For many people, Christmas Day is a time for giving gifts and keeping company with loved ones. But on December 25, 2013, Jacqueline Patrick gave her husband Douglas more than he'd ever expected. In a plan concocted with her youngest daughter, Jacqueline stirred antifreeze into Douglas's celebratory drink of cherry Lambrini. Feeling drunker than usual, Douglas went to bed that evening and fell into a coma. As an ambulance came to assist him, it was his wife's efforts to finish him off that incriminated her. She handed the paramedics a fake note written in his name, with the ironic, misspelled line: "I would like to die with dignaty with my family by my side."
Jacqueline's actions may sound like a subplot plucked from an Agatha Christie novel, but many women have poisoned the drinks and meals of their significant others over the centuries. In particular, female serial killers of the 19th and early 20th century often used poison as a means of executing their partners. "Arsenic poisoning was often mistaken for cholera," explains science writer John Emsley, author of The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison. Not only is arsenic flavourless and odourless, it was also cheap and commonly available at that time.
Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner's Handbook, claims that Mary Ann Cotton was the world's most renowned "arsenic murderess." Between 1865 and 1873 in the North of England, she murdered three of her four husbands, as well as a lover, to collect on their insurance policies. It's believed that she could've killed up to 21 victims—including 11 of her 13 children—and was ultimately hanged for her crimes.
Within that time frame, American Lydia Sherman operated in much the same vein. Using rat poison as her first toxin of choice, she offed her third husband by adding spoonfuls of the pesticide to his mug of hot chocolate.
Poisoning has remained an especially intriguing method of murder for the general public and killers alike.
For both women, the promise of money acted as an incentive. "The typical poisoner plans and plots, and has a specific goal or gain in mind," explains Blum. "The motives I've seen most often are financial gain or ending a relationship (also often for financial gain)."
Poisoning for the pursuit of money still occurs today. In 2008, Heather Mook from Yorkshire, England was jailed for adding rat poison pellets to her husband's spaghetti bolognese. For years, Mook had concealed from her husband John that she was syphoning money (£43,000 to be exact) from his ailing mother's account.
The only motive second to the desire for money is the thirst for revenge. One of the most high-profile poisoning cases in the UK was conducted by Lakhvir Kaur Singh, also known as "The Curry Killer." Singh flew all the way back to her native India to procure aconitine, a toxin derived from the plant aconite, which is also known as "women's bane."
In early 2009, Singh sneaked into the home of her former lover—who had announced a few months earlier that he was leaving her for a younger woman—and doctored a dish in the refrigerator, which was later consumed by him and his fiancée. Lakhvinder Cheema and Gurjeet Choongh fell ill soon after consuming their dinner; both experienced blindness, numbness, and eventual paralysis. They were taken to hospital by Cheema's family, where Choongh was placed in a medically induced coma. Although Choongh later made a full recovery, Cheema died within an hour of their arrival. He had broken Singh's heart, so she stopped his.
Homicide is homicide, of course, but poisoning has remained an especially intriguing method of murder for the general public and killers alike. "Cases of poisoning can be difficult to detect, and it can be even more difficult to apprehend a perpetrator," explains Dr. Emily Glorney, a forensic psychologist and senior lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London. "It is for this reason that poisoning might appeal to some people—particularly those motivated by a sense of excitement, possibly through evading detection and following the cases through media or personal experience."
Amy Stewart—author of Wicked Plants, a book about the lethal side of nature—thinks that women's choice of poison is related to their stereotypical place in the household. "Women are often in the role of preparing food, so they have the opportunity," she notes. So much for the misogynistic notion that "women belong in the kitchen."
For a Victorian wife trapped in a hopeless marriage, poison was really the only weapon that a woman could use.
Poison also removes brute strength from the equation. Referring directly to the work of science historian Daniel J. Kevles, Blum says that poisoning acts as "an equalizer." "Women can be physically dominated by a husband or partner," she says. "Poison allows them to kill at a safe distance."
And then there's the matter of mental predisposition. Clinical psychologist Joni Johnston attempted to shed some light on the subject in her article "A Psychological Profile of a Poisoner": "Killing someone with poison, by its very nature, requires careful planning and subterfuge, so it comes as no surprise that poisoners tend to be cunning, sneaky, and creative."
Blum puts it more bluntly: "[Poisonings] are committed by people who believe they are going to get away with it."
Although incidences of women poisoning their partners are still recorded, the act itself remains relatively uncommon in the modern era. Even less common now are stories of women who poison to escape domestic abuse. Emsley explains that for a Victorian wife trapped in a hopeless marriage, "poison was really the only weapon that a woman could use."
But it still happens today. In 2008, Yvonne Godwin from Gloucestershire, England was actually acquitted after adding rat poison (one 20th of the lethal dosage) to a chocolate cake intended for her husband. She suffered years of maltreatment at the hands of her spouse, which the judge acknowledged, telling her, "You are not a criminal in any shape or form."
So why, exactly, do so many women who poison their other halves gain the title "black widow"?
While poison is often considered a "woman's weapon," Johnson points out that "the majority of convicted poisoners are men—overwhelmingly so when the victim is a woman."