Shudderingly fascinating…

A couple of years ago a book came out called Arsenic Century : How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work, & Play by James C. Whorton (Oxford University Press). It is really interesting – basically arsenic was EVERYWHERE in Victorian Britain. I am “shouting” that everywhere because it is so shockingly true and not an exaggeration at all.
It was used in all sorts of industrial processes for creating all sorts of products. A lot of people have heard of how arsenic was used in various ways to create papers and materials impregnated with beautiful but deadly greens. Many people suspect the exiled Napoleon died in part from the deadly emanations of his green wallpaper in his bedroom on St Helena, and some of those delicate ladies fainting in their tightly-corseted crinolines may have done so as a deadly arsenical miasma wafted up from their pretty dresses as they heated up as they danced – I know, makes you feel faint yourself…
And it gets worse: arsenic, amongst other awful things, was used in cosmetics and to extend various cooking ingredients (it was this crazy state of affairs that made the British government enact the first regulations that we are so familiar with now, that maintain the safety of what we put into and on our bodies) and of course, for vermin control. Some people also used it to ‘control’ wealthy, irritating or inconvenient people. Trouble was, there was so much of the stuff about for legitimate  – if horrifying – reasons, that is was very difficult to tell when a crime had been commited, or indeed when one hadn’t, and someone had just got too much by innocent, if careless, accident.

It took some time and much experimentation to sort out a reliable credible test to discover the presence of arsenic, and a new book The Inheritor’s Powder: A Cautionary Tale of Poison, Betrayal and Greed  by Sandra Hempel (Weidenfeld & Nicholson) explores this process through the history of one criminal case. A wealthy elderly farmer and his wife and their servants all became terribly ill (arsenic poisoning resembles nothing so much as food poisoning) one night. He died after several days, the others recovered. Rumours began to circulate, especially when it became known he had recently significantly changed his will. It took quite some time to figure out whether any arsenic had even been ingested and to find somebody to charge with his murder…

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One thought on “Shudderingly fascinating…

  1. These both sound fascinating! I love pairing a couple of books on the same subject, both non-fiction or one each of fiction and non-fiction. It’s just so fun to really immerse yourself in a topic 🙂

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