An Undetected Poisoning?


In doing research for a short story, I stumbled across and fell in love with actress Dorothea Jordan, who was Prince and later King William IV’s partner for over twenty years. I felt a kinship with her as I read about the way she worked so tirelessly to balance home and career, nursing babies off stage, devoting herself to her home and her craft, even supporting the Prince when money was tight. I too did all I could to be a good mother and to work, sometimes rueing having having to do both, other times feeling like a superstar.

I’m sure many women will relate to her cruel dismissal by William, after bearing ten of their children, when it appeared he would be the next King and needed a younger, purer wife and legitimate heirs. This wonderful autobiography tells the tale, including her death from a violent illness while in France accompanied only by the family governess. “Bilious attacks, pains in her sides, swollen ankles, discolored.” It reads like liver failure and at first I wondered if she had hepatitis. However, until she’d left England, she’d been healthy. She’d had children well into her forties. Then I read her symptoms again and how her children weren’t notified until she had died and was buried on foreign soil. She’d been a beloved comic actress, so pretty, with fabulous legs, that even in her 50s she played youthful roles. How could she have gone downhill so fast? I wonder if history shouldn’t consider the popular poison of the day, arsenic. The use of this then undetectable poison was commonplace among royalty and rulers. The symptoms match those of hers at her death. It wasn’t until 1836 that the poison could be detected. It’s also possible that years of theatrical make-up could have caused liver failure as mercury and lead were common components.

She died in 1816. In any case, in the years that followed King William had no legitimate children and his niece Victoria inherited the throne. I wonder if the prudishness and strict women’s roles that she promoted were her attempt to wipe away the popularity of “Mrs. Jordan” (who even played men’s roles) and the Royal families’ ugly secret. In any case, this sad love story is an illustration of power and privilege. William was bumbling while Dorthea overcame poverty and even a rape baby to become a premier actress. Yet in the end, he ascended to the throne and she died with a “governess” at her side who stole her ring and took her last pension. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

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