My guest today is Dr. James C. Whorton, author of THE ARSENIC CENTURY. Dr.
Whorton is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He has written extensively on the history of medicine. It is my great pleasure to welcome him to The Writer’s Forensics Blog.
DPL: Dr. Whorton, thanks for being with us today. Tell us a little about arsenic and how it affects those unfortunate enough to ingest it.
JCW: First, the ‘arsenic’ we all think of as a deadly poison is not the element arsenic, which is relatively innocuous, but the compound arsenic trioxide, a substance that can be taken into the body not only by oral ingestion, but also by inhalation, through abraded skin, and by absorption through the mucus membranes of the rectum, vagina, and urethra. It can also be conveyed through the milk of nursing mothers. Once in the body, it produces a sharp, burning sensation in the stomach and esophagus (usually about 30 to 60 minutes after ingestion), and then profuse vomiting and diarrhea lasting for hours. Ultimately, the poison damages the heart and other viscera, but typically death comes only after 12 to 24 hours, or even longer. Statistics from the 1800s suggest that about half of those poisoned died.
DPL: What is it about arsenic that has allowed it to remain an effective method of murder even in this day of toxicological sophistication?
JCW: Arsenic is colorless and tasteless, easily confused for sugar or flour. This allows it to be mixed into foods and beverages without arousing suspicion, and also conduces to accidental poisoning. In the nineteenth-century, when arsenic was the most common substance used to poison rats and mice, it was present in most households and frequently mistaken for harmless white foodstuffs. Accidental deaths from arsenic greatly outnumbered those from homicide and suicide. Restrictions were placed on the sale of arsenic in 1851 in Britain, and accidental death became less common.
DPL: When was the earliest known use of arsenic for murder and when did
testing for it first enter the forensic arena?
JCW: Arsenical compounds known as orpiment and realgar (both sulfides of arsenic, but less toxic than arsenic trioxide) were used for murder in antiquity: Nero is believed to have murdered a political rival with one of the sulfides, for example. With the appearance of arsenic trioxide during the middle ages, however, a much more effective agent became available, though it was used mostly by the aristocracy to eliminate political opposition. With the expansion of mining in the eighteenth century, supplies of arsenic (a byproduct of the smelting process) became much greater and its price dropped to the point anyone could afford it. By the nineteenth century, arsenical murder had been democratized; during the 1800s, in fact, most arsenical homicides were committed by the laboring classes. There were tests for arsenic dating to the 1700s, but they were unreliable when applied to organic material (food, vomit, feces). A reliable method came along only during the 1830s, with the introduction of the Marsh test (accomplished by an English chemist named James Marsh). The Marsh test made it easier to detect murder, so brought about a slow decrease in arsenic’s use. Arsenic murder became much less common in the twentieth century, but is still occasionally used to kill.
DPL: Your book deals with accidental, suicidal, and homicidal arsenic poisoning during the 19th century. What were the most common sources of accidental poisoning at that time and do any of these remain a concern today?
JCW: Besides the accidents resulting from mistaking arsenic for flour or sugar, there were numerous cases of death and sickness caused by green arsenic compounds that became popular in the 1800s as pigments used to color all manner of domestic products: wallpapers, wrapping paper, candies, candles, even many articles of clothing (it was arsenic IN old lace that was the true problem). These pigments are no longer used, having been replaced by synthetic organic compounds during the second half of the nineteenth century. The chief threat from arsenic today is chromated copper arsenate (CCA), used as a wood preservative (decks, playground equipment) into the early 2000s. There is also a severe problem with arsenic in water supplies in some parts of the world, particularly Bengal and Bangladesh.
DPL: Wasn’t arsenic called Inheritance Powder during Victorian times?
JCW: Arsenic became known as ‘la poudre de succession,’ or inheritance powder, in France in the 1600s after a rash of poisonings by several noblewomen. It continued to be used to accelerate inheritances into the nineteenth century, but mostly by the lower and middle classes to cash in on life insurance.
DPL: What famous poisoners employed arsenic as their chosen weapon?
JCW: Lucrezia Borgia is perhaps the name people most readily associate with arsenical murder, though it was actually her brother Cesare who was the guilty one (fifteenth century). In the sixteenth century, Catherine de Medici was the most famous, while in the seventeenth century, it was a Sicilian woman named Toffana (who was believed to have killed hundreds, if not thousands, with a special preparation she sold to women eager to get rid of the men in their lives). The prevalence of Italian poisoners resulted in the coining of the verb ‘to Italianate,’ i.e., to murder with arsenic, in the 1600s. During the nineteenth century, the most famous arsenical killers were England’s Mary Ann Cotton, who killed three husbands and a dozen or more of her children in the 1860s and 1870s; Madeleine Smith, a Glasgow woman who likely killed her lover in the 1850s, but who was not convicted; and Florence Maybrick, an American woman living in Liverpool, who was accused of poisoning her husband but probably didn’t–she was convicted anyway, but eventually pardoned.
DPL: What drew you to this subject and led to your writing this book?
JCW: I did my doctoral dissertation, in 1969, on the public health problem of pesticide residues on foods in the days before DDT, i.e., 1860-1945. The most popular insecticides during that period were arsenic compounds (lead, copper, and calcium arsenates). In doing research on those early insecticides, I came across a good bit of discussion on the presence of arsenic in other products and decided that one day I would get back to the topic. It only took me three decades to do so. In writing the book, I decided to concentrate on Great Britain because the problem was most severe there (for a variety of reasons), and because I am a great fan of British beer and pubs–doing research in London and Edinburgh was thus a lot more fun, for me at least, than doing it in America.
DPL: Any other cool things about arsenic you want to share with us?
JCW: I would only add that the description of arsenic symptoms given in the first question applies to acute poisoning. That was the common form of murder before the nineteenth century, giving a lethal dose of three or more grains at one time. During the nineteenth century, slow poisoning became more popular, killing by repeated doses none of which was great enough to kill by itself, but that cumulatively finished off the victim over a period of weeks. That was a form that was more difficult to detect, so improved the killer’s odds of escaping. It was a matter of how big a risk-taker a person was versus how much patience she or he had (I put ‘she’ first because the majority of arsenic poisoners in the nineteenth century were women; men tended to rely on brute force rather than the subtlety of poison).
DPL: Thanks so much for being with us today. I’m sure my readers will employ
some of this new found knowledge in their stories.
THE ARSENIC CENTURY