A is for Arsenic

For Christmas I got this really fun book called A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup (2015). The book walks us through all of the 14 different poisons that Christie used to kill various victims in her books, and it provides historical, scientific, and literary context for each of those poisons.

I discovered while reading this book that 9 out of her 14 poisons were also used in scandalous Victorian murder cases, or were discovered in some sort of cool way in the Victorian era. So for today and the next eight Mondays, I’m going to talk about a different poison.

However, as I am only going to talk specifically about Victorian-era things mentioned in each chapter by Harkup, I would very much recommend buying the book itself, since she goes into way, way more detail than I could hope to do.


Let’s start with arsenic. All quotations are directly from the book itself.

Arsenic has long been used as a poison, but for most of history has been predominantly a poison of the rich, as it was expensive to obtain. It was used a great deal in French and Italian society circles in the Renaissance (and was made famous by the Medici political dynasty in Florence–don’t fuck with the Medicis, they’ll poison your ass). It had become so popular among the wealthy at this time “that it was referred to as poudre de succession – ‘inheritance powder'” (23), and people started employing taste-testers, especially if they had a lot of enemies or an heir who was particularly keen on inheriting.


After her trip to see the Medici poison gardens in the 1990s, Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland, created her own poison garden at Alnwick Castle--now a major tourist attraction.

After her trip to see the Medici poison gardens in Italy in the 1990s, Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland, created her own poison garden at Alnwick Castle–now a major tourist attraction.

“However, the Industrial Revolution brought with it huge demands for metals such as iron and lead, and when extracted from the ground as ores these metals are often contaminated with arsenic. To obtain the pure metal, the ore was roasted in fires, and the arsenic reacted with oxygen in the air to form arsenic trioxide. This would condense in the chimneys as a white solid, which had to be periodically scraped off to prevent the chimney from getting blocked. Instead of dumping the white arsenic as waste, industrialists realised a profit could be made by selling the arsenic as poison, for rats, bedbugs, cockroaches or any other vermin infesting the home (including humans). Prices plummeted, and soon anyone and everyone could afford enough arsenic to dispatch an unwanted relative or inconvenient enemy. Unsurprisingly, the number of arsenic poisonings began to rise” (23).

Harkup then goes on to discuss how the papers sensationalised arsenic poisonings and saw them lurking around every corner, as some sort of crime epidemic. However, in reality, there were very few actual murders-by-arsenic (or at least very few trials). “For example, of the 20,000 suspicious deaths in England in 1849, 415 were linked to poison, but only eleven of those were possibly murder, and not all resulted in a guilty verdict. What did not help these early cases was that, if arsenic was involved, the victim’s symptoms could be attributed to natural causes, and there was no way to detect arsenic in the body” (24).

“In 1832 James Marsh (1794-1846), a British chemist, was asked to investigate the death of an 80-year-old farmer named George Bodle. Marsh found arsenic in the dead man’s intestines and in a cup of coffee he had drunk from, but the samples he prepared for the trail did not keep too well, and the jury found Marsh’s technical descriptions of his experiments incomprehensible. As a consequence the suspect, John Bodle – the farmer’s grandson – walked free. John Bodle later confessed to the murder, but he could not be retried. Marsh was furious and set about devising a test for arsenic that even the most stupid jury member could comprehend. He wanted jury members to see the arsenic for themselves” (24).

So he designed this doohickey:


In short, you put any fluid you want to test (like the coffee George Bodle had drunk, or any of his stomach contents) in the flask on the left. You add some zinc and acid to it, which will convert even the tiniest amount of arsenic into a gas, which goes through the U-shaped tube in the middle. It then travels out of the tube and is blown across the open flame on the right. The flame would then convert the arsenic gas back into a solid, allowing a residue of arsenic to form in the bowl around the flame.

So Marsh could show the jury, “Look, I really, really think there was arsenic in the stomach contents or in whatever the victim ingested. I’m going to put that liquid it in my doohickey [probably not the scientific term], and oh, look, here it is, from a liquid, to a gas, reverted back to its solid form. Voila: arsenic.”

“The Marsh test was first used in a criminal trial in 1840, by the celebrated toxicologist Mathieu Orfila (1787-1853). Orfila had been asked to investigate the death of Monsieur Charles Pouch-Lafarge. When Marie Capelle married Charles in 1839, both believed they were marrying into serious wealth. In reality Marie had a modest dowry, but she had ideas above her station. She had been educated at elite schools and believed herself to be descended from royalty.

Marie Lafarge

Marie Lafarge

“Charles claimed to be a wealthy iron-founder, but he really lived in a tiny hamlet, in a damp, rat-infested house on a dilapidated estate, part of which he had converted into a foundry; the expense of the conversion had left him almost broke. The marriage did not get off to the best of starts, and things did not appear to improve until Marie persuaded her husband to change his will in her favour.

“Charles went away to Paris over the Christmas period to seek out financial backers for a new business venture, and Marie sent him a parcel as a Christmas gift. Members of the Lafarge household had witnessed Marie placing five small cakes in a box, with a portrait of herself and a loving letter. When the package arrived in Paris it contained one large cake that made Lafarge very unwell when he ate it. He recovered enough to travel back home, but was again taken ill and died shortly afterwards. Arsenic poisoning was suspected, and Marie was known to have purchased arsenic, supposedly to kill the rats in the house. Orfila was called in to determine if arsenic had indeed been the cause of Charles’s death. Orfila’s testimony and the results of his Marsh test provided enough evidence for the jury to find Marie guilty of murder.

“There are still doubts over Marie’s guilt in the Lafarge case. No one would prove that she had switched the cakes, or even that she had had the opportunity to do so. Another toxicologist, Fracois-Vincent Raspail (1794-1878), also threw doubt on the forensic evidence. Raspail showed that the zinc Orfila had used when carrying out the Marsh test had been contaminated with arsenic and would have given a positive test for the poison even if none had been present in Charles’s remains.

“Raspail’s evidence came too late, though, and Marie had already been sentenced to life imprisonment before his arrival at the court. Raspail had highlighted the only real drawback of the Marsh test – it was perhaps a little too sensitive. Being able to detect 0.02mg of arsenic would normally be considered an advantage in forensic science, but this element is widespread in the world, and was particularly so in nineteenth-century European households. Arsenic was soon found to be almost everywhere” (25-27).

In particular, arsenic was very commonly used as a dye in fabric and wallpaper. “In the home it was clear that bedrooms with arsenical wallpaper had fewer bedbugs. This was initially seen as a bonus, and sales increased. The problem was that whatever was affecting the bedbugs soon began to affect the human occupants of the room, too. To stick wallpaper to a wall a simple flour paste was used. In the damp climate of the British Isles this provided the perfect environment for mould to grow. Mould is also adversely affected by arsenic but some moulds could adapt to their environment by chemically processing and removing it.

“In 1893 Bartolomeo Gosio (1863-1944) was the first to show that Penicillium brevicaule (now known as Scopulariopsis brevicaulis) was attacking the starch paste and releasing an arsenic gas, which he could not identify but which had a distinctive garlicky smell. The gas became known as Gosio gas; it was in fact trimethylarsine gas . . . [which is] highly toxic, and recommendations were made to reduce the amount of arsenic used in wallpapers” (28).

A piece of Napoleon's wallpaper, which went up for auction in 2014.

A piece of Napoleon’s wallpaper, which went up for auction in 2014.

When Napoleon died in 1821 there was, of course, no test for arsenic, as the Marsh test had not yet been invented. Doctors who performed the autopsy diagnosed stomach cancer, but there were other rumors of poisoning. “In the 1960s samples of Napoleon’s hair, cut from his head shortly after death as mementoes [sic], were analysed for arsenic content. Unusually high levels of arsenic were discovered, opening up questions as to how it might have got there. One theory was that it came from his wallpaper; when a sample of the wallpaper from his bedroom was discovered in the 1980s, analysis showed significant levels of arsenic . . . . St Helena had a warm, damp climate likely to encourage the growth of mould in wallpapers, but even so this is unlikely to have generated enough trimethylarsine to kill Napoleon. The wallpaper certainly may have contributed to his poor health, though, and he did what anyone else would do when they feel ill, he called in a doctor. Unfortunately the doctors who attended Napoleon did little to help, and they introduced more toxic compounds into his body in the form of medicines, though probably not actually with the intention of poisoning him” (29).

“The Arsenic Act was passed in 1851 in an attempt to regulate and control the sale of arsenic. The act made it a legal requirement for sales to be recorded in a register along with the name of the purchaser, the quantity bought and the purpose it was to be used for. The Act also required any arsenic not used for medical or agricultural purposes to be ‘coloured’ with either soot or indigo dye, to reduce the risk of mistakes” (30).

However, there were no rules or restrictions on who could sell arsenic, and it was easy enough for people to write false information on a register (especially if they bought it in an area where they were unknown). Even if a person’s real name was written on the register, any prosecution would have to prove that the buyer of arsenic had intended to use the arsenic for murder and administered it to the victim. It was very much one person’s word against another’s: “You bought it to murder So-and-So”, vs. “No, I bought it to poison rats in the house.”

“A case could be complicated further if the accused used the ‘Styrian defence‘. This was a legal argument used to explain the presence of high levels of arsenic in a corpse. In 1851, a report appeared in the Viennese medical journal about men from the Austrian region of Styria who regularly ate arsenic. They would crunch lumps of arsenic trioxide between their teeth, or grate it onto their toast two or three times a week. They would start with a lump the size of a grain of rice, and gradually increase the dose until they could eat quantities normally considered lethal with apparent impunity. The reason for this strange choice of dietary supplement was because they said it gave them ‘wind’, by which they meant that they could breathe more easily while doing hard physical labour in the thin mountain air.


The arsenic also gave the men more physical bulk and clearer skin, making the more attractive. Women in the region used arsenic too, as it gave them a more curvaceous figure and a ‘peaches and cream’ complexion. The arsenic was indeed killing off any bacteria that might have caused spots and blemishes, but it was also triggering oedema – retention of fluid in the muscles – and vasodilation of the capillaries under the skin to give the rosy-red cheeks.

“The habit might be expected to have made the arsenic-eaters feel ill, but some complained they actually felt unwell when they missed a dose. On first appearance it might look as if they were developing a tolerance of arsenic – which would have been handy for anyone who suspected a relative of trying to bump them off. However, these individuals were not developing a true tolerance. Eating large quantities of arsenic was possible because it was swallowed in relatively large lumps, rather than as a fine powder or dissolved in a liquid. Much of the arsenic would have been excreted before it could be absorbed into the bloodstream.

“After reading about the Styrian arsenic-eaters, their attractive appearance and apparently excellent health, some people across Europe and America also started taking arsenic” (31-32), making it difficult in some murder cases to determine if arsenic had been administered by a murderer or by the victim.

“In 1889, 50-year-old James Maybrick fell ill with stomach pains and violent vomiting. His 26-year-old American wife, Florence, nursed him devotedly. The couple had recently made up after a violent falling-out over a liaison Florence had had with a friend of her husband. James had also had a string of affairs, but it was Florence’s infidelity that resulted in her getting a black eye, and he cut her out of his will.

Florence and James Maybrick

Florence and James Maybrick

“James was something of a hypochondriac, and took a lot of patent medicines to treat himself . . . . His family soon arrived to see that he was receiving proper medical attention. Florence was not popular in the household after a letter written to her lover was intercepted, in which she had written that her husband was ‘sick unto death’, and she was effectively banished from the sick room. When James subsequently died a couple of weeks later, suspicion immediately fell on Florence” (33-34).

At her trial the prosecution proved that she had bought some fly paper, which contained arsenic, which Florence said she was going to use to prepare a skin remedy (not an uncommon beauty practice at the time). She had also, at the same time of her purchase, bought other ingredients for a lotion. Further, there was already plenty of arsenic already in the Maybrick house in other products and medicines, so it would have been completely unnecessary for Florence to purchase arsenic flypaper to poison James; she could have done it with items in the house, without having to sign a register.

The one place they didn’t find arsenic was in James Maybrick’s remains. “Medical men were called by Florence’s defence to testify that James Maybrick had died of natural causes. No one had witnessed Florence administering arsenic to her husband, and for several days before his death she had no contact with her husband, his food or his medicines.

The jury, however, thought there was enough evidence to convict her and found Florence guilty. Her death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment because doubts remained over whether James had died of arsenical poisoning, rather than whether it was Florence who had poisoned him. Florence protested her innocence throughout the 14 years she was imprisoned, and after her release appears to have led a blameless life” (34-35).

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One Response to A is for Arsenic

  1. Pingback: BizarreVictoria: Celebrating 4 Years | BizarreVictoria

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