It’s not so easy to get away with poisoning someone in 2016. Modern medicine can typically detect any poisons that can be obtained by the average human. Additionally, we’re not so blinded by antiquated ideas of femininity that we’d fail to consider the possibility that a mother could poison her children or a nurse the patients in her charge. However, as Harold Schechter illustrates in Fatal, it was almost too easy for a woman in the late 19th century to get away with murdering those under her care.
The focus of Schechter’s book is Jane Toppan, a nurse who murdered as many as 31 of her patients using a combination of morphia and atropia. By her own admission, Jane committed these murders for the sexual thrill she got when she would climb into bed with her patients and feel the life slip away from them. Schechter prefaces his story by telling the stories of other female poisoners who murdered those around them with arsenic, which was a commonly used household product at the time. This illustrates how truly inept modern medicine was at the time. In multiple instances, entire families are wiped out and no one suspects it is anything more than terrible misfortune.
Jane Toppan and her contemporary female poisoners were not like male serial killers who killed random strangers. The late 19th century female poisoner made victims of their husbands, children and dear friends who trusted the person attending their bedside. Fatal is a great addition to the true crime genre that offers a less than picturesque view of the U.S. in the later half of the 1800s.