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Arsenic by Anthony Daniels

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Essay

Arsenic

Wallpapers of pink, blue, or green in the Victorian Era—like this William Morris pattern—often contained arsenic compounds.

Photo: Public Domain.

I once had a good idea—a long time ago, that is. I purposed to write a history of arsenic in the 19th century, and even obtained a contract to do so. Alas, I was too slow to fulfil it, and someone whom to this day I consider guilty of plagiarism in advance wrote the very book that I was planning to write but had not begun. Worse still, it was a very good book. 

It might seem that the history of arsenic in the 19th century is an arcane and limited subject. Not so: it is surprisingly immense. How is it a worthy subject? Let me count the ways, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning put it in answer to the question in her sonnet, “How do I love thee?” 

First, arsenic was the poison of choice among 19th century murderers, at least of the sneaky kind. Thomas De Quincey, in his famous essay “Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” thought poorly of poisoning as a method, believing it to be it unmanly, indeed feminine; and, even worse, un-English. At least in this second assumption, he was mistaken. As a matter of empirical fact, the English were among the greatest arsenic poisoners of their time.  

Second, the chemical detection of arsenic was the founding triumph of forensic science. A slightly degenerate and moderately drunken English chemist called Marsh invented a test for the presence of arsenic in human cadavers and, hereafter, arsenic poisoners had to be more careful, though other explanations (besides deliberate poisoning) for the presence of arsenic in corpses soon emerged.  

This was because the Victorian environment was suffused with arsenic. Its uses were myriad and protean. It was used to kill weeds, rats, and flies (to soak fly-papers and use the resultant liquid in food and drink was a favourite way of disposing of an unwanted husband). It was commonly used as a dyestuff. Wallpapers of pink, blue, or green contained arsenic compounds, so that the very walls gave off vapours and poisoned householders. One theory of Napoleon’s death is that he was poisoned by the arsenic in the wallpaper of Longwood House on St. Helena, accidentally or deliberately, as the case might be. Bank tellers in America suffered arsenic poisoning by the greenbacks that they counted. 

Third, arsenic was used both as a cosmetic and a medicine—the former as a means of whitening the skin in the days when a whiter-than-white skin was deemed desirable. Fowler’s Solution, invented by Dr. Thomas Fowler, contained arsenic and was a popular medicine in the days when the whole pharmacopoeia was virtually useless at best, harmful at worst. (Oliver Wendell Holmes—eminent doctor, discoverer of the means by which childbed fever was spread, and early pioneer of anaesthesia, a word he invented—said that if the whole pharmacopoeia were thrown into the ocean it would be the better for mankind and the worse for the fishes.) Charles Darwin was an aficionado of Fowler’s Solution, and it has been suggested that the resultant chronic arsenic poisoning was the cause of the ill-health that he suffered all his adult life after his return from South America, though it has also been suggested that he suffered arsenic poisoning from the stuffed birds that were sent to him by naturalists around the world, arsenic being then used by taxidermists as a preservative. (The relative preservation of the bodies of people suspected of having been poisoned by arsenic was one of the proofs of poison.) D.H. Lawrence was treated with arsenic for his tuberculosis—unsuccessfully, of course—and an arsenic compound was used in the treatment of psoriasis until the 1970s. 

Fourth, arsenic was a drug of abuse in the 19th century and the first such substance in England whose consumption was regulated by law. It was regarded as a stimulant. The miners of Styria in Austria took arsenic (they were known as the arsenic-eaters) in much the same way—and for the same reason—that miners in Potosí chewed coca leaves. Arsenic was thought to be an aphrodisiac as well as a general tonic, and more than one murder trial of a wife suspected of killing her husband was complicated by the husband’s habitual resort to arsenic. 

Fifth, arsenic was the occasion in mid-Victorian times of what would now be called a moral panic, it being feared that there were far more poisonings with arsenic than ever came to light. Sudden death in those days was a common event, of course; any minor illness or injury could swiftly lead to it, and arsenic was without taste. We cannot possibly say, without mass exhumation, how many people were polished off by arsenic, so perhaps such a scare was understandable, given that there was no control of the sale of arsenic. 

The first feeble effort at such control came (in England) with the Arsenic Act of 1851, after which purchasers were obliged to state their name and the purpose for which they bought their arsenic. As with so many attempts at government control, this seems to have had little practical effect: signers of the Poison Register, as it was called, often made up their names, and many of the most notorious arsenic murders occurred after the Act was passed. 

Sixth, arsenic was an important adulterant of food. Arsenic oxide was pure white and it was cheap, so it was sometimes put into peppermints to stretch their more expensive ingredients and to make them whiter. As late as the early 1900s, an arsenic contaminant of the ingredients of beer in Manchester caused six thousand cases of arsenic poisoning in that city. This was (I am tempted to say) small beer by comparison with the chronic arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh occasioned by UNICEF’s wells built to save Bangladeshi children from gastroenteritis caused by bacteriologically impure water. The water brought up in the wells was so high in natural arsenic content that more than six million people now suffer from chronic arsenic poisoning. UNICEF, therefore, has a claim to being the greatest poisoner—certainly the greatest arsenic poisoner (admittedly inadvertently)—in world history.

Seventh, arsenic was a product of mining. It tends to occur naturally in the earth’s crust where there is tin, and the English Arsenic Company mined for arsenic in Cornwall, scattering arsenic so liberally around its workings that, a century and a half later, nothing will grow there.     

Finally, there is the literature of arsenic. Everyone will recall the role of arsenic in Madame Bovary, and one of the best French memoirists of the 19th century was Marie Lafarge, suspected of and condemned to prison for having killed her husband with arsenic in a cake that she sent to him in Paris. The case has divided opinion ever since. Was she guilty? A hundred books have been written about her—I have thirty of them—and they range in their conclusions from that of definite and proven guilt to that of definite and proven innocence. Though the alleged poisoning took place in 1840 and she died in 1852, having been released from prison in 1851 by Napoleon III which he was still Prince-President, people convinced of her innocence—believing her to have been the object of a terrible miscarriage of justice—still place flowers upon her grave. 

My first step towards writing my great work of history was to buy books on the subject, easy to do thanks to the Internet, so that I quickly accumulated what I call my arsenical library. Perhaps the most treasured of the books is a rare American work containing samples of arsenical wallpapers, about 40 of them in all. It would no doubt be dangerous to lick this book, but in the 1880s they issued no such warning to potential book-lickers. 

I also have the transcripts of many trials of people tried for murder by arsenic. The coolest customer, perhaps, was Madeleine Smith, who was alleged to have killed her illicit lover, L’Angelier, with arsenic, which he also took as a tonic. The case for the prosecution being over, she was asked what she thought. “I don’t know,” she replied. “There are two sides to every question.” 

My point is this: I am far from claiming that the history of arsenic in the 19th century is the most important subject to which a man may bend his mind, there being millions of others just as important and just as fascinating. There is, therefore, no reason or excuse to be bored in this world: boredom, of course, being an even greater cause of social pathology than arsenic. Pasteur said that chance favours the mind prepared; boredom favours the mind unprepared. I add that arsenic favours neither, but the study of it may favour both.

Anthony Daniels writes from France.

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