P is for Phosphorus

I’m continuing my examination of major Victorian murder cases brought about by poisoning. A new one every Monday! These posts were inspired by Kathryn Harkup’s book A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie (2015), from which I am quoting below.

Today let’s talk about phosphorus, although this won’t be about a murder case. This post is more about unintentional poisoning.

White phosphorus matches

White phosphorus matches

Harkup discusses how, for much of history, people have tried to used phosphorus’s natural light-emitting properties to create new systems of lighting for buildings, lanterns, etc. However, phosphorus is extremely flammable, causing serious problems and dangers for those who used it, in addition to it having the unpleasant stench of garlic.

The “flammable properties of white phosphorus were a positive benefit in its main household use, matches. White phosphorus was first used to make matches around 1830, and by the middle of the nineteenth century matches, with white phosphorus forming as much as 20 per cent of the match-head, were produced by the billion.

Archduchess Matilda

Archduchess Matilda

“The matches were easy to light, but also prone to igniting unexpectedly. For example, the heat of friction produced from treading on a match could cause a person to go up in flames, as happened to the 19-year-old Archduchess Matilda in 1867” (207).

Matilda, or Mathilde, was an Austrian princess and was intended to become Queen of Italy, upon her upcoming marriage to Umberto of Savoy, who was to become  Umberto I. This was a very important political marriage, as things were tense between the Austrian empire and Italy.

On the night of her death (according to Wikipedia), she had put on a gauze dress to go to the theatre. Before she left, she wanted to smoke a cigarette, which her father had previously forbidden. When he approached her, she hid the lit cigarette behind her back, instantly catching her dress alight. She died almost immediately, the incident witnessed by her whole family.

In another version, the one recorded in a footnote by Harkup, Matilda “trod on a [white phosphorus] match as she leaned out of a window to talk to a relative; her dress was on fire before she realised what had happened” (208).

I’m not sure which of these two scenarios is true, but regardless, the moral is that smoking, and white phosphorus, kill. Here endeth the lesson.

“Indeed, carrying a box of matches in your pocket could generate enough friction from the matches rubbing against each other inside the box to cause them to catch light. Even matches left on a window sill could ignite when the sun’s rays fell on them.

“From the 1840s onwards, safety matches were produced using red phosphorus instead of the white form. The red phosphorus was stuck to the side of the matchbox, and the friction from running the match-head along the box would cause enough heat for the match to catch light . . . . Red phosphorus is much less volatile and less flammable than white phosphorus, and non-toxic. However, it is also more expensive, so at first safety matches didn’t really catch on. Concerns about the safety of white phosphorus were raised as early as the 1850s but its use in matches wasn’t banned until 1906.

“To produce the huge number of white phosphorus matches needed to meet demand required a large workforce, working long hours in uncomfortable and often dangerous conditions. The danger of these matches lay not just in their flammability but in the toxic nature of the white phosphorus needed to produce them. Sticks of poplar wood, twice the length of the final match, would be arranged in racks and bound tightly. It was then the task of a ‘dipper’ to dip both sides of the sticks in ‘the compound’, with the racks of matches then dried in an oven.

“The matches would then be cut in half and boxed up, ready to sell. ‘The compound’, a mixture of glue, colourant, sulfur and white phosphorus dissolved in water and heated by steam to maintain the right consistency, was held in shallow trays just the right depth for dipping the match-heads. A skilled dipper could produce an astonishing 10 million matches in a single ten-hour shift. All the time the dippers would be breathing in phosphorus fumes, and those employed to box up the matches would be breathing in phosphorus dust.


“White phosphorus is highly toxic and, in around 20 per cent of the workers, it would cause a condition known as ‘phossy jaw‘. This would start off as a toothache, then the teeth would fall out, and the gums, jaw and face would become painful and swollen. Slowly the soft tissue and bone were eroded away. Abscesses would appear on the gum that would ooze a most foul-smelling pus. Further abscesses would appear along the jaw line, forming a wound through which could be seen the dead bone of the jaw.

The only treatment for phossy jaw was the removal of the jaw bone, replacing it with an artificial jaw. Without this procedure the phosphorus would go on to cause damage to the internal organs, leading to death. Around 5 per cent of phossy jaw sufferers died from its effects. A study in France found that half of the people suffering from phossy jaw committed suicide rather than put up with the pain and foul stench of the condition.


“Other than removing an individual from the source of poisoning there is very little that can be done to treat phosphorus poisoning. Thankfully, the chances of being exposed to white phosphorus today are very low. The tragedies that occurred in match factories led to hugely improved working conditions in many industries, not just in match-making, and exposure to white phosphorus fumes in the workplace is thankfully a thing of the past” (208-09).

I remember reading . . . somewhere . . . that girls originally liked working in match factories because exposure to phosphorus (early on, before the phossy jaw set in) made them pale, and made their eyes dilated and shiny. This would last for about a year, before the horrific symptoms began. So match girls were notoriously beautiful . . . for about a year.

Can anyone verify this? I have no idea if it’s accurate, but it’s stuck in my brain for several years, so I imagine that whoever it was made a compelling case.

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3 Responses to P is for Phosphorus

  1. Pingback: BizarreVictoria: Celebrating 4 Years | BizarreVictoria

  2. I can’t verify skin lightening, although increased sensitivity to light is a symptom of exposure, which may be due to dilated pupils (CDC, 2017). Nice post! I enjoyed learning about this topic.


  3. Reblogged this on Collective Cogitations and commented:
    Learn about Phossy Jaw and Occupational Health and Safety!


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