The Devil’s Gentleman

By Harold Schechter

One of the favourite methods of dispatch in the Golden Age of detective fiction in the 1930s and 40s was poison, as it allowed for some incredibly complicated plots. Easy determinations like when and where the murder was committed could take a back seat to the question of who had access to the fatal tea or cocoa – which was, invariably, everyone. But the seeds for poison’s reign as the artful killer’s weapon of choice go back even further, with origins in the nineteenth century. Just as today the bogeyman of popular imagination is the serial killer, despite his (or her) rarity relative to the total population, in the 1800s that same disparity could be seen in the notoriety of the poisoner.

According to one crime historian, “poisoning accounted for less than one percent of murder cases that entered the criminal justice system” in the 1800s. And yet, poison-murder was everywhere in the popular culture of the time. At least a hundred true-crime books were devoted to the subject, while writers of “sensation novels, detective stories, and other popular fiction turned frequently to poisoning as a plot device.”

Harold Schechter suggests one reason for why this was so by considering the haunting figure of the poisoner in relation to anxieties peculiar to the age, “a time when people could never be certain of what they were putting into their bodies – when medicines were made of strychnine and arsenic, bakers preserved their dough with sulfur of copper, babies consumed ‘swill milk’ from cows fed on distillery waste, and soldiers received rations of ’embalmed beef’.” Another reason for the popularity of poison plots is that the readers of those sensation novels, detective stories, and other popular fictions were, predominantly, women. And death by poison was understood to be women’s work. Or the cowardly act of an effeminate (in the language of the time, “degenerate”) man.

Which was one way of describing Roland Molineux. Not just in the tabloid or yellow journalism of the time, but even in the opinion of his wife Blanche, who found Roland singularly lacking in the “masculine element.” What this apparently meant was not latent homosexuality (though that was a popular understanding of degeneracy) but some form of impotence, perhaps brought on by a case of syphilis. But whatever the diagnosis for what was happening (or not happening) in the bedroom, it was understood that Molineux’s alleged attempts to do his rivals in by means of poison was unmanly.

The social and cultural background to Molineux’s headline-grabbing trial is the most interesting part of Schechter’s account of the case. His blow-by-blow rendering of the trial itself (the first one, that is), though not as tedious as it was for the participants, turns into a page-consuming drag. And in the end we don’t really get to know very much about the man at the center of the storm. Molineux was a remarkably cool character who didn’t give anything away even when behaving oddly in the courtroom. On the stand in his second trial (he had been waiting for it over a year on death row) he was so in control he even reduced the prosecutor to pleading for mercy. But then there is nothing surprising in this. He was raised a prig, and reveled in the role.

It is telling that the subtitle to Schechter’s history places privilege ahead of poison. It was privilege that finally determined the outcome. “Might has lost but Right has won,” the much-revered General Molineux wrote after his son’s exoneration. Exactly the opposite was true, but the quality never like to admit to such things. Schechter concludes, fairly, that “As the first media-driven crime circus of the twentieth century,” the Molineux trial “set the pattern for all the carnivalesque ‘trials of the century’ to follow, from those of Leopold and Loeb and the Lindbergh baby kidnapper to that of O. J. Simpson.” But there was more to it than just the media carnival – the pattern was also set for a criminal justice system that could be openly manipulated if not dominated by the money, power, and ability to play for public opinion that come with celebrity. All things not being equal, one should never bet against the ability of privilege to write its own happy ending. At least in so far as fate allows. Molineux died a madman, his brain riddled with the cheese of venereal disease. Recompense for an earlier exercise of privilege he had reason to regret.

Review first published online September 14, 2009.

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