Arsenic, but No Old Lace—Medical Historian James C. Whorton on the Poisoning of Nineteenth-Century BritainHistorians/History
Arsenic pervaded almost every aspect of life in nineteenth-century Britain, and the poison left a toll of death and illness. A by-product of an emerging smelting industry, arsenic was cheap and readily available as a rat killer by the early 1800s. Arsenic also was odorless and tasteless and easily confused with flour or sugar and other cooking essentials.
By the 1830s, morbid descriptions of murders with arsenic terrified the public and became a staple of the British popular press. But most of the fatalities from arsenic were more pedestrian: from accidental use in food or from exposure to arsenical compounds in consumer goods such as fabric dyes and wallpapers, in facilities that made these products, and in the polluted air. Arsenic was used even in medications to treat everything from asthma and cancer to reduced libido and skin problems.
Sadly, despite the evident dangers arsenic posed to Victorian Britons, regulation to protect health was painfully slow in coming in this age of laissez-faire capitalism and governmental indifference. In its perverse way, arsenic was a triumph of unregulated, free-market economics.
Dr. James C. Whorton, University of Washington professor emeritus of bioethics and humanities, chronicles this history of criminal and environmental arsenic poisoning—and official delay—in his carefully researched and lively new book, The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play (Oxford University Press, 2010).
This spring, the British press greeted Dr. Whorton’s book with enthusiastic reviews. In the (London-based) Guardian, Kathryn Hughes wrote that Dr. Whorton “has written a lovely book, a near-perfect blend of rigorous scholarship and jaunty storytelling.” Andrew Lycett said in Literary Review, “The success of this book lies in its ability to move effortlessly between sensational stories of murder and more mundane accounts of chemical adulteration and environmental pollution.” And esteemed critic John Carey, in The [London] Sunday Times, called The Arsenic Century “gripping and terrible” and noted that Dr. Whorton “writes from a firmly scientific viewpoint, [but] it is the human tragedies he keeps unveiling that give the book its disturbing power.”
Dr. Whorton’s other books include Before Silent Spring: Pesticides and Public Health in Pre-DDT America (1974); Crusaders for Fitness: The History of American Health Reformers (1982); Inner Hygiene: Constipation and the Pursuit of Health in Modern Society (2000); and Nature Cures: The History of Alternative Medicine in America (2002). He also has written many scholarly articles on the history of medicine, disease, public health and medical beliefs. He lives with his wife in Tacoma, in an area where the old Asarco smelter once deposited tons of arsenic.
Dr. Whorton recently sat down in a UW Medical School conference room and talked about how he came to write his new book and what his research revealed about arsenic in Victorian Britain.
Robin Lindley: You’ve written several books of medical history. How was this one on arsenic different?
Dr. James Whorton: The arsenic book was particularly interesting because it divided into an environmental history and a criminal history. The criminal research on poisonings was fascinating, but the environmental part I enjoyed as much because of parallels today. Arsenic is an environmental problem that is largely controlled, but it’s still a problem.
Lindley: What prompted your interest in arsenic?
Dr. Whorton: I got interested in it as a graduate student and wrote a dissertation and book on the history of insecticides and public health (Before Silent Spring], and discovered that arsenic was a common environmental pollutant in the nineteenth century. Arsenic compounds such as Paris green, lead arsenate and calcium arsenate were common in the first pesticides. Health concerns [arose] about these substances on fruits and vegetables, so I did some research on what was known about arsenic poisoning. I discovered that not a lot was known until the end of the century when people were worried about arsenic in all sorts of things before it was tied to food. I couldn’t look into it then, but wanted to come back to this. Finally, about five years ago, it was time to stop saying I was going to do it and do it. Once I got into it, I got more absorbed in the subject than any research project I’d been involved with.
Lindley: Can you talk about your research process?
Dr. Whorton: Most of the research was from published sources. I went through all of the British medical journals from 1800 to 1900. That was the most time-consuming because I had to search each volume for articles on arsenic. I also consulted books on arsenic, toxicology and newspapers. There were thousands of articles on arsenic, especially cases of poisoning and the trials, and in England [I searched] records of poisoning trials and the debates in Parliament over arsenic problems.
Lindley: You tell a lively story about often-technical aspects of arsenic and its ill effects, and you include articles from the popular press, poems and even contemporary cartoons.
Dr. Whorton: The most difficult thing about writing it was dealing with the toxicology, the chemistry, and the pharmacology of arsenic used as a medicinal agent. I wrestled most with keeping these technical sections readable without offending scientists and physicians. I wanted to make it interesting and understandable to the general reader without making a mistake that would have chemists or medical people laughing at me. And the stories are very interesting—especially the poisoning cases. It’s easy to make a good story of it because it’s inherently interesting.
I had to leave some stories out. One of my favorites was the story of a Scottish woman who was arrested for poisoning her maid who was pregnant by her son, who, the maid said, “had pulled her into the barn and used her.” The maid was given some arsenic and died from it. The mother was arrested for it because she had bought some arsenic supposedly to kill rats, but evidence was presented that she didn’t have any rats on the farm. And it wasn’t clear if the woman gave the maid arsenic to induce an abortion or to kill her. She was certain her husband would kill the son if he learned what happened. So [the mother] got off with a “not proven.” Also, the maid had told another worker on the farm that she had been pregnant once before and had a child her mother cared for, but there was tension with her mother, so [the maid] decided that if she got pregnant again she would kill herself. So it might have been suicide. The jury came back with “not proven,” though they suspected the farm wife had done it, but there was a reason to suspect suicide, too.
Lindley: That story captures the uncertainty you describe in many of the cases that were tried. Although you note that men committed about 90 percent of spousal homicides, the popular press seemed preoccupied with poisonings committed by women.
Dr. Whorton: There was some truth to the belief that women were the poisoners because, when women decided to kill, it wasn’t as easy for them to do it by brute force as it was for a man. Poison was an easier way to kill, and the easiest way to administer it was through food, and the wife was the cook. The wife could put the poison in [the husband’s tea] and the problem was taken care of.
Once it became evident that arsenic poisoning was increasing in the 1840s and there were cases of women being arrested and convicted, there was a hysterical overreaction and fear that virtually every woman in the country was trying to find a way to knock off her husband or kids.
Lindley: The popular press seemed to fuel the fear.
Dr. Whorton: Yes. It’s the sort of thing that always sold papers.
Lindley: What is arsenic?
Dr. Whorton: The word arsenic, as used normally by the general public, is not the same for a chemist. For the chemist, it’s element number thirty-three of the periodic table, and is not particularly toxic. What everybody means by arsenic is arsenic trioxide, or “white arsenic” as it was called in the nineteenth century, and it’s extremely toxic. There are other toxic arsenic compounds, but white arsenic was the form popular among poisoners because it was available in large quantities by the eighteenth century as a by-product of the smelting process of various metals. Smelters found they had tons of it they needed to dispose of, and at the same time there was a big rat problem in urban and rural settings. It became common in the eighteenth century to use arsenic as rat poison, and the public at large became aware of the stuff. It was widely available and very inexpensive and, even if you’d never had a class in toxicology, it followed that if it killed rats it would kill people with more of it.
And it was the ideal poison because it was colorless and tasteless. The only thing that gave it away was that it wasn’t that soluble. It had to be dissolved in tea or something else hot. When the liquid started to cool, some would precipitate out and you might see or taste strange particles. Someone said it felt like he had swallowed sand and it was gritty. So you had to use it hot liquids like coffee or tea, or disguise it in porridge or in bread and other solid foods.
Lindley: You mention that arsenic was used as a poison as far back as the reign of the Roman emperor Nero and even earlier, but you note a democratization of arsenic poisoning in Victorian Britain because it was so cheap and available.
Dr. Whorton: Yes. In ancient times, there were other versions of arsenic, primarily sulfide compounds. White arsenic wasn’t discovered until the Middle Ages, but even then it wasn’t used in large quantities, except by people of power like the Borgias who used it to get rid of rivals. It wasn’t until it was mass-produced in the metal refining industry of the eighteenth century that it was democratized. Everybody could afford it and there was no control of the sale of it.
To a modern ear, that sets you back—that there was no regulation. Republicans would say great, but poisons like that now have restrictions. There was nothing at all in Britain until the 1851 Sale of Arsenic Act, which still didn’t keep it from being sold, but required records of who purchased it and for what purpose, so that if there was a poisoning, there would be a paper trail. It also required coloring agents be added so it couldn’t be disguised as sugar or flour. But it wasn’t that difficult to find. A pharmacist or grocer could sell it without adding a coloring agent. There were still hundreds of poisonings with white arsenic after the 1851 Act.
Lindley: It seems that corporate greed and laissez faire capitalism are villains in the book.
Dr. Whorton: Yes. With respect to the inclusion of arsenic compounds, particularly the green pigment—Scheele’s green and Schweinfurt green—that was used in wallpaper and all sorts of fabrics. The manufacturers used these compounds for a visually appealing product, ignored evidence that it was toxic, and flatly denied it like cigarette manufacturers denying the evidence of carcinogens in tobacco. Even as evidence mounted that these arsenic compounds were dangerous and the medical profession called for the prohibition of these compounds in consumer products, Parliament was hesitant to act because of its commitment to laissez faire—not intervening in the marketplace. Most of the arsenic products were taken off the market because of consumer pressure—people demanding arsenic-free products. The medical profession did a good job of publicizing those who were still making products that contained arsenic.
And, from the 1860s onward, there were new dyes from aniline that gave a wide range of colors just as bright as the arsenicals. As aniline dyes replaced the arsenicals, it ceased to be a problem. For most consumer products, arsenic was gone as a threat by the end of the nineteenth century.
Lindley: From your book, it seems that the emerging life insurance industry sparked a wave of arsenic poisoning.
Dr. Whorton: The growth spurt in the 1830s and especially the 1840s was because, on the one hand, arsenic was more widely available and inexpensive and, on the other hand, because life insurance had taken off as an industry. You could get a sizeable payout that would appeal to people who could pay the premiums for an expensive policy. But there were also these organizations providing life insurance for the poor that paid only enough for funeral expenses—perhaps a little bit more—and these [policies] were quite inexpensive. People saw a chance to supplement their income by poisoning their own children. And there were cases of mothers and sometimes fathers poisoning their children just to get the insurance payout, and that presented a temptation that hadn’t existed before.
Lindley: Didn’t Mary Ann Cotton poison many of her fifteen children and stepchildren for insurance money?
Dr. Whorton: She also did in three husbands and a fiancé. It’s not clear how many of the kids she poisoned, but most of them, [though] there’s reason to think three or four of them died natural deaths.
Lindley: So she paid a pound or so for burial insurance and would get a payout of three or four pounds—not a huge amount.
Dr. Whorton: Still, if you’re poor to begin with and there’s no contraception, and you have more mouths than you can feed, it’s easy to solve the problem by poisoning.
I was struck by how slow the burial clubs were to catch on. They were negligent about investigating deaths and requiring a waiting period before making a claim.
Lindley: And they passed a law in 1852 limiting the benefit?
Dr. Whorton: Yes, and no children under a certain age could be covered. Mary Ann Cotton was still killing her kids into the 1860s and the early 1870s, and still getting payouts. And no one noticed that three or four kids died in a year until some other circumstances raised suspicion, and the authorities noticed she’d had a real run of bad luck with kids and husbands dying left and right and getting insurance for all of them.
Lindley: What happens to a human being when poisoned by arsenic?
Dr. Whorton: In the nineteenth century, it was called an irritant poison, which can be misleading because it sounds like it will burn or irritate if you swallow it. But it’s an irritation that doesn’t begin immediately, but must be absorbed. But it gets absorbed fairly quickly and then gets into the bloodstream and then gets deposited throughout the body. The first signs that you’ve taken it is it affects the stomach and esophagus with a sharp burning pain that comes on between a half hour and several hours after it’s been swallowed. And then nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Those are the main symptoms. Eventually it kills by damaging the heart, but it generally takes a day or more, and some people with arsenic poisoning linger for a couple weeks before they die.
Lindley: The descriptions of the agony of the poison victims in your book are very vivid. One person described the stomach pain as swallowing a “ball of fire.”
Dr. Whorton: I didn’t want to belabor the point in the book, but there were several dozen descriptions of the pain I could have used. They all make it sound like there are flames in the body, like they’re burning inside. It may be the least pleasant way to go, yet somehow the message didn’t get through to the public. There were descriptions of the torture of arsenic, but what people heard mostly was it was extremely deadly. People often used it for suicide not knowing what they were in for when they took it. Word eventually got around, and by the end of the century, use of arsenic for suicide decreased and opium became the chief poisoning agent for suicide.
Most suicides were much as today: jumping from a bridge, hanging, slashing the throat or wrists. And a phrase was used that most homicides were “the razor, the rope, or the river.” I’m not sure there are statistics on suicides with arsenic, but it wasn’t uncommon from what is written in medical journals. Because it was so agonizing, doctors would report that patients who [used arsenic] would say, “I wish I hadn’t done that.”
Lindley: And you note that arsenic can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
Dr. Whorton: Through any mucus membrane. You can be poisoned through inhalation but also through the rectum, the urethra, the vagina. I cite one German man who poisoned three wives consecutively after a final round of lovemaking.
Lindley: What is the antidote or treatment for arsenic poisoning?
Dr. Whorton: The treatment for arsenic poisoning today is gastric lavage, washing out the arsenic from the stomach, and then chelation therapy. I’m not sure what chelation agents are used but, in any event, they bind the arsenic chemically so it cannot exert toxic effects.
Lindley: Although homicides are probably the most prominent cases, you also describe a wide array of accidental poisoning.
Dr. Whorton: It was easy to take it in accidentally because it could be mistaken for sugar or flour or cream of tartar. People were incredibly careless about storing it around these other items, and somebody could accidentally put it into pudding, or dumplings or bread.
The worst example of that was the epidemic of talcum powder poisonings of babies in Essex County in the 1870s. It wasn’t determined how it happened, but arsenic got into talcum powder for babies. It’s very irritating to the skin, and ended up killing a number of babies because it was absorbed through the vagina and was inhaled. Of course, it takes a smaller dose for a baby than an adult. There was a national scandal over that in the 1870s, and it was a violation of the 1862 Food and Drug Act for medicinal agents. The person who sold the powder was tried but acquitted because he claimed he got the ingredients from several suppliers that accidentally added arsenic, but he didn’t know about it, so it was beyond his control. And they couldn’t prove that any suppliers knew about the arsenic. The case didn’t provoke any new legislation.
Lindley: And children could buy arsenic up to a time?
Dr. Whorton: Yes, until the 1851 Act, when you had to be twenty-one years old. In the draft version of the law, you also had to be male, but when that came to light, there was a protest by women.
Lindley: And you discuss a candy maker who also caused great concern about
arsenic in food.
Dr. Whorton: Yes. It occurred in the industrial city of Bradford in northern England in 1858. A candy maker normally added plaster of Paris to his candy as a substitute for sugars to decrease the cost of manufacture. He sent his apprentice to a pharmacist to buy some plaster of Paris. The pharmacist was sick, and told his assistant to give the apprentice the white stuff in the barrel in the corner, and there were two corners with barrels of white stuff, and [the assistant] went to the arsenic corner, unfortunately. In the end, twenty-some people were killed eating peppermint made with the arsenic, and several hundred people were made sick by it. The realization that this sort of adulteration was going on and it was so easy for something as deadly as arsenic to be mistaken for another white powder was probably the precipitating factor in getting Parliament to adopt food and drug legislation. Finally, in 1862, they passed a law.
Lindley: You also write that arsenic was in a variety of household products, from wallpaper to toys and fabrics.
Dr. Whorton: Yes, and in every kind of paper, including paper used for wrapping packages and food, and even paper used in schools for art projects. Anything colored green was likely to contain arsenic because the green pigments from it were the most attractive by far of any of the available colors. Any household product colored green—clothes, curtains, and wallpaper was probably most widespread—most likely had arsenic pigment in it.
Lindley: And children pulled this paper from walls and ate it?
Dr. Whorton: Yes. There were a lot of similarities to the more recent problems of lead paint in old houses chipping and kids ingesting it.
Lindley: And they still found this green paper in the houses in the twentieth century?
Dr. Whorton: Yes. I’m sure it’s still in houses dating back to the nineteenth century that have layers of arsenical paper under newer papers. In fact, people remodeling old houses still find arsenical papers and spend a fair amount of money to dispose of them.
Some other products used arsenic for properties other than the color. I discuss the arsenical candles that became popular in the 1830s. They didn’t last very long, but it was found that one could make candles that looked like fancy wax candles with much cheaper ingredients from fat, but arsenic was needed for the right solidity and rigidity. When you lit the candle, the arsenic would vaporize. There were charges that it would be fatal, but I’m not sure any deaths were reported. People reported headaches and stomachaches after being in a room with the candles.
The Lancet ran an article entitled “Corpse Candles,” charging they were dangerous. And a study done by a medical society in London showed that birds were killed by inhaling these arsenical vapors. There was also a report of a person dying in a candle factory from inhaling vapors from the arsenic used to make the candles. The arsenic candles were publicized rather quickly, and other ways of making the candles were found without using arsenic.
By 1840, the switch to arsenic-free candles was made by consumers. That was a harbinger of things to come [because] that was the first domestic product containing arsenic [recognized as] a potential threat to health.
Then, in the 1850s, the wallpapers began to be incriminated, and then it became apparent that there was arsenic in all kinds of paper or fabric products.
Lindley: It’s stunning that arsenic was in toys and wrapping paper and book covers that children were handling.
Dr. Whorton: A striking example of accidental poisoning by the green papers was a kid doing an art project who used the cover of a book from the family bookshelf as a palette for mixing his watercolors. Apparently, he was also dipping the brush in his mouth to keep the tip pointed. The book had a green cover and he was picking up arsenic from the cover. The book was a volume on preventing child abuse. He almost killed himself from it.
Lindley: You also describe women in dyed ball gowns that spread arsenical fumes as they danced.
Dr. Whorton: Yes. They’re whirling about the ballroom floor and giving off arsenical clouds.
Lindley: And arsenic was also in stockings and underwear?
Dr. Whorton: It sounds like you couldn’t escape it because so many products contained it. One of the skeptics of arsenical wallpapers was a prominent London physician, T. Lauder Brunton, who wrote to a British medical journal pooh-poohing the idea that arsenical papers were dangerous, saying “I’m sitting here in my study with green wallpapers and green curtains and green carpeting,” and no doubt it all contained arsenic, and he said “I’m not having a problem.” Not too long later, he began having problems, and he realized there had been something to it. And Brunton wasn’t alone in denying the danger.
Lindley: And the prominent artist, William Morris, used arsenical papers despite evidence of real medical problems.
Dr. Whorton: When you have a vested financial interest in something, it’s difficult to be objective. To be fair to him, it took a while for the evidence to be conclusive, and there was some reason to question it at first because people didn’t know a lot about chronic arsenic poisoning, and it wasn’t clear that there was enough arsenic coming off the paper to cause problems. There was every reason to worry about it, but it took time to build an airtight case against it. You can forgive William Morris for doubting it at first, but he continued using it long after the case was open and shut.
Lindley: A surprising part of the book for me is how many physicians were using arsenic to treat illnesses from malaria and asthma to cancer and even used it to enhance endurance and libido.
Dr. Whorton: In a way, it was most amazing to me that they’d take this deadly poison and administer it against everything. But, at the same time, it was easiest to believe because they were doing it with other mineral compounds such as mercury and antimony to treat a wide range of ailments. They were convinced these minerals worked for theoretical reasons and most of the patients sooner or later got better. If they gave the drug, and the patient improved, they were convinced the drug caused the improvement. The effects came on gradually. They weren’t given very big doses. It was easy for the illness to mask the effects of the arsenic. It wasn’t until the 1880s that there was general agreement among physicians that, one, arsenic had serious side effects, and two, it wasn’t doing much. But they weren’t doing controlled clinical trials then. Medicines had their reputations built by physicians here or there reporting three or four cases with good results, and someone else would give it a try and report four or five cases where it worked. People would conclude the medicine was beneficial. They weren’t doing sophisticated statistical analysis of the effects of the substance.
And sometimes arsenic was intentionally put in cigarettes to treat asthma, so people smoked arsenic cigarettes for asthma.
Lindley: Weren’t there anecdotal reports of arsenic giving people a healthy glow and making them more robust?
Dr. Whorton: That came from the peasants in Austria who found that the arsenic from smelters in the area [gave them] more energy and their complexion improved. There’s proof to that, up to a point. The initial effect can be beneficial, particularly on the skin. They got a lot of attention because they were swallowing amounts that should have killed them. It became apparent that they were taking arsenic in chunks, and it simply wasn’t dissolving so most of it passed through and wasn’t absorbed.
When word got out about this in the 1850s, there was a great deal of publicity given to the Styrian arsenic eaters. Patent medicine manufacturers jumped on this and came out with arsenic-containing complexion soaps and waters for women to apply to the face.
It was also said to be a sexual stimulant, so men started taking it as an aphrodisiac. That played an important role in poisoning trials because it gave defense lawyers a ploy to use if their client was accused of murder and arsenic was found in the home. Then they could argue the wife was using it for her complexion or he was using it as an aphrodisiac but didn’t use it as a poison.
Lindley: And arsenic actually damages the skin?
Dr. Whorton: Yes. If you use it enough of it long enough, it can cause skin cancer, particularly if you ingest it. Applying it to the skin, you can get blistering or corrosion of the skin at any break in the skin. The real problem was people drinking solutions of arsenic, including medical solutions such as Fowler’s solution, thinking it would improve the skin and increase virility. It does have short-term beneficial skin effects, but if you keep doing it, you get keratoses or nodules of the skin, and forms of internal cancer, but it wasn’t incriminated as a carcinogen until the 1890s.
Lindley: Wasn’t arsenic fatal to many of the men who used it as a form of Viagra?
Dr. Whorton: We don’t know how many died. It was reported that men bought it as a pre-Viagra, but what percentage overdosed on it nobody knows. Any who used it for an extended period could have eventually died of cancer, but it wasn’t recognized as a carcinogen until the end of the century. It was under the table, and self-prescribed.
Lindley: And you note that Darwin used arsenic for a skin condition, and he had a long history of ill health.
Dr. Whorton: Yes. He used Fowler’s Solution. There’s actually a book about it called Darwin’s Victorian Malady in which the author argues Darwin’s indigestion and other chronic illness were from taking Fowler’s Solution to treat health problems.
Lindley: We read in novels of the nineteenth century of dense fog in London and other big cities. Did the air then contain a lot of arsenic?
Dr. Whorton: There was arsenic in the coal that was burned that created pea-soup fogs. There was arsenic in the air all the time, but at low levels. But again, it was another exposure. You get a little here and a little there, and it all adds up.
Lindley: And you write of significant worker exposure, especially among miners and chimney sweeps.
Dr. Whorton: Yes. The smelter workers got scrotal cancer because they inhaled a lot of arsenic in the smelters. And the workers in the pigment factories who worked with Scheele’s green and other pigments, whether they were dying wallpaper or other paper, would get this stuff in their hands and clothing, and even if they washed, it was more difficult to get rid of around the scrotum, so there were problems with ulcers and scrotal cancer as early as the 1820s.
Lindley: What would you like people to take from your book?
Dr. Whorton: In the last paragraph of the book I indicate how this is an object lesson on the ease in which we paint ourselves into a corner. We allow products to come onto the market without adequate screening. By the time we realize there are problems, it’s a well-entrenched industry. The industry will lobby against any regulation. Congress will be reluctant to interfere. We fight these battles over and over. I don’t know if there’s a way to insure we avoid this. Arsenic and lead were two examples of this problem, and arsenic is a very clear demonstration of the unimpeded introduction of chemicals into the environment and then into household products, and the public health problems you run into, and the political difficulty of getting any regulatory handle on these substances.
Lindley: And there’s always a struggle with anti-regulatory sentiment, and it’s a major theme now with conservatives and Tea Party members who want government out of their affairs even when it comes to questions of safety and health.
Dr. Whorton: I would hope the book shows, if nothing else, that you can’t trust your health to the tender mercies of manufacturers. They don’t care. Whether you like it or not, someone needs to provide protection. I don’t want to see big government more than anybody else, but I want to see enough government. The question becomes: is the government too big? Not if it protects me from arsenic poisoning. We do need government to do it because nobody else will do it.