As mentioned last Monday, I’m doing a series of posts about Victorian murder trials and/or uses for poison. This is all based on a book I got for Christmas, entitled A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harup (2015).
I’m only going to discuss the few brief stories Harkness provides about the Victorian era, so you should really buy the book to find out all of the other batshit insane poisoning stories there are. Plus, she provides a lot of historical, scientific, and literary context for Agatha Christie’s use of these poisons that I could never hope to recount on this blog. All quotations come directly from that text.
Last week we discussed arsenic. This week, let’s talk about cyanide.
Harkness discusses in her chapter on cyanide how ubiquitous the poison is. It’s present in loads of plant life, and especially so in the pips or pits of various fruits: “In 1845 apple pips were used as a defence in the trial of John Tawell, who was accused of murdering his mistress Sarah Hart with cyanide.
“Tawell was known to have purchased prussic acid from a pharmacy some time before Hart died. Prussic acid was known to be a dangerous substance but Tawel claimed the prussic acid was for ‘external application’. At the time there was a vogue for using solutions of prussic acid as a skin lotion. One commercial product, ‘Dr Eliotsom’s Lotion of Prussic Acid’, was recommended for moistening the skin before and after shaving. Lethal amounts of prussic acid can be absorbed through unbroken skin; shaving cuts and abraisions could only have eased the absorption. Thankfully the fashion did not last.
“Tawell’s purchase was added to a bottle of beer, which Sarah drank. A neighbour saw Tawell leave the house, and hearing Sarah’s cries went to see if she was all right. She found Sarah writhing on the floor in agony, and frothing at the mouth. She died before the doctor arrived.
‘The police were alerted and raced after Tawell, but they couldn’t stop him before he boarded a train for London. A telegraph message was sent to London describing him and instruction the police there to arrest him. It was the first time the telegraph system had been used in this way, and the case generated huge publicity because of it.
“At Tawell’s trial, the defence barrister, Sir Fitzroy Kelly, proposed that the cyanide that had killed Sarah had come from the pips of the apples she was so fond of eating. The lethal dose of apple pips is about 200g; Sarah would have had to eat thousands of apples to ingest enough pips, and they would also have had to be well chewed to release the poison. The jury were unimpressed, and he was found guilty. Tawell was executed for his crime and his barrister was known as ‘Apple-pips’ Kelly for the rest of his career” (74-75).