Date of Award

Spring 1996

Document Type

Dissertation - Restricted

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Ruff, Julius

Second Advisor

Gardinier, David

Third Advisor

Naylor, Philip


The crime of poisoning long has been alleged to be a uniquely feminine crime. It requires little physical strength to commit and can be easily accomplished within the context of women's traditional role in food preparation. This dissertation examines the crime of poisoning in Belgium from 1795 to 1914. Its main sources are the records of criminal tribunals in Belgium. Most of the documents have been found in the Walloon, or French-speaking south of the country. These archives are confronted with literary sources of the previous century, such as the publications of the criminologists and criminal anthropologists, novels and popularisation works, and the relation of the poisoning trials by the Belgian national press. The particular objective of the dissertation is to assess the quantitative role of women in the crime of poisoning, the popular and professional criminological ideas that defined attitudes toward women committing this particular offense, and the justice such women received. The records which are the foundation of this dissertation are particularly rich and offer the researcher excellent insight into the operation of nineteenth-century justice and the character of the poisoner in nineteenth-century Belgium. Judicial operations in Belgium, and elsewhere, in the past century particularly were affected by developments in the criminological sciences. The science of toxicology, in particular, made poisoning an increasingly easier crime to detect. The treatment of the crime of poisoning by the courts also evolved, and Belgium became one of the first European countries to adopt a de facto abolition of capital punishment in the 1860s. The image conveyed by nineteenth-century writers, such as the criminologists, offers a stereotypical picture of the poisoner (mostly if not uniquely female) that finds no equivalent with the poisoners appearing in the criminal cases. A clear sociological profile of the nineteenth-century Belgian poisoner emerges from this research. A small majority of those committing the crime were women. The poisoners usually came from the poorer classes, were of rural origins, and used poison as a desperate means to get rid of a relative. Indeed, poisoning is a crime of proximity happening, in most of the cases, in the close family circle.



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