The Poison Thread

The Poison Thread

by Laura Purcell


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"[An] uncanny Gothic mystery... Satisfying."—New York Times Book Review

"A romping read with a deliciously dark conceit at its center... Reminded me of Alias Grace."—Kiran Millwood Hargrave

From the author of The Silent Companions, a thrilling Victorian gothic horror story about a young seamstress who claims her needle and thread have the power to kill

Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy, and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor, and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea's charitable work brings her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted by the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person's skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets one of the prisoners, the teenaged seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another strange idea: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread—because Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.

The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations—of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses—will shake Dorothea's belief in rationality, and the power of redemption. Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer? For fans of Shirley Jackson, The Poison Thread is a spine-tingling, sinister read about the evil that lurks behind the facade of innocence.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143134053
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/18/2019
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 202,878
Product dimensions: 5.05(w) x 7.72(h) x 0.59(d)

About the Author

Laura Purcell is the author of The Silent Companions. She worked in local government, the financial industry and a bookshop before becoming a full-time writer. She lives in Colchester, the oldest recorded town in England, with her husband and pet guinea pigs. Fascinated by the darker side of royal history, Laura has also written two historical fiction novels about the Hanoverian dynasty.

Read an Excerpt





My sainted mother taught me the seven acts of corporeal mercy: to feed the hungry; refresh the thirsty; clothe the naked; shelter the traveller; comfort the sick; visit those imprisoned; and bury the dead. Most of these we undertook together, while she lived. Then Papa and I buried her, so that was another one checked off the list.


A single merciful act eluded me: visiting those imprisoned. A lady in my position has ample opportunity to feed and clothe, but who can she call upon in gaol? Which of her genteel acquaintances is ever incarcerated?


I mentioned the difficulty to my father once, at breakfast. My words hung in the air with the steam from our tea; hot, uncomfortable. I can still see Papa's grey eyes narrow over the pages of his newspaper.


'Charity is not a competition, Dorothea. These "acts of mercy" - you do not need to perform them all.'


'But, sir, Mama said-'


'You know your mother was a . . .' He looked down at his paper, searching for the word. 'She had odd notions about religion. You must not take what she said to heart.'


We were silent a moment, feeling her absence in the empty chair at the end of the table.


'Mama was a Papist,' I told my toast as I buttered it. 'I am not ashamed of that.'


Had I sworn before him, he could not have flushed a brighter hue. His cheeks went puce.


'You are not scampering around prisons,' he barked. 'Never mind your mother - I am your father. And I say you are a Protestant. That is my final word on it.'


But Papa never really has the final word.


When I came of age, I inherited my own money from Mama to spend as I pleased. Papa could do nothing when I decided to lay it out in improvements for prisons.


Prison, along with Mama's Catholicism, was attractive to me because it was forbidden, because it was dangerous. I sat on women's prison boards, set up committees to help the poor wretches in Newgate and purchased pamphlets on Elizabeth Fry.


I cannot say these actions made me a darling of society, but I acquired friends enough for my liking: charitable spinsters, rectors' wives. Far worthier people than the fashionable young ladies Papa wished for me to associate with.


'How do you expect to find a husband,' he said, 'when you are always off on these squalid sallies to gaol?'


'I am fair and I have an ample dowry from Mama,' I retorted. 'If any man is fool enough to be put off by a few charitable enterprises, he does not deserve me.'


So I won my way, as I always do.


Two years ago the Oakgate Charitable Women's Society began a project to dismantle the old, sinking hulk that passed for a penitentiary in these parts and build a new prison. That was my chance. When the women's wing was complete, the Society ruled it would be beneficial for lady visitors to call upon the inmates and improve them with edifying conversation. Naturally, I volunteered.


In my visits, I have seen many wretches. Desperate, friendless, craving comfort. But I have never met a criminal quite like her.


I was feeding Wilkie, my pet canary, this morning when the note from Matron arrived, informing me we had another one. I knew she meant the worst of all criminals: a taker of human lives. My blood began to hum. I ordered the carriage and dashed for my hat and gloves.


Anticipation dried my mouth as I rumbled along in the carriage towards the prison. One never knows what to expect with a murderer. When I was young, I used to imagine they all had compelling reasons to commit their deeds: a stolen lover; vengeance for a parent; betrayal; blackmail. This is a fallacy. Murder can have the strangest, most mundane of motives - or sometimes none at all.


I remember Mrs Blackwood, who maintained that she 'never drowned those poor dear children, it was them that came and did it, they were always killing and they always made her watch'. Then there was Miss Davies, who told me she 'bore no malice to the young black, never did mind his kind, but alas it was necessary for him to die, a sacrifice had to be made'. Most chilling of all, I think, was Mrs Wren. Yes, she had killed her husband. Did he beat her? No. Visit other women? Oh no, never. Had he in fact done anything to merit his death? Certainly, the brute - he had criticised her cooking. Not in general, no, just the once. It was enough. What wife would not kill him, she wanted to know.


Phrenology is the only answer to the behavioural patterns of these women. They are born with the propensity to kill. It is all there, mapped out on the cranium. If precautions are not taken, or the wrong organs become inflamed, they give way to vice. Our society is at fault in neglecting this essential science. Had we measured the heads of these females whilst they were young, we might have averted their crime by careful instruction and conditioning. Alas, I fear the cerebral malformation has now progressed too far. And if we cannot change their characters, what hope for their souls?


New Oakgate Prison reared up from the horizon, its stone shining white as redemption. Scaffolding covered the unfinished male wing, but within it I discerned the contours and the gaps where the windows would eventually gleam. On the women's side, we have them shaped like portholes, giving the place the feel of a great steam paddler. Saplings ring the high, iron fences. One day they shall grow and cover the exercise yard in green shade. It looks like a hopeful place, a place where perhaps all is not lost.


The porters opened the gates, which did not whine or clank but glided easily on their fresh hinges. As I climbed out of the carriage and arranged my skirts, another porter met me and marked my name off in his ledger. Then came one of our warders to guide me through the limewashed corridors I know by heart, straight to the office of our principal matron.


She was sitting at her desk. When I entered she rose with a clink, drawing my eyes to the leather belt about her waist and the keys suspended from it. They did not look like instruments of incarceration. They were polished, shining with the same spanking newness of the gaol. Her office smelt fresh, of wood and lime.


'Miss Truelove. How prompt you are.' She offered me a curtsey and another metallic jingle.


'But of course, Matron. I am all eagerness to meet our new inmate.'


Her face moved into an expression - I am not sure what it was, but it was certainly not a smile.


Matron is one of those unreadable women who fade so easily into the mechanics of an institution: age indeterminate; features regular and without distinction; voice monotonous. Even her skull remains concealed beneath a starched cap, showing no discernible bumps. If I was forced to reach a conclusion, I would say she does not like me - but of course she offers no evidence, nothing tangible for me to base this on.


'I must urge you to observe caution, Miss Truelove. This one is dangerous.'


A thrill chased up my spine. 'Murder, I think you said?'


'Yes indeed.'


'Was it dreadfully grisly?'


'No.' Her mouth tightened, but her voice did not change. 'Devious. She killed her own mistress. Slowly, by degrees.'


Not an act of passion, then. I yearned to ask how she committed the deed, but I reined in my curiosity. Matron is not like me; she does not question motives and hope for change. It is enough for her to ensure the women are fed and clothed - she does not appear to believe the prisoners possess souls.


'A maid, I presume? What age is she?'


'That is the worst of all. She is but sixteen years old.'


A child!


I had never met a child murderer. This would enhance my work greatly - to assess the tender skull and see if the criminal organs had already grown to their full extent.


'Her name?' I asked.


'Ruth Butterham.'


I appreciated that plosive surname: it seemed to strike the air like a fist.


'Perhaps you will take me to her cell?'


Matron obeyed in silence.


Our footsteps crunched on the sanded floors, stopping finally outside a barrier of iron. Such a large door, I thought, to keep a child in. The enamel plaque swung blank - Ruth had not been there long enough to have her name and sentence inscribed.


Matron creaked open the iron observation flap on the door. Holding my breath, I leant forwards and peeked through.


I shall never forget that first sight of her. She sat on the side of her bed, fully dressed, with a spiral of tarred rope on her lap. Her head was bent, her shoulders stooped, so I could not make out her height, but it seemed to me she was no more than the average size. Wiry black hair fell about her temples. The staff crop it short, to the chin. This helps keep the prisoners free of vermin and gives them the look of a penitent. Yet somehow the operation had the opposite effect on Ruth Butterham - she appeared to have more hair than an innocent woman, for it frizzed and expanded into a dark aureole around her head. I could not glimpse the criminal organs of the skull beneath. Perhaps the centre of Murder above the ear was engorged, but I would have to feel with my hands.


I did not despair of her letting me perform such an experiment. The picture she presented was one of tranquillity. Her hands moved smoothly as she picked at clumps of oakum. Certainly, the arms were muscular, but not in a menacing way, the definition of the biceps being a natural occurrence in those who work for their bread.


'You want to talk to her, I suppose. We've been short on murderers, since the hangman took Smith.' Matron did not wait for my response before she clanked her keys and let us in.


The girl glanced up as I entered. Dark eyes, framed by stubby lashes, tracked my movements. Her hands stopped their motion. The rope fell slack. I swallowed, feeling every tendon in my throat. How could she bear to hold the thing, knowing her life might end with such a rope around her neck?


'Butterham, this is Miss Truelove,' said Matron. She gave a sniff that might have been disapproval. 'Come to visit you.'


I sat down on the one chair provided in the cell. Its legs were uneven; I had to adjust my skirts.


Ruth looked me full in the face. Not impertinent, precisely, but curious. I must confess to a twinge of disappointment. She was a plain creature, almost masculine, with a strong jaw and eyes set too far apart in her head. The nose was curiously flat. Flat nose, flat mind, they say. But then I have noted that murderous thoughts seldom trouble the pretty and the fashionable.


'I don't know you,' she said.


'Not yet.' I tried a smile - it felt rather foolish. She did not speak with a child's voice. Hers sounded tired, harsh. Something in its depths caused the hair on my neck to prick up. 'I come to visit all of the women. Especially those with no kin.'


'Well, you can suit yourself, I suppose, a rich woman like you.'


She began to pick at the rope again. As her hands moved, her eyes drifted over the mug, trencher and Bible neatly laid on the windowsill. I noted how deft she was, how continually handling the oakum had stained her nails and the creases in her fingers black. 'Perhaps I do have the liberty to come and go as I please. But I do not attend for my own amusement. I come for you. To offer some comfort.'




She did not believe a word of it. Perhaps there has been no kindness in her short life.


'I'll stand outside,' said Matron. 'The observation hatch is open. No funny business, Butterham.'


Ruth did not deign to reply.


The door clanged shut, and I was alone with the child murderer.


Strange to say, I have never called upon a prisoner who had more self-possession. Grown women like Jenny Hill have sobbed on my shoulder, or begged me for mercy. Not she. This was no weeping girl, no child in need of mothering. The more she picked at the rope, the more it seemed to resemble a pile of human hair in her lap.


She killed her slowly, by degrees.


I shook myself. I must not leap to conclusions: not all silences are sinister. After all, the crown of her head looked enlarged beneath that fuzzy hair - it might be that her organ for Dignity was overgrown. Or that she had never known the meaning of the word comfort. How could I expect her to turn her thoughts upwards and repent if she had been starved of sympathy? She needed to learn what it was to have a friend. She needed me.


I cleared my throat. 'Matron calls you Butterham. It is the way of the staff here, I believe. But I should like to address you by your Christian name. You do not object to my calling you Ruth?'


She shrugged. The muscles on her shoulders pulled at her serge gown. 'If you like.'


'Do you know why you are here, Ruth?'


'I'm a murderess.' No pride in the title - little shame, either. I waited, sure of more to follow. But she just went on impassively picking, with none of that torrid explanation or madness I have come to expect.


It chilled me.


'And who was it that you killed?'


Her brow clouded. She fluttered her short lashes. 'Oh, I suppose - a great many people, miss.'


I was not prepared for that. Were there others the police had not discovered?


The blasted rope dust irritated my eyes, making it hard to think. Perhaps Ruth did not know the exact allegations against her? We have had instances where the enormity of a prisoner's deed wipes their mind of the incident. Had she suppressed the memory of killing her mistress? Did she merely parrot the keepers when she told me she was incarcerated for murder? I decided to tread cautiously.


'Indeed? And are you sorry for what you have done?'


Two yellow teeth worried her bottom lip. 'Yes. Well, I mean, it depends, miss.'


'Upon?' I could not prevent the note of incredulity that crept into that word. 'Are there qualifications for remorse?'


'Some I never meant to kill. The first, they were an accident.' Her voice hitched, the first crack in her facade. 'Then there were others . . . I tried to stop. I tried to stop it, but it was too late.' A sigh. 'I'm sorry for those ones. But . . .'

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The Poison Thread: A Novel 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
VReader62 More than 1 year ago
One of the most enjoyable books I have read in months. Intriguing plot line that keeps you investing throughout. Only problem was that I could not put it down and go through it in a day. As a result was out purchasing “The Silent Companions” and had the same problem, now I am stuck until the next one comes out. This author is amazing, her story telling abilities are a gift. Will be on the lookout for “Bone China” when it hits.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great story line-this is not a book for the faint of heart-it was educational as to what can happen to women of all classes during this period-this is a book where patience pays off with a great plot and ending
CharlotteLynnsReviews More than 1 year ago
Before you start this book know that phrenology is the study of the shape of a person's head and how that can determine their traits and habits. Dorothea studies people’s head shapes to figure out why they act the way they do, how it tells of the future, and how they should be treated. I thought this was an interesting idea, how unique of a story idea. The Poison Thread is a unique story that weaves a tale together that at times left me wondering what I was reading and at other times left me in awe of the direction it was going. As I was reading I thought I could tell where the story was heading but I was always not quite right with my ideas. The twist, the turns, the ups, and the downs were exactly what I love to read. I couldn’t stop and put this book down. There were a couple times the story slowed down and that had me concerned but as soon as I had that thought it picked right back up and I had no doubts that I would quickly finish reading it. A couple friends asked me what I was reading, I gave them the title and as I tried to tell them what it was about all I could say was that they had to pick up their own copies. It is a book that is hard to summarize because I want to share it all. I refuse to give spoilers, so pick up your own copy. Read this book. Do not wait!
LeslieLindsay More than 1 year ago
Melodramatic, vivid and well-researched Victorian gothic focused on two young women from very different stations in life, begging the question: is she mad, a victim, or a killer? Last year, I was enamored with the haunting and atmospheric tale of THE SILENT COMPANIONS (Penguin original, 2018) about the so-called 'dummy boards' of the 16th century and knew I had to get my hands on Purcell's second book, THE POISON THREAD [THE CORSET in the U.K.] releasing June 18, 2019. This time we are back in Victorian England with a spin on new terrifying tale, but this one has roots in real-life. Dorothea Truelove is wealthy and gorgeous and has found her charitable work with the New Oakgate Prison highly enthralling--she enjoys visiting with the women inmates and exploring her hypothesis that phrenology--the shape of a person's skull can cast a light on their personality (crimes). Ruby Butterham is a teenaged seamstress awaiting trial at Oakgate for her crimes--which she attributes to a supernatural power inherent on her stitches. But how can that be? Still, the woman who have worn her garments have all experienced some kind of ill fate. The lives of these two women intersect in an atmospheric, haunting,a and dark tale. It's complex and mysterious, but there's a lot going on, too. I loved the beginning--getting to know both Dorothea and Ruby, their 'before' lives but then I found the middle became a bit muddied. Horrific things happen to Ruby when she is 'sold' to the Mrs. Metyard's dress shop to pay down her mother's debt. I found the first few gasp-worthy moments truly distressing, but then they became somewhat redundant and didn't exactly propel the narrative. Meanwhile, Dorothea's tale seemed to simmer into a typical desire of marriage and being a 'proper young woman,' which felt to me a bit tiresome. Still, there's plenty of compelling writing and THE POISON THREAD is so deeply researched, handled by a master wordsmith, but ran at a slower, less gripping pace than its predecessor. I found a lot going on in this book and wanted to know exactly what the story was. The end brings a bit of justice, but also begs the question: is it madness, pure evilness, or simply (not-so simply) a case victimhood? Touches of Sarah Waters meets Jennifer Robson's THE GOWN with the atmospheric prose of Shirley Jackson and a bit of Diane Setterfield's THE THIRTEENTH TALE coupled with Melanie Golding's LITTLE DARLINGS. L.Lindsay|Always with a Book
JBronder More than 1 year ago
This is the story of two women from opposite social standings. Dorothea Truelove is a good girl but unmarried at 25 with a passion for phrenology. She finds herself at the newly constructed Oakgate Prison where she is studying murders for the phrenology and comes across a sixteen year old girl that believes her sewing holds a supernatural power. Ruth Butterham grew up rough and has faces may hardships in her short life. Her mother came from status but gave it up for the love of an artist. Times were rough and hard and when it was discovered that Ruth was a better embroider than her mother she was put to work to feed the family. I really enjoyed The Silent Companions and was excited to see what Laura Purcell would come up with next. This is a great study in the differences between social classes. Dorothea, Dotty, seems to have it all and can do as she pleases when it comes to her life. Sadly her hardest decision is should she marry the man her father approves of or the policeman she loves and loose her social standing. Ruth on the other hand has had to struggle to survive from an early age with numerous hardships. This part broke my heart seeing the things she had to endure in her young life. But I found it interesting how she believes her sewing is related to the murders. I didn’t realize that there was so much superstitious beliefs about sewing and added another dimension to this story. I think this is a great read with a surprising ending. There were some parts that the narration took over but this is a gothic story. There were other parts where the people in the story got a bit over whelming and distracting too. But overall I really enjoyed this book and recommend those that like gothic thrillers check it out. I received a complimentary copy of this book. I voluntarily chose to read and post an honest review.
thegeekishbrunette More than 1 year ago
Dorothea's charitable work with the local prison introduces her to a young teen named Ruth who is awaiting trial for murder. Ruth claims she can kill with just a needle and thread. Dorothea's beliefs are shaken with such claims and she must figure out the truth and decide if evil can lurk behind innocence. I had such high hopes for this book ever since I laid eyes on the cover and read the synopsis. Let me tell you, it did not disappoint! If I hadn't been so busy with what life requires of me I would have read this in one sitting. Dorothea is an interesting character because she loves studying phrenology and goes to a prison to interview female murderers. I enjoyed her character because she goes against the grain when it comes to societal behavior for women of that era. She thinks for her own and doesn't listen to her father, especially when he says no talk about her work to suitors. Ruth's story was intriguing and disturbing at the same time. Her life was far from easy and at times when you thought it was getting better a dark cloud comes. I wanted to know more and more about her life as I read each page and felt like Dorothea, questioning everything I had read. Ruth felt so innocent and yet mad but who really knows since all murderers seem innocent at times. I am still trying to grasp my thoughts around the ending! Dorothea and Ruth each have their own chapters which let you dive into their lives and understand their characters on a deeper level. The plot is always thickening and when you think you know the answer, another plot twist comes out of nowhere and leaves you in shock. The minor characters will have you hating some and loving others. They may be considered minor but add to the plot in such a way that they don't seem minor at all. The Victorian England setting was great and the details of sicknesses and even phrenology brought more to the story and added a great historical touch.  Overall, I really loved this dark and disturbing book filled with rich characters and a wonderfully crafted plot. It will have you on your seat and trying to find out the truth for yourself! eARC provided by publisher through NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
MWGerard More than 1 year ago
Channelling the likes of Alias Grace and The Unseeing, The Poison Thread tells a terrifying tale of confinement and madness. Dorothea Truelove, a perfectly saccharine name for the Victorian charity do-gooder, is a adherent to the study of phrenology. She visits Ruth Butterham, a teenaged seamstress, in Oakgate Prison and begins to suspect there is more to the girl’s story. Told in alternating narratives, the reader learns about Ruth’s misfortunes and Dora’s misguided altruism. Set in the early Victorian era, Purcell highlights the lack of options within a strict society. Dora is a wealthy daughter, set to inherit a great deal, and has nothing to do with her time but play elite charmer until she meets an equally wealthy beau. She has convinced herself she is helping the neglected by visiting prisoners, but it quickly becomes clear she has ulterior motives. Ruth is a bright child who takes over her mother’s fine embroidery jobs as the woman loses her sight. With her mother eventually blinded, Ruth is sold into indentured servitude to a dressmaker. She and the other girls are abused and ill-fed, all while working long days in terrible conditions to make glamorous gowns for wealthy ladies. Despite her efforts, and obvious value as an excellent seamstress, life never seems to give her a break. Then she notices that when she sews in anger or full of vengeful thoughts, some calamity befalls the wearer. She begins to think she has the ability to harm through the stab of her needle. There is plenty for the Victorian fan to smile about. A pet bird named Wilkie, Scheele’s green arsenical fabric, bizarre madness among the upper classes. There is even a nod to the inimitable and unendurable Miss Clack in The Moonstone: No sooner did I begin my descent of the staircase then I heard a high laugh tinkle from the drawing room. It shivered up my arms and made me wince. The Pearce woman, here already. .. I was forced to endure the clasp of her hands and a kiss on either cheek. A cloud of jasmine emanated from her skin and made me choke — it was as though I had bitten into a bar of soap. Pg. 140-1 Like The Silent Companions, the novel ends with an odd twist. I actually read the last few pages twice to make sure I knew what was happening. Even now, I’m not entirely sure. It leaves one with a lunching stomach, being on a creaking carnival ride. It’s fun, but you feel a little off-kilter when you’re done.