- The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play by James Whorton
Oxford, 412 pp, £16.99, January 2010, ISBN 978 0 19 957470 4
Raymond Chandler writes in ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ (1950) that ‘the English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.’ He’s specifically referring to crime novelists – the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie – in an attempt to wrest the detective story away from the English suburbs and towards the grittier (and far more romantic) novels written by himself and Dashiell Hammett. An explanation of sorts had already been offered by George Orwell. In ‘Decline of the English Murder’ (1946), he meditated on the apparent passing of the homely crime of murder as it was commonly reported in the British popular press:
Our great period in murder, our Elizabethan period, so to speak, seems to have been between roughly 1850 and 1925, and the murderers whose reputation has stood the test of time are the following: Dr Palmer of Rugeley, Jack the Ripper, Neill Cream, Mrs Maybrick, Dr Crippen, Seddon, Joseph Smith, Armstrong, and Bywaters and Thompson.
Orwell discounts Jack the Ripper as an altogether special artisan of murder, but of the remaining eight, six were poisoners. The perfect murderer, he explains, was one who would satisfy the requirements of the reader of the News of the World, settled on the sofa, puffing on a pipe in front of the fire after a Sunday roast lunch, while his wife sleeps in a comfy chair and the children are off on a nice long walk. He – the murderer rather than the reader, though doubtless their shadows were twinned – should be
a little man of the professional class – a dentist or a solicitor, say – living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall. He should be either chairman of the local Conservative Party branch, or a leading Nonconformist and strong Temperance advocate. He should go astray through cherishing a guilty passion for his secretary or the wife of a rival professional man, and should only bring himself to the point of murder after long and terrible wrestles with his conscience. Having decided on murder, he should plan it all with the utmost cunning, and only slip up over some tiny unforeseeable detail. The means chosen should, of course, be poison.
Orwell argues that murder is no longer what it used to be, and cites the 1944 case of Elizabeth Jones, an 18-year-old, and an American army deserter, Karl Hulten, who went on a killing spree together, known as the Cleft Chin Murders. They were a Bonnie and Clyde pair, a symptom of the brutality of war and of approaching modernity in dear old England.
Perhaps it is significant that the most talked-of English murder of recent years should have been committed by an American and an English girl who had become partly Americanised. But it is difficult to believe that this case will be so long remembered as the old domestic poisoning dramas, product of a stable society where the all-prevailing hypocrisy did at least ensure that crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them.
He saw the future clearly enough, and can’t be blamed really for not having the ability to imagine how nostalgia, brilliant clothes, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway and some fancy editing would elevate nihilistic murderous young couples into cultural icons for the 20th century, while a quietly seething poisoner would look dreary and unstylishly old hat.
In this book, James Whorton makes it clear that dealing death by poison was not, after all, exclusively suburban, although, apart from later industrial disasters, it does seem to have been almost entirely domesticated. The poison in Whorton’s book is specifically arsenic, and the deaths were only sometimes the result of deliberate murder and suicide. Though class figures in everything British, arsenic poisoning crossed class boundaries in a way that little else could. As a murder weapon, suicide aid and domestic hazard, it was cheap, a by-product of smelting, and could be bought across the counter at any hardware or grocer shop until the 1851 Sale of Arsenic Act required vendors to keep a register of sales and purchasers, and required that small amounts (not larger industrial quantities) had to be mixed with soot or indigo in order to prevent householders, who remarkably often kept the stuff in their larders, from confusing it with sugar or baking powder and innocently offering arsenic scones to their families and visitors. It was entirely reasonable and necessary for the poor, the middle classes and their servants, as well as the below-stairs staff of grander houses, to buy arsenic regularly for the purposes of keeping down the rat population, while farmers bought it in undyed quantities for use as sheep dip.
Arsenic most commonly killed rats, moths and flies, and decontaminated sheep, but it was also said to cure humans of the ague, asthma, cancer and other ailments. Physicians had for a long time prescribed arsenic for their patients, and in 1809 Fowler’s Solution, a mixture of potassium arsenite and lavender, was accepted into the London Pharmacopoeia and praised as ‘almost as certain a medicine as we possess throughout the whole range of our materia medica’. In tiny quantities women used it in various concoctions for cosmetic purposes in order to achieve a complexion of ‘beautiful transparency’ and a blemish-free skin. Some men also ate it regularly in gradually increasing doses for the benefits it apparently gave: as well as curing baldness, it promised men ‘increased energy, endurance and virility’, a little trick long known to the Styrians. Useful information both for murderers and crime writers. The not entirely dull Dorothy L. Sayers, who gets only a passing mention in Whorton’s book, used the Styrian habit in Strong Poison, in which Harriet Vane makes her first appearance as a crime writer researching a book. The poison register proves she bought arsenic, leaving her in imminent danger of being convicted of poisoning her worthless ex-lover. Lord Peter Wimsey, whimsically love-struck and coming to the rescue, confronts the real villain:
Yes, well, about this arsenic. As you know, it’s not good for people in a general way, but there are some people – those tiresome peasants in Styria one hears so much about – who are supposed to eat it for fun. It improves their wind, so they say, clears their complexions, and makes their hair sleek, and they give it to their horses for the same reasons; bar the complexion, that is, because a horse hasn’t much complexion, but you know what I mean. Then there was that horrid man Maybrick – he used to take it, or so they say. Anyhow, it’s well known that some people do take it and manage to put away large dollops after a bit of practice.
Arsenic was easily and legitimately available for murder or suicide. Moreover, until the Marsh test was developed in 1836 to find arsenic residue in substances including the disinterred organs of victims, there was really no way of deciding whether someone who had been given it either in one go, or over a subtler longer period, had not died of natural causes as a result of poor food hygiene or illness. Why wouldn’t you get rid of the inconvenient or the vile by means of odourless, tasteless, undetectable arsenic – assuming that you had managed to overcome any tendency to value human life over personal convenience? As the over-apostrophised cook Mrs Pettican struggles to put it about Harriet Vane’s presumed crime in Strong Poison: ‘A dreadful wicked woman she must ’a’ been … a-torturin’ of the poor soul that long-winded way. Bashin’ on the ’ed or the ’asty use of a carvin’ knife when roused I can understand, but the ’orrors of slow poisonin’ is the work of a fiend in ’uman form, in my opinion.’ Five thousand people watched ‘the fair parricide’ Mary Blandy hanged in 1752, having been found guilty of murdering her father with arsenic. Her lover, of whom her father disapproved, had posted the apparently limitlessly gullible Blandy a ‘special powder known to certain cunning women in Scotland that made all who swallowed it forgive their enemies’. He escaped to France when she was arrested and nine months later died a mysteriously gut-wrenching, agonising death, wishing ‘for Death for some days before he died’. Florence Maybrick was found guilty of husband murder by slow poisoning in 1889 by a jury of men who heard about her adultery and were not very much interested in the fact that her husband beat her. They also chose to ignore evidence that Mr Maybrick was a regular user of arsenic for aphrodisiac purposes and had told a witness that he took the white powder for ‘longevity and a fair complexion, my boy’. Female public opinion was outraged and Maybrick’s sentence was commuted to hard labour for life. Eventually, the case came to be known as ‘the English Dreyfus affair’; she was freed but not pardoned in 1904. Murder by arsenical poisoning was practised by both genders, even if in the public imagination, it was a woman’s crime, secretive and underhand, murder on the slow boil, somewhat effete if committed by men, unlike the visceral and jugular venom of all-male slashers and stranglers. Thomas Smethurst was convicted of murdering one of his two wives in spite of a flawed toxicology test, which gave some credence to his claim that the second Mrs Smethurst died of either dysentery or chronic vomiting as a result of her being seven weeks pregnant. He, like Florence Maybrick, escaped hanging, and was pardoned on appeal because the medical evidence was doubtful, but he did do a year’s hard labour for bigamy.
Suicide by arsenic was fairly rare. Most people, understandably, chose opium. Only about 10 per cent of self-poisoners ate arsenic, although according to one toxicologist it may have been ‘a national peculiarity’ that a much larger proportion of Americans used arsenic as a means of suicide. Perhaps fewer of them had read Madame Bovary and so didn’t know about Emma Bovary’s extended and excruciating death. According to Whorton, ‘merely writing about his character’s anguished demise caused Flaubert to throw up his dinner on two separate evenings.’ Unless, of course, he was himself experimenting in the cause of literary realism.
Some common abuses of arsenic were a good deal grimmer even than real and fictional characters doing away with their unwanted spouses (at least as often for financial convenience, surely, than as Orwell suggests, passion). Many infants and children died from intestinal infections, an unknown number of which were actually deliberate arsenic poisoning. In 1849, Rebecca Smith was executed for killing eight of her babies after birth, having claimed in her defence that her husband was an alcoholic and that she feared her children ‘might come to want’ and die of starvation anyway. According to Whorton the poisoning of children ‘underwent a growth spurt’ when for a halfpenny a week ‘burial clubs’, an offshoot of the friendly societies, paid out for funeral expenses so that the children of the poor could avoid a pauper’s grave or being carved up by anatomists after death. ‘Manchester clubs, for example, paid out £3 as a rule, but some paid £4, or even £5; a basic funeral for a child could be financed for only £1 or £2. There was a saying among women in the Manchester tenements: “Aye, aye, that child will not live, it is in the burial club!”’ Membership rolls were known as ‘catalogues of the doomed’.
The gloomier villages of southern England became poisoning hotspots, some of them legends. Sarah Chesham (aka Sally Arsenic) roamed the Essex village of Clavering offering toxic lozenges to any children who were not kept indoors by their mothers, and her own two children died mysteriously. Everyone knew, but nobody said anything. Chesham was acquitted of their murder in 1847 and a newspaper asked: ‘What is to be said of a district where cold-blooded murder meets with all the popular favour which is shown to smuggling in Sussex?’ Sally Arsenic passed on her skills to Mary May, who was convicted in 1848 of killing her brother for the burial money. She probably also poisoned her husband and at least some of her 14 children – ‘most of whom died suddenly’. May, in her turn, had taught Hannah Ham (the names chime gay as nursery rhymes and Dr Seuss) how to kill her husband with arsenic. Local women talked of ‘white powdering’ their husbands and children, ‘seasoning a pie’ or ‘giving them a dose’. People said that there were women’s poisoning clubs in Essex, and the paper of record, the Times, suggested that the women of Essex rejoiced in ‘wholesale indiscriminate and almost gratuitous assassination’. It sounds like another witch panic, with women once again doing the devil’s work. Whorton (an American) does seem rather fond of a Gothic view of Victorian England and doesn’t really investigate beyond the gruesome rumours and newspaper headlines. In fact only Mary May and eventually Sarah Chesham were convicted and executed, after which the ‘Essex epidemic’ died down.
Children and adults sickened, suffered and died of toxic lozenges and all manner of arsenical substances not only because of deliberate murder by crazy, malevolent or greedy women and lusting men, but more frequently as a result of the English passion for a free, self-regulated market capitalism. Sweeties, wallpaper, candles, artificial flowers and almost anything green were at least as likely to kill you as a dosed Irish stew. Arsenic was an ingredient in the manufacture of all these items and many more. People dropped like flies having their wallpaper rehung, especially those who were caught up in the fashionable ‘rage for green’, which Punch came to call ‘the hue of death, the tint of the grave’. Previously malachite and verdigris had provided green, but it was insipid. Scheele’s green, introduced in 1778, used copper arsenite to provide a brilliant shade. Later, in 1814, the even brighter copper acetoarsenite was used to produce Paris green, Vienna green, Basel green, emperor green and emerald green for cloth dyeing, soft furnishings, coloured paper, paint (for walls and children’s toys) and wallpaper, all of which shed flakes and dust, causing long-term malaise, even collapse and death, without anyone understanding why. This was the reasoning behind the (apparently false) rumours of Napoleon’s death by wallpaper on the island of St Helena.
Young women making silk and muslin flowers and leaves to adorn the hats of ladies sickened and died because of the ‘devil’s dust’ that flew around the workshops. Cheap candles made not from wax but stearine were made shiny and smooth by adding white arsenic – they became known as ‘corpse candles’. Drinkers of cheap beer developed what was thought to be alcoholic neuritis, until doctors noticed that their skin went black in addition to the terrible pain. It turned out that some manufacturers substituted malted barley with glucose made by boiling starch in sulphuric acid, which was itself made using arsenic-containing iron pyrites. In Bradford one confectioner practised the not uncommon adulteration of sweets by mixing plaster of Paris with the sugar, in order to cut manufacturing costs. Unfortunately an apprentice pharmacist fulfilled their sizeable order for plaster of Paris from a nearby unmarked barrel of equally white, powdery arsenic. The sweets were sent to a market stall and more than a dozen children and adults died, with many more seriously ill.
The dogged resistance to laws against the adulteration of products and food with dangerous and unknown substances was as great as the present day corporate and political reluctance to deal with environmental and banking hazards. In the name of the free market and the blessed principle of laissez-faire, manufacturers lobbied successfully against any laws to restrict their practices. In 1831 the Lancet complained: ‘in England alone is it that the principles of popular liberty are so sagely maintained that the people are allowed … to be suffocated in the asphyxiating vapours of manufactories, without the slightest concern being manifested by the rulers of the land.’ In the forefront of resistance to this Victorian version of political-correctness-gone-mad and the nanny state, was the great socialist and leader of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris, who decades after the Lancet article, announced in 1885 that the arsenic scare was nonsense. As Whorton notes, he laughed that ‘doctors had been “bitten” by a kind of “witch fever” … blaming wallpaper when they were unable to come up with any other cause for their patients’ problems (it was his own belief that “the source of all illness” was the water closet).’ The free artistic spirit, the British Empire, or, more recently, the human race, hadn’t got where it was by running scared of a bit of environmental poisoning when there were important matters of profit and power at stake.
In detective fiction of the English variety, a dead body is a necessity, but only as a MacGuffin. You’re not supposed to care about the victim, only the solution to the crime. This was true, too, of the old-fashioned domestic real-life murder available in the newspapers. Empathy was not required, even though there is probably no more painful death than that by arsenic poisoning. Death and loss as the great human tragedy isn’t any part of Dorothy L. Sayers’s or Agatha Christie’s project, nor their readers’.
Heartlessness is rather the point. Even the idea of people dying of wallpaper or poisoned candles, or children buying and dying from sweets on the market stall in the Victorian era belongs to the ‘well how about that’ category of non-fiction. Agony is sidelined when it happened long ago and has become dated genre fiction. The reality of arsenic poisoning makes greater demands on the imagination in the face of a present-day global accident that is the result both of good will and a different kind of laissez-faire. Chronic and massive environmental arsenic poisoning continues, in spite of the laws that were eventually passed to protect consumers, not just because of wicked capitalists, but as a result of the incompetence of international aid. What the World Health Organisation has called ‘the largest mass poisoning of a population in history’ happened in Bangladesh in the 1970s, when Unicef and the WHO fronted an international investment to install millions of tube wells to provide clean water in the area. But when the wells were sunk no one tested for arsenic, which is found naturally in the underground water around the Ganges and Brahmaputra deltas. A conservative estimate has it that ten million people have been poisoned, suffering skin lesions leading to cancer, lung and kidney failure and cardiovascular disease. It’s estimated that hundreds of thousands will die as a direct result of drinking water from the arsenical wells. Local activists suggest that because of the incompetence, corruption and bureaucracy of both the UN and the Bangladeshi authorities it will take as long as another 30 years to test for, find and decontaminate the affected wells. Or as the UN chief in Bangladesh said in the Independent on Sunday earlier this year, 30 years after the problem was discovered: ‘Concerted efforts by the government and all stakeholders are necessary to reinvigorate arsenic monitoring and mitigation efforts, and to conduct comprehensive research on emerging threats.’