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Poison, Detection and the Victorian Imagination by Ian Burney (review)

From: Victorian Periodicals Review
Volume 46, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 281-283 | 10.1353/vpr.2013.0015

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Sensation fiction, detective fiction, and true crime continue to be widely discussed literary genres, so the reprinting of Ian Burney’s Poison, Detection, and the Victorian Imagination (2006) in paperback form (2012) is in keeping with current critical debates. This excellent interdisciplinary study focuses on the position of poison within the wider context of the histories of science, medicine, law, and literature. Burney’s target audience includes medical historians; interdisciplinary scholars in the fields of science, law, and literature; and “all those interested in the darker side of Victorian society” (cover). Built upon the narrative framework of the 1856 William Palmer case, one of the most significant poisoning trials of the mid-nineteenth century, Burney’s research draws directly on a variety of contemporary periodicals, including local and national newspapers (Times, Illustrated Times), monthly magazines (Cornhill Magazine, Household Words), medical journals (Association Medical Journal, Lancet), and law periodicals (Law Times).

Burney uses these diverse publications as primary source material in chapter one to overview the historical development of poison in Italy, to establish poisoning as a criminal act distinct from violent crimes such as stabbing, and to profile potential poisoners as phrenological anomalies. Taking the Times as his primary resource, Burney concludes that there were fifty-nine poisoning cases reported in the 1830s, but over one hundred in the next decade. In the 1840s, 60 percent of cases involved women as suspects, with the husband as the victim in 37 percent of the cases, and in almost 70 percent of the cases, arsenic was the poison of choice. Burney also moves beyond the reconstruction of the Palmer case and the history of poison to analyse popular newspapers and medical and law journals themselves. His effective use of journalistic texts as subject matter and source material is one of the book’s greatest strengths.

In subsequent chapters, Burney furthers his analysis by examining the impact of newspapers and professional periodicals on the Palmer case and wider cultural issues. For instance, chapter one notes how “local newspapers propose[d] a ban on the sale of poisons to women” to counter the gendered disparity of poisoners (26); chapter two discusses how scientists “translate[d] the rich public discourse … into a scientific one” by explaining and refining arsenic detection methods and how medical journals denounced “quacks” to establish their authority to counter lay newspapers’ accusations of incompetence (40, 60); chapter three comments on how British and continental medical journals disagreed about the importance of “chemical analysis as the necessary foundation of a conviction in criminal poisoning cases” (79); and chapter four illustrates the impact of these issues on burial clubs and life insurance policies (116–21).

As Burney’s study progresses, his use of newspapers and journals reveals a larger, more significant development for the scientific community: the rise of toxicology as a scientific discipline. To establish this fascinating and worthwhile topic, chapter five examines how medical journals advanced the idea that scientific advisors in criminal cases should not be cross-examined because it “devalued their evidence,” in addition to discussing science’s wider role as a “dispassionate, disinterested pursuit of objective truth…or a more contingent, applied activity” (155, 172). Burney’s continuing account of the relationship between the rise of toxicology and shifting legal practices is what sets his work apart from other texts on poison (for instance, Katherine Watson’s Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and Their Victims [2006] and James Whorton’s The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play [2010]), and his book’s title should have advertised this more clearly.

Burney’s conclusion to chapter five has the most significance for periodical studies because it analyses the pseudo-scientific article “The Modern Alchemist” (1862) in relation to Wilkie Collins’s publication of No Name (1863), both of which appeared in Charles Dickens’s All the Year Round. By ending with an examination of the links between real-life crime, “scientific” articles, and fiction, Burney leaves his most succinct interdisciplinary analysis to his last few pages, which is a shame. Overall, Burney’s volume is not only a pleasurable read but a welcome contribution to a neglected subject that uses newspapers and medical and law...

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