Arson and Poisoning in the Ottoman Empire


A review of Alternative Claims on Justice and Law: Rural Arson and Poison Murder in the 19th Century Ottoman Empire, by Ebru Aykut Türker.

Ebru Aykut Türker’s dissertation is a social history of rural arson and poison murder in the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire. Türker’s concern is not merely with the operation of the judicial system or with developments in legislation but rather with the interaction of ordinary Ottoman subjects with justice and law. Thus, besides discussing the functioning of penal justice at a time of state centralization and of large-scale legal and judicial reforms, the dissertation examines the interplay between popular understandings of justice and official discourses on crime and punishment, and addresses the issue of agency from a bottom-up perspective. By focusing on rural arson, often associated with the dispensement of unofficial justice by peasants, and on poison murder, a mostly domestic crime with overwhelmingly female perpetrators, Türker explores the contexts and meanings of violent crime and its role as a means for exacting justice and retribution at a time of changing perceptions about state, citizenship and gender.

There are not so many works by Ottomanists that adopt a bottom-up perspective when engaging with the Tanzimat and post-Tanzimat reforms, and even less that investigate the social history of criminal justice in the late Ottoman period. Most of the scholarship on crime and punishment concerns the early modern times. Türker’s dissertation, therefore, is a most welcome and valuable addition to scholarship; all the more so because she has made extensive use of nizamiye court records, a very important though not widely used source. Contrary to the sharia or kadi court records, which are succinct, include only a minimum of information and only rarely register punishments, the records of the nizamiye courts are very detailed. Most importantly, they also include interrogation reports with verbatim accounts of the exchange between investigators and the persons involved in a case, be they accusers, accused, witnesses or neighbors. Therefore they are invaluable for accessing the viewpoints and perceptions of ordinary, non-elite Ottoman subjects that are usually invisible to historians.

The dissertation consists of an introduction, three parts with a total of eight chapters, a conclusion, seven appendices with transliterations of documents and tables, and a bibliography. The first part, entitled “Crime, Punishment, and Local Judicial Practices in the Ottoman Countryside”, deals with the operation of judicial institutions. In chapter 1 (Historical setting), after a brief overview of the historiography of crime and punishment, the author discusses the scholarship on the Tanzimat reforms in regard to the administration of criminal justice and highlights the value of court records as a historical source. In this chapter and in the next (Ottoman governance and the operation of nizamiye courts), Türker shows how the establishment of new judicial institutions, together with the adoption of a modernizing discourse on crime and justice, created a new legal regime that was in many ways incompatible to the sharia-based one that had been in place for centuries. Milestones in this development was the establishment of the Supreme Council of Judicial Ordinances in 1838, the promulgation of a first penal code in 1840, the introduction of the new, French-inspired, penal code of 1858, and the institution of the nizamiye courts of justice after 1864. The new regime re-defined the concept of crimes to person and property, instituted new procedures of investigation and adjudication, established new rules of evidence and culpability, and embraced modern technologies of detection and proof of crime.

Türker argues that, considered from the perspective of governmentality, the legal and judicial changes of the Tanzimat era, which left provincial courts with only limited jurisdiction in penal matters, were part of the overall effort to curb the power of local elites and to assert central control over the provinces. Furthermore, by rationalizing and minimizing corporal punishment and by submitting death sentences to the sultan’s approval, the central government manifested its adherence to the Tanzimat principal of protecting the persons and welfare of the people. From the perspective of the Ottoman subjects, however, the most important change, which caused a veritable turnover in the administration of criminal justice, was that the new system was predicated upon the legal equality of all Ottoman subjects and was conceived to overrule the sharia courts of justice. As the author shows, transition took a long while and adjustment to the new regime was not easy, especially for Muslims; all the more so because sharia courts continued to operate in parallel with the newly instituted nizamiye courts. This peculiar form of legal pluralism forced Ottoman subjects to navigate between two different sets of conceptualizations of crime, judicial procedure and punishment, and gave scope to the articulation of alternative claims to justice and law. At the same time, however, despite the many ruptures with the past, the new legal and judicial regime incorporated various old-established practices and continued to reserve a prominent role for the community in the investigation and adjudication of crimes.

The second part, entitled “Justice and Vengeance: Intra-Peasant Conflicts and Rural Arson”, is concerned with the social meanings of arson and the motives behind it. In this part, Türker discusses the circumstances in which instances of arson occurred, the reasoning given by perpetrators, the judicial treatment of such cases and the overall response of subjects and authorities to the challenge created by the transition from the old to the new legal regime. In chapter 3 (Village norms, kasame and the Tanzimat) Türker shows clearly how arson, a previously rarely reported crime, became a major issue of concern for provincial authorities faithful to the Tanzimat principles. The abolition of the kasame, the collective financial retribution traditionally claimed by victims of arson, had rendered the latter dependent from judicial proceedings for compensation. Since, however, witnesses were reluctant to testify against arsonists for fear of revenge, the adjudication of cases took a long time and perpetrators, even when convicted, were not necessarily in the position to offer indemnity, victims of rural arson found themselves in a far worse position than before. Furthermore, the abolition of collective liability undermined communal control over potential arsonists who could go on with the action without having any second thoughts. Accordingly, Tanzimat authorities were flooded by petitions to reintroduce the kasame, which they did, albeit informally, from the late 1860s onwards.

In European social history rural arson has long being analyzed in its aspect as a “weapon of the weak”, i.e. as a means for peasants to protest against the encroachment of their customary rights and to exact retribution from abusive landlords. As Türker argues in chapter 4 (Reading the unwritten: the peasant agency), research does not support similar conclusions about rural arson in the Ottoman case. Arson was quite common in the Ottoman countryside, but was rather an act of vengeance, a means to terrorize real or potential adversaries or to afflict “extralegal punishment” (p. 110); it did not belong to the repertoire of peasant collective action. Except for a case from Belene, Bosnia, where arson appears in the context of a broader conflict between the locals and a regiment of soldiers stationed in town, the cases analyzed in detail by Türker in this chapter underline the private character of arson: it was employed mostly by villagers seeking revenge for petty grievances, slighted honor or maltreatment in the hands of landlords and employers.

Because arson was mainly used for pursuing private grudges and usually had localized effects, villagers often preferred to settle arson cases outside the court. This, however, clashed with the provisions of the new penal code that considered arson a most grave offense punishable with the capital sentence. As Türker remarks, however, although many arsonists were arrested and tried, only very few were sentenced to death. Interestingly, those few were all women. This is all the more remarkable since women were considered “naturally unable to comprehend the consequences of committing such a crime” (p. 180), and gullibility, together with senility, was a mitigating factor. Despite some exceptions, female arson was rather an urban crime perpetrated within a domestic context, as the cases analyzed in chapter 5 (Female arsonists) demonstrates. Most of the women convicted for arson were black slaves who set the house of their masters on fire either for exacting revenge for their ill treatment or in order to conceal the theft of money and jewelry in a desperate attempt to buy off their freedom. As concerns punishment, Türker argues that women arsonists generally received harsher sentences than men. This seems to have been particularly true in the case of the convicted black slaves, three of whom ended at the gallows. Here, race may have been a further aggravating factor, besides gender and class.

The third part, entitled “Domestic Conflicts and Poison Murder”, explores further the issue of agency, especially that of women. It also examines how the new conceptualizations of culpability and justice made the persecution of poison murder possible for the first time, and discusses how the modernizing discourses on public health and safety influenced concerns about the spread of poisoning. As shown in chapter 6 (The regulation of poison sale), concerns about the easy availability of poison and the frequency of undetected murder in the provinces went in tandem with the professionalization of medicine and the effort of the government to regulate the selling of medicinal and poisonous substances. From 1852 onwards, only licensed druggists were allowed to trade in such substances, while in the penal code of 1858 the sale of poison by unlicensed persons became a criminal offense. Subsequent regulations brought the trade under stricter control, without, however, attaining the expected results. The most common poisons, arsenic and corrosive sublimate, had a wide range of applications and found legitimate uses in contemporary households. Therefore, as Türker demonstrates, they continued to be easily available throughout the empire. Poison murder in the Ottoman Empire does not appear to have generated the kind of public obsession known from Victorian England or America. Nonetheless, its hidden nature and domestic character, as Türker argues, turned it into a potentially major threat in the eyes of the authorities. Contrary to contemporary Western discourses, however, poison murder was not linked to women until the early 20th century. The connection between poison and women became a topos by the late 1920s, after the demise of the empire, when it was recognized by experts as a method preferred by “timid and malevolent persons … who will not be suspected by the victim” (p. 263).

Cases of poison murder perpetrated by women in a domestic environment constitute the subject matter of chapter 7 (Poisonous wives in the Ottoman courts), although the author examines other cases of poisoning as well. The stories of poisonous wives reconstructed in the course of Türker’s research are those of poverty and personal misery. There emerge two main types of perpetrators, whether Christian or Muslim: the ill-treated wife who kills her husband in order to escape from abuse, and the adulterous wife who kills him in order to marry her lover (in some cases the two motives are combined). Both types have in common that wives resort to murder because they cannot obtain a divorce from their husbands; furthermore, when apprehended, they freely admit their crime. As Türker remarks, “[i]n  these cases, violence as a means of punishment and retribution significantly appears as a way of constructing subjectivities for women” (p. 299). Other motives, such as money or jealousy, seem to have been relatively rare. Also in such cases, however, the perpetrators were mostly female: contrary to other means of murder, poison was readily available to women and easy to administer in food or medicine.

As the author shows, in the case of poison murder the discrepancy between the provisions of the sharia and those of the new penal code was even more consequential than elsewhere. Under Islamic law, a poisoner was liable for diya (i.e. execution or the payment of blood money) only if s/he had administered the poison to the victim by his/her own hands. To the contrary, the 1858 Ottoman penal code did not make any such distinctions and defined poisoning as an intentional murder punishable with fifteen-year hard labour/imprisonment or capital punishment. Death sentences for poison murders, however, were very rare. In one occasion a young man who poisoned his family was executed publicly to serve as an example; the aggravating factor in his case may have been that he had been acquitted for this crime by the sharia court. This, however, was an exception. As a rule poisoners, including wives who had murdered their husbands, did not receive the death sentence. As Türker rightly remarks, “poisoning was not the most heinous crime before the Ottoman laws” (p. 302).

Poisoners, when apprehended, readily admitted their guilt as a rule. In many cases of suspected poisoning, however, the accused did not come forward with a confession and investigators had to use other methods in order to find proof for the alleged crime. As discussed in chapter 8 (Unveiling the truth: the question of proof and postmortem examination in suspected poisoning cases), it was usually through external postmortem examinations that suspected poisonings came to light. In the absence of confession or of reliable witnesses, however, persons accused of poison murder were found not guilty. It took a long time for circumstantial evidence to find an equal place to that of witnesses at court in regard to the conviction of criminals. Accordingly, forensic medicine, a newly established discipline, found its way to the courts only very slowly and mostly in the capital.

Ebru Aykut Türker’s dissertation is an original and valuable contribution to the scholarship of crime, justice and violence in the late Ottoman Empire that broadens significantly our knowledge about the ramifications of the legal and judicial reforms of the Tanzimat and post-Tanzimat era. By putting the voices and personal stories of ordinary, non-elite subjects in the foreground, the dissertation opens up a window to social groups that are usually invisible in historical research, while the author’s discussion of female arsonists and poisoners puts yet another layer to the history of gender relations in the Ottoman world.

Eleni Gara
Department of Social Anthropology and History
University of the Aegean

Primary Sources
Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivleri (Prime Ministry Ottoman State Archives)
Nizamiye court records
Orders of the Meclis-i Vâlâ
Medical journals: Gazette Médicale d’Orient, Trabzon Hekim Dergisi
Official newspapers and periodicals: Kastamonu Vilayet Gazetesi, Tuna Vilayet Gazetesi, Ceride-i Mehakim

Dissertation Information
Boğaziçi University. 2011. 394 pp. Primary Advisor: Cengiz Kırlı.

Image: Painting by Amedeo Preziosi.

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