Strong Poison

These Strong Poison annotations use the page numbers from the paperback edition, Perennial Mystery Library by Harper & Row. Phrases in quotation marks are from Lord Peter’s lips except where noted. Excerpts from “Strong Poison” are copyrighted 1958 by Lloyds Bank, Ltd., Executor of the Estate of Dorothy L. Sayers.

strong poison annotations

If John Lennon saw this, he would have written “Sexy Sayers.”

ARTICLE NOTE: Readers interested in the poisons as it relates to the book should check out “The Science of Mysteries: Instructions for A Deadly Dinner” by Deborah Blum.

8 ~ They all wrote down on their slates, ‘She doesn’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it.’
From “Alice in Wonderland,” p. 126, Alice’s Evidence.
(Contributed by Linda Sauer)

17 ~ Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape the old Bailey.
From “Hamlet,” with the direction to “escape calumny” instead of the old Bailey.
(Contributed by Linda Sauer)

23 ~ A beast, but a just beast
A reference to Dr. Temple, the headmaster of Rugby school and later archbishop of Canterbury. He followed the academic reforms begun by Arnold at Rugby and was known to cry while flogging pupils.
(Contributed by Linda Sauer)

30 ~ They are coming, my own, my sweet, were it never so airy a tread.
From Book 1, Lines 916-917 of Tennyson’s “Maud: A Monodrama”

She is coming, my own, my sweet;
Were it ever so airy a tread,
My heart would hear her and beat,
Were it earth in an earthy bed;
My dust would hear her and beat,
Had I lain for a century dead,
Would start and tremble under her feet,
And blossom in purple and red.

27 ~ and of course the Slater person, such a scandal
The Dowager was referring to Oscar Slater, who was found guilty of murder in 1909. The judge instructed the jury to find the man guilty as he had no morals. Slater lived with his fiance, a prostitute. The case was much publicized as a miscarriage of justice. (Contributed by Linda Sauer)

31 ~ And he himself has said it, muttered Freddy, and it’s greatly to his credit.
From Gilbert & Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.”

34 ~ most notably the Seddon trial
Frederick Henry Seddon was charged with killing his lodger, Eliza Barrow, by arsenic on 14th September 1911. Miss Barrow was a 49-year-old spinster with substantial property, including a cash box containing several hundred pounds in gold. She also had a fear of banks and agreed to let Seddon, who was an officer in an insurance company, to handle her affairs. Shortly after signing over much of her property to Seddon in return for a small annuity and remission of her rent, she fell violently ill.

Eliza Barrow: Arsenic VictimFor several months she was confined to her room with constant diarrhea and vomiting. The stink was so appalling the family was advised to hang sheets drenched in carbolic to keep the smell down. Eventually, she died and the death certificate listed “Epidemic Diarrhea” as the cause.

Seddon’s meanness and obstructive behavior proved his undoing. Despite having the money at hand and Barrow’s family vault available, Seddon buried her in a pauper’s grave and received a commission of 12 shillings from the undertaker. Barrow’s cousin, Frank Vonderahes, learned of the death by reading of it in the register section of the local newspaper. He had to work hard to confront Seddon, whose answers to his questions were short and rude.

But Vonderahes learned that, during her final illness, Barrow made a will giving Seddon power of attorney, and Seddon claimed that she did not intend Vonderahes to have any of the money. The box of gold under the bed vanished, although Seddon’s clerks later testified they saw him counting out gold and investing it. Seddon’s manner enraged Vonderahes enough to go to the police with his suspicions. An exhumation was ordered, and the police found at least two grains of arsenic in Mrs. Barrow.

poisoner Henry SeddonSeddon and his wife were arrested and tried. The direct evidence against them was flimsy. The only arsenic tied to the family was in flypaper that they bought instead of carbolic and hung around Mrs. Barrow’s bed. But it was Seddon’s demeanor in court that convicted him. During his three days giving testimony, he was by turns arrogant, jaunty, extremely self-confident and exhibiting no remorse over the death. While that alone may not have been enough to secure a conviction — after all, Seddon gained the most by the death, and it would be difficult to tell who else had access to Mrs. Barrow to administer the fatal dose — the complete lack of remorse shown convinced the jury that if anyone was suited to murder for money, it was Mr. Seddon. The jury took an hour’s deliberation to convict him and acquit Mrs. Seddon.

During the trial, several photographs were taken of Mr. Seddon and his wife. One in particular, showing Mr. Justice Bucknill, with black cap on and his chaplain at his side, condemning the prisoner, caused a great sensation upon its publication. It led to a law in 1925 banning photography in the courtroom.

34 ~ like the man with the hollow tooth in the comic song
Not traced

36 ~ twine willow-wreaths for his own tomb-stone
No direct quote was found. In the language of flowers in Victorian times, weeping willow signified mourning, and it was suggested that twining live plants around tombstones would be a reminder of the Resurrection and the life.

39 ~ Like that horrid man who pretended to be a landscape-painter and then embarrassed the unfortunate young woman with the burden of an honour unto which she was not born.
A reference to “The Lord of Burleigh,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, about a man who wooed a peasant lass, only to have her find out after marrying that he’s really one of the great lords of the land. She was a good wife and bore him sons, but mourned for her pauper landscape-painter and died young.

39 ~ Such a Victorian attitude, too, for a man with advanced ideas. He for God only, she for God in him, and so on.
A direct quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book 4, Line 299) used to describe Adam and Eve. An interesting subtext to note is that this line suggests, among other evidence, a hierarchy: God, man, woman. Adam learned of the prohibition of taking anything from the Tree of Life from God, while Eve learns of it from Adam. Hence, woman should be subordinate to man just as man is to God, and that the way to God is through man. By quoting the phrase, Sayers could be suggesting that, despite his “advanced ideas,” Phillip Boyes was a Christian chauvinist at heart, as befitting the son of a parson.

41 ~ wander unchecked through a garden of bright images
“However entrancing it is to wander unchecked through a garden of bright images, are we not enticing your mind from another subject of almost equal importance?” This line is from “The Story of Hien,” a short story found in (as Wimsey correctly surmised) “Kai Lung’s Golden Hours.” Ernest Bramah wrote several books about Kai Lung, an itinerant teller of tales in “a China that never was.” These tall tales are noted as much for the way they are told as for the content, and are read for pleasure as much as we read P.G. Wodehouse today.

45 ~ Some people want to do it for the fun of the thing, like that German female, what’s her name, who enjoyed seeing people die.
This may refer to the case of Gesina (or Gesche) M. Gottfried, who in the mid-1800s killed at least 30 people, including her parents, by arsenic intoxication. She worked through her family, starting with her first husband, then following with her parents, her second husband, her brother and most of a family for whom she worked as a housekeeper. She was arrested in 1828, confessed, and was executed. She was the last person executed in Bremen, which one student exchange group uses as part of its tourist brochure.

Another notorious German poisoner was Anna Zwanziger (born 1760), a Bavarian cook, who, according to this Web site: “poisoned two of her employers and numerous of their dinner guests. Suspected, she fled her final job, but not before leaving large amounts of arsenic in the coffee, salt, and sugar jars and a dose in the baby’s biscuits.”
(Contributed by Marc van der Poel)

45 ~ I have never greatly cared for George Robey, although Charlie Chaplin always makes me laugh.
George Robey (1869-1954) was a major English music-hall star. He also played Falstaff in Laurence Olivier’s “Henry V” movie.

up above the world so high, like a tea-tray in the sky
From “Alice In Wonderland:” “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat. How I wonder where you’re at. Up above the world you fly, Like a tea-tray in the sky.”

47 ~ The father is a parson — slashing trade, that,’ as the naughty bully says to the new boy in one of Dean Farrar’s books.
This a reference to one of the novels by Frederic William Farrar (1831-1903), known as Dean (I would guess) informally after he became dean of Canterbury in 1895. He wrote a number of books in fiction, philology and theology, including “Eric, or Little by Little” (1858) and “Julian Home: a Tale of College Life” (18th ed., 1905). This particular quote is from chapter 22 of “St. Winifred’s”:

     “You new fellow, what’s your father?”
     “My father is dead,” said Kenrick in a low tone.
     “Then what was he?”
     “He was curate of Fuzby.”
     “Curate was he; a slashing trade that,” was the brutal reply. “Curate of Fuzby? are you sure it isn’t Fusty?”
     Kenrick looked at him with a strange glowing of the eyes, which, so far from disconcerting Mackworth, only made him chuckle at the success of his taunt. He determined to exercise the lancet of his tongue again, and let fresh blood if possible.
     “Well, glare-eyes! so you didn’t like my remark?”
     Kenrick made no answer, and Mackworth continued:
     “What charity boy has left you his cast-off clothes? May I ask if your jacket was intended to serve also as a looking-glass? and is it the custom in your part of the country not to wear breeches below the knees?”

(Contributed by James Fulford)

48 ~ or some hay. There is nothing like it when you are feeling faint, as the White King truly remarked.
From “Through the Looking Glass,” chapter 7: “There’s nothing like eating hay when you’re faint,” he remarked to her, as he munched away. “I should think throwing cold water over you would be better,” Alice suggested: ” or some sal-volatile.” “I didn’t say there was nothing better,” the King replied. “I said there was nothing like it.” Which Alice did not venture to deny.

Arsenic is tomfool stuff to commit suicide with, but it has been done. There was the duc de Praslin, for instance — if his was suicide.
Charles-Louis Theobald, the Duc de Choiseul-Praslin, killed himself with a dose of arsenic before his arrest in 1847 in Paris on the charge of murdering his wife, Fanny, who had announced plans to seek a divorce over his adulteries. In her bed chamber, he slashed at her throat with a knife and beat her to death with a pistol as she fought back. He claimed innocence, but the presence of bloodstains in his room, and microscopic examination of the pistol told what happened.

49 ~ Oh, well, faint heart never won so much as a scrap of paper.
The original quote — “never won fair lady” — appears in “Don Quixote” and was also a line in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Iolanthe.”
(Contributed by Linda Sauer)

Even the path of the light is curved — or so they tell us.
A reference to Einstein’s theory of relativity.

50 ~ I now know exactly what Jack Point feels like. I used to think the Yeomen’ sentimental tosh, but it is all too true. Would you like to see me dance in motley?
Jack Point is the jester in Gilbert & Sullivans’ “Yeomen of the Guard,” whose love for Elsie is dashed. At the end, he falls insensible at the feet of the two lovers. More information about the play can be found here.

52 ~ “Mrs. Merdle” the car, so called because, like that celebrated lady, she was averse to “row.”
Mrs. Merdle was a character of Dickens whose singular trait can be found in Chapter 3 of “Little Dorritt.”

55 ~ Voice that Breathed o’er Eden

A hymn by English churchman and poet John Keble (1792-1866), referring to the world’s first marriage, between Adam and Eve, and therefore ideal for church weddings.

The voice that breathed o’er Eden, that earliest wedding day,
The primal wedding blessing, it hath not passed away.
Still in the pure espousal of Christian man and maid
The Holy Three are with us, the threefold grace is said.

Be present, awful Father, to give away this bride
As Thou gav’st Eve to Adam, a helpmate at his side.
Be present, Son of Mary, to join their loving hands
As Thou didst bind two natures in Thine eternal bands.

Be present, Holy Spirit, to bless them as they kneel,
As Thou for Christ, the Bridegroom, the heav’nly Spouse dost seal.
O spread Thy pure wing o’er them, let no ill power find place
When onward to Thine altar their hallowed path they trace.

To cast their crowns before Thee in perfect sacrifice,
Till to the home of gladness with Christ’s own Bride they rise.
To Father, Son, and Spirit, eternal One and Three,
And was and is forever, all praise and glory be.

(Contributed by Harold Beyerly)

67 ~ Does a livelier iris, winter weather notwithstanding, shine upon the burnished Bunter?
Lord Peter is quoting line 19 from Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall.”
(Contributed by Linda Sauer)

68 ~ a lordly dish.
From Judges 5:25
(Contributed by Linda Sauer)

two ladies lived in a bower, Binnorie, O Binnorie
From “Binnorie,” a old English ballad by Anonymous

69 ~ stab and end the creature — to the heft!
From Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”

70 ~ No lily on my cheek with anguish moist and fever-dew
From John Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”

I’ve stopped one, two, three, four earths. What next?
This comes from the practice of foxhunting, in which, just in case the odds on the fox aren’t long enough, the serfs and minions from the manor go around blocking up the fox’s earths (or burrows) prior to the commencement of the hunt.
(Contributed by Gavrielle Perry)

77 ~ That’s waiting, till I’ve finished editing Phil’s books. It’s a comfort to have it there to look at, you know. Peaceful. Go out through the ivory gate — that’s classical — they brought me up on the classics. These people would laugh at a fellow, but you needn’t tell them I said it — funny, the way it sticks — ‘tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore, ulterioris amore’ — what’s that bit about the souls thronging thick as leaves in Vallombrosa — no, that’s Milton — ‘amorioris ultore — ultoriore — damn it — poor Phil!
You had to get the long version to catch the flavor of the passage. Vaughan got the “tendebantque” tag right the first time. It’s from Virgil’s “Aeneid” and it translates as “They were holding their arms outstretched in love toward the further shore.” The passage has a rather tragic, romantic flavor to it, apparently, describing the people wishing to cross to the other side to meet their loved ones who have died.

The “souls thronging thick as leaves in Vallombrosa,” is from Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” book 1, line 302.

80 ~ Like the poisoned Athulf in ‘Fool’s Tragedy,’ he could have cried, ‘Oh, I am changing, changing, fearfully changing.’
Two references for the price of one. The “Fool’s Tragedy” is a long play by the doomed poet, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, who committed suicide in Switzerland in despair. I haven’t run across a copy of the play, so I can’t tell you more about it, except that it was noted that there are plenty of nasty scenes in it involving death, which would have been just nuts to Mrs. Sayers, who herself was fond of putting naked men in people’s baths and other Grand Guignol touches.

The second point cropped up when it was learned that the full title of the play is “Death’s Jest-Book, or The Fool’s Tragedy.” Regular readers of Sayers will recognize the title instantly as a source for some of her chapter headings (e.g., chapter XX in “Unnatural Death”)

81 ~ As Jenny Wren said, my back’s bad and my leg’s queer.
Wren is a character in Charles Dicken’s “Our Mutual Friend.” The passage can be found in Chapter 5.

82 ~ Marjorie Phelps (the bohemian sculptress who aids Wimsey in his dealings with that sect): I merely proceed on the old Sherlock Holmes basis, that when you have eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbably, must be true.

Dupin said that before Sherlock. [Wimsey said.]
Dupin: a fictional detective created by Edgar Allan Poe. One wonders if Sayers wasn’t righting an old wrong, as Holmes one-ups Dupin in “A Study in Scarlet” for being “a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial.” Never mind that Holmes later did the exact same thing to Watson when the good doctor was gazing on the unframed portrait of Beecher and thinking what a waste the Civil War was.

This also reminds me that Doyle was considered to have a photographic memory and scattered literary and Biblical allusions through his works, as was described in “Naked Is The Best Disguise.”

85 ~ And you are right and I am right and everything is quite all right.
This is a paraphrase from Pish-Tush’s song in “The Mikado.”

111 ~ Barbara celarent darii ferio baralipton
This diving into the realm of Aristotelian syllogisms and way beyond my knowledge and possibly my ability to explain this. This phrase really does exist and is a mnemonic device to help remember the names of the four figures regarded as valid in syllogisms. If you remember a little of Aristotelian syllogisms, it is a way of discerning the truth by relating pairs that are true in and of themselves. If two pairs share the same object, then it may follow that the two unrelated pairs are true as well. For example: water is wet; blood is wet; therefore, water may be found in blood.

119 ~ Saying I had served nearly 7 years for Rachel.
Freddy Arbuthnot is referring to the account in Genesis 29: 1-35 that related the travails of Jacob in his attempts to marry Rachel over the objections of her daddy, Laban. Among other tests, Jacob had to wait 7 years before popping the question.

Megatherium Trust
While one did not exist by this name, no doubt there were plenty of financial “bubbles” during the 1920s that, when they crashed, left their investors high and dry. Hmmm, sounds awfully similar to the boom, doesn’t it? Anyway, Megatherium is also the name of an ancient fossil, related possibly to the sloth.

129 ~ Sweeping through the gates
An old hymn that was published in the United States by T.C.O. Kane in 1885 under the title “Songs of Praises.” These were also reputed to be Tsar Alexander II’s last words.

143 ~ I find the writing of letters a gêne
From the French for torture, discomfort.
(Contributed by Linda Sauer)

163 ~ had been forced so many times to bow down in the House of Rimmon.
Biblical reference from 2 Kings 5:18: “In this thing the Lord pardon thy servant, that when my master goeth into the house of Rimmon to worship there, and he leaneth on my hand, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon: when I bow down myself in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon thy servant in this thing.”

164 ~ from the Psychical Research Society
The Society of Psychical Research was founded in Great Britain in 1882 and became a voice of skeptical reason in dealing with alleged paranormal activities. The U.S. branch was founded in 1885, and both societies exist today.

207 ~ I endeavour to give satisfaction my Lord.
Bunter was, of course, quoting Jeeves, the ever-efficient valet to Bertie Wooster in the P.G. Wodehouse stories, as Wimsey recognized.

208 ~ Hollow, hollow, hollow all delight.
Quotation from Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King,” lines 30-37. The lines were also quoted in E.C. Bentley’s “Trent’s Last Case,” which Sayers had read and admired.

209 ~ Old Uncle Tom Cobley
Quotation from an English ballad “Widdecombe Fair.” According to the song, an old mare was borrowed “That I may ride to Widdecombe Fair / With Phil Lewer, Jan Brewer, Harry Hawkins, Hugh Davy, Philly Whitpot, George Pausley, Dick Wilson, Tom Cobbley and all, Here is Uncle Tom Cobbley and all” Not surprisingly, the gray mare ends up making her will and turning ghastly white at having to convey everyone to the fair.

Oh, how right Diogenes was when he took his lantern to look for an honest typist
A reference to the story from ancient Greece, where Diogenes was looking for an honest man.
(Contributed by Linda Sauer)

210 ~ Who wills the ends, wills the means
Late 17th-century proverb

211 ~ Riddle-me-right, and riddle-me-ree
Possibly from Mother Goose:

Riddle me, riddle me, ree;
A little man in a tree;
A stick in his hand,
A stone in his throat,
If you tell me this riddle
I’ll give you a groat.

(Contributed by Linda Sauer)

211 ~ Give me the statutory dressing-gown and ounce of shag, and I will undertake to dispose of this little difficulty for you
dressing-gown, ounce of shag: the obligatory references to Sherlock Holmes, of course. “Shag” is a type of tobacco for his pipe.

211 ~ credo quia impossibile
“I believe it because it is impossible.” Attributed to Tertullian, an early Christian apologist. The line is from “De carne Christi” (On the Flesh of Christ) in which he proves that the body of Christ was a real body, taken from Mary in a virginal birth. The complete phrase runs:

Crucifixus est dei filius; non pudet, quia pudendum est.
Et mortuus est dei filius; credibile prorsus est, quia ineptum est.
Et sepultus resurrexit; certum est, quia impossibile.

Translated to:

The son of God was crucified; it’s not silly, because it must be silly.
And the son of God died; it’s absolutely credible, because it’s daft.
And the buried rose again; it’s certain, because it’s impossible.

According to this website: “‘Credo quia impossibile’ (I believe it because it is impossible), and used together with the Athens/Jerusalem quote as evidence of Tertullian’s irrationalism, and advocacy of blind faith as a reason to believe. But neither idea is under discussion. The context is actually an argument with the heretic Marcion, who believed in the resurrection, but didn’t believe Christ had a real body, and that the flesh was shameful. Tertullian points out that Christ himself said that worldly wisdom was not to be trusted on such things, so if Marcion was following it, he must be in the wrong.”

221 ~ Maybrick
Reference to James Maybrick, who died of arsenic poisoning. His wife, Florence, was convicted in a trial renowned for its shabbiness. Maybrick was believed to be an arsenic eater. She was sentenced to death, which was commuted to life imprisonment, and she served 15 years before being released.

Valetta – Dixon Mann
Dr. Dixon Mann wrote the noted textbook “Forensic Medicine and Toxicology.” Valetta is mentioned in it, but no further details could be found.

225 ~ Mithridates
The king of Pontus, which is located on the Black Sea in north central Turkey. Mithridates VI ruled from 120-63 BCE until his kingdom was conquered by the Romans. The quotation is from A.E. Housman’s “Terence, this is stupid stuff,” found in “A Shropshire Lad.” The end of the poem gives the clue to how the arsenic was administered.

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all the springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
—I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

227 ~ King Cophetua stunt
The legend tells that the African King Cophetua refused to marry until he was entranced at the sight of a beautiful beggar woman, whereby he resolved that she shall become his queen. The story was the subject of a painting by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

Tennyson also told the story in “The Beggar Maid.”

Her arms across her breast she laid;
She was more fair than words can say:
Barefooted came the beggar maid
Before the king Cophetua.
In robe and crown the king stepped down,
To meet and greet her on the way:
‘It is no wonder,’ said the lords,
‘She is more beautiful than day.’
In the end, Cophetua swore a royal oath:
“This beggar maid shall be my queen!”

The story also appears in Shakespeare: “The magnanimous and most illustrate king Cophetua set eye upon the pernicious and indubitate beggar Zenelophon.” Love’s Labour’s Lost, iv. 1.

(c) 1995-2016 by Bill Peschel