Poison Pen

A few years ago, I had the bright idea of writing a book about arsenic in the 19th century. In preparation for writing it, I bought scores of books on this fascinating subject, including a very rare bound collection of arsenical wallpapers used in America. I had until then idly supposed that all such wallpapers were green, but no: There were arsenical wallpapers of many colors.

The 19th century was truly the age of arsenic. It was used in the disposal of inconvenient lovers, husbands, and wives who were the only ones to suffer arsenic poisoning. There were famous cases of peppermints adulterated with white arsenic, and of beer contaminated with it. Bank tellers in the United States suffered arsenic poisoning from licking their fingers after counting greenbacks, the green ink containing arsenic. There was arsenic in flypapers, weed killers, and rodenticides.

Arsenic was the first drug of abuse to be regulated in Britain. After a spate of famous murders by arsenic, an act was passed (without much effect) to limit access to arsenic. Arsenical compounds were used as a stimulant, and the miners in Styria, in Austria, were said to take arsenic much as the Andean Indians chew coca, to give them energy and reduce their hunger. It was claimed that the Styrian miners habituated themselves to ever larger doses, but I have been unable to discover whether this was pure mythology. It sounds like it to me.

Arsenic was mined in Cornwall by the English Arsenic Company. The land around its workings is still sterile a century and a half later.

Arsenic was used medicinally, and Charles Darwin’s famous chronic illness has been ascribed to arsenic poisoning from his repeated use of Fowler’s solution, a patent medicine that contained arsenic. Others have claimed that he suffered from arsenic poisoning from the stuffed birds he received from naturalists around the world: Arsenic was a taxidermist’s staple preservative, and one of the proofs of arsenic poisoning was the comparatively slow decomposition of corpses after burial.

The means of detection of arsenic the Marsh test was the foundation of all forensic science: It was the first true chemical test. One of the signers of the American Declaration of Independence was poisoned to death with arsenic by his wicked nephew, and conspiracy theorists believe that Napoleon was deliberately poisoned with arsenic by his British jailers on St. Helena, though others believe that arsenic impregnated the wallpaper of Longwood House and it was an accident. Others believe that he did not die of arsenic poisoning at all.

An arsenical compound was the first new treatment of syphilis since mercury, and arsenic was not only a cosmetic used to whiten the skin (as it was fashionable to do at the time), but a treatment for psoriasis employed by some dermatologists until the 1970s.

Arsenic was important in literature, in Madame Bovary, for example. Not only was it a favorite tool of murderers and murderesses, but—not surprisingly in the circumstances—of crime writers. Scores of detective novels have been written in which the victim was poisoned by arsenic.

Anyone who examined my library might conclude that I was a poisoner manqué, that I had spent much of my life plotting a murder rather than a book.

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