Edme Castaing: The First Morphine Murderer

Four years after the first opiate and pain medication morphine began to be marketed to the public, a young man by the name of Edme Castaing graduated from the School of Medicine in Paris, It happened in 1821, the same year that Napoleon Bonaparte died. Unlike Napoleon, however, Castaing had been an outstanding student during his school years and won many awards. Many people also considered him to be an upstanding and honest person, but problems for Castaing began when he found himself facing financial difficulties.

Edme Castaing - Auguste and Hippolyte Ballet

Auguste Ballet, Hippolyte Ballet, and Edme Castaing. Public domain.

A few years earlier, in 1818, he had vouched for a friend on a loan and when it came due in 1820, his friend could not pay the required 600 francs. Thus, the burden fell upon Castaing, but he was already under financial pressure having fathered two children with his mistress.

Edme Castaing had also befriended two brothers, Auguste and Hippolyte Ballet. Auguste was the older of the two having been born on 21 March of 1798, while Hippolyte was born a year later on 17 August 1799. The brothers had received a handsome inheritance when their parents died. Although Hippolyte was thrifty Auguste was not. Thus, soon after their parent’s deaths, Hippolyte visited the family lawyer, a man named Lebret, and told him that he planned to make a will to protect his money.

“He had seen that his brother Auguste was squandering his share of their inheritance; … [and] that whatever he might leave to Auguste should not be placed at his absolute disposal.”[1]

Castaing had a closer relationship with Hippolyte than Auguste. In fact, after Castaing became a physician he began treating Hippolyte for consumption and because of his medical issues, Hippolyte was advised to take the waters at Enghien, which he did in August of 1822. He seemed greatly improved when he returned home on 22 September. His sister, Madame Martignon, noticed the improvement when he visited her on Tuesday, 1 October. However, two days later, on Thursday, his condition suddenly turned desperate and serious.

“His brother-in-law, who visited him, found that he had taken to his bed, his face was swollen, his eyes were red.”[2]

Hippolyte Ballet. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Ultimately, Hippolyte’s condition worsened, and after much protracted suffering, he died on 5 October. As Edme Castaing had been treating Hippolyte, he conducted an autopsy in conjunction with another doctor. They concluded that Hippolyte died of pleurisy aggravated by consumption.

Hippolyte died in intestate and because no will was found the bulk of the money then went to Auguste, with only one-quarter of money being given to their sister, Madame Martignon. Shortly after Hippolyte’s death, on 7 October 1822, Auguste cashed 100,000 francs of stocks and was seen giving the money to Castaing. Auguste later claimed he gave him the money to give to Lebret so that Hippolyte’s will would be destroyed, but when questioned, Lebret claimed Hippolyte had no will. In addition, Castaing invested 66,000 francs with a stockbroker on 10 October, a day later he sent 30,000 francs to his mother, and on 14 October he gave his mistress 4,000 francs.

Auguste made out his will on 1 December 1822, and because he was supposedly irritated at his sister, he named Edme Castaing as his sole legatee. Castaing then contacted his cousin, a notary, to ascertain the legality of the will. That same day, on 29 May 1823, Auguste and Castaing went on a jaunt to the countryside near Saint Germain. They left in a cabriolet traveling without servants and returned to Paris that same day. Castaing then went to his own house and was alleged to have obtained morphine.

Auguste Ballet. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

On 30 May, the men went to Saint Cloud and spent the day together, and, later that evening, they went to the Tête Noire Hotel, where upon their arrival, Castaing asked for some warm wine for Auguste. Castaing also told the waiter that sugar was not necessary as he had brought his own, as well as some lemons, which prosecutors claimed were purchased “for the purpose of neutralising the bitter taste of the acetate de morphia in warm wine. After the sugar and lemon had been put into the wine by Castaing without witnesses, it was offered to Auguste, who … was so disgusted with its bitterness as to drink but a very small portion of it.”[3]

Early the following morning, around 4am, after a restless night, Auguste purportedly “complained of having been tormented by colic and vomiting.”[4] Edme Castaing then left the inn for Paris to obtain an emetic, but in fact, prosecutors alleged that he purchased morphine under false pretenses “and not for an innocent purpose.”[5]  When Castaing returned to the inn he had Auguste drink some cold milk. Witnesses then reported:

“[His patient] was  immediately seized by a violent fit of sickness and purging; that Castaing caused … [and] that whilst his friend was thus affected by sickness, he quitted the house … and left him to the care of the servants of the inn … that on his return, Auguste proposed to have a physician sent for from Paris: that a physician of the place came instead, who desired Castaing to prescribe [helpful medication] for his friend, [but] … Castaing refused … and would not administer the prescription.”[6]

Later, after a soothing draught for Auguste was prescribed, Castaing obliged and gave it to his patient. What he administered to Auguste was not more than a spoonful, but it was deadly. Within a few minutes, Auguste had a fit, lost his senses, and expired about mid-day on Sunday, 1 June, writhing in great agony. Because Auguste’s death was so unexpected and sudden, the finger was pointed at Castaing and he was arrested the next day. 

A post-mortem was conducted, and although the examiners concluded Auguste died from natural causes, authorities would not release Castaing because of the suspicions circumstances surrounding Auguste’s death. They believed Castaing must be complicit and their conviction grew stronger when they learned that despite Castaing being insolvent, he had invested in stocks and given gifts of money to his mother and mistress. In addition, shortly, after his arrest, Castaing was taken to Paris where he feigned insanity for the first three days, but as his ruse proved futile, he gave it up and was moved to the prison in Versailles.

Edme Castaing

Edme Samuel Castaing. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

After a five-month investigation, on Monday, 10 November 1823, Edme Castaing’s trial began at the Paris Assize Court. It lasted eight days. He was charged with three counts: murdering Hippolyte, destroying a document containing the final disposition of Hippolyte’s property, and murdering Auguste. The Hull Packet provided readers with an introduction to the crime stating:

“A young physician, named Castaing, was the bosom friend of two brothers, barristers. He, at considerable intervals, and with cold-blooded precautions, poisoned both — having previously laid a train by which he should profit by the testamentary disposal of their property, which was considerable. … It is somewhat singular, that upon examining his papers, it was found that his mind had been particularly directed to the analysis and study of poisons chiefly with a view in discover[ing] what substances unite with their poisonous quality the treachery of leaving no trace of their operation.”[7]

Speculation was rampant about Castaing’s guilt and many curious spectators attended the trial. Newspapers also reported on the inquisitive crowds and their attempts to watch the proceedings. On the first day, from 10:30am to 4:30pm, the indictment was read and Edme Castaing interrogated. He described himself as being 27, a medical doctor, and residing in Paris at Rue d’Enfer, no. 31. Descriptions of him maintained that he was fair-skinned, mild in voice, and calm and collected in manner. In addition, reporters noted that Castaing’s trial his was no ordinary trial:

“The bar, upon which the articles necessary to the conviction of the prisoner are usually placed, did not, upon this occasion, present to the view of the spectator any blood-stained garments, or any spoils taken from the person of the murdered victim, but a range of decanters, bottles, and phials, containing either poisons found in the house of the accused, or the analysed results of them, together with two chests, tied and sealed up in which were contained other substances, designed as tests for them.”[8]

During the proceedings, Edme Castaing admitted to buying morphine, but claimed he purchased it “to destroy dogs and cats which had made a noise in the inn.”[9] Other guests at the inn countered his testimony and denied hearing any animal noises. Prosecutors maintained that Castaing had no reason to go to Paris as a chemist was located close to the hotel. They also declared Castaing’s reasoning was absurd and maintained that arsenic would have worked more effectively than morphine to get rid of any annoying and noisy animals. In addition, the prosecution pointed out many inconsistencies in the defendant’s testimony. They also noted his suspicious behavior, such as consulting with a notary, going to Paris to purchase an emetic, and concealing the fact that he had purchased morphine.

Edme Castaing was well defended at trial. He had two powerful advocates, a friend and fellow schoolmate named Roussel and the famous Pierre-Antoine Berryer, who some people said was as great an orator as Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Count of Mirabeau had been during the time of Louis XVI.

Pierre Antoine Berryer. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In response, to the prosecution’s allegations, Castaing’s advocates pointed out that there was no proof that Auguste had been poisoned. Liquids taken from Auguste’s stomach supported their position as no trace of poison was found. The advocates also maintained that Auguste’s symptoms were contrary to the symptoms associated with morphine poisoning. Numerous character witnesses also declared Castaing to be diligent, kind, and generous, and it was pointed out that he had treated eighteen patients at his own expense.

On Sunday, 16 November, summation of the defendant’s case was concluded by Roussel at 10pm. The next morning it was Berryer’s turn to address the jury. Some people maintained his summation was not one of his most eloquent. He stated that with the help of his own chemist he had tasted a grain of acetate de morphia in a spoonful of milk and discovered no bitter taste, implying that if Auguste tasted something bitter it was not morphine. Berryer then concluded his summation using the words once spoken by a French King in his own defense:

“When God has not vouchsafed clear proof of a crime, it is sign that he does not wish man to judge, but reserves the decision for his supreme tribunal.”[10]

At 9pm the jury of twelve received the case and retired. It took them two hours to return a verdict.

“The Jury acquitted Castaign [sic] of the charge of poisoning Hippolyte Ballet, found him Guilty of destroying the will, and also poisoning Auguste Ballet, by a simple majority of 7 against 5.”[11]

When the verdict was read, Roussel broke down in tears and Edme Castaing comforted him. The judge asked Castaing if he had anything to say before sentence was passed. He passionately cried out:

“No, M. President! I shall know how to die. I am very unfortunate; fatal circumstances surround me, and plunge me into the tomb where I shall meet my two unhappy friends. I am accused of having basely assassinated them. Ah! If there is any thing divine me, it will go to join Auguste and Hippolyte Ballet. I don’t implore your pity. I implore nothing human; I appeal to what is divine, and shall go with delight to the Scaffold. Ah, yes! for my conscience reproaches me with nothing not even when I shall feel – [He lifted his hands to his neck.] – – – Alas! it is more easy to feel than to express what I dare not pronounce. … You have wished my death; you have it.”[12]

At midnight, he sat quietly as the judge pronounced a sentence of death and ordered him to repay 100,000 francs in damages to Auguste’s family. Edme Castaing was now a convicted man, but he was not the only one disgraced by the verdict. His father ultimately resigned his position in the government and his brother gave up his commission as a Captain in the Guards. When Castaing was returned to prison, there was fear he might try and commit suicide, so, he was placed in a strait jacket. However, his spirits remained good until he lost his appeal on 4 December. That was the day when he attempted suicide by having a friend bring him a watch that had poison hidden inside. However, at the last moment his courage failed, and, thus, two days later, on 6 December 1823, at 2pm at the Place de Greve in front a prodigious crowd, Castaing’s sentence was carried out. The Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier reported:

“He seemed extremely dejected; his mental resolution appeared overpowered, and his bodily strength entirely prostrate, apparently unable to support himself. He leaned his head on the shoulder of the Priest, who accompanied him.”[13]

Edme Castaing

Edme Samuel Castaing. Courtesy of Bibliothèque numérique Medic.

After arriving at the foot of the scaffolding, he remained in pray with his confessor for several minutes. Up to the last moment, he denied that he had murdered anyone or committed any crime. When he mounted the steps, he stumbled, stopped, and cast his eyes upward to heaven. He then remained in deep meditation for a few moments. When he finally reached the block, he laid prostrate as his confessor adjusted his head, at which point Edme Castaing suddenly turned to him and spoke a few words. A few moments passed as the executioner readied things, and then the suspense was over.

“The fatal axe rapidly descended, and the unhappy suffer was thus hurried into the presence of Him who alone knows his real guilt and innocence.”[14]


  • [1] H. B. Irving, A Book of Remarkable Criminals (New York: Cassell, 1918), p. 157.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 156.
  • [3] Inverness Courier, “The Case of Castaing, the Physician, Accused of Murder,” November 27, 1823, p. 4.
  • [4] Affair Castaing Accusation d’Empoisonnement (Paris, 1823), p. 53.
  • [5] Inverness Courier, p. 4.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Hull Packet, “Murders in France,” November 24, 1823, p. 2.
  • [8] Inverness Courier, p. 4.
  • [9] Hull Packet, p. 2.
  • [10] Affair Castaing Accusation d’Empoisonnement (Paris, 1823), p. 255.
  • [11] Inverness Courier, p. 4
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier, “Execution of Dr. Castaing,” December 13, 1823, p. 2.
  • [14] Leeds Mercury, “Execution of Dr. Castaing,” December 13, 1823, p. 2.

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