False Confessions

Camphor branch circa 1887 (Wellcome Collection)

This month, I want to share several cases of false confessions. Under the pressure of police questioning (and worse), people suspected of crime sometimes confessed to things they had not done. The phenomenon continues today, as my Wisconsin Innocence Project colleagues know well. For instance, in some fatal Shaken Baby Syndrome cases, the carers of small children have falsely confessed to excessive shaking.

In my research on colonial India, I am coming across cases of false confessions in the context of poisoning, and specifically, in cases where wives were accused of poisoning their husbands’ food. This was a classic focus of associations between women and poisoning (see David Arnold’s book on the long history of gendered poison discourses). I have come across cases where toxicological testing detected poison in the food, confirming the accusations. But I have also found cases where the wife was not only falsely accused, but then also confessed. Only through the chemical examiners’ testing could her name be cleared. Here are a couple of examples:

  • No lead, glass, or arsenic: in two Bombay cases, “the viscera of deceased persons were sent on account of confessions made by individuals; in both cases the confessions were incompatible with the circumstances of the case. In one of these cases a wife confessed to having poisoned her husband with red lead and powdered glass. No trace of either of these substances was found. The history of the case was that, the day following the alleged administration, violent vomiting of blood set in with convulsions, and the patient died that evening. In the second case a woman confessed to having poisoned her husband with arsenic; the body of the husband was exhumed. No arsenic could be found in the viscera. In this case I consider the non-detection of arsenic to be sufficient proof of its non-administration, and this throws doubt on the truth of the confession.” (“Report of the Chemical Analyser to Government, Bombay, for the year 1876-77”)
  • No aconite, but false evidence: in a case from Chindwara in central India, “a woman admitted having poisoned her husband with a ‘white substance.’ She gave to the police a leaf in which this substance had been kept, also a board having a white mark which she said was where she ground up the poison, also a hatchet which similarly had been used in grinding the poison and which similarly had a white mark. The white marks were certainly not of poison. In the case of the board the white mark was found to consist of ordinary flour, and in each case the marks were tasteless. The husband appears to have died of aconite poisoning. Whether the woman was guilty or not, she appears to have backed up her confession by false evidence.” (“Annual Report of the Chemical Examiner and Bacteriologist to the Governments of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh and of the Central Provinces for the year 1907”)

I’m working on a book project on falsity and forensics, so stay tuned for more cases like this latter one (involving false evidence). In the meantime, I have a chapter here on fabricated evidence of another kind–planted animal blood (podcast version here).

Sources: IOR/V/24/405 and 414 (British Library)