The Seven-Layered Arsenic Cake of Madame LaFarge and Other Crime Classics

Xerxes, King of Persia, ready to invade Greece, set a throne of white marble on a hill on the coast of Abydos and sat down to overlook his army assembled before him. Seeing the multitudes stretched along the shore, and ships cluttering the Hellespont, he declared himself: ‘happy’. Then, as ancient kings are wont to do, he wept.

Herodotus reports that this sudden change was witnessed by Artabanus, his uncle. “How different, sire, is what thou art now doing, from what thou didst a little while ago,” Artabanus said (as translated by George Rawlinson).

Xerxes replied: “There came upon me, a sudden pity when I thought of the shortness of man’s life, and considered that of all this host, so numerous as it is, not one will be alive when a hundred years are gone by”.

That was 480 BC. By all accounts, Xerxes’ estimate was correct.

Now, as then, the indifference of history towards those that populate it, and the transience and potential pointlessness of existence aren’t exactly topics for a peppy discussion. Artabanus tried to console Xerxes, reminding him that life was so frequently awful that looming death was really more of a positive than a negative. To that, Xerxes replied that they should probably just forget he ever brought it up in the first place.

It’s also not a topic that makes for much of a marketing campaign, so doesn’t really seem to pop up as a dominant feature in modern pop culture too often. When it does, it’s usually only to offer us a ‘joys of life’ antidote: The NeverEnding Story (1984) does so with incredible charm, equating a young boy’s emotional withdrawal after the death of his mother with a fantasy realm’s descent into the destructive void of ‘The Nothing’; and the oft-criticised but underrated sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (just about the only redeeming feature of the show’s last few years) flirts with notions of worldly irrelevance and the allure of death’s emptiness (before ending up somewhere else entirely).

Of course, it’s not exactly easy to tell a story when your underlying point is that none of it matters anyway, and despite modern culture’s self-diagnosis of hyper-sophistication and ideological liberation, current audiences are really more attuned to dull corporate solipsism than nihilism. Funny how ‘born special’ birthright nonsense has stopped being a ridiculously hokey clich√© and is now a key part of a mainstream understanding of heroism and identity. (‘Gee, that Harry Potter kid was born special and is the most important guy in the universe. He really reminds me of me.’) It’s all about ‘YOU!’ those endless blockbusters seem to shout at their carefully determined target demographics, like multimillion dollar versions of those books parents order where they stick your kid’s name in a pre-written story. [As in blockbusters like the feeble-minded Transformers (2007), which expects us to be impressed — and takes itself very seriously — when giant mega space robots come to Earth to tell a dumbass ‘regular guy’ (aka key consumer) that the the fate of the universe rests on his shoulders.]

Crime Classics, a 1953 CBS ‘true crime’ radio series, seems to be something of a slap in the face to audiences’ sense of identification and notions of self-importance of any kind, presenting a vision of a callous and petty world where the individual matters little, and their thoughts and feelings matter less, caught up in a flow of history that is always bigger than they are, and with little more than a sardonic quip offered to the audience by way of compensation.

While most genres are defined by uniformity (then and today), Crime Classics allows the listener to engage with a different kind of tone entirely, a half-hour slice of a different attitude and outlook, somewhat akin to Artabanus’ fatalism. As such, it’s one of the treasures of Old Time Radio and, in bypassing the personal-relevance pandering and rational understanding of the unfolding of history that underlies so much of mainstream culture, is perhaps not only the least-dated of Old Time Radio broadcasts, but also still challenges many of the expectations we have of drama in a ideologically sanitised corporate-culture environment.

Based on subject alone, Crime Classics is already interesting listening, drawing its stories from famous crimes and murders ‘taken from the records and newspapers of every land from every time’. The series begins with ‘The Crime of Bathsheba Spooner’, the story of the first woman to be executed under American, rather than British, rule (which took place in 1778), and goes on to cover other events from the relatively obscure (such as the 1886 death of Thomas Barlett, or the 1857 murder trial of Madeleine Smith) to the well-known (Lizzie Borden, Billy the Kid, Blackbeard) to the historically significant (Abraham Lincoln, Nero, Julius Caesar) to a surprising jaunt into the mythical (King Arthur).

While there are alterations and inaccuracies, Crime Classics often keeps surprisingly close to the core or anecdotal details, drawing its drama almost solely from ‘the record’ rather than intellectual or emotional interpretation or perspective. Its drama is not just based on the details, but on the dispassionate details. Crime Classics offers neither sense nor psychology in examining the past, but lets its terrible events play out without adornment, as though they were simply basic machinations of human functionality. We are not asked to understand the characters, and the characters make no attempts to understand themselves; their motivations usually seem to be nothing more than simple, selfish and passing urges.

When the characters communicate, it’s usually in simple statements and clipped phrases, describing only the immediacy of the circumstances in front of them; they speak around each other, but not to each other, self-enclosed and oblivious to the world around them. Often it suggests the barely-human dialogue of a caveman movie, but nothing about Crime Classics proposes that we are looking at anything than can be dismissed as prehistoric, or even truly of the past.

In many ways, it’s one of the better examples of Dramatic or Literary Naturalism (not to be confused with Realism), simultaneously blunt but empty, its characters trapped and mangled by both the world around them and their own inability to make any real sense of it. As in Emile Zola, we seem to be witnessing the ‘human animal’, where character and motivation are lost beneath the inexplicable and primal impulses of whatever propels us in place of a soul. In Crime Classics, whether the crime is large or small, humanity seems to have only two modes of existence: selfish desire, and selfish disgust. As in Freud, both attraction and repulsion are really just part of the same eternal momentum.

The approach allows for little in the way of higher ideals. In ‘Twenty-Three Knives Against Caesar’, Brutus is endowed with none of the nobility that makes him one of Shakespeare’s most engaging characters. We simply watch Caesar’s arrogance emerge, and the reprisal it provokes. Typical of the series, it views its key event from a quiet distance: in its final scene, we hear the voice of the ‘man on the street’ (that most mishandled voice in culture, new or old). One man comments on Caesar’s death, surprised. The other shrugs off the whole affair — “Why not, you think he was a god or something?” — then heads home because he has his own problems to deal with.

“When beggars die, there are no comets seen”, says Shaespeare’s Calpurnia, wife of Caesar, “the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes”. In Crime Classics comets blaze for no one, having more in common with Hamlet’s iconoclastic notion that “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm”.

Lincoln’s assassination is perhaps presented with a little more reverence, but, if so, only slightly, more due to a lack of humour (‘too soon?’) than any newfound awe for history’s tragedies. It’s still presented flatly and dismissively as inevitable — not because of the prophetic dream that opens it (complete with horrible wailing that always sends shivers down my spine) — but simply because there was no reason to think that it would be immune from the usual meaningless flow of pointless violence, and with John Parker, Lincoln’s guard, “choking down another tumbler of whiskey, drinking his way into history’s oblivion”.

For the assassination, we simply hear John Wilkes Booth’s steps, plenty of them, all the way to the box with the sound of ‘Our American Cousin’ on the stage growing gradually louder. Then a gunshot. Then a return to the horrible wailing of a funeral from the dream that opened the show (and even Lincoln’s dream of his own death is a part of the historical record rather than a dramatic addition). There’s nothing more to say, it seems, so we’re simply told about the crime we’ll hear next week.

Even King Arthur, that legendary figure of nobility and moderation fares no better. As narrator Thomas Hyland summarises in ‘The Triangle on the Round Table’: “King Arthur is going into a battle against a friend of his. Four thousand men will be killed. Over a woman. Which is known as chivalry”. Arthur himself is as much of a grunting and inarticulate brute as any of the show’s ne’er-do-wells.

Hardly a Straightforward ‘Tongue in Cheek’ Portrayal of Crime Stories

Much of Crime Classics‘ oddly distanced tone comes from this narration by Thomas Hyland, “connoisseur of crime, student of violence, and teller of murders” (a fictional persona portrayed by Lou Merrill), who narrates the proceedings with an underplayed wit and sardonically distanced lilt. Episode titles sum up the approach: ‘The Dread Events Surrounding Mr Thrower’s Hammer’, ‘The Axe and the Droot Family; How They Fared’, ‘The Alsop Family; How It Diminished and Grew Again’, ‘The Hangman and William Palmer. Who Won?’, ‘John Hayes; His Head… and How They Were Parted’, ‘John and Judith. Their Crime, and Why They Didn’t Get To Enjoy It’, and so on. Hyland’s narration follows the same tone: “Two people who wanted to be happy, so they killed his wife” is Hyland’s introduction to ‘John and Judith’.

The meaningless whims of tragedy and the social compulsion to go out and buy something new and shiny.

Funny as it consistently is, Crime Classics can’t simply been seen as a straightforward ‘tongue in cheek’ portrayal of crime stories, as it is often described. The sly superior wit of the narration only accentuates the harshness and emptiness of the events so bluntly portrayed. The approach also allows for an intense economy: the clipped, animalistic dialogue of the characters, along with Hyland’s dismissive wit, allows for sound effects to carry much of the drama, as with John Wilkes Booth’s footsteps, or the triple hanging that closes ‘The Crime of Bathsheba Spooner’.

“Listen…” Hyland suggests as each episode begins, letting a sound effect establish the scene for the listener. When the brutal events arrive, Hyland is no more emotive or engaged. The Lizzie Borden murders are presented as a simple ‘whack’ sound effect, followed by Hyland dryly naming the victim of the blow. (The Lizzie Borden story, ‘The Bloody, Bloody Banks of Fall River’, like many other episodes, establishes the stifling environment of the time for women extremely effectively — albeit with the usual casual disinterest.)

Added to this precise soundscape is the careful underscoring of Bernard Herrmann, one of the great film, TV and radio composers, and who deserves more than the single sentence I have for him here.

Each story is so detailed, carefully directed (by producer Elliott Lewis), written (by Morton Fine and David Friedkin) and performed (Betty Harford is a particular favourite of the regular cast), and wryly dour that it’s hard to pick a definitive episode. One episode does, however, stand out from the rest, even if not for the usual reasons. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this amusing but intensely harsh series was a ‘sustaining program’, meaning that it wasn’t supported by an individual sponsor but by the network itself. As the Museum of Broadcast Communications describes it: “Sustaining programming was deemed to be important, because it helped the station to maintain a balance in program content and provided time for programs not appropriate for sponsorship, programs serving minority interests or tastes, and non-profit and experimental programs”. In other words, freed from an obligation to ‘sell’, it could potentially be ‘good’ (well, perhaps; but it’s all moot as that responsibility has been all but forgotten).

Still, somehow one episode (in Retro Remote’s collection, in any case), ‘The Seven-Layered Arsenic Cake of Madame LaFarge’, carries a sponsorship message — before, during, and after — and it’s an odd experience. “Crime Classics, brought to you by Plymouth”, we’re chirpily told, then reminded that “tomorrow is the day for your first look at the big, bright, beautiful, new ’54 Plymouth!” Then to Thomas Hyland, who talks us through the sound of a cake being made, calmly drawing our attention to the final ingredient being added: “You didn’t hear anything because it was only a smidgen. And smidgens don’t make any noise. Not even a smidgen of arsenic; which that was. The noise comes later”.

What follows is that subtly brutal line, we’re reminded that “tomorrow’s the day!”; don’t forget to come see that new ’54 Plymouth! Then back to Crime Classics, Bernard Herrmann’s ominous music setting the tone of ‘a season of unrest in Paris’ 1839. Hyland summarises the mood of the times: “people were either for things, or against things, or wanted them up, or forward, or guillotined”.

The story is that of Marie LaFarge, tried and convicted of murdering her husband by arsenic poisoning. The trial of 1840 notable for being primarily reliant on forensic toxicology: a problematic element that seemed to produce more questions than answers and kept the trial nicely dramatic for the papers. As one report of the time noted (quoted in ‘Fact and Fantasy in Chemical Analysis’ by W. A. Campbell): “Within two days the accused was declared innocent by the verdict of science, and now she is judged guilty by the verdict of the same science”. The editors’ preface to the jail-house ‘Memoirs of Madame LaFarge’ were equally unimpressed: “Are we to believe the science of yesterday, the science of to-day, or the science of to-morrow?”

Whether or not the husband had been poisoned by Madame LaFarge, poisoned by someone else, or had been poisoned at all, seemed to be issues that science had a few too many answers for. Guilty or not, the logical verdict seemed to be changing at a moment’s notice. Again from Madame LaFarge’s editors:

“Science rudely destroyed the decision of science. Two days after, science saw crime where she had seen innocence; poison where she had seen none… An affrighted audience passed abruptly from the conviction of innocence to the suspicion of guilt, and that same woman, so calm, and so radiant with the joy of an acquittal, suddenly precipitated from life into death”.

Given that the world of Crime Classics has little place for logic and consistency, or at least a healthy scepticism as to its existence in the proceedings of humanity, the scenario seems perfectly appropriate for its dour outlook and unblinking vision of injustice. Like so many of its victims and villains alike, Madame LaFarge is tossed about by the inconsistencies of history and humanity (and by the transience of social norms: “Husband to you” grunts her husband after their marriage, grabbing her in spite of her sexual uncertainty). The series compresses this universal flow into one detail, a cake sent to Madame LaFarge’s husband that may or may not have contained arsenic.

Though seemingly only a small part of the original history (as far as I can tell), Crime Classics uses this cake to fully portray the cruelly capricious nature of history and circumstance. Condemned by having sent the arsenic-laced ‘seven-layered cake’, this fact is suddenly reversed without warning as Madame LaFarge’s (ex-)Mother-in-Law suddenly remembers on her deathbed, for no specific reason whatsoever, that in fact, no such cake was sent. Unfortunately, this was 12 years after Madame LaFarge had been found guilty, sentenced to hard labour, and suffered ‘occasional exposures in the pillory’. “Something must be done!”, the ex-Mother-in-Law declared.

Thomas Hyland informs us, “something was done”:

“Marie LaFarge who had already served twelve years, had her sentence reduced to just five more years. Then she was sent to a home. Then she killed herself.”

With that, Thomas Hyland has nothing more to say, so we get a nice ’54 Plymouth jingle to follow up that pointless tale of murder, despair and suicide; an oddly disarming, but perhaps perfectly apt, juxtaposition of the meaningless whims of tragedy and the social compulsion to go out and buy something new and shiny. The details may not match the history as closely as in some other episodes, but they sure don’t seem to have been changed to make the story any more palatable. It’s probably no surprise the following episode doesn’t start with a Plymouth jingle, nor do any others.

If nothing else, Crime Classics breaks away from the standard image of ’50s crime dramas, refusing to present narratives of social cohesion and vigilant justice. Presumably the specifically historical focus of the show avoided some censorship issues (that’s just a guess), but in many ways it provides Crime Classics with its most disarming element: the sense that all the sufferings of history and the passions that drove them, no matter how small of great, are ultimately nothing more than pages in a file of a ‘connoisseur of crime’ and, but for that, are forgotten and gone.

Stanley Kubrick captured some of this ambivalence towards the relevance of the very narrative he was presenting with his 1975 Barry Lyndon, in which he took a small piece of text from the beginning of the source novel by William Thackeray, and placed it as a concluding text epilogue to his film. Tearing away all narrative value that might have emerged, the text simply notes: “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now”.

Like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Crime Classics seems almost determined to end by undermining any personal investment and universal consistency that we might glean from its narrative, along with any sense that its tragedies were to any greater purpose or effect. It ends, persistently, on misery and injustice, or the brutal nature of legal justice’s hand, establishing transiency in place of relevance, futility in place of consistency, and injustice in place of reason. Then, it shrugs it off with a quip. After all, there’ll just be another example next week, “of every land from every time”.