The Poisoning Angel by Jean Teulé

the poisoning angel

During the first half of the nineteenth century in Brittany, a household cook went on a decades’ long killing spree. She poisoned men, women, and children, opting to lace cakes and soup with arsenic. Her victims would swell and be in immense discomfort before they finally expired. The cook killed dozens of people.

It all sounds quite gruesome (and it is, of course), but with time dividing us and a closer examination of Hélène Jégado’s spree, one can’t help but think how preposterous it all is. She had no clear reasoning for it. Hélène was not explicitly after money or other possessions, she just liked offing people. If she was accused of a petty crime like stealing a sheet or book, the accuser was done for. She left so many bodies piling behind her that the villagers outwardly yelled obscenities at her in the streets.

In The Poisoning Angel, Hélène Jégado’s life and crimes have been fictionalized by author Jean Teulé as he portrays the dastardly affairs in a dark comedy vein. As a child, Hélène is taught different folklore including one about the Ankou, the Breton myth of death. She takes on this personification and makes it her life’s work, so to speak, to dispatch everyone in her wake.

The majority of the novel is concerned with the various households Hélène Jégado joins throughout the years. With every new master of the house or suspicious domestic servant, the reader looks through one open eye as her fatal soups and cakes are served one after another. Afterward, this did become a bit repetitive; there wasn’t much variety in each new household. Moments that did stick out were when Hélène’s new position was in a venue different from the others. It was particularly engaging when she takes up as the cook of a brothel, both cooking her fare and providing comfort to the gaggle of soldiers that find their way there. The rapidity of their dispatches is downright farcical.

Beginning each chapter is a simple map of Brittany with points notating Hélène’s movements as she absconds from each residence. At some point, the path criss-crosses adding to that aforementioned preposterous feeling and the addition of a couple of groupie wigmakers, who clip the recently deceased’s hair for their own uses, make me wonder if this story wouldn’t be better suited for a stage play.

The Poisoning Angel is translated from its original French by Melanie Florence. She took a particularly interesting approach as she included some of the Breton language that was surely in the original novel. Hélène comes from Brittany, an area of France that is continually designated as other. This further outcasts her throughout the book.

For further reading, I suggest Contemporary Perspectives on Serial Murder, where I read an excerpt about the real Hélène Jégado, which is available for free here.

The Poisoning Angel will be published on July 14th by Gallic Books.

Added to The International Reading List

women’s suffrage & the cookbook

“Neither idiots, lunatics, paupers, felons nor women shall be entitled to vote.”

It wasn’t until the first part of the 20th Century did women have the right to vote in the United States (even with the support of various learned men and women throughout the ages declaring what pish posh it was for women not to have this right).

I don’t recall learning in high school history class about cookbooks in conjunction with the Women’s Suffrage Movement, but it appears that they used this genre as a tool in their arsenal. What smart ladies! Selling suffrage cookbooks allowed for others, who would not have normally been involved in the movement, to get their hand in the game. Besides recipes and other household potpourri, the cookbooks included lists of names of the contributors who were often doctors, lawyers, etc., the suffragists’ goals and opinions, and quotations by aforementioned supporters.

author John Greenleaf Whittier: “For 50 years I have been in favor of Woman’s Suffrage. I have never been able to see any good reasons for denying the ballot to women.”

President Abraham Lincoln: “I go for all sharing the privileges of the government who assist in bearing its burdens — by no means excluding women.”

I also find these books incredibly fascinating from a historical point of view. Besides the appropriately named, “Rebel Soup,” there are also recipes for “Waterlily Eggs” and “Mock Turtle Soup,” dishes that have fallen out of fashion. In the Woman Suffrage Cook Book (available in its entirety online), there is also information on the care of invalids.

Again, Project Gutenberg comes through. The Suffrage Cook Book is also available in its entirety and as an ebook (photos included). You can find the recipe for “Pie for a Suffragist’s Doubting Husband,”

1 qt. milk human kindness
8 reasons:
White Slavery
Child Labor
8,000,000 Working Women
Bad Roads
Poisonous Water
Impure Food

Mix the crust with tact and velvet gloves, using no sarcasm, especially with the upper crust. Upper crusts must be handled with extreme care for they quickly sour if manipulated roughly.