Arsenic in the 1800s: A Dangerous Poison

Arsenic in the 1800s was sometimes called “white arsenic.” It was used in diverse ways by women to beautify themselves. For instance, women like French socialite Madame Récamier, who had pale creamy complexions were envied, and women who wanted to achieve the same look as Madame Récamier would rub arsenic onto their faces and arms to whiten their skin. Women also sometimes mixed arsenic with vinegar and chalk and then ate the mixture believing it would give them milky white complexions. Moreover, women of the 1800s who dyed their hair red or yellow often achieved it “by means of solutions of cadmium, arsenic, or gold,”[1] with arsenic being the basis for most golden hair dyes.

Arsenic bottle. Public domain.

Arsenic had a multitude of uses in the 1800s besides being used to beautify women. Therefore, nineteenth-century people bought it regularly. People who had reason to use it included pigment dyers, glass blowers, shot makers, and farmers. It was also used by nearly anyone needing to kill vermin, such as rats. However, when used for such a purpose there were often reports of associated problems and innocent people being harmed by the poison.

One frequent problem with arsenic in the nineteenth century was accidental poisonings. One way this happened was that people often mistook it for flour partly because it is odorless and tasteless. An example of this was reported by the Dublin Medical Press in 1848. Apparently, 21-year-old Charles T― “took by mistake a teaspoonful of arsenious acid, thinking it to be flour, he having been in the habit of taking the latter every morning, on the recommendation of an old woman, for an eruption on the scalp.”[2]

Another accidentally poisoning with arsenic was highly publicized. It happened in 1858 in Bradford, England and became known as the Bradford lozenge poisoning case. Sweets at the time were adulterated with a product known as “daff” or “daft.” Unfortunately, when the daff was purchased, the seller accidentally sold the customer arsenic, which was then used to make the lozenges. Once purchasers of the lozenges began getting ill the mistake was discovered and although authorities acted quickly the arsenic-laced lozenges poisoned more than 200 people and killed 20.

Punch cartoon November 20, 1858 related to the Bradford poisonings titled “The Great Lozenge-Maker.” Public domain.

The Medical Gazette noted that in Paris accidentally consumption of arsenic in the 1800s happened so frequently the Council of Salubrity of Paris suggested “that all persons, who, whether for the destruction of vermin or otherwise, keep arsenic on their premises, should mix with it Prussian Blue, to change the colour … the bitterness of which would immediately cause the presence of arsenic to be detected by the taste of that ingredient.”[3] Of course, there were critics who claimed that turning arsenic blue might then result in people mixing it with strongly colored liquids.

Because of all the issues with arsenic in the 1800s, repeated warnings were given for its use. Indicative of this is what English physician and travel writer George William Lefevre reported to the Scotsman:

“[I]n country places, where the water is supplied to the house by a well, arsenic should never be employed for the destruction of rats, for, a soon as they have eaten the bait, they are tormented with thirst, and burrow under ground to seek … water … they may perish at the source of the spring, which, in time, will become impregnated with the poison, and be productive of the most dangerous consequences [to humans who consume the water].”[4]  

Arsenic in the 1800s - child being sold arsenic

Child being sold arsenic. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

It was also claimed that deliberate poisoners often used the guise of killing rats to obtain arsenic in the 1800s. Perhaps that was because arsenic appeared to be the perfect tool to commit a murder. This was made clear by what the Newry Telegraph wrote:

“It can be administered with as little difficulty as it has been procured. Imperceptible to the eye, and easily noticed by the palate, it may be, and, as The Britannia remarks, it has, at different times, been ‘mixed with almost every article of food, with the bread on the breakfast table, the sugar in the basin, the meat, vegetables, and pudding at dinner; with the tea at evening, with the beer at supper, with the gruel given to the sick, with the liquids handed to the thirsty, with the very medicine prescribed to relives the intolerable pain caused by an insufficient dose.’ Death is certain: detection barely possible.”[5]

Indicative of the idea that murderers often purchased arsenic in the 1800s under the guise of wanting to getting rid of vermin was the case brought against Madame Marie Lafarge. She was a Frenchwoman who was alleged to have murdered her husband using arsenic. He died on 14 January 1840 under suspicious circumstances. Besides the fact that she reputedly bought arsenic to kill rats on their estate the proceedings against her were “unparalleled in the records of jurisprudence.”[6] That was because for the first time, forensic toxicological evidence was crucial in getting a conviction against her.

Madame Lafarge. Author’s collection.

Another woman, Sarah Freeman, also used arsenic as a tool to murder in the 1800s. She resided in the hamlet of Shapwick and in the space of two short years supposedly “murdered no fewer than ten persons, by administering poison in their food or drink.”[7] Among her alleged victims were her husband, two children, her mother, and brother. The murders apparently began in 1842 and two years later when authorities become suspicious, they had the corpses disinterred and examined. The coroner found traces of arsenic in all the deceased.

Another notorious case involving arsenic happened in the U.S. in Emporia, Kansas in 1885. It involved a teenager named Minnie Wallace who married a 48-year-old businessman named James Walkup. A month after their marriage James was found dead and Minnie was charged with his murder after arsenic was discovered in his system. However, after the jury deliberated 52 hours, they found Minnie “not guilty” and later one juror declared that he just could not bring himself to send a young woman to the gallows.

It was cases like Lefarge, Freeman, and Wallace that increased public concern about how easy arsenic was to obtain and how easy the poison could be used to murder someone. The United Kingdom decided to do something about it and hoping to quell criticism surrounding the poison the Arsenic Act of 1851 was passed by parliament. The hope was that the new law would reduce accidental poisoning and stop deliberate ones. However, although there might have been efforts made to reduce arsenic poisonings, it was a product nineteenth-century people regularly encountered.

One way people were affected by arsenic in the 1800s was by unwittingly wearing or using it in ordinary products. For example, the green color, “Scheele’s green” was invented in 1775 by Carl Whilhelm Scheele and the color contained arsenic. In addition, in 1814, two Bavarian chemists attempted to improve on Scheele’s green with a color that would last longer. This color “Paris green” also contained toxic arsenic. Yet, despite the lethality of Scheele’s and Paris green, many products – paint, wax candles, wallpapers, paper hangings, and fabrics – were introduced that used these colors.

Arsenic in the 1800s - Carl Wilhelm Scheele

Carl Wilhelm Scheele. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Scheele’s green had replaced most older green pigments and Paris green was being regularly used by farmers as an insecticide between 1867 and 1900. Because so many goods and products contained arsenic in the 1800s, nineteenth-century journals frequently published stories about children wasting away in bright green rooms, ladies swooning in green dresses, and newspaper printers being overcome by arsenic vapors.

Around 1860 the Glasgow Herald reported on an article written by Dr. Letheby in the Journal of the Society of Arts about arsenic being found in wall hangings. The paper stated that Letheby’s report would put an end to the controversy about whether arsenic was dangerous. Apparently Letheby had investigated the death of boy from arsenic and reported that the deceased child and his sister frequently played in a room where a large portion of green wallpaper existed:

“It seems there is a prevalent fancy for the particular paint called Scheele’s green, which is produced by this demonstrated dangerous arsenical agency. We have heard that chemistry is divising some harmless substitute for the poisonous process for producing the green which unfortunately finds so ready and unsuspicious a market. But whether chemistry finds any harmless substitute for that precise tint or not, we really hold it a very serious question for a civilised country – whether paper-hangers should be suffered to pursue their trade-profits at the certain cost of more or less injury to the health of their workpeople, and at the cost, not less certain, of similar mischief (sometimes mortal) to their customers Dr. Letheby cites the accumulated observations and experience of medical men ‘not merely in respect of the poisonous action of mineral green on those engaged in its manufacture, but also on those occupied in handling green paper, and exposed to its influence in rooms covered with it.’”[8]

As to the boy who died, Letheby maintained in his autopsy report that the boy showed all the symptoms of being poisoned by arsenic. Letheby noted that he easily determined poisoned played a role and that the boy’s stomach and liver showed signs of arsenic. Furthermore, according to Letheby when he examined the wallpaper, he stated:

“I found that it was an arsenical paper, containing nearly 52 grains of arsenite of copper a square foot, and the pigment was so loosely attached to the paper that it was removed by the slightest friction. The dust from about five square inches of the paper was capable of producing all the symptoms observed in the boy, and the pigment from a piece six inches square would have sufficed for the death of two adult persons.”[9]

Image of what arsenic could do to a person. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

Another case of wallpaper poisoning was reported by a family living in New Ross named Jones. They reported that no one had health problems prior to the installation of the offending wallpaper. However, once the wallpaper was hung, everyone began to experience some sort of health issue. To make clear that the wallpaper was the problem, the Jones family reported that when tested six of the seven wallpapers showed some level of arsenic. The offending wallpapers were cited as follows:

“No. 1, an olive-green paper, with deep green flowers and gold-like lines, contained an immense amount of arsenic in the two green colours and the ‘gold.’ No. 2, a fain lavender watered paper, contained arsenic in large amounts. No. 3, a white paper with grey flower, contained a very large amount of arsenic. No. 4, a paper with red and green flowers on a grey ground, was highly arsenical. No. 5, a dark olive-coloured paper, with gilding, did not contain much arsenic. No. 6, a pale green and white paper, also contained only a small amount of arsenic.”[10]  

Fortunately, the family quickly realized that the paper was the origins of their health problems. They therefore left the house and had the poisonous wallpaper removed. That of course immediately resulted in their symptoms disappearing.

A third case of arsenic poisoning was also linked to wallpaper and occurred in 1862. The Stirling Observer reported that after green paper was placed on the walls the family living in the home got sick even though prior to the hanging of the paper everyone had reportedly been healthy and fine. Everyone, the father, mother, and children, all showed symptoms that included “smarting of the eyes, irritation of the nostrils, headache … soreness of the mouth and throat, with occasional sharp pains over the bowels, constant rubbing of the upper lip, and picking of the mouth.”[11] Ultimately four children died and more would have but when the hangings were removed all symptoms of the remaining residents ceased.

Although arsenic might be found in wallpapers, in the 1800s it was also sometimes purposely used in food as a coloring agent. For instance, in England in 1847 three innocent children died after eating arsenic-tinted green leaves on a birthday cake, and, in 1854 about 40 children died after eating colored penny candy. There were also certain vendors who wanted to make sure they sold products with a bright green color and apparently arsenic was the easiest and cheapest way to achieve it. The Glasgow Herald thus reported:

“Eminent pickle-venders, before the recent Adulteration Committee, did not scruple to say that they were fain to indulge the taste of their customers for a fine green colour on their pickles at the cost of their health.”[12]

Arsenic in the 1800s - Puck cartoon

Puck cartoon showing a man labeled “Doctor” and a man labeled “Sexton” standing in the street outside a confectionery shop with a large colorful candy stick between them. It is labeled “Chrome Green, Chalk, Red Lead, Arsenic, Chrome Yellow, Vermillion, Verdigris, [and] Glucose.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

By the late nineteenth century reports also surfaced about arsenic being used in fabrics. For instance, the Otley News and West Riding Advertiser reported in February of 1885 that “chronic poisoning by arsenic in domestic fabrics is without doubt an important subject … Serious illness frequently arises from this cause, in some cases even attended by fatal results.”[13] In addition, the same newspaper also reported that the Medical Society of London, the Society of Arts, and the National Health Society also believed arsenic was a serious problem and that these groups had taken action to prohibit “arsenic in articles manufactured for domestic use, such as wall-papers, dyed furniture materials, paint, … etc.”[14]  

Despite newspapers stories and societies reporting on the dangers of arsenic in the 1800s, not everyone believed arsenic was the cause of illness or death. Once again, the Otley News and West Riding Advertiser argued that arsenic was the reason many nineteenth-century people became ill or dying. The paper then reported on the dangers of arsenic, cited proof, and offered a solution:

“Proof of the injurious effect of arsenic in domestic fabrics is found in the development of certain symptoms in the patient exposed to an arsenical fabric, followed by recovery on removal of the fabric in questions. The occurrence of these circumstances in a sufficient number of cases lead to the conviction that the arsenical fabric was the cause of the malady. … with regard to arsenic, there are opportunities of observing what may be classed as experimental proofs … [that] consists in the frequent alternate recurrence of illness and recovery … [however] on removal from, arsenical surroundings, followed by final recovery on substitution of a non-arsenical fabric in place of that containing the poison [people recover]. … The effect on men employed in hanging or removing arsenical wall-papers is another proof of their injurious quality; men have frequently to leave their work unfinished, being too ill to continue under the poisonous influence.”[15]

By the end of the nineteenth century people began to rally around the idea of not purchasing items that contained arsenic. They also began to demand that manufacturers not use arsenic in products they produced. When the idea of exclusion took a foothold supporters also argued that the poison could be easily dispensed with in fabrics and noted that “paper-stainers have for years conscientiously excluded all arsenical colours from their works.”[16]

Those against arsenic in the 1800s also maintained that the simplest way to remove it from the environment was to “get rid of it … [as] the exclusion of arsenic … costs nothing, and, moreover, there is nothing to be gained by the admission of … [it] into our houses. The simple antidote for arsenic … is therefore ― exclusion.”[17] However, despite manufacturers of the 1800s and 1900s making significant changes, exclusion has never proven feasible. That is because arsenic offers some benefits. It is a component of car batteries and bullets. It also used in a certain grade of brass used in plumbing fittings and for bronzing and pyrotechnics. More importantly it is used to find tumors and when treating cancer and leukemia.

References:

  • [1] Sylvia’s Book of the Toilet: A Ladies’ Guide to Dress and Beauty (London: Ward, Lock, and Company, 1881), p. 34–35.
  • [2] Dublin Medical Press, “Remarkable Case of Poisoning by Arsenic,” November 15, 1848, p. 8.
  • [3] Elgin Courant and Morayshire Advertiser, “Restriction on the Sale of Arsenic,” November 19, 1847, p. 2.
  • [4] The Scotsman, “Poisoning by Arsenic,” July 17, 1844, p. 1.
  • [5] Newry Telegraph, “Poisoning by Arsenic,” January 30, 1845, p. 3.
  • [6] Dundee Evening Telegraph, “The Strange Story of Madame Lafarge,” December 30, 1897, p. 3.
  • [7] Newry Telegraph, p. 3,
  • [8] Glasgow Herald, “Arsenic in Green Paper Hangings,” December 20, 1860, p. 4.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Leamington Spa Courier, “Poisoning by Arsenical Wall Paper,” September 4, 1875, p. 8.
  • [11] Stirling Observer, “Arsenical Paper Hanging,” May 29, 1862, p. 6.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Otley News and West Riding Advertiser, “Arsenic in Domestic Fabrics,” February 6, 1885, p. 5.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] Otley News and West Riding Advertiser, p. 5.
  • [16] Chambers’s Journal (London: W. & R. Chambers, 1884), p. 799.
  • [17] Ibid.

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