2nd January 1878

Elizabeth Chantrelle’s death inspires The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Elizabeth Chantrelle, nee Dyer, was taken to hospital, vomiting, and that’s where she died. Subsequent analysis of that vomit revealed traces of the opium that killed her. No opium was found in her body, but that didn’t save her husband, Eugene, from being arrested, three days later, at her funeral.

Unhappy marriage

Eugene had been born in Nantes and was teaching languages in Edinburgh when he met 16-year-old Elizabeth, and the two were married when she was already seven months pregnant. The Spectator reported in September 1906 that “the marriage was most unhappy; the husband was repeatedly and ostentatiously unfaithful to his child-wife. He ‘beat her, kicked her, caned her, cursed her.’ More than once she had to invoke the protection of the law, and she was only restrained from petitioning for a divorce by dread of the scandal and exposure”.

On the morning of her death, she’d been found by the couple’s maid, who was dispatched to fetch the doctor.

When the doctor returned, he noted the smell of coal gas in the wife’s bedroom, in which she slept separately from her husband, but a subsequent post-mortem proved a complete absence of the gas in her body, so it wasn’t this that killed her. The gas was more likely a distraction, so the doctor set about searching the house, and found a stock of drugs, which led him to test the vomit. There, he found the opium traces, which led to her husband’s arrest.

Eugene Chantrelle on trial

At his trial, Eugene Chantrelle pleaded not guilty to his wife’s murder. However, the maid gave a convincing testimony that would have given the jury plenty of reason to suspect foul play on the husband’s part.

His case won’t have been helped by the fact that he’d recently taken out an insurance policy against her accidental death and, according to the Spectator, “he had made particular inquiries whether ‘accident’ included death after partaking of unwholesome dishes such as toasted cheese. The date of taking out the policy (November, 1877) coincided with the purchase of a particular extract of opium of which no trace could be found among the drugs in his possession.”

Chantrelle found guilty

After hearing four days of evidence, it took the jury just over an hour to find him guilty. Immediately, Chantrelle more or less confirmed the accuracy of the verdict by admitting that the only thing that could have caused his wife’s death was opium, and not the broken gas pipe on which much of his defence had relied. A complete record of the trial by advocate A Duncan Smith, published in 1906, noted that

“the subsequent protestation made by the prisoner, with much gesticulation, that the evidence had not shown whether Madame Chantrelle had taken opium of her own accord or had it administered to her, and his insinuation that some person had rubbed the poison into her bed-clothes and nightdress for the purpose of incriminating him, shocked everyone who heard it by the callous manner in which it was given expression to; and before the judge had succeeded in intervening, Chantrelle, by his remarks, had virtually renounced the whole foundation of his defence the theory of gas poisoning and had thereby conceded the cardinal principle of the prosecution that his wife had died from opium poisoning.“

The judge had no choice but to sentence him to death. Addressing the convict directly, he advised, “I shall not say one word to aggravate your feeling in the position in which you stand, but shall only exhort you to make the most of the few remaining days that you have to spend on earth, to repent of your past life, and make your peace with God.”

Eugene Chantrelle hanged

Chantrelle was hanged at Edinburgh’s Calton Prison on 31 May. The Greenock Advertiser of that days reported that “the execution of M Chantrelle for the murder of his wife took place within the Edinburgh prison this morning shortly after 8 o’clock. The convict passed a quiet night, retiring to rest about one o’clock, sleeping soundly till five, when his spiritual advisor, the Rev. Mr Wilson of Tolbooth, visited him, continuing with him to the last. An impressive service, to which the unhappy man listened attentively, was heard a few minutes before eight, after which Chantrelle was asked if he had any confession to make. He replied in the negative. He walked to the scaffold with the utmost firmness, and when the noose was adjusted by Marwood he betrayed no perturbation. The bolt was drawn at a quarter past eight. There was a drop of eight feet. The prisoner died easily, and in about two minutes the rope was quite still. The body was allowed to hang an hour, when it was cut down.”

Chantrelle’s crime was said to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write his story, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.



Other events that occured in January

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