Adam Lee Hargrave: Acid-throwing almost exclusively a female crime

Adam Lee Hargrave was an early 20th-century crime reporter and documentarian who wrote extensively on Scotland Yard, the C.I.D., Jack the Ripper, and similar topics. The following article about acid-throwing is from his 1912 book Woman and Crime, in which he states that women were almost exclusively responsible for the crime.—PW


THE act of throwing vitriol may very well be bracketed with secret and slow poisoning as an example of extreme cruelty in women. Vitriol-throwing is rarely resorted to by men, being almost exclusively confined to females. The latter as we have already pointed out are also largely in the majority among poisoners. It is just as inexplicable as is the inhumanity of women towards little children, and why such savagery should find a home in the bosoms of those who are universally supposed to be inspired by instincts of sympathy and tenderness it is fruitless to try and discover. But it makes one thing quite clear, namely, that the orthodox opinions held by most men concerning women are not strictly accurate.

I recall the case of the Frenchwoman, Madame Emilie Foucault, who was indicted at the Old Bailey for throwing upon Andre Jacques Delombre a corrosive fluid, with intent to disfigure him or do him grievous bodily harm. I have already given an account of this case in another work of mine,1 but think it as well to include it here, as in many respects it is a remarkable case of its kind.

Sir Charles Mathews, who conducted the prosecution, referred to it as a “drama,” and drama of a most sensational kind it certainly was. The story that preceded the act for which the woman was indicted might very well have been fiction written by a novelist in the habit of turning out “risky” works. The prisoner and the prosecutor first became acquainted in the year 1898, the man then being seventeen years of age and the woman twenty. They met in the streets, and their acquaintance at first was merely of a casual kind. But it was soon to become more cordial, for the woman was very pretty and the young man susceptible. Their respective social positions were widely asunder, he being the son of an ex-Cabinet Minister of France, and she the daughter of a tradesman. This difference in caste was destined in due course to lead to a tragedy.

In March, 1899, the prisoner married her first husband, a man named Foucault, who died in January, 1901. Directly after this marriage took place an improper intimacy began between Madame Foucault and the young fellow, Delombre. It endured through Foucault’s life and survived his death. In May of 1903 Madame Foucault married again, this time a literary man in a good position. But she still continued the improper intimacy with Delombre. The husband soon became suspicious, discovered how matters stood, at once sued for and obtained a divorce. The divorced wife intermittently continued the intimacy with Delombre. It is quite clear that she now entertained the notion and formed the resolution that the young fellow should marry her. He would seem to have still been somewhat infatuated with her and to be willing to become her lawful husband. But here the social disparity between them became an obstacle, and Delombre’s parents would not entertain the proposed alliance. This opposition enraged Madame Foucault, who armed herself with a loaded revolver and threatened to shoot the young man’s parents. His mother was most firmly opposed to the match, and upon her death-bed she made her son promise that he would not marry the woman.

In the course of 1906 Madame Foucault fell in the family way, and subsequently she asked Delombre if he would acknowledge the child. This he refused to do, in consequence of which some unpleasant scenes ensued. Upon one occasion Delombre forcibly took a loaded revolver from her. Apparently in consequence of the annoyance she gave him, Delombre decided in October, 1906, to come to England. He did so, taking up his residence in Lindley Road, Tottenham, where he pursued his studies. He was an agricultural engineer, and held a degree of the University of Paris. On November 17th, Madame Foucault followed Delombre to England, bringing with her a loaded revolver, a box of cartridges, and a large bottle of sulphuric acid, or vitriol. The latter she had had coloured to the hue of coffee. The reason for this will appear presently. Having discovered where Delombre was lodging, she went there and asked him for an explanation. That was a Saturday evening, and it was arranged that the interview should be postponed till the next day, a lodging for the night being found for Madame Foucault. The next day she said to a friend of Delombre’s who lodged near him:

“I am expecting a child in January, and Delombre has abandoned me. After I have had an explanation I will return to Paris and make as much scandal as possible. I will have birth cards printed, and send them to his friends.” (In France birth cards are sent round as marriage cards are sent round in this country.) At the Old Bailey Delombre stoutly denied that the child referred to was his, and that he was not the “only one.”

Later in the day Delombre went with Madame Foucault to a hotel in the City, where he engaged a room in the name of Foucault. They had dinner there in the public room, afterwards retiring to the room they had engaged, where they would be by themselves. While seated at the dinner-table Delombre asked Madame Foucault what explanation she required, and the lady replied that she would wait for it until they had retired to their room. In the light of subsequent events this was significant. Well, when the woman found herself alone with her companion she said, “The explanation I have to ask you is this: Either you shall marry me or you must kill yourself, if you are not a coward, or I will kill you.” That was the first time, said Delombre, that she had made any mention of marriage. He replied “Marry! No; never. Why, you don’t love me. You hate me, and I don’t love you.” Then the woman said, “I shan’t be troublesome. We shan’t live together, but I want my child to bear your name.” He replied “No.” Madame, who all through this was perfectly calm, said “Then you must kill yourself, or I will kill you.” It is difficult to understand why she should wish him to die, or how his death could benefit her in any way. But the fact that she was so calm through it all proves that it was mere idle talk and that she was temporising. It is a pity that he did not do the same thing. A man, however, is never equal to a woman in cunning and dissimulation.

It seems clear, however, that Delombre had become apprehensive, for he suggested that they should go for a walk. At the same time he went to the bed and took up his coat, which he proceeded to put on. Foolishly he turned his back upon her for a few moments. When he turned to her again she walked up to him and deliberately threw a cup of vitriol in his face. The premeditation was made apparent by the fact that she had contrived, unseen by her companion, to lock the door. He discovered this when, writhing in agony, he endeavoured to quit the room. His cries brought assistance, and he was conveyed to the hospital. The woman was taken into custody and while in prison awaiting trial she gave birth to a child.

Delombre permanently lost the sight of one eye and was otherwise disfigured for life. Most outrages committed by women are cowardly, and this one was particularly so. It was sheer vindictiveness, and no amount of provocation could mitigate its enormity. Her defence was that she intended to commit suicide in his presence, and that the vitriol and revolver were for that purpose. She further stated in the witness box that it was while in the act of drinking the vitriol herself that Delombre, while endeavouring to prevent her, splashed the vitriol over himself. This rather feeble contention could scarcely hold good in the face of the fact that the vitriol had been thrown or dashed at the prosecutor, as shown by the nature of the injuries.

The prosecutor declared that her original intention was that he should drink the acid, and that is why she had it made the colour of coffee. Her explanation of this discolouration was that it was caused by being poured into the bottle through a pewter funnel, and that it was the action of the latter on the acid that caused it to change colour. As a matter of fact pewter would not do anything of the kind, so that falls to the ground. The prosecutor explained that her intention was to cause him to drink the acid by “ringing the changes” on the cups. After they had had dinner he asked her if she would have coffee, and she declined. He, however, had a cup, and this evidently upset her arrangement, for her idea was to have the coffee upstairs, when she would have effected the change. She did in fact alter her mind when she got upstairs and had a cup brought up. And this served a purpose, although not the one originally intended. Having emptied the cup of coffee she substituted vitriol, which looked like coffee. So that she was able to get to close quarters with Delombre without arousing his suspicion as to the nature of the contents of the cup. If the vitriol had in any way failed she unquestionably intended to make use of the revolver.

The above facts would appear to be pretty conclusive evidence of guilt, and there can be no doubt that the jury would have returned a verdict of “Guilty” had it not been for the introduction into the case by counsel for the defence of a number of letters which had been written to the prisoner from time to time by the prosecutor. These put the latter in a very odious light and seriously prejudiced the case for the prosecution. The letters were allowed to be read by the judge, although when counsel for the prosecution attempted to read some which had been sent by the prisoner to the prosecutor his lordship put his veto on it. He should of course have put his veto on the others, as they had nothing to do with the charge before the court, most of them having been written years before the visit to the City hotel took place.

The case occupied four days. The prisoner, a dark young woman of strikingly handsome appearance and neatly attired, was one of those females whom I have already referred to as possessing force of character and invincible will-power. The latter in combination with her personal attractions was destined to be destructive to men. Her complexion was pale, and she had what the French call the “fatal eyes.” They were in fact very remarkable eyes, very dark and wonderfully expressive. They had a velvety softness, and at times could be most alluring. She also contrived to get into them a remarkable number of varied expressions. When it was her purpose to enlist sympathy her eyes were irresistibly soft and caressing. But now and again when the lady was heckled in cross-examination, there flashed from her eyes something resembling forked lightning, which gave one an uncomfortable notion of what she was capable. I have already referred to a case where a female prisoner succeeded in winning over a jury. I then referred to Madame Foucault, who, in spite of the conclusive evidence I have detailed above, was acquitted. This I attribute to her personal influence on the jury, combined with the reading of the letters mentioned. It was a verdict, not of justice based on fact, but of sympathy in the face of truth.

The conduct of both prior to the events of November 18th at the City hotel was deserving of measureless reprobation, and the letters should not have aroused sympathy for either. What can be said for a woman who readily gives herself over to a paramour immediately after she has been wedded to another? Can she be “wronged” in any way? Delombre worked her no mischief; those whom he wronged were the husbands. There can be no doubt that the first marriage was entered into so that the husband might be utilised as a safeguard to the intrigue. I suppose a husband could hardly be put to a worse purpose than this, or a marriage contracted under more odious conditions. And nobody who saw the two young people in the flesh can doubt that the woman was the leading spirit in the intrigue, and that she influenced Delombre by her “fatal eyes” and her other attractions as she influenced the jury at her trial. A woman who cares twopence for her chastity does not give way with the readiness with which Madame Foucault did.

Just as I have already described how Mrs Chard Williams set herself to seduce the jury from the straight line of their duty by directing her gaze full at them and keeping it so throughout the hearing, so did Madame Foucault, and with more success. She directed her “fatal eyes” towards the jurymen, each one of whom she took in turn, lavishing upon them the most bewitching and ravishing glances. I sat beneath the jury-box and quite close to the dock. I closely watched her, and upon one occasion she, noticing my scrutiny and thinking perhaps that I might be an official and worth including, she turned her gaze full upon me and favoured me with a most entrancing optical caress. I felt a trifle “shivery” over it, like one might feel while being grinned at by a tigress, and was not sorry to avert my eyes.

After her acquittal she stated to an interviewer that at a certain stage of the proceedings she knew she had so many of the jury on her side. There can be no doubt that she did. Women like Madame Foucault know the weak points of men like they know their A. B. C. When counsel was describing the injuries of Delombre she appeared to be moved, but that it was humbug was proved by the fact that after the verdict was returned she pointed down triumphantly at the injured man and jeered at him. No doubt that what the man himself had told her, namely, that she hated him, was true. She subsequently endeavoured to fix the paternity of her child upon him, and a summons was served at the place in London where he had been staying. He had, however, gone back to Paris, but in spite of this fact an order was made against him by a magistrate. It seems a very easy matter to get a bastardy order against a man. In this case the magistrate took the bare word of the solicitor that the summons was duly served, when as a matter of fact it was not. Delombre took the matter to the High Court, where the judges set the order aside.

Vitriol-throwing is altogether a most ugly crime, for it is always committed in a spirit of extreme vindictiveness. Sometimes, too, it is done to avenge a wholly imaginary wrong, as in the case of the woman who, ironically enough, was named Mabel Truelove. The crime was committed in May, 1908. The woman Truelove was a habitual criminal, who had previously been confined in Reading gaol. She had conceived a great hatred of the matron, Miss Elizabeth Rogerson, who, she declared, had treated her harshly and cruelly. As a matter of fact Miss Rogerson was a most humane woman and had always dealt leniently with Truelove. However, the latter determined to do the matron a mischief, and she accomplished it in a truly fiendish manner. On a Sunday evening, while Miss Rogerson sat in St James’s Roman Catholic Church with a friend named Mrs Emily Cushan, Truelove came down the church and seated herself beside Miss Rogerson. In her teeth she was holding a shawl. She said to Miss Rogerson, “Well, how are you?” To which Miss Rogerson replied, “Oh, all right.” Truelove then drew a large cup of vitriol from under her shawl and flung the contents in the face of Miss Rogerson.

Miss Rogerson called out “Vitriol!” and fell in a faint. She was unable to see, and after she had been attended to by a nurse and a doctor she was conveyed to the Royal Berks Hospital. She was very seriously injured, being likely to lose the sight of one eye. Her friend, Mrs Cushan, was also seriously injured, the acid having splashed on to her. Also Truelove herself was very badly burnt, for the liquid also splashed back on her, which was a recoil of her vengeance peculiarly appropriate. If all vitriol-throwers also injured themselves in this manner, there might be less of the dastardly crime committed. When Truelove appeared in the dock of the Reading Police Court next morning her face presented a most repulsive appearance, the features being quite unrecognisable. Her lips were distended, her eyes invisible, and her cheeks scarred and wounded. She had to be assisted into the dock, and was hardly able to remain seated on the form. Would that all would-be vitriol-throwers could have witnessed this spectacle! She was remanded and afterwards removed to that prison upon the matron of which she had committed such a gross outrage.

The prisoner had had a most remarkable career. She came of a family which was said to be well connected and respected. She was an accomplished pianist, and some years ago had been a teacher of music. She was a pupil teacher at a Board School, but failing to pass a certain examination her scholastic career came to an end. She would then appear to have gone into service, acting as governess to several well-known families, but her temper was of such a violent character that nobody would keep her very long, and so she was constantly going from situation to situation. Her friends also gradually tired of assisting her, and so she sank lower and lower. Eventually she found herself without a roof “on the road” in which condition she remained some years, sleeping in various places, such, for instance, as doss-houses, churchyards, outhouses, or any place where she could find shelter. During this period she committed innumerable offences, prisons being among the places wherein she periodically slept. She resorted to all kinds of tricks to evade the police, on one occasion exchanging her dress for male garb while in a railway carriage. But as she left her own clothes behind, the police were enabled to soon get upon her track.

During her career she had been in several prisons of which Miss Rogerson had been matron, including that at Reading. Two years prior to the outrage at Reading, Truelove committed an assault on Miss Rogerson, for which she was bound over for six months. She then said to Detective-Sergeant Clarke, “The time won’t be long passing; I will leave the town and have something ready for her (meaning Miss Rogerson) when I come back.” After she had committed the assault on Miss Rogerson at Reading, she said, “I don’t care what I have to put up with myself; I have got my revenge, and revenge is sweet.” When asked by Detective-Sergeant Clarke where she obtained the vitriol, she said, “Never mind; I know where to get it, and how to use it. I did not get it here. I should like to serve one or two more like it. I did not intend to hurt the other woman (Mrs Cushan). It serves her right though, if she mixes up with a – – like that.” She was known in nearly every prison in the country, having been convicted no fewer than 127 times for various offences. In whatever prison she was located she created disturbances and put fear into the minds of the wardresses. She had followed wardresses about, molesting and threatening them, sometimes to throw vitriol over them. In consequence the wardresses went in fear of her. A wardress named Pemberdy told how on one occasion she saw Truelove carrying a jug without a handle, and that she told her, Miss Pemberdy, that she would like to spoil her face. Upon one occasion, while following Miss Rogerson and Miss Pemberdy, she said to the former, “You have played your ace, and it is my turn to play trumps now.” She had also waited for days outside Reading Prison, in consequence of which the wardresses had remained indoors rather than go out and be insulted.

Another wardress named Miss Bingham wrote from Hull Prison to say that Truelove had followed her to church and waited outside until the service was over. Subsequently discovering that her home was at Lancaster, she gave a great deal of annoyance by calling at the house of her parents and waiting outside. She afterwards sent a postcard to Miss Bingham at the address of her relatives, worded, “I am coming. –(Signed) Jack the Ripper.” Upon two occasions she had been sentenced to imprisonment for assaulting female officials. During the hearing of her case at the Berkshire Assizes the prisoner continually interrupted the proceedings. When reference was being made to Miss Rogerson’s injuries, and counsel was describing the condition of “one of the lady’s eyes,” the prisoner interrupted with, ” You don’t call that thing a lady, do you?” It was inevitable that an effort would be made to establish a theory of insanity, and certainly the extravagance and pertinacity of her wrongdoing would seem to suggest that she was not altogether in her right mind. However, her counsel, Mr. Nash, was proceeding to say that she had been suffering from delusions for two years, when she interposed with, “You are no doctor. It’s no use proving that I am mad, because I am not. I never suffered from delusions.” The jury having found her guilty, the judge, Mr Justice Darling, sentenced her to five years’ penal servitude.

Whether sane or insane, one thing is quite clear, Mabel Truelove has never been dealt with properly by the law. She ought never to have been allowed to carry on her career for so long a time, to have been constantly committing offences and continually going in and out of prison. She ought to have been dealt with more severely long ago. She is a fit subject for an indeterminate sentence. It is clear that it is dangerous for such a woman to be at large, and during the whole of her career she has never once exhibited any intention or desire to reform. She was most persistent and determined in her wrongdoing from first to last. Probably her lawlessness and rebellious behaviour generally is traceable to her early years, when she may have been without any restraining influence. Over-indulgent parents may be the source of as much mischief to their offspring as negligent ones. The seeds which are sown in childhood’s days bear fruit years hence. The ironically-named Mabel Truelove seems to be a pretty hopeless case.

About the same time another case of vitriol throwing occurred at Hull, where a middle-aged woman named Selina Spencer threw acid over three persons, namely, Annie Roberts, a widow, Eliza Precious, her married daughter, and a little girl named Lily Dunelly. It appeared that Spencer had had a business transaction with Mrs Roberts and had called her a rogue. In consequence of this Spencer was ejected from the Alexandra Hotel. A few minutes later Mrs Roberts and her daughter left the hotel. They had not gone far, however, when they became aware that Spencer was following them. Eventually the latter came up with them and dashed the contents of a bottle in the face of Mrs Roberts, at the same time exclaiming “Take that!” Upon Mrs Precious interfering she also was served in the same way, being so badly burned that she lost the sight of one eye. Some of the acid also splashed on to the little girl. Spencer was then overpowered and prevented doing any further mischief. When taken into custody she had the effrontery to deny the charge, in spite of the evidence of eye-witnesses and the fact that her own hands were burned by the acid. She was duly convicted and punished.

A case which bore a striking resemblance to that of Madame Foucault, already dealt with, occurred at the end of April, 1907. It was generally believed in fact that the woman in this case had been reading the newspaper reports of the Foucault case, and had practically copied the Frenchwoman’s methods. And the fact that the latter was acquitted doubtless acted as a strong incentive to her to venture on a similar course of conduct.

The woman’s name was Lilian Sarah Woodcock. She was 27 years of age and was tried at the Old Bailey. She was charged with throwing a corrosive fluid hydrochloric acid over Mr John James Avery, a photographer, of Sandringham Road, Dalston. It appeared that she had been employed as manageress at a shop kept by a son of Mr Avery, in the East India Dock Road. The relations between Miss Woodcock and her employer, as admitted by the latter in the witness-box, were rather more cordial than those of master and servant. Mr Avery, senior, was the freeholder of the premises in East India Dock Road. Miss Woodcock claimed the premises as her own, as she said they had been given to her by Mr Avery’s son. The latter, however, stoutly denied this. Well, the woman went so far as to obtain an injunction in the High Court to restrain Mr Avery, senior, from entering the place. However, other proceedings followed, and the injunction was at length quashed.

On the afternoon of the same day Woodcock called at the house of Mr Avery, senior, and asked to see the latter. Mr Avery accordingly came to the door, but thinking it unwise to discuss matters with his visitor was about to close the door when the woman exclaimed, “Take that!” Although he saw nothing he felt a burning sensation about the face. He was removed to the German Hospital, where it was found that the acid had entered both eyes and burnt the right side of the forehead and the right cheek.

The defence put forward by the woman was that she had intended committing suicide, and that in knocking the vessel containing the acid from her hand Mr Avery received some of the contents on his face. It will be remembered that that was precisely the story told by Madame Foucault. In this case it was just as feeble as it was in that of the Frenchwoman, for the wall at the back of where Mr Avery stood was marked with the acid, which made it clear that the latter was thrown. Fortunately Mr Avery’s sight was not affected, although the acid used is of a very corrosive nature, and if not promptly attended to will destroy sight.

Fortunately in this case there were no letters, and the woman was convicted and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment.

I have thus given the particulars of a few representative cases of vitriol-throwing, a crime almost exclusively committed by women. It is a crime of vindictiveness alone, expressed by the invariable cry of “Take that!” and represents woman in one of her most repugnant aspects.


[1] A. L. Hargrave, The Story of Crime, Published by T. Werner Laurie.

See Also: For historical information about women’s acid-throwing in the USA, see “Acid Queens” at The Unknown History of Misandry.

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