Goucher Helps out with Jane Austen Arsenic Mystery

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Jane Austen has been dead for nearly two centuries, but she’s still making news.  You may have seen the alleged portrait of the English author that surfaced last week, but British crime novelist Lindsay Ashford doesn’t care much about what Austen looks like. Instead, she wants to figure out how Austen died. And in true crime novelist fashion, she thinks it might have been arsenic.

After combing Austen’s letters for clues, Ashford claims to have come up with evidence to support the arsenic claim. And although it would make a better story, Ashford isn’t claiming that the alleged arsenic poison came from an Austen enemy; instead, she points out that many medications of the time included arsenic. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds, either — early Austen collectors Alberta and Henry Burke were said to have tested her for arsenic poisoning.

That’s where Goucher comes in:  after the Burke’s deaths, they donated their collection to Goucher College. When Ashford asked Goucher librarians to find evidence of the rumored arsenic test, none turned up. Luckily, some of Austen’s hair has been preserved at the Jane Austen house Museum in England. Ashford wants it tested to find out for sure whether it was arsenic that did her in (most other experts blame Addison’s disease). What do you think, readers? Does it matter what malady killed off Austen?



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  1. Jane Austen’s cousin, and sister in law, Eliza de Feuilide, was the author of the novels and not Jane, as I prove in my book “Jane Austen – a New Revelation”.

    The medical evidence tends to show that Jane Austen was killed by arsenic poisoning which must have been administered by members of her family. Her blotchy skin was consistent with arsenic poisoning and a lock of her hair was tested by its owners in the last century and found to contain arsenic. This was consistent with the Austen family cover up of Eliza’s authorship of the novels. A letter of Jane Austen’s dated 29 January 1813 proves that all of the novels had been written by this date, as it gives the prices to be charged for each and confirms that they had been completed. Eliza died in April 1813. The letter of January 1813 shows that there were three completed novels that remained to be published: Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. In addition, in 1815 or 1816 Henry Austen bought back the copyright of Northanger Abbey from the publishers. Jane Austen travelled to London and together with Henry Austen organised the publication of these last four novels from 1813 to 1817. By 1817 it was no longer necessary for Jane Austen to be kept alive and her existence might prove an embarrassment for people investigating the authorship of the novels.

    The person who probably administered the arsenic would have been Cassandra Austen, her sister, who lived with her. Cassandra falsified a chronology of when each of the novels was written, showing that the last few were written after Eliza’s death. As I have mentioned, Jane Austen’s letter of 29 January 1813 shows that this chronology was false and therefore Cassandra was intimately involved in the cover up of Eliza’s authorship. Cassandra also destroyed 90 per cent of Jane Austen’s letters to expunge any evidence of Eliza’s authorship. However, she was not clever enough to destroy the letter of 29 January 1813 which is the “smoking gun” which proves Eliza’s authorship of the novels.

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