restricted access King of Poisons: A History of Arsenic by John Parascandola (review)
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Reviewed by
John Parascandola. King of Poisons: A History of Arsenic. Sterling, Va.: Potomac Books, 2012. ix + 197 pp. Ill. $27.50 (978-1-59797-703-6).

The history of arsenic in various contexts, including the criminal, environmental, and occupational, has received much attention in recent years. Books on the subject include James Whorton, The Arsenic Century (2010); William Cullen, Is Arsenic an Aphrodisiac? (2008); and Andrew McHarg, Venomous Earth (2005). Arsenical murders feature prominently in Poisoned Lives (2004), Katherine Watson’s study of English poisoners and their victims mainly in the nineteenth century. Arsenic has also been the focus of many scholarly essays in historical journals and elsewhere.

Anyone familiar with this substantial literature will find little new in King of Poisons, for this is a concise work of synthesis, based almost entirely on secondary sources. It is not, as Parascandola acknowledges, “a comprehensive history of the subject.” It is intended primarily for the general reader rather than specialists in the history of science and medicine, though the author hopes that these and other scholars in search of an overview will also find it useful.

The book, which concentrates on developments in the United Kingdom and United States over the past two hundred years, with occasional glances elsewhere, is divided into five chapters that cover the place of arsenic in crime, fiction, the workplace, the environment, and medical practice (regular and “quackish”). By far the longest chapter deals with murder, with much space devoted to certain causes célèbres in Britain and America. The cases of George Sweeney, Madeleine Smith, Florence Maybrick, Francis Seddon, and Herbert Armstrong loom large, as do the Croydon poisoning mystery and Philadelphia poisoning ring. All of these subjects have been picked over repeatedly down the years not only in books but also, especially in the case of Smith, in films, novels, plays, and radio broadcasts, and Parascandola provides no new findings or perspectives. He concludes by examining some more recent murders as well as the use of arsenic in chemical warfare—“essentially a method of mass murder” (p. 48). But in all this the author never adequately explains arsenic’s “popularity and notoriety as a poison in the history of civilisation.” He notes that murder by arsenic is less common today (though not unknown) than in the past but again offers no explanations.

In his chapter titled “Arsenic in Fiction,” Parascandola details many novels and stories by authors ranging from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, dating from the fourteenth century, to a 2008 short story by Niamh Russell. Considerable attention is devoted to works by Wilkie Collins, Gustave Flaubert, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L. Sayers. As the author points out, following John Harris Trestrail III, arsenic features in numerous works of fiction, especially of the detective or crime genre. Unfortunately, the chapter largely consists of plot summaries; little attempt is made to explain the enduring prominence of arsenic as a fictional device.

Subsequent chapters deal with the multifarious, sometimes surprising, uses of arsenic in taxidermy, homeopathic and folk medicines, embalming, high fashion, home furnishing, dentistry, beauty treatments, confectionary, syphilis and cancer remedies, and much else. In the environmental context we learn that in the disposal of debris following Hurricane Katrina 1,740 tons of arsenic were dumped [End Page 687] in unlined landfill sites, contrary to EPA guidelines. It appears also that arsenic is an ingredient of chicken food on some American farms even today.

Parascandola is to be congratulated for sifting a wealth of secondary sources, including some from more or less obscure locations, and for producing a readable, concise introduction to a much-worked topic. There is, however, little in the way of a thesis here. One, rather thin, argument is that arsenic was and is a “two-edged sword”—useful in many respects but also highly dangerous if misused, carelessly handled, or placed in the wrong hands. This does not take us very far; much the same might be said of the shotgun or, for that matter, the automobile. Another theme is that for good or ill humans have employed arsenic extensively, sometimes indiscriminately, for a very long time and in some areas of medicine and...