First Book of 2021: All About Arsenic

The title sums it up well: The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work, & Play by James C. Whorton. We all know about issues with lead poisoning, whether in water pipes, paint, or from industrial processes, and I had read about the problems with exposure to phosphorus in match production and other industries. But I didn’t know much at all about arsenic, other than as a plot device in Arsenic and Old Lace.

The first chapter of this book is not for the squeamish reader. Whorton starts out by covering the effects of arsenic poisoning in fairly gruesome detail. It’s an abrupt start, but necessary to understand the rest of the book. The rest of the first third or so of the book concerns the use of arsenic for criminal purposes–how it was so easy to obtain arsenic to poison someone, how it worked, how murderers tried to cover their tracks, the public hysteria over poisonings, and how murderers were caught (and sometimes how innocent people were accused of poisoning).

After reading the first chapter on the effects of arsenic, I could understand why people were so frightened of being poisoned this way; it would be an awful death, and a crime that would be difficult to discover and punish. This section of the book also delves into the history of science and scientific method, looking at the ways scientists (or proto-scientists) tried to develop accurate ways of detecting arsenic. If you like true crime or even detective fiction, you’ll enjoy this part of the book.

The rest of the book deals with arsenic poisoning via non-homicidal means (I won’t say non-criminal means, because the manufacturers who deliberately produced arsenic-laced products were certainly criminal). Every time I read history like this, I am grateful for the government regulation we have today, and I wish people who felt we didn’t need those regulations would read about these events that propelled governments to act.

As the title says, Britons were poisoned at home, work, and play. One of the primary vehicles was green dye, a color called “Scheele’s green,” which was used in wallpaper, artificial flowers, fabric for clothes, and even foods. People who put up green wallpaper became sick and recovered when they removed the wallpaper. Children died from eating green-colored candies. Women who worked manufacturing artificial flowers became extremely sick and sometimes died. On top of this intentional use of arsenic in products, manufacturers sometimes included arsenic, knowingly or not, in adulterants designed to reduce the cost of manufacturing, so people died from eating and drinking tainted products.

And, at the same time doctors worked on uncovering and lobbying against arsenic used in criminal acts and everyday objects, other doctors used arsenic as medicine, often to treat cancers and skin conditions, but also to treat a whole range of illnesses. Whorton explains that doctors in the 1800s had little knowledge of disease, and the prevailing view was that if a treatment caused a physical reaction (like vomiting), it must be working!!! Many people also took arsenic in the form of patent medicines, which complicated criminal investigation–doctors could not distinguish between arsenic-as-medicine and arsenic-as-poison in suspicious deaths.

Despite the grim subject matter, I enjoyed this book very much. It’s well-researched and well-written, and has clear relevance to issues we face today.

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