people, particularly women, focusing on criteria of “affection and compatibility,” rather than the traditional matrimonial motive of combining the assets of two powerful families in an advantageous way. Shorter goes so far as to argue that this “surge of sentiment” resulted in a Romantic revolution that materially changed the dynamics of marriage. This may be claiming too much, since this alleged “surge,” if it operated in the imaginary and literary sphere, was in stark contrast to the persistence and prevalence of arranged marriages of financial convenience in the period, of the kind of which Lafarge herself was a victim. This meeting of incompatible ideals and realities exacerbated the potential for female unhappiness, in a civic state in which divorce was illegal. See: Edward Shorter, The Making of the Modern Family (New York: Basic Books, 1979), pp. 3–21 and pp. 148–161.

(25) . Louise Kaplan, Female Perversions [1991] (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1993).

(26) . “Je n’en ai pas même eu la pensée. Je ne comprends pas qu’on invente des nouvelles aussi niaises et aussi peu intéressantes pour le public.” Georges Sand, Correspondance, ed. Georges Lubin, vol. 5 (April 1840–December 1842) (Paris: Garnier, 1969), p. 69.

(27) . “Je vous laisserai ma fortune; Dieu permettra qu’elle vous prospère, vous le méritez. Moi, je vivrai du produit de mon travail ou de mes leçons, je vous prie de ne laisser jamais soupçonner que j’existe. Si vous le voulez, je prendrai de l’arsenic, j’en ai . . . mais recevoir mes caresses, jamais!” Marie Cappelle Lafarge, Correspondance, ed. Boyer D’Agen, 2 vols. (Paris: Mercure de France, 1913), vol. 2, p. 51.

(28) . “Fleurs délicates, destinées à rester infécondes; elles se replient sur ellesméme au moindre contact, au moindre souffle d’amour, car un seul souffle en semblerait ternir la blancheur virginale; êtres en un mot, incapables d’aimer autrement que s’aiment les anges; amour de cœur et de pensée sous une forme aérienne et qui ne comporte rien de la grossièrté des organes corporelles.” Revue élémentaire de medicine et de pharmacie domestique (1848), quoted in Julien Raspail, “L’Affaire Lafarge,” La Revue, 15 September 1913, p. 181.

(29) . See: Alison Moore and Peter Cryle, “Frigidity at the Fin de Siècle in France: A Slippery and Capacious Concept,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 19, 2, 2010, 243–261.

(30) . Lombroso and Ferrero, Criminal Woman, p. 35.

(31) . Ibid., p. 183.

(32) . Ibid., p. 28.

(33) . Ibid., p. 149.

(p.212) (34) . Ibid., p. 171.

(35) . Ibid., p. 83.

(36) . Ibid., p. 70.

(37) . Ibid., pp. 189–190.

(38) . Ibid., p. 188.

(39) . See: Shearing, The Lady and the Arsenic, p. 100.

(40) . Lombroso and Ferrero, Criminal Woman, p. 35.

(41) . “Ainsi de la femme criminelle dont la nature ressort comme un élément exacerbant les délits, et dont on dresse une typologie de crimes spécifiques: empoisonnement, vol (domestique ou grands magasins) mais également adultère, prostitution, avortement ou infanticide, tous ces crimes liés à la sexualité, au sexe même de son auteur et qui revèle à travers l’analyse faite le consensus sur le danger du sexe porté par la femme.” Martine Kaluszynski, “Aux origines de la criminologie: L’anthropologie criminelle,” “crimes,” Frénésie, 5, Spring 1988, 17–30, p. 23.

(42) . Lombroso and Ferrero, Criminal Woman, p. 98.

(43) . Alexandre Lacassagne, “Notes statistiques sur l’empoisonnement criminel en France,” Archives d’Anthropologie criminelles et de sciences pénales, 1, 1886, pp. 260–264.

(44) . “M. Lombroso a raison, le crime des femmes, le crime feminin, a quelque chose de plus particulièrement odieux et de plus pervers. La femme tue plus volontiers pour se venger, et alors elle apporte là une sorte de raffinement. Le poison lui est une arme comme la lettre anonyme. Et l’empoisonneuse a sa soif comme l’ivrogne, avec cette difference qu’elle verse sa boisson aux autres.” Georges Claretie, “Femmes criminelles,” Le Figaro, 23 July 1904.

(45) . “Elle est le type du criminel femme, il y avait du félin dans sa nature. . . . Les crimes de femmes ont pour trait essentiel une terrible duplicité. Lombroso les qualifiait de ‘diaboliques,’ il y a chez elles d’effroyables premeditations. Ce n’est que dans les crimes commis par les femmes que l’on rencontre ce genie de la perversité, cette prodigieuse aisiance dans le mensonge.” Jules Marché, Une vicieuse du grand monde: Madame Lafarge (Paris: Radot, 1926), p. 8.

(46) . Matlock, Scenes of Seduction.

(47) . The psychoanalytic interpretations of the insistence on the phallic attributes of Lacenaire—the hand, the knife, and the pen that did the “work” (of killing and writing) are obvious and do not need to be elaborated here. Similarly, the association of Lafarge with poison offers stereotypically feminine imagery. Poison is not only subtle and deceptive, it is invisible and, like the disavowed female sex as opposed to the imaginary of the phallus, a murder by poison does not offer itself to the naked eye; it is mysterious and invisible.

(48) . Lombroso and Ferrero, Criminal Woman, p. 191.

(49) . Raymond de Ryckère, La Femme en prison et devant la mort (Paris: Maloine, 1899), p. 84.

(p.213) (50) . Lombroso and Ferrero, Criminal Woman, p. 189.

(51) . Ibid., p. 185.