Food was not always safe in the 1800s, and all sorts of foods could cause death. For example, a 22-year-old woman decided to eat raw rice mixed with milk, and afterwards drank her hot tea. A few hours later she fell ill and complained of severe stomach pain, which was caused from the rice swelling. “Emetics were given with great relief, a large quantity of rice being expelled from the stomach.” Yet, the emetics did not completely solve the problem.
The following morning, the young lady’s pain increased. Then she suddenly showed other symptoms. She had “cold extremities, a small feeble pulse, and great abdominal tenderness.” She died about twenty-four later from having eaten the raw rice. Although eating raw rice may have not been the smartest thing to do, other foods in the 1800s sometimes caused death. Among the foods from which people died were ice cream, chocolate creams, orange peels, watermelon seeds, and peas.
Catherine de’ Medici introduced ice cream to Europe in the sixteenth century. By the 1800s, it was a big seller but was also often considered unsafe to eat. A report in 1800s noted that supposedly “every year one or more deaths [are] registered from [ice cream].” That’s exactly what happened in the hot month of August one year. A 19-year-old boy loved ice cream so much he spent “five to seven shilling sixpence at a time upon ice-creams and sweets, which he devoured greedily.” Unfortunately, the sanitary conditions under which the ice cream was made left much to be desired. The ice cream’s chief ingredient was eggs, and although they were not exactly putrid, they had undergone some sort of change. The change was enough to cause the poor boy to die from “acute gastro-enteritis” after eating the tasty treat.
Another sweet in 1871 also resulted in death of a 4-year-old boy. This time the culprit was chocolate creams. The creams came in four different colors — pink, red, white, and brown — and, after the boy’s death, investigators examined the creams. They discovered the white creams contained poison, strychnia or strychnine. It seems that the Brighton confectioner who sold the creams purchased his chocolate from a long-time London manufacturer. Workers for the manufacturer apparently purchased some rat poison and cream of tartar at the same time and somehow the poison and cream of tartar got mixed them up. The jury learned the particulars of boy’s death and discovered that the quantity of strychnia found in the boy’s stomach confirmed he had ingested more than enough to die. In the end, however, the jury exonerated the manufacturer and the confectioner, but they did reach the conclusion that the “integrity of the manufacturer and vendor cannot protect [consumers].”
Sometimes deadly foods had nothing to do with manufacturing. For instance, in 1847, a 7-year-old child died from what people attributed to the effects of orange peels. Before the child’s death, the child ate a large quantity of orange peels. Shortly, thereafter, he complained of a stomach ache. The child then convulsed and died twenty-four hours later. The doctor who did the autopsy reported:
“A quantity of yellow fluid with orange pips and orange-peel was found in the stomach. The mucous membrane was generally reddened, and in several places there were well-marked injection. No poison was found, nor was there reason to suspect.”
Thus, the doctor concluded “the irritant effects of the large quantity of orange-peel eaten by the child [caused his death].”
If people were concerned about sweets and orange peels, they also needed to worry about watermelon seeds. In this case, an American Major was described as a “man of strong and robust constitution.” The man was also blessed with “digestive organs of great power … [was] a natural gormandizer. He would swallow any thing placed before him, regardless of the consequences.” His favorite dish was fish and when he ate fish, he devoured everything, including the fish bones. So, it was not surprising when he one day reported he voided “a thin hard bone, 1 inch in length and 3/4 inch in width; its edge slightly serrated, and very sharp … supposed to be the side bone of a the head of catfish.”
A few weeks after voiding the bone, the Major requested the doctor visit him because he was not feeling well. When the doctor arrived, he learned the Major had not had a bowel movement for ten days. He also discovered the Major was “delirious, muttering to himself, and death soon followed.” When the doctor investigated, he was surprised to learn fish bones had nothing to do with the Major’s death. It seems the Major died because of two balls of watermelon seeds. One ball consisted of twenty seeds “adhering firmly to each other” in the small intestine and another ball found in the large intestine, contained over one-hundred seeds that had formed into “an exceeding hard ball.”
Another interesting case involves death by peas. A 60-year-old laborer named John Lydbury had eaten a large quantity of dry common gray peas, without hardly masticating them. Several days later he went to the hospital. At the hospital, he complained of “severe pain in the abdomen, bilious vomiting, and constipation, for which he took purgative medicines, but without effect.” Lydbury also had serious symptoms when admitted: He had been retaining urine for three days, and, moreover, he looked pale and shrunken, had a feeble pulse, and his skin was cold. As doctors carried him to a chair, he suddenly expired.
Twenty-six hours later doctors did an autopsy and discovered the problem. As the dry peas passed through his intestines, they absorbed moisture. They then became swollen and accumulated into such a solid mass, they almost entirely filled up “the entire pelvic cavity.” The peas then “pushed upwards [into] the bladder and prostate, and compressed the urethra so as to render impossible the evacuation of the bladder by any effort on the part of the patient.” Moreover, when doctors attempted to introduce a catheter into the bladder, which they did with great difficulty, “the sensation communicated by the passage of the instrument … gave rise to the idea that there was a stricture, but the canal was found to be quite free from disease.”
- Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, Volumes 27-28, 1843
- Medical Press and Circular A Weekly Journal of Medicine and Medical Affairs, 1871
- St. Louis Medical and Surgical Journal, Volume 13, 1855
- Taylor, Alfred Swaine, On Poisons in Relation to Medical Jurisprudence and Medicine,1859
- The Annals of Hygiene, Volume 10, 1895