Madeleine Smith lived from 29 March 1835 to 28 April 1928. She was the daughter of a prosperous Glasgow family who became the defendant in a notorious murder trial. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Madeleine Hamilton Smith was born in Glasgow, the daughter of James Smith, an architect, and Elizabeth Hamilton. The family lived at their town house at 7 Blythswood Square in Glasgow, and also had a country retreat, "Rowaleyn", at Rhu on the River Clyde near Helensburgh. She went to school in London between 1851 and 1853, and returned to Glasgow at the age of 18.
In Spring 1855, Madeleine met and fell in love with Pierre Emile L'Angelier, a nurseryman originally from the Channel Islands. She was 20 and he was 29. Madeleine's parents strictly forbade the relationship on grounds of his financial prospects and social background. But they continued to meet, and Madeleine wrote no fewer than 250 love letters to L'Angelier, and promised to marry him. Meanwhile, her parents had come up with a suitor they considered acceptable, William Harper Minnoch. In February 1857, Madeleine agreed to marry Minnoch, and asked L'Angelier to return her letters. L'Angelier refused, threatening to publish her letters if she didn't marry him.
In the early morning of 23 March 1857, Pierre Emile L'Angelier died of arsenic poisoning. The police, on discovering Madeleine's letters at his lodgings, soon also discovered that she had recently purchased arsenic, and charged her with his murder. The trial, in July 1857, was a sensation. In part this was down to her youth and beauty; in part to a plot that could have come from a Shakespeare play; but mostly because of the tone and content of the letters, which were read out in court. The jury returned a verdict of "not proven". This is a peculiarly Scottish verdict which does not establish the innocence of the defendant: rather it simply concludes that the prosecution have not been able to mount a sufficiently convincing case to prove guilt.
Such was the notoriety of the case in Scotland that after her release Madeleine moved to London, where in 1861 she married George Wardle, the business manager of the artist William Morris. They had two children before divorcing in 1890. Madeleine then moved to New York, to join her son, and effectively disappeared from the public record. Most accounts suggest that she died in New York in April 1928, though this is not universally accepted.
This biography draws on research first published in "The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women".