How do you commit murder? Well, in the Victorian era arsenic was a good way to do in your rivals, spouses, and enemies. My latest release, Blythe Court, contains arsenic, and you may wonder if my use is accurate. Hopefully, you know by now I do my research, even if it really does sound extremely odd when you read the story.
Arsenic, in case you need a quick education, is a chemical element. It occurs in many minerals. During the Victorian era, it was widely used in commercial products. It was also available to purchase in bottle form from a druggist—half an ounce cost a penny, enough to kill 50 people. Unbeknownst to the Victorians, they were slowly poisoning themselves from wallpaper to clothes. The poison caused agonizing deaths until they finally realized the dangers of the chemical and began putting restrictions in place.
Here are a few of the products that contained arsenic:
1. Wallpaper. The Victorians loved the color green. Scheele’s Green was a pigment derived from arsenic. During the 19th century, homes were decorated in wallpaper that emitted toxic fumes causing illness. If a piece of wallpaper flaked off and a child ate it, death arrived.
2. Dresses. Green-colored fabric in dresses and other clothing contained arsenic. “Drop dead gorgeous,” is a term I see in many articles about women wearing clothes filled with arsenic. You looked stunning in green, but your skin absorbed the poison. You swirled around a ballroom, and your dress gave off fumes dangerous to your partner and those around you. Eventually, a test was developed by simply placing a drop of ammonia on the fabric. If it turned blue, arsenic was present.
3. Other clothing and accessories: Socks, hats, gloves, underwear, etc.
4. Toys. Children sucked on toys made with arsenic and became ill or died.
5. Other products. Cookware, wine bottles, face powder, shampoo, and the list goes on and on.
The Victorian home could be a death trap, as well as your wardrobe. As the population became increasingly ill and deaths rose, Parliament still refused to ban the use of arsenic in products because it was a booming business. It wasn’t until the end of the Victorian era that manufacturing of products that contained arsenic was curtailed.
On the other side of the coin, were the accidental poisonings. If you didn’t read the label closely enough, you could pick it up in the kitchen and add it to your food in error. Arsenic looked like other substances such as sugar—powdery white. It wasn’t until 1851 laws were enacted to color the arsenic so the difference could be detected and ladies no longer grabbed the wrong thing thereby killing their entire household from a newly baked pie. Contaminated well water could also contain arsenic.
If you want to get all “Arsenic and Old Lace” about the subject, arsenic could be easily slipped into food and drinks unnoticed because it was tasteless and odorless. Enough could do you in quickly while a little sprinkle here and there could lead you down the road of a slow and agonizing death. Apparently, the greatest users of arsenic in murders cases were Victorian women wanting to do away their husbands. Can’t divorce the drunken abuser who beats you every night? Try arsenic. Here is an interesting article about famous ladies of the day killing off their husbands with this versatile substance.
The symptoms of arsenic poisoning over a period of time included white lines forming on your nails, nausea, stomach pain, vomiting, hair loss, muscular weakness, kidney problems, and other not-so-pleasant medical ailments. In spite of the negative symptoms, the Victorians also hailed it as a medical cure for low libido, eczema, and other remedies.
For more information on arsenic poisoning during the Victorian era, here is a good resource:
The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned At Home, Work And Play
by James C Whorton