What is a Poisoning Ring?

It’s one week until The Poisoner’s Ring! That means it’s close enough that I can talk a little about the history behind this installment.

The title comes from the idea of poisoning rings. Not “poison rings,” which is a very different thing, as Mallory discovers.

“Poison ring?” My eyes widen. “Please tell me that’s an actual thing. Fancy rings with little compartments of poison for killing off enemies and inconvenient lovers. Also, I want one.” I pause. “A poison ring. Not an inconvenient lover.”

Gray shakes his head. “There is no such thing.”

“As a ring full of poison? Or an inconvenient lover?”

“There is a fashion for rings with a small compartment in which women are said to carry poison. In truth, the small compartments are used to hold pills, perfume, and even mementos. Yes, I am certain some women buy them purely for their air of mystique and whiff of scandal, but that is not the sort of ring I mean.”

To understand the concept of a poisoning ring, a bit of history is in order…

The book is set in Victorian Scotland. While divorce became an option midway through the Victorian period, it was extremely difficult to obtain and the husband had to instigate it. The alternative was a civil separation, but that would cost a woman her children, her reputation and her ability to make a living (her estranged husband could sue her for any money she made.)

English common law included the doctrine of coverture, by which a woman’s legal existence disappeared into her husband’s. The two shall be one, and that one is the husband, legally speaking. You can’t sign a contract. You can’t inherit. Everything you have (including your children) belong to your husband.

Note that Coverture did not apply in Scotland. While Scottish women enjoyed more freedom, they were still largely considered to be under the “guardianship” of their husband, as in most Western cultures of this time.

What does this have to do with poisoning rings?  Well, if you’re a woman, there’s one clearcut route to independence: one dead husband. As a widow, you not only regain your pre-wedding legal rights, but you’re granted significantly more freedom. You don’t need the protection of a man—you’re entitled to grieve your dearly departed forever and no one expects you to remarry. You can even take lovers, since you aren’t protecting your virginity for a future husband. all you need to do is…get rid of your husband. The permanent way.

So what’s a poisoning ring?

“A ring of women who murder their loved ones with the help of another woman, who provides them with poison.”

“Like a book club, but instead of sharing books, they share poison.” I waggle my brows. “And murder.”

Gray sighs, but there’s a note of indulgence in it. Now that he knows my story, he’s becoming accustomed to my modern language and sense of humor.

“Fine,” I say. “Murder is never a laughing matter. But given what I’ve seen of some Victorian husbands, I wouldn’t blame their wives for stirring a little arsenic into their tea. The same would go for some Victorian fathers. Possibly even some Victorian brothers.” I raise my hands. “Present company excepted. You understand my meaning, though. If women in this time are imprisoned, the ones holding the keys are often their male relations.”

Poisoning rings, however, were largely an urban legend. If you’re a lousy husband, you’d be aware of the possibility that your wife could forge her own path to freedom through your death. And poison has always been considered a woman’s weapon. It’s thought to be the way women kill because it’s bloodless and doesn’t require physical strength, but really, it’s because women have access to food. The person preparing your meals is in the best position to poison you.

In male-dominated societies, there has always been the fear of women organizing. What if they banded together, rose up and . . . denied men sex, as in Lysistrata? Or organized and passed along recipes for murder?

“So a poisoning ring theorizes that women who want to get rid of an inconvenient family member find another woman who’ll sell them poison. Once they’ve offed their husband, another woman says ‘Oh, you lucky duck,’ and the killer provides the address of the poisoner.”

Did this ever happen? Women certainly did poison their husbands in Victorian times. Men also poisoned their wives, but it was the fear of women poisoners that partly led to the regulation of the sale of arsenic. In my Rip Through Time novels, Isla is a chemist, but there are certain chemicals she’s not able to purchase and has to rely on a male friend to do it for her.

As for poison ring, but I can’t find any solid evidence of the reality. There were cases where the press claimed women had passed along poison but nothing was proven. Like many urban legends, the concept of a poisoning ring played into deeper societal uncertainties. People were aware that women might have a reason to want their spouses dead, and poison would be the way to do it. Also like most urban legends, while it seems possible on the surface, if you dig deeper, you can see that pitfalls—if one woman is caught, you’d all go down.

The Poisoner’s Ring centers around a case that seems to fit the concept of a poisoning ring. Three men are dead of the same rare poison, their wives under suspicion. Has someone taken this Victorian urban legend and made it a reality? With Gray and Isla’s elder sister, Annis, as one of the accused, it’s far more than an idle question.

The Poisoner’s Ring comes out May 23, 2023.

9 thoughts on “What is a Poisoning Ring?”

  1. Thank you!

    I loved reading this! Would love more extras like this!

    1. Mi-Shell Jessen says:

      Thank you soooo much for that interesting history lesson! As a silversmith we used to create “poison rings” with small compartments for….. whatever you need to put in there….

  2. Tina Adams says:

    Love extras like this with a bit of history.

  3. Audrie Miller says:

    Wonderful extra content! Can’t wait to read this book.

  4. miki jones says:

    Letting you know that extras of this sort are very much enjoyed and appreciated by this reader :-)Currently reading The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum from your aRTT bibliography, it’s fascinating (except for the cats & dogs)- I’ve also read a few others from the list.

  5. Anne-Marie says:

    Interesting. Love the glimpse into our history

    Ahead of their times these woman.
    I can’t even imagine being in a society where i have no value because of my gender.
    But I wonder. Salem reminds us that fear, torture and pettiness can do much to a village and its inhabitants.
    It was a very dangerous path to take, one had to be desperate for sure

    1. It wasn’t that we had no *value*, but that we had no *rights*. We sadly have too much value… after all, men can’t reproduce alone (which, ugh)

  6. Sheila Clancy says:

    I enjoy the added history notes

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