Amongst the many remarkable collections of the Signet Library, few of modern times capture the imagination like that of author William Roughead WS. In part this originates with the fame and reputation of Roughead himself as the ‘father of true crime’. However, the frequently grisly subject matter creates an atmosphere of disquieting associations independent of this illustrious literary heritage. Take for instance a collection of 19th century letters, written in looping, sometimes scrawling script, carefully preserved between the pages of the author’s texts. Any researcher handling these relics of the 1850s, alert to the fact that their author was the notorious Madeleine Smith and their recipient her ill-fated lover, could be forgiven a momentary shiver down the spine. How these precious documents came into Roughead’s possession is unknown: they played a vital role in the trial of Miss Smith and Roughead surely prized them highly. This intimate correspondence comprises part of his Madeleine Smith collection, a resource containing every important text associated with her sensational case, and original copies of the Victorian newspapers that minutely reported – complete with faithful illustrations – her arrest, trial, personal life, dress, deportment and manner.
‘To meet Miss Madeleine Smith’
In his introduction to Mainly Murder, the 1937 volume first featuring the chapter ‘To meet Miss Madeleine Smith’, Roughead wryly notes that ‘I have been asked whether I attended’ her trial. In one respect such an enquiry was unsurprising since Roughead was known to attend every notable murder trial in Edinburgh: in another respect it would have been difficult, given he was born in 1870, thirteen years after Miss Smith stood in the dock. Roughead belonged to the generation that traversed the Victorian and the modern world, therefore he could talk with many who had seen the Madeleine of the 1850s even although he himself would live into the 1950s (he died in 1952).
By 1937, Roughead was one of the most celebrated authors in the world. He had the friendship and admiration of Henry James, generally regarded as one of literature’s greatest figures, and was the author of a series of best-selling works starting with The Trial of Dr Pritchard in 1906. He inspired other literary figures, most notably Lillian Hellman, whose Pulitzer prize-nominated play The Children’s Hour was adapted from a Roughead story in the 1930 anthology Bad Companions. (This suggestion came from another of Roughead’s prestigious admirers, Hellman’s partner, the US crime writer Dashiell Hammett.)
Unsurprisingly, Roughead practised law less and less as his literary success grew. In fact he himself dated his transition from lawyer to historian of crime as early as 1889, when aged 19, he neglected his duties as apprentice to Maclaren & Traquair to attend the trial of Jessie King, the murderous ‘baby-farmer’ of Stockbridge. This resulted in a death sentence on the prisoner, and, for Roughead, a lifetime’s fascination with the personalities and events of the High Court of Justiciary. This court room, adjoining the Signet Library in Parliament Square, cast a powerful spell on the young lawyer, who possessed a sensitive and imaginative temperament. ‘Sometimes’ Roughead later wrote, ‘I stray into the Justiciary court room, dim and deserted in vacance (sic) time… in the shadows of that lofty chamber... other figures occupy for me the narrow seat within the bar’.
For the next six decades, between 1889 and 1949, Roughead attended every important murder trial in Edinburgh, submitting material monthly to the legal journal the Juridical Review. He was the editor of the Notable British Trial Series as well as author of many best-selling non-fiction crime books. Roughead’s high reputation amongst critics has endured, particularly in the US, where his work has never been out of print. He has the distinction of being published by the New York Review of Books, a status reserved for classics of their genre. In the introduction to that volume, Classic Crimes (a collection including the Madeleine Smith story), critic Luc Sante describes Roughead as the Henry James of the true crime genre, praising the seminal nature of Roughead’s technique: ‘virtually all the hallmarks of the classic British mystery appear here’. Sante, when discussing the Smith case posits the notion that Roughead has created ‘the template of the lethal film-noir heroine’.
Roughead himself considered her trial ‘the most famous of Scots murder trials’. Writing in 1937 he admits his ‘sole excuse’ for finally tackling the case ‘resides in the perennial fascination of the subject’. Sante observes that Roughead’s background as a lawyer and Writer to the Signet – ‘an elite body of Scottish attorneys’ – determined his literary philosophy: ‘a murder for him is of interest chiefly insofar as it provides the premise for a rich, complex trial at which personalities can clash, unfold, reveal their wrinkles’. This is the foundation upon which so much of the Roughead reputation rests; it is why Dorothy L Sayers called him ‘the best showman who ever stood before the door of the chamber of horrors’ and why, in more recent times, Joyce Carol Oates commented ‘Roughead’s influence was enormous’. The Madeleine Smith case provided the perfect source material for his particular talents as both lawyer and ‘showman’: as Sante suggests ‘these cases have an advantage over their fictional descendants, however, by virtue of their mess, complication, frequent lack of satisfactory closure, and of course their psychological depth’.
These four qualities appear in abundance in the Smith case: as Roughead himself begins, ‘They say that even of a good thing you can have too much. But I doubt it… one cannot have too much of a good murder’. Here is an early example of the wicked Roughead humour that was one of his trademarks; a sub-heading promises ‘a gossip on a wonder heroine of the “fifties”’ and in the next paragraph he refers to the notorious Lizzie Borden as ‘incomparable’. Roughead immediately acknowledges the story of Madeleine Smith ‘has often been, with more or less competence, set forth’ before adding, ‘I have been living with Madeleine – I hasten to add, merely in a literary sense – for many years’. Some readers, he acknowledges, may not have heard of Madeleine Smith, although ‘such ignorance is to be deplored’.
A young ‘Frenchman’
Madeleine Smith was the nineteen year old daughter of wealthy architect James Smith, and she lived in some style with her parents and younger siblings at No. 7 Blythswood Square in Glasgow. Sometime in 1855, in a break with the strict conventions of the time, Smith began a secret sexual relationship with Pierre Emile L’Angelier, a young ‘Frenchman’ (self-styled, he was in fact from the Channel Islands). L’Angelier was not a ‘suitable’ match by the tenets of the day, not least because, as a clerk in a commercial house he was of a lower social status. As Roughead outlines, ‘they corresponded constantly, with that amazing mid-Victorian voluminosity which, happily, is a lost art’. It is clear from the letters the two young people promised each other they would eventually marry, and due to the intimate nature of the relationship, referred to themselves as ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. Meanwhile, Smith’s parents, entirely unaware of the affair conducted late at night in the basement bedroom at Blythswood Square, found a suitable fiancé for Madeleine within their own set – a prosperous merchant named William Harper Minnoch. Propitiously, Minnoch lived in the flat above theirs.
Madeleine, possessing in Roughead’s words ‘an unlovely nature: false, self-centred, wholly regardless of the rights and feelings of others’, accepted Minnoch’s proposal of marriage. It transpired that, with this new prospect, she did not want to marry Emile after all. Now engaged, the future Mrs Minnoch attempted to break her previous secret entanglement, and in February 1857, asked that all letters be returned to her. L’Angelier refused, instead threatening to expose their affair. Shortly afterwards, Madeleine was seen in a druggists, buying arsenic. As the regulations of the day required, she had to sign a register to procure the poison, which she duly did, in her own name, for the stated reason of killing rats in the cellar. Meanwhile, the two continued to meet, and, as recorded in Emile’s diary, Madeleine gave him tea, sometimes through the barred basement windows on Blythswood Square. On 23 March 1857, L’Angelier died in agony in his lodging house. The cause of death was arsenic poisoning. After his death, Madeleine’s letters were found in his room and she was arrested and put on trial for murder in Edinburgh.
Roughead’s date of birth meant Madeleine’s trial was tantalisingly just out of immediate reach, but within touching distance through the recollections of acquaintances. His friend Hugh Walpole wrote to him in 1922 ‘is it true that there is someone alive in Edinburgh today who saw the poor young man on the fateful night leaving Madeleine’s window? Any mention of my little favourite Madeleine Smith always thrills me to the bone…’ Roughead discloses to his readers, ‘any time I chance to be in Glasgow with an hour or so to spare… I make my way to that second basement window in the by-street, round the corner of the Square, [and] ponder awhile upon what the iron stanchions would tell me if they could’.
‘That’ll be Jim Smith’s sister!’
However, Roughead’s perspective depends less upon gossip and more on primary source materials: the letters, transcripts and daily papers, which he identifies as ‘instructive news… giving us some notion of how the affair was regarded at the time’. However, Roughead cannot resist a few pieces of whispered recollections. Clearly, for Roughead and his contemporaries Madeleine possessed a unique aura, illustrated by a letter Roughead reproduces from Henry James (dated 16 June 1914). The great novelist recalls: ‘I remember perfectly her trial during its actuality, and how it used to come to us every day in The Times, at Boulogne, where I was then with my parents, and how they followed it and discussed it… I stand again with it on the summer afternoon – a boy of fourteen – in the open window over the Rue Neuve Chaussee where I read it’. The Scottish poet and novelist Andrew Lang told Roughead that he had been at school with Madeleine’s younger brother. One day he and some other boys saw a newspaper headlined ‘Arrest of Young Glasgow Girl for Murder’ and, ‘turning to his companions, Lang jokingly remarked “That’ll be Jim Smith’s sister”, which proved to be the truth!’ Roughead also remembers another ‘survivor of that dim epoch’ telling him she had seen Madeleine at parties in Glasgow where ‘she was ever the belle of the ball, extremely handsome, dark and dashing…but what the language of the day termed “bold”’, concluding in inimitable Roughead style, ‘which was just as well, looking to all that she was later called upon to outface’.
Two sources comprise the most notable artefacts in the Roughead / Smith collection at the Signet Library: her letters and the contemporary newspapers, and Roughead depended upon them to animate his narrative for modern readers. In many instances, Roughead contrasts the attitudes of the Victorian era with those of the 1930s, though he cannot resist quoting Andrew Lang’s laconic assessment that Miss Smith was ‘other than a good one’ and himself judges ‘even in the wider freedom of this golden age of lipstick, cocktails and nightclubs, she would infallibly have gone wrong’.
With feigned regret, Roughead vividly describes, ‘Madeleine’s letters are painful reading, as well materially as morally. She wrote the large angular hand then affected by well-bred young ladies. Six to eight pages was her average allowance, half of which in the damnable fashion of the day, she “crossed”’. This ‘crossing’, which appears in some of the letters in the Signet Library collection, was a device to ensure the letters could not easily be read: ‘L’Angelier received and presumably perused no less than 198 of these cryptographic missives’. Most scandalous and damaging in the correspondence for Madeleine at trial was the disclosure, by her own hand, that the two were lovers; Roughead’s opinion on this critical point is that ‘the fault lies in their unconventional frankness; and the mid-Victorians deemed it unseemly to call a spade a spade’. Much of the notoriety of the Smith trial rests on these small pieces of paper, yet as Roughead comments they are merely ‘naively outspoken in matters sexual... while they may be termed indelicate, to class them as pornographic is absurd’.
Nine day wonder
As ever in the canon of this Writer to the Signet, his focus is on the legal proceedings following an arrest, in this instance ‘the nine day wonder of her trial in Edinburgh’. For a connoisseur such as William Roughead, the Madeleine Smith case simply had it all. Not only was the prisoner in the dock to be remembered by history, so too were those prosecuting and defending her. For the crown was Lord Advocate James Moncrieff, later Lord Justice Clerk and Privy Councillor, and defending was John Inglis, then Dean of the Faculty and later Lord President Lord Glencorse. His performance remains one of the most famous in Scottish legal history. As Roughead recalls: ‘Lord Advocate Moncrieff’s masterly address, strong, restrained, convincing, was then, as now, unduly eclipsed by the brilliant emotional speech of John Inglis for the defence, held to be the finest ever delivered in a Scots court’.
Presiding was Lord Justice Clerk Hope. From the beginning, newspaper and popular opinion were with the prisoner, and his Lordship seemed inclined to gently concur with this disposition: not that the unfathomable Madeleine was grateful, finding him ‘a tedious old man’. Not quite so ‘tedious’ was the crucial decision of the court – on a 2-1 majority – to omit L’Angelier’s incriminating diary from proceedings. Without this vital piece of evidence – recording as it did dates of the lovers’ meetings and Madeleine’s preparation of tea, hot chocolate and cocoa for the unfortunate young man – it was impossible for the Lord Advocate to prove Madeleine had the opportunity of poisoning her lover: with it, Roughead argues, it became at least possible that the Lord Advocate might have secured a conviction.
The journalists of 1857 were fascinated with Madeleine’s appearance and demeanour in court. Present day tabloid columnists could scarce compete with the miniscule dissections regarding the regrettable arrangement of Miss Smith’s facial features. On the question of whether she was beautiful much discussion was undertaken. Innumerable columns of print were devoted to this subject alone, ‘bad lips, mouth and chin’ was one report, whilst the Daily Express considered ‘[h]er countenance is striking but not pleasant’. Roughead and Henry James share their regret concerning the apparent omission by Madeleine to secure a photographic portrait of those much discussed features (at least two photos have subsequently been uncovered). Roughead confines himself to the unsympathetic assessment that ‘the woodcut portraits published in the illustrated papers at the time of the trial are singularly unattractive, depicting ‘a horse-faced female of repellent aspect’. All correspondents, however, agree with the Express journalist who stated Madeleine was ‘an artist in matters of dress’. Her fashions attracted huge attention, and in the lovingly detailed descriptions of outfits and accessories can be found the antecedents of modern-day celebrity, with its commercial exploitation of the wardrobes and lifestyles of the infamous.
Roughead cannot hide his wonder at the behaviour of the accused who was, after all, in court on a capital charge. From the moment of her arrest all reports repeated her ‘coolness’ and this remained intact as she stood on trial for her life. As Roughead quotes from the Ayrshire Express, she ‘passes from the cell to the dock with the air of a belle entering a ballroom’. Day by day as the court rose for lunchthe prisoner neither left the dock nor took any refreshment. In Roughead’s vivid description:
‘Immediately on the retiral of their Lordships, the official silence was broken and the tongues of the spectators loosed. From the packed seats arose the continuous hum of many voices…less abstemious than the accused, the eager crowd… munched steadily from paper bags or lunch boxes and…according to their degree, from surreptitious bottles or flasks. And amid this restless babel sits Madeleine Smith unmoved, calm and composed as if alone in her Mamma’s quiet drawing room in Blythswood Square!’
After nine days came the final act. Graphic accounts describe the courtroom when the jury retired to consider their verdict. After a short time the jury returns: ‘in the breathless silence, the voice of the Chancellor (Foreman) announces an acquittal’, Roughead reports, ‘so soon as the last “Not Proven” has issued from his lips, the decorum of the Court is shattered’. Miss Smith is cheered and applauded, friends and well-wishers gather round to congratulate her. Roughead being Roughead, he immediately looks to accounts of the lawyers during this finale: ‘the great Dean of Faculty, to whose efforts she owes her freedom, remains seated at the table in the well of the Court, his head sunk in his hands. He neither looks at her nor smiles’. Roughead finds this behaviour ‘instructive’.
In 1914, sending Henry James a copy of the official report of the trial by Forbes Irvine (Edinburgh, 1857, Roughead’s copy is part of the Signet Library collection) the WS extracted in reply a wonderful piece of Jamesian psychoanalysis: ‘with what complacency must she now have regarded it, through the long backward vista’. A prototypical anti-heroine, following her acquittal Madeleine continued in her ‘complacent’ narcissism: writing to the matron of the Edinburgh prison four days after her release Miss Smith complained: ‘If ever you see Mr C. Combe (Foreman of the Jury) tell him that the “pannel” was not at all pleased with the verdict. I was delighted with the loud cheer the court gave’.
Madeleine’s later life involved two marriages, and a move to New York City at the turn of the century. She died in 1928. Roughead remains the most distinguished of the many chroniclers to be intrigued by the mystery: as with Lizzie Borden, the minutiae of the case produce an apparently inexhaustible supply of evidence, rumour and theory. Yet most modern day scholars believe it was only the omission of L’Angelier’s diary and the evidence contained within its pages – specifically ‘proof’ of a meeting between Smith and her lover on the night he died – that saved her from a guilty verdict. Others have argued L’Angelier ‘staged’ a suicide attempt to illicit sympathy from Madeleine and miscalculated the dose, with fatal results. Alternative theories have advanced the suggestion Emile deliberately took his own life and implicated her in a final act of revenge. Roughead and James patently believe in Madeleine’s guilt, though neither would be so inelegant as to express themselves in such stark language. As James wrote to ‘My dear Roughead’ it was the very lack of a definite conclusion that constituted the narrative’s enduring appeal: ‘It represents indeed the type perfect case, with nothing to be taken from it or added’.
Such was the reach of Roughead’s influence that the Madeleine Smith story went on to ever greater and broader cultural attention. In a natural evolution, the years after Mainly Murder saw radio dramatisations, several plays and new texts inspired by this heightened visibility. Inevitably by the early 1940s the story was attracting the attention of filmmakers in both Hollywood and the UK. Roughead, meanwhile, continued onto new projects with great success at home and abroad – the New Yorker’s Alexander Woolcott, visiting the Roosevelt White House in the late 1930s, noted that just outside the Oval Office a specially constructed shelf housed the President’s cherished Roughead collection.
Reading Roughead today, the immediate impression is the incredible modernity of the authorial sensibility, ‘not in any way stiff, cold, murky or particularly quaint’ (Sante, New York Review of Books). His books, with their dry, sometimes cynical wit, are as compelling as any modern thriller. In assessing his legacy, Sante observes Roughead’s unique ability to take a basic trial transcript and create ‘a sophisticated and modernistically jagged portrait’. His inheritors are not only those regularly cited by scholars – the Christies, Sayers and others of crime writing’s ‘Golden Age’ – but also the true crime documentaries of the twenty first century, Netflix’s ‘Making a Murderer’, the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ and the podcasts of ‘Serial’. Roughead merits a popular renaissance, particularly in his native Scotland and his own Roughead Collection at the Signet Library is the appropriate place for such a revival to begin.
This article was originally published in The Signet magazine (Issue 12, October 2017).