In 1851, the Belgian chemist Jean Stas
was the first to prove the use of tobacco extract as a murder poison in
the civilised world. The Belgian count Hippolyte Visart de Bocarmé had
poisoned his brother-in-law with tobacco leaf extract in order to
acquire some urgently needed money. This was the first exact proof of
alkaloids in forensic medicine.
Nene Adams - Theyearround.punt.nl
trial at Mons created a sensation on the Continent in 1851 when the
Belgian Count Hippolyte Visart de Bocarmé and his wife, Lydie, were
accused of poisoning her brother, Gustave Fougnies. Bocarmé’s greed for
wealth was believed to be the motive.
Lydie was the daughter of a retired grocer of considerable means,
rendering her very attractive in Bocarmé’s eyes despite her common
birth. The Count’s finances, it seems, were in desperate need of a cash
infusion; his income was only 2,400 francs a year, and he had been
borrowing heavily. His mismanagement of funds did not improve after
marriage. Even though his father-in-law only gave the couple an
allowance of 2,000 francs a year, Bocarmé and his wife lived in a grand
style despite their mounting debts, and he had a mistress to support as
When the grocer
died, the bulk of his fortune was left to Lydie’s brother, Gustave.
Bocarmé had anticipated his wife inheriting much more than a paltry
5,000 francs per year. Their finances were worse than ever; he had been
forced to pledge some of Lydie’s jewels to borrow more money, and to
sell some of his property to stave off creditors. Fortunately, Gustave
suffered from ill health and a weak constitution. Bocarmé went so far as
to consult a physician to find out the chances that Gustave might die
soon, thus saving the Count from imminent financial and social ruin.
The answer must not
have pleased the impatient Bocarmé. His only hope lay in Gustave dying
without heirs, but that hope was dashed when Gustave announced he was
getting married. Bocarmé had to act. After consulting with a professor
of chemistry and spending some time in the laboratory himself, he
invited Gustave to come to dinner at his château on the 20th
of November, 1850.
At a certain point
in the evening, the alarm was raised. Gustave’s body was discovered in
the dining room. Bocarmé and Lydie said he had died of apoplexy. Very
carefully, the couple had ensured there were no other witnesses. At
first, their account was accepted… until an examination of the body
proved them false.
contusions and scratches on the victim’s noise and cheek; traces of
corrosive poison were found on the tongue, in the throat and stomach
contents. Tests confirmed the substance was pure nicotine. Bocarmé was
also subjected to a physical examination; the authorities found he had
bite marks on one of his fingers, and stains on his fingernails which
were believed to be blood. It was not long before it was discovered
Bocarmé had distilled two phials of nicotine–one of the most lethal
poisons known–prior to Gustave’s death. The aristocrat and his wife were
arrested and charged with murder.
contended that the victim had been restrained by Bocarmé and the poison
forcibly poured down his throat. This scenario required two people
working in concert. It could be proved by servants’ testimony that it
was the Countess who ordered the dining room to be cleared of potential
witnesses, leaving herself and Bocarmé as the only people in the room
with the deceased; she made certain the door connecting to the kitchen
was closed; after the body was discovered, she had the dining room’s
floor thoroughly cleaned, and also arranged for her husband’s clothing
to be washed, and some of it burned. Another servant was said to have
heard Gustave crying for help, the pleas soon turning silent.
Lydie claimed she had been under duress. Bocarmé had told her of his
murderous intentions towards her brother, but she had been helpless to
warn Gustave, or do anything against Bocarmé’s wishes. It was all her
husband’s fault; he had plotted the whole affair and forced her to
assist him. She had not even been in the room when the murder was
committed, but had fled after Bocarmé attacked Gustave, throwing him to
Bocarmé had another
story to tell. He admitted to having distilled the nicotine. According
to him, the phials had been on the dining room table; his wife had
picked one up and poured it into Gustave’s glass, mistaking it for wine.
Gustave’s death, he claimed, was a tragic accident.
The jury believed
the wife but not the husband. Lydie was acquitted. Bocarmé was found
guilty and sentenced to death.
“I ask one favor,”
he told the Procureur de Roi after his appeal against the judgment was
rejected, “see that the ax is well sharpened. I have read of cases in
which, owing to the blunt edge of the knife, two or three strokes were
necessary–the idea makes me shudder.”
Visart de Bocarmé was executed by guillotine on the 19th of
July, 1851, before a crowd of thousands. As requested, the blade was
very sharp, and it took only a single blow to sever the murderer’s head
from his neck.
Extraordinary trial for murder in
(From the Leed's Mercury, June 7, 1851)
A remarkable case is now on trial before the High
Criminal Court of Hainault, at Mons. The accused are the Count and
Countess of Bocarme, of a family stated to be one of the oldest in
Belgium. The crime laid to their charge is that of havng poisoned the
Countess's brother, Gustave Faugnies, in order to obtain his fortune.
Count de Bocarme resided at the chateau of Bury; he
married in 1843, for her fortune, Lydia Fougnies, the daughter of a
retired grocer, and got with her a sum representing £100 a-year of
English money. This, after all, was no great sum, and as the Count was
somewhat of a spendthrift, his affairs assumed gradually a most
His wife's brother, Gustave Faugnies, had become
possessed, by his father's death, of considerable property, and as he
was unmarried, the Count and Countess had every prospect of inheriting
his fortune. Gustave, though weak in constitution, and amputated of a
leg, determined, in November, 1850, to marry.
The state of Count Bocarme's exchequer was at this
time quite ruinous. He owed large sums to his legal advisers, and had
mortgaged most of his property. Fougnies' marriage would have been a
blow to his hopes.
Suddenly the Count became addicted, in the beginning
of 1850, to the study of chemistry. He went under a false name to a
manufacturer of alembics, corresponded also under a false name with a
professor of chemistry, and ultimately succeeded in distilling from
tobacco leaves a deadly poison known as nicotine, and for which hitherto
it has been impossible to find a reactive.
This poison he tried on various animals, and,
according to his own statement, he obtained tremendous results, death
being instantaneous after the slightest absorption of the poison.
In November, 1850, Gustave Fougnies was induced to
accept an invitation to dinner at Bury, it being proposed to him to
become trustee for the Count and Countess, during a voyage they intended
making in Germany. He came on the morning of the 20th November, and
after dinner on the same day, died in the room where were present both
the Count and the Countess.
It was found, on examination, that death had ensued,
not from apoplexy, but from the forcible injection of a poisonous and
corrosive substance. There were marks of violence on the face of the
dead man, and part of the poison had run down the side of his face,
corroding the flesh and blistering it. An examination of Count Bocarme's
hands showed the presence of a bite from humun teeth, and a red tinge on
one of his nails corresponded with certain marks and scratches on the
face of Fougnies. The clothes of Fougnies and those of the Count, which
he had changed, were found wet, and hanging up to-dry in an attic of the
This had been done by the Countess, as- alie states,
by order of her husbnnd. The floor had been scraped with glass, but
insufficiently to prevent the marks of the corroding liquid, which
seemed to have been spurted all over the room. There were no traces of
chemical instruments or of any apparatus for the distillation of poison.
The false name assumed by the Count in his dealings with the chemical
instrument-maker, however, became known.
After six weeks search, the alembics used in
producing nicotine were found, and Bocarme, when informed of these
discoveries, for a moment gave himself up to despair. The Countess then
openly accused her husband of being the murderer. She described how,
after dinner, her brother expressed his determination to go home, and
Bocarme went out to order his horses. In his absence she and her brother
were talking together, when Bocarme rushed in, seized Gustave by the
shoulders and threw him down. She fled, and did not return into the room
till all was over, and the body of Gustave lay lifeless on the ground.
(From the Adas, June 21, 1851)
After seventeen days of trial, the case of the Count
and Countess de Bocarme was brought to a conclusion at the Assize Court
of Mons on Friday. After considering their verdict for an hour and a
half the jury returned into Court and the foreman in a somewhat
tremulous bnt firm voice declared the finding of the jury to be, " ou my
honour and conscience, and in the presence of God and man," a verdict of
guilty against the Count, and not guilty against his wife, Madame
Bocarme:-The President then ordered the accused to be brought into Court.
This time the Count was admitted first. His
appearance was calm and collected. Madame de Bocarme had her veil down,
but her step waB firm. On hearing the verdict of guilty a slight
momentary flush passed over the Count's face, but he evinced no other
sign of emotion. On heanng not guilty on his wife, an expression of
internal satisfaction animated his features. He looked affectionately
toward his wife, who gave no visible signs of emotion. She left the dock
with a firm step, without speaking to her hus- band. The Procureur du
Roi, having asked the prisoner if he had anything to say, he replied "
No, except that I am perfectly innocent." He then entered calmly into
conversation with his counsel.
At eleven o'clock the Court pronounced sentence of
death upon Hippolyte Visart de Bocarme, and decreed that the execu- tion
should take place in one of the squares of Mons. The prisoner left the
Court under guard with a firm step.
Tobacco & Crime
The tobacco plant, nicotiana tabacum, was
introduced to Europe in 1561. It arrived at Lisbon, where the French
ambassador, Jean Nicot, took an interest in the new plant and introduced
it to France. It was used medicinally as a treatment for eczema and
palsy. It was not until 1828 that the most active ingredient was
isolated, and named nicotine.
Nicotine is a rapidly effective poison, in the same
group as morphine, strychnine and aconitine. Its initial effect is that
of a stimulant, but in poisonous doses it produces nausea and cardiac
irregularity, eventually paralysing the respiratory system. The lethal
dose for an adult is between 60 and 90mg. One cigar contains enough
nicotine to kill two adults if it were administered by injection. Death
may take place within a few minutes. Homicidal use of nicotine is rare
but its use in horticultural sprays has led to many cases of accidental
poisoning through skin absorption. Although by 1847, tests had been
devised to identify vegetable poisons in their pure forms in the
laboratory, this did not help in cases of suspicious deaths, when the
poison would be embedded in the organs of the victim. Scientists were
unable to isolate vegetable poisons from animal tissue. When the tissue
was destroyed - the normal procedure in the search for arsenic - the
poison was destroyed as well. The leading toxicologist of the day,
Mathieu Orfila, lamented that the alkaloid poisons, as these vegetable
substances were known, might remain forever undetectable. He was proved
wrong only three years later in a remarkable case.
Count Hyppolite de Bocarmé was part Belgian and part
Dutch, and, in keeping with his extraordinary lifestyle, he had been
born on the high seas in the middle of a storm. His family had been
bound for Java, where his father held the post of Governor. The boy had
been neglected during his childhood, and was allowed to run wild. In
later years the legend sprang up that he had been suckled by a lioness.
Later on, his father had become a tobacco dealer and then a hunter. It
was not until the family returned to Europe that the boy received any
education, when he displayed an interest in agriculture and science. He
was a badly behaved youth, well known to be a swindler and womaniser.
When he was 24 his father died, and he succeeded to the title and took
over the Château de Bitremont, near the Belgian community of Bury.
Bocarmé liked to live an extravagant life, and in
1843, to increase the family fortunes, he married a bourgeoise,
Lydie Fougnies, whom he believed to be wealthy. Her father was an
eccentric apothecary, and had raised his two children, Lydie and a
sickly son, Gustave, to aim for marriage into a titled family. After the
marriage, Bocarmé found that Lydie was not nearly as wealthy as he had
imagined. The couple liked wild parties and extravagant hunts, and her
income of 2000Fr. per annum was not nearly enough to support this, not
to mention the upkeep of the château and its staff of servants. This
situation created some tension between the couple, and violent quarrels
would alternate with bouts of mutual passion. When Lydie's father died,
her annual income increased to 5000Fr., but this was still far too
little. They managed for some time by selling off what land they could,
but by 1849 this source had dried up. Their last hope was that Gustave,
who had inherited the major part of his father's fortune, would die
unmarried, in which case, all his possessions would go to his sister.
This was not unlikely, as Gustave, who had never been strong, had been
very ill since the amputation of a leg.
In the spring of 1850, however, Gustave bought the
château of an impoverished noble family, and there were rumours of his
interest in the former owner, Demoiselle de Dudzech. On 20th November,
messengers arrived at the Bocarmés to say that Gustave would be arriving
at noon to announce his engagement. A number of curious preparations
were made for this event. It was normal for the children of the family
to eat with their elders in the main dining room, but on that day they
were banished to the kitchen. The food was to be served, not by the
château servants but by the Countess herself.
That afternoon, the maid, Emmerance, heard a sound
from the dining room as if someone had fallen to the floor, and Gustave
crying out "Oh, oh, pardon, Hyppolite!" She went to see what the matter
was, but as she approached the dining room door she collided with the
Countess who was rushing out, closing the door behind her. The Countess
ran into the kitchen, fetched some vessels of hot water, and ran back to
the dining room. Soon afterwards she called to Emmerance, and Gilles the
coachman, for help, saying that Gustave had been taken ill, and she
thought he had had a stroke.
They found Gustave lying on the floor of the dining
room. Bocarmé was in a state of great excitement. He ordered vinegar to
be brought to him, and proceeded to pour glass after glass of it down
Gustave's throat. He then ordered that Gustave should be undressed and
his body washed with vinegar. The Countess rushed to the laundry with
Gustave's clothes and threw them into hot soapy water. Gilles, after
throwing more and more vinegar over Gustave at Bocarmé's excited orders,
was then told to remove the body to Emmerance's room and lay it on the
The Countess was up most of that night scrubbing the
floor of the dining room. She also scrubbed Gustave's crutches, but
later decided to burn them. Early in the morning the Count took a knife
and began scraping the dining room floorboards. He continued in this
task until late afternoon. Eventually, the Count and Countess, by now
both exhausted, went to bed. At this point the servants met together and
discussed what to do. All of them were alarmed and terrified by the
events of the last twenty-four hours. They decided to go to the priest
and tell their story. By the time they had done so, rumour had also
reached the examining magistrate in Tournai that Gustave Fougnies had
died an unnatural death.
The examining magistrate , Heughebaert, arrived in
Bury accompanied by three gendarmes and three surgeons. He was sceptical
of the rumours and so, leaving the gendarmes behind in Bury, arrived at
the walled and moated château with only the surgeons and the town clerk
for company. The fireplace of the dining room was filled with ashes, and
it was clear that books and papers had been burned there, while the
dining room floor was littered with wood shavings. At first the Count
refused to see the magistrate, but eventually he was obliged to appear.
When Heughebaert asked to see the body he was led reluctantly to a
darkened room, and when the Countess refused to draw the curtains he did
so himself. Bocarmé tried to hide Gustave's face with his hands, but it
was apparent that this was anything but a natural death. The young man's
face was badly cut, and the mouth appeared burned and blackened.
Heughebaert ordered that the body be examined at
once. The doctors carried it to the coach-house, and two hours later,
announced their verdict. The mouth, tongue, throat and stomach showed
distinct corrosive burns and they believed that Gustave had died from
drinking some corrosive liquid, probably sulphuric acid. Heughebaert
supervised the removal from the body of all the organs that might be
useful for a chemical examination. They were sealed in vessels
containing pure alcohol. He then placed the Count and Countess under
Once back at Tournai, Heughebaert engaged a carriage
with fast horses and went to Brussels with the specimens. There was only
one man he wanted to examine the remains, a professor of chemistry
called Jean Stas. Stas was at thirty seven the leading chemist in the
country. When he found the laboratory at the École Militaire where he
taught, to be poorly equipped, he set up equipment in his own home,
turning the whole house from cellar to roof garden into a laboratory. In
later years, ministers and kings would come to visit him there. It was
in this home laboratory between the months of December 1850 and February
1851, that Stas made the breakthrough - he devised the method for
demonstrating the presence of vegetable poisons in human tissue.
He was quickly able to rule out sulphuric acid as a
cause of death. Like most of his contemporaries, he used his sense of
taste and smell to identify chemicals. He at once remarked to
Heughebaert on the smell of vinegar, and was told of the repeated
washing of the body in this substance. It occurred to him that this
might well have been done to mask the presence of another poison. After
a number of experiments, he identified a smell which reminded him
somewhat of coniine, the poison found in hemlock, and realised that he
might be dealing with a vegetable poison. Further purification of the
material resulted in a brownish substance with the unmistakable smell of
tobacco. He was able to submit this to the laboratory tests for pure
nicotine, and obtained a positive result. Stas sent his extract to
Heughebaert with a letter suggesting that he investigate whether the
Bocarmé's had ever had nicotine in their possession.
Heughebaert at once went to search the château and
questioned the servants. The feeble minded gardener told him that during
the summer, he had helped the Count prepare eau-de-cologne, and for this
purpose, the Count had bought enormous quantities of tobacco leaves and
made extracts of these in a laboratory in the castle washhouse. The
resultant extract had been placed in a cupboard in the dining room, and
the following day the Count had removed all the equipment from the
washhouse. In the next few days, Heughebaert was able to trace a number
of chemists to whom Bocarmé had gone to seek advice about the extraction
of nicotine from tobacco leaves. He found the buried bodies of cats and
ducks which Bocarmé had experimented upon, and eventually he found the
equipment, hidden behind some panelling in the château. He sent the
animal remains to Stas, as well as samples of wood from the floorboards
and even the trousers the gardener had worn when preparing the "eau-de-cologne".
Stas found traces of nicotine in all of them.
So how had Stas made the breakthrough? Vegetable
poisons are alkaline, and soluble in both water and alcohol. The
substances of which the human body are made are soluble either in water
or in alcohol, or else they are insoluble in both. If the material is
reduced to a pulp, and exposed to alcohol to which an acid has been
added, the resultant filtrate will take with it those substances soluble
in alcohol together with the poison, leaving behind the insoluble bodily
substances. Water could then be used to dissolve the poison, leaving
behind those bodily substances insoluble in water. The crucial thing
therefore was the mixture of alcohol and acid. The organs had, it will
be recalled, been preserved in alcohol - and the acid? Bocarmé had added
this himself - the vinegar.
At the trial in the following May, the two defendants
had no recourse but to accuse each other. The Countess admitted that she
had helped to murder her brother but said that her husband had compelled
her by brute force. The Count admitted he had made the poison but said
he had stored it in a wine bottle and his wife had given it to her
brother. It was a feeble lie that fooled no-one. It was obvious from the
appearance of the body that Gustave had died violently, probably being
held down while the nicotine was forced down his throat. Bocarmé must
have thought that his rank would protect him. A court reporter wrote of
him "His air of assurance is prodigious". His counsel painted the
Countess as a designing woman and sought the sympathy of the court by
pointing out that his client had had a disturbed upbringing. The Count
was found guilty of murder, but the Countess, to the indignation of the
populace was acquitted, it is said because the jury could not bear to
send a lady to the guillotine. There were no such scruples about her
husband, however, and despite his petitioning the King, Bocarmé went to
the scaffold the following July.
Stas earned lasting fame, and his method of
identifying the alkaloid poisons is fundamentally the same as that used