Rebecca Vitriol

Rebecca Layman tended to her husband’s illness while she plotted to kill him.

The Laymans married in Shelby county in February 1818. Shortly after the matrimony they moved north to Madison county in the hopes of a better life. John Layman remained ignorant of his wife’s hatred for him and knew nothing of her intent to leave him that same November. For right now, while he struggled against an unnamed illness, he thought they still existed in “domestick peace & contentment.”

John Layman sweated in a bed and experienced a violent illness. He remembered the days shortly after their wedding, when Rebecca Layman seemed so distant. She was not distant now, but worried over him in an “uncommonly tender & affectionate” way. She brought some wine “in an affectionate manner,” we can only assume that it involved cooing, possibly some airplane noises. Which surely confused John Layman because it was the nineteenth century.

Rebecca Layman encouraged John to drink the wine because it was 1818 and people still thought that alcohol helped one recover from diseases. He thanked his cooing and overly affectionate wife and drained the draught. Unfortunately for him, Rebecca poured no wine. John Layman emptied the cup and soon realized its contents ” instead of wine, to be elixir vitriol.”

Imagine for a moment that you are ill and it is 1818. Already an awful situation, now continue to imagine that you’re locked in a cabin with a needlessly kind person who until today expressed little interest in your physical or emotional well being. Now imagine you just drank undiluted sulfuric acid.

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Julia Harrison. Find more cool stuff at

Elixir of vitriol served as a common household chemical during the nineteenth century. People used it to treat the internal hemorrhaging of blood or to semi-successfully fight diarrhea, so a person living in Alabama in 1818 might easily know the taste or smell. At the same time contemporary vinegar merchants in England and the United States straight up ran the elixir of vitriol trade; so possibly Rebecca Layman possessed a preconceived notion that vinegar is just old wine and elixir of vitriol was often sold near or by people that specialized in vinegar, so hey, it’s fairly obvious that they share enough properties pass one off as the other.

We can use these facts to hypothesize about the mental states of Rebecca Layman and John Layman at this exact moment. She hoped that the elixir of vitriol and wine somehow fell into the same category, while he almost immediately noticed the vast difference between the two. While we’ve recently learned that people used the chemical for internal medicine in the nineteenth century, they understood its corrosive and harmful effects and as such diluted it heavily. So an undiluted glass of the stuff “would no doubt have taken the life of your orator.”

John Layman pointed out the incongruity to his wife. Rebecca Layman “appeared much confused & said it was an accident.” Luckily for him, “the potency of the liquor had… been exhausted.” He lived through both his sickness and the attempted poisoning. Rebecca Layman came to terms with her emotions and informed her husband in October 1818 that she found no love for him in her body and that she planned to leave the next month. John Layman refused to believe this until his wife disappeared sometime in November. A decade later he received his divorce.


John Layman v. Rebecca Layman, Book D, 252-254 (1827).

One thought on “Rebecca Vitriol

  1. Can you provide more information on the source of this story? Is “Book D” from legislative records, or court records?


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