The amateur collector of murders is a much more discriminating person than the chance observer understands. He is often a determined antiquarian and reactionary; when any new murder comes out he bends his attention toward an old one.
-- Edmund L. Pearson in What Makes a Good Murder?
The news shows in the U.S. are dominated this week by the sad tale of one Todd Sommer, a Marine Corps sergeant who died of arsenic poisoning. His widow, Cynthia Sommer, came to the attention of authorities after she embarked on a Menendez-style spending frenzy that began with a boob job.
This crime du jour appears on its face to be yet another example of the arsenic school of marital termination. But the historical true crime aficionado who tunes into the coverage can't help but think -- is this a rerun?
Arsenic poisoning of a spouse for gain is a painfully unoriginal and old-fashioned murder and a bit of a surprise in a modern context considering the advances in medical science that make its detection all but unavoidable. There are many better (indeed classic) examples of this type of crime; a would-be widow would have been well served to study the outcomes of the cases of her foremothers before embarking on a course of conduct that in any other age would see her hanged or worse.
Among the more famous arsenic widows were Elizabeth Reed (the first woman publicly executed in Illinois; in 1845 she was hanged for poisoning her husband with arsenic); Priscilla Bigadyke (the first woman privately executed in Britain; she was hanged in 1868 for poisoning her husband with arsenic); Bertha Zillman (who was beheaded in Germany in 1893 for poisoning her husband with arsenic); and as evidence that this is a co-ed institution there is the example of Major Armstrong (who poisoned his wife with arsenic and was hanged in 1922 and is by one account the only attorney ever hanged in Britain).
But the most famous spousal murder by arsenic is certainly the case of Florence Maybrick. The Liverpool trial of the American woman for the murder of James Maybrick remains one of the most controversial trials of all time. To this day, Florence has staunch defenders. Her case will forever remain an enigma, and there will never be agreement on the question of whether justice was served by the outcome. And if you aren't already familiar with the last chapter of Mrs. Maybrick's case, I won't spoil it for you.
And today we get to enjoy the proceedings involving the widow Sommer. She faces murder charges in a death-penalty state and the hot glare of television cameras focused not-all-that-nonchalantly on the products of her husband's insurance proceeds. The surprising news of a possible modern example of a marriage ending with a dollop of arsenic goes to show that some things never go out of vogue; on the other hand, if she is convicted and yet does not receive the death penalty, then there may yet be some conclusions to draw about changing times.