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Rob Hardy: The Arsenic Century


Rob Hardy



Because we are complex bags of chemicals with countless processes that must run exactly right if we are to continue our heartbeats and breathing, there is a huge number of poisons that will do us in. Among the most famous is arsenic; without its fame, for instance, the title of the stage and movie classic Arsenic and Old Lace would not have its sting. "The great attraction of arsenious acid to those contemplating murder," writes James C. Whorton in The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work, & Play (Oxford University Press), "is that it has no distinctive taste or smell and, since it resembles flour and sugar, can be added to foods and beverages without arousing suspicion." A tiny amount would do the trick, sometimes as little as a hundredth of an ounce. Arsenic was readily available at the corner drug store as rat poison, and it was cheap. The recipient would know something was wrong, because of agonizing gastric pains, but they were so similar to conditions like dysentery that no suspicion might be raised. Whorton''s book surveys the extraordinary rise of deliberate poisoning by arsenic in Victorian Britain, and the methods of a new forensic science to curb it, but deliberate poisonings are only part of this grisly story. Arsenic was ubiquitous in Victorian households in wallpaper, cosmetics, confections, and even in medications, and plenty succumbed to it. Whorton is a professor of the history of medicine, and his necessarily often ghoulish book is crammed with facts on a long-running poison fad, as well as reminding us that many of the issues in dealing legislatively with the arsenic problem are still with us in poisons more modern. 


It is not surprising that there were many stories of wives poisoning their husbands. The wife did do the cooking, after all, and the perversion of her role as provider of sustenance added a ghastly tang to such sto-ries, turning them quickly into popular folklore. For some reason, the arsenic poison boom centered in the county of Essex, where it may be that wives explicitly discussed the dosing of arsenic. Most famous of them was Sarah Chesham, aka "Sally Arsenic," who was so well known in her village as a poisoner that mothers would pull their children in when she walked by, for she reputedly had the habit of offering treats. In 1846 she was tried for poisoning an acquaintance''s illegitimate baby, but was acquitted. That she told others about the benefits of poisoning became the ruling gossip, and so Essex wives were held to be gener-ally dangerous. Chesham was executed eventually for the arsenic she served up to her husband in a dish of rice. Arsenic was not only good for getting rid of an annoying husband or child; it could bring in death benefits. The life insurance industry was expanding so that even the poor could participate. Families might enroll a baby into a plan to cover funeral expenses, and so a poisoned baby might be a financial blessing, even if the amount was small. Survival rates for babies were not high anywhere, but in Manchester people used to say that if a baby was in a "burial club," it was unlikely that it would live long. Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of insurance payouts was Ann Cotton who taught Sunday school, and also poisoned her mother, three husbands, a fiancĂ©, and many of her children and stepchildren. A great problem in bringing such cases to trial was that details would be given in testimony about the process, and anyone listening would get hints about successful poisoning attempts and how to avoid getting caught. The popular press was growing dramatically, literacy was up, and poisoning stories got attention. 


The poisoner who administered that single deadly dose was using just one method for arsenic poisoning; the other was to administer small doses over time. The advantages to this latter method were that the vic-tim would linger on with low-grade but increasing symptoms that could be lovingly cared for and even medically treated, but which would eventually cause death. Such a result was not so suspicious as a fast poisoning, and so had less chance of detection. The job of detection fell to a new type of scientific detec-tive, the expert witness, such as a chemist who might perform what was called the Marsh Test, which could isolate and detect arsenic from organic mixtures. This test was in use until the 1970s, when such things as chromatographic analysis became available. The test involved a sensitive analysis that had to be done by an expert, but it was a reason that poisoners had to consider some other means of dispatching their victims.  


Deliberate poisoners, that is. Arsenic powder still looked something like sugar or flour, and it was not at all uncommon for the grocer to make a mistake or to draw from a mislabeled barrel. Hammond''s Rat Cake Poison so closely resembled a little brown cake that a schoolboy died after pilfering one from a chum''s jacket pocket. Some of the mistakes came from adulteration; the addition of non-food material into recipes would become not just fraudulent but lethal. Plaster of Paris, for instance was used commonly as a partial substitute for sugar in confectionery. In 1858, a sweetshop owner put powder into his batch of peppermints, unaware that it was arsenic; twenty people died and hundreds were made ill. The most disturbing parts of Whorton''s book, however, show how arsenic was part of every Victorian''s home environment. It was used in medication, and did far more harm than good, but physicians convinced themselves of its value. It was an important basis for green dyes, which should not have been used for such things as cake decorations, but were. There was a fad for the deep green tint, so arsenic went into wallpaper, from which dust issued as the color flaked off. People were able to identify certain rooms as poisonous, and their symptoms would go away if the wallpaper was removed. It was in gowns, and poisoned the wearer as well as her dance partner. It was in playing cards and imbued itself onto the players'' fingers with every deal. 


Arsenic is still poison, of course, and has legitimate uses, but because of legislation it became no longer the menace to humans which Whorton describes at length in this detailed look at a former environmental threat. However, the legislation took far longer than it should have. Some of the issues sound like the same ones we hear now as legislation is considered to stop environmental threats. It came to be common knowledge that arsenic was poisoning the populace: "But for members of Parliament, the matter was not so simple. Health was a social good, without question, but so was wealth; arsenic was to be found in such a great range of manufactures that eliminating it would have significant economic repercussions." It is one of the most terrible of findings in a book full of horrors. 



Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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