Life expectancy in Victorian Britain, in the high 30’s in 1837, had reached the “giddy” heights of 48 by the end of Victoria’s reign. There were many obstacles on the way to a longish life – not least the ever-present threat of death by arsenic. Ever-present? Is that hyperbole? If so, it is a Victorian one. One British journalist from the 1850’s wrote:
We dread it of nights …. We inquire actively as to its presence in our bread, and in our wine, and in our sauce.
Anyone who has read Flaubert’s description of death by arsenic poisoning contained in Madame Bovary will be acquainted with the horrors of such a demise. There were many who chose such self-destruction because arsenic was easy to obtain – a buy-over-the-counter rat poison. But for every one who chose arsenic as a means to their own end, there were many who fell innocent victim, poisoned by their spouses or, more shockingly, their parents for the insurance money. So prevalent was this practice that the friendly societies – the Victorian equivalent of life insurance companies – were nicknamed “burial clubs”.
Nothing too surprising thus far. Most murder victims fall foul of someone they know. However, there are many more “creative” examples of poisoning by arsenic demonstrated the truth in the subtitle: How Victorian Britain was poisoned at Home, Work and Play.
At Home: William Morris’s willow bough wallpaper design remains popular. However, had you followed the fashion for all things green, which was at its height in the mid nineteenth century, chances are it would have slowly poisoned you! Green fabrics and furnishings were manufactured using Scheele’s green (copper arsenite), later Schweinfurt Green (copper acetoarsenite).
At Work: As society ladies jeopardised their health wearing ball gowns and accessories in fashionable green hues, the working classes were made ill manufacturing them.
At Play: Going to the pub is a typically British pasttime, but in 1900 it was a dangerous one. Contaminated beer was the cause of the Manchester Beer Epidemic which resulting in over 70 deaths and thousands of cases of arsenical neuritis. It was this episode that finally made the legislators sit up and take action because, like today, industrialists continued to deny that there was any harm in the goods they manufactured.
They were to some extent aided and abetted by the medical community. Some doctors swore that arsenic was a wonder drug, freely prescribing Fowler’s solution as the panacea for a wide variety of ailments. The belief that arsenic was good for your health arose from the habits of the Styrian arsenic eaters. The men found that low doses of arsenic helped wth the physical challenges of working the soil, herding sheep and felling trees in the mountainous regions of Austria. The womenfolk took it to “become stout, rosy-cheeked, and altogether quite to their lover’s satisfaction”. Said lover, if an arsenic eater would have heightened virility as arsenic was the nineteenth century viagara!
Fascinating? I thought so and not at all dry. Whorton peppers his text with many accounts of nineteenth century crimes, accidents and science to give a comprehensive account of the pervasiveness of arsenic at that time. Illustrations and cartoons from the time add further seasoning. At 359 pages it is a long book and sometimes repetitive. However, read slowly, a chapter at a time over a couple of months, I found that repetition useful in reestablishing my bearings whenever I picked up the book. At no point did I contemplate abandoning it. I was far too curious. It was a rewarding read and I suspect my new background knowledge will be more than useful when I start to work my way through the small pile of sensation novels sometime soon. In any event I now know that arsenic was implicated in the death of Napoleon Bonaparte. I’ll leave you to read the book to discover whether it was his habits as an arsenic eater or his wallpaper that finally did for him in the end.