A Deadly Dose Of Nicotine

The Comte de Bocarme
The Comte de Bocarme

The Comte de Bocarmé liked to consider himself a pillar of the Belgian nobility. He certainly looked the part – tall, handsome, with an aristocratic bearing – and he enjoyed a lavish and licentious lifestyle. Unfortunately his pocketbook couldn't keep pace with his ambition. An annual income of just 2,4000 francs ($200) meant that he was perennially in debt. His solution was that old standby of impoverished noblemen since time immemorial – bag a rich wife. After canvassing the local unmarried beauties, his predatory gaze settled on Lydie Fougnies, the daughter of a retired grocer, and in 1843 she joined Bocarmé at the Château Bitremont near Bury, in Belgium. They were both aged twenty-five.

Unfortunately for Hippolyte de Bocarmé his new bride's income was nowhere near as substantial as rumored – just 2,000 francs a year – hardly the windfall he had expected. With creditors constantly knocking at his door, he took to pawning his wife's jewelry. The death of Lydie's father in 1845 did add another 5,000F to her annual income, but it also brought the sting of added frustration as the bulk of M. Fougnies' fortune had passed to Lydie's brother, Gustave.

The Comtess de Bocarme
The Comtess de Bocarme

Disaster Strikes

Lydie shared Hippolyte's frustration over their mutual indigence. However, there was one beacon of hope for the grasping couple; in the event that Gustave died unmarried, his entire estate would pass to Lydie. Since Gustave was a sickly individual, whose fragile health had been further undermined by the amputation of a leg, the comte and comtesse were prepared to bide their time, certain that before long nature would come to their financial rescue. Then disaster struck – Gustave announced he was getting married to a Mademoiselle de Dudzeele.

On November 20, 1850, Gustave arrived at the Château de Bitremont, eager to elaborate on his good fortune over dinner. That evening, unusually, Lydie banished her children and governess, Justine Hirbaut, to the latter's room for their meal, while – again contrary to normal practice – she dismissed the servants after the first course and continued serving the food herself. Sometime later a loud thud was heard from the dining room. Lydie rushed out into a hallway and cried out to a maid, "Gustave has fallen ill – I think he is dead." He had suffered, she said, a stroke.

Bizarre Spectacle

Alarmed servants crowded into the room and there witnessed the extraordinary sight of Hyppolyte forcing glass after glass of vinegar down his brother-in-law's throat. All to no avail. Gustave was quite plainly dead. Then came yet another startling scene as Lydie busied herself by stripping her brother naked, rushing to the laundry with his soiled clothes, then returning to help her husband as he sluiced Gustave's body with yet more vinegar. Later that night one of the servants saw Lydie burning her brother's cravat and waistcoat. All night long, Lydie scrubbed the dining room floor. In her wake came Hyppolyte, scraping every inch of the wooden floorboards with a knife. Finally, on the following afternoon, the exhausted couple collapsed into bed. Meanwhile, downstairs, the servants discussed the alarming events of the past 24 hours, eventually contacting a local priest who, in turn, summoned an examining magistrate, Juge d'Instruction Heughebaert.

Assisted by three physicians, Heughebaert visited the château and demanded to see the dining room. He found the fireplace filled with ashes, from a mountain of books and papers that had been burned there, and the floor still littered with hundreds of wood shavings. At first the comte and comtesse were obstructive, and it took the threat of legal sanction before they permitted the visitors to see the corpse. It had been kept in a darkened bedroom and Lydie did her best to keep it that way. Annoyed by her intransigence, Heughebaert pushed past and drew the curtains himself. Still Hyppolyte attempted to cover the dead man's face. The reason for his coyness was soon apparent – blackened marks around the mouth and deep cuts across the face provided ugly evidence that this was anything but a natural death. Bocarmé, too, showed signs of recent trauma – a bite mark on one of his fingers, such as might be sustained during a struggle.

An impromptu autopsy, held in the coach house, revealed burns in the mouth, throat and stomach, and convinced the doctors that Gustave had died from ingesting some kind of corrosive liquid, most likely sulfuric acid. After placing the comte and comtesse under arrest, Heughebaert ordered the removal of the bodily organs. The samples were sealed in jars of alcohol and sent to Jean Servais Stas, widely regarded as the greatest chemical analyst of the 19th century.

Professor Jean Sevais Stas, a brilliant chemist
Professor Jean Sevais Stas, a brilliant chemist

Brilliant Chemist

Stas had studied in Paris before taking up a position in 1840 as chemistry professor at the École Royale Militaire in Brussels. He speedily dismissed sulfuric acid as a cause of death, and suspected that the vinegar had been used to mask some toxic alkaloid. But what? And how to find it? In 1850 toxicology was then still in its infancy. Scientists knew how to identify metallic poisons like arsenic in human tissue, but this required the tissue itself to be destroyed. Unfortunately, with alkaloid poisons a similar process destroyed the poison as well. Stas got around this problem by dissolving extracts of the tongue, stomach, liver and lungs with alkaline solution, and then refining the sample by repeated washing and filtration. After this continual refinement, the samples were treated with ether and then evaporated. The process was enormously time-consuming. All through the winter of 1850 he labored and into the following year, until, finally, he recovered an oily substance with the characteristics of nicotine.

Europe had been addicted to tobacco for almost three centuries before anyone realized that nicotine was a wonderfully efficient poison. Named after Jean Nicot, the 16th century French diplomat who introduced tobacco to his homeland, nicotine was first isolated in 1828. It belongs to the alkaloid group of poisons that include morphine and strychnine, and can kill in minutes. Symptoms include burning in the mouth and throat, confusion, nausea, and vomiting, followed by convulsions and respiratory arrest.

Stas was certain that Gustave had been murdered with nicotine, and he asked Heughebaert to investigate whether the Bocarmés ever had nicotine in their possession. Proof was soon forthcoming. A gardener recalled helping the comte prepare a type of eau-de-cologne, using enormous quantities of tobacco leaves, and local chemists remembered Hyppolyte badgering them with questions about the toxic qualities of nicotine. He was also known to have two phials of nicotine in his possession in November 1850. After the death of Gustave Fougnies, these phials went missing. The body of a cat and other animals found in the chateau grounds were sent to Stas for analysis. All contained nicotine. When Hippolyte's secret laboratory was discovered behind some wall paneling, the game was up.

"La Veuve" - the Widow - being dismantled following an execution
"La Veuve" - the Widow - being dismantled following an execution

Blame Each Other

On May 27, 1851. the couple stood trial for their lives. Each blamed the other. Lydie threw herself on the mercy of the court, pleading that Hyppolyte had forced her into the murderous conspiracy. He merely sniffed his disdain. The jury, reluctant to consign a woman to the guillotine, set Lydie free. Hippolyte didn't fare so well. On the morning of July 18, 1851, he was brought, manacled, from his cell in Mons prison, out into a public square and there came face-to-face with "La Veuve" (the Widow). When told just hours earlier that he was to be executed, he had just shrugged. "I have but one request to make," he told the prisoner governor. "Be kind enough to take care that the blade of the guillotine is well-sharpened. I have read of executions where much suffering has followed the neglect of this precaution, and the thought of that makes me tremble."

There were no mishaps. The triangular blade flashed down and "La Veuve" ended Bocarmé's anxieties with a thud.

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