Arsenic: Victorians' secret

UW medical historian Dr. James C. Whorton explains how arsenic poisoned 19th-century Britain, as the government regulators looked the other way. Even Darwin partook.


Arsenic wove its ways deeply into British society.

UW medical historian Dr. James C. Whorton explains how arsenic poisoned 19th-century Britain, as the government regulators looked the other way. Even Darwin partook.

Arsenic pervaded almost every aspect of life in nineteenth century Britain, leaving 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 perverse 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 malfeasance — 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 Whorton’s book with enthusiastic reviews. The esteemed critic John Carey, in The [London] Sunday Times, called the book “gripping and terrible” and noted that Whorton “writes from a firmly scientific viewpoint, [but] it is the human tragedies he keeps unveiling that give the book its disturbing power.”

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 lives with his wife in Tacoma, in an area where the old Asarco smelter once deposited tons of arsenic.

Robin Lindley: What prompted your interest in arsenic?

James Whorton: I got interested in it as a graduate student and wrote a dissertation and book on history of insecticides and public health [Before Silent Spring], and discovered that arsenic was a common environmental pollutant in the 19th 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. 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?

Whorton: Most of the research was from published sources. I went through all of the British medical journals from 1800 to 1900. I also consulted books on arsenic, 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: Although you note that men committed about 90 percent of spousal homicides, the popular press seemed preoccupied with poisonings committed by women.

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: What is arsenic?

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 33 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 19th century, and it’s extremely toxic. There are other toxic arsenic compounds, but white arsenic was the form popular among the poisoners because it was in such large quantities by the 18th century as a by-product of 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 18th 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 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 Roman emperor Nero and earlier.

Whorton In ancient times, there were other versions of arsenic, primarily sulfide compounds. The 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 18th 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. 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.

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 [while] they 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 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 still contained arsenic.

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 19th century.

Lindley: From your book, it seems that the emerging life insurance industry sparked a wave of arsenic poisoning.

Whorton: The growth spurt in the 1830s and especially the 1840s was, on the one hand, that arsenic was more widely available and inexpensive and, on the other hand, that 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 organizations providing life insurance for the poor that paid only enough for funeral expenses and perhaps a 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. 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.

Lindley:What happens to a human being when poisoned by arsenic?

Whorton: In the 19th 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. 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.

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 over the course of the century, and opium became the chief poisoning agent for suicide.

Lindley: Although homicides are probably the most prominent cases, you also describe a wide array of accidental poisoning.

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. 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 you discuss a candy maker who also caused great concern about arsenic in food.

Whorton: 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, 20-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.

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, wallpaper was probably most widespread — most likely had arsenic pigment in it.

Lindley: And children pulled this paper from walls and ate it?

Whorton: Yes. There were a lot of similarities to the more recent problems of lead paint in old houses chipping, and kids ingesting it. I’m sure it’s still in houses dating back to the 19th 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 than fat; arsenic was needed for the right solidity and rigidity. When you lit the candle, the arsenic would vaporize. People reported headaches and stomachaches after being in a room with the candles.

The arsenic candles' problems 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: That was the first domestic product containing arsenic recognized as a potential threat to health.

Lindley: And the prominent artist, William Morris, used arsenical papers despite evidence of real medical problems.

Whorton: When you have a vested financial interest in something, it’s difficult to be objective. To be fair to Morris, 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 libido.

Whorton: 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 compounds 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.

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 you note that Charles Darwin used arsenic for a skin condition, and he had a long history of ill health.

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: What would you like people to take from your book?

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 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 unimpeded introduction of chemicals into the environment and then into the household products, and the public health problems you run into, and the political difficulty of getting any regulatory handle on these substances.

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.


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Arsenic: Victorians' secret