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ARTICLES THE AMENDMENT OF THE SALE OF ARSENIC BILL Judith Knelman Graduate School ofJournalism University of Western Ontario On March 24, 1851, one day before the execution of Sarah Chesham in Essex for the poisoning of her husband, the House of Lords accepted an amendment to the Earl of Carlisle's Sale of Arsenic Bill, which then passed third reading. The seller of any quantity of this poison in England would be required to keep a record of purchasers' names and addresses and their reasons for buying it Moreover, no one would be able to get less than ten pounds of uncolored arsenic without endorsement by a witness and a statement as to why the coloring agent would be harmful. A new clause, quiedy inserted, restricted the sale of arsenic to adult males. This oppressive, male-sponsored design was a response to public pressure for regulation following a rash of poisonings in England in the 1840s, a decade that saw a great deal of economic upheaval, particularly in the rural areas, where crop failures threatened many famiUes with the unsavory alternatives of starvation or the workhouse. In the rural areas arsenic was easy to obtain, since it was needed to control the rat population. Newspaper reports of trials in the 1840s indicate that it was being used by some parents in desperate economic straits to do away with children. By the end of the decade it became apparent that occasionally women of the rural lower class were taking matters into their own hands and using arsenic to get out ofunsatisfactory marriages.1 Lest this remedy spread, the law-makers decided to bar all women from the purchase of arsenic. The murder of infants, though it provoked some prosecutions, seems to have been widely used by the poor as a sort of retroactive, hopeless method ofbirth control. But child murder was less easy to turn a blind eye Victorian Review 17.1 (Winter 1991) Victorian Review to, and the murder of adult males was even more alarming, especiaUy to adult males. AU this was occurring with particular frequency near Clavering in Essex, where, in the late 1840s, according to The Times, "there appears to have been much gossip about . . . 'how bad husbands could be got rid of."* The paper was reporting on "the extraordinary and fearful system of poisoning which has excited so much alarm throughout this part of the country" (5 Sept. 1850: 5). Before her execution in Essex in August 1848, Mary May, whose first husband, brother, and children had died under mysterious circumstances, impUcated several other women, including Chesham, in a poisoning ring. The Tunes referred to an "atrocious conspiracy to poison husbands and children" (21 Sept 1848: 6). It was widely believed that there were other female poisoners in east Essex who had not been caught Though there had been an inordinate number of sudden, loosely explained deaths among the poor there, murder by poison was by no means an activity exclusive to Essex. The prospect ofwidespread adoption of this remedy was not appealing to the general pubUc. "Why not have the sale ofpoison estabUshed in the Registrar of Births, &c. office," suggested the News ofthe World after May's conviction, and those persons to seU no poison to any person who does not bring the certificate of the clergyman of the parish, or of two householders. Why not place as many impediments in the way of ldUing the poor, as the impoverished now find in procuring parochial or medical relief? (30 July 1848: 4) In August 1849, three women were awaiting execution in England: Rebecca Smith of Wiltshire, who had chosen to poison her children rather than suffer them to starve; Mary-Ann Geering, who had poisoned her husband and children near Hastings for burial money; and Charlotte Harris, who had poisoned her husband in Bath so that she could marry someone else. The case of Rebecca Smith was particularly horrifying to those who subscribed to the image of woman as Madonna: in a grotesque parody of maternal bliss, she had successively poisoned eight infants by applying arsenic to her nipples. Not that there were not male poisoners as well: before these revelations had come the Happisburgh...


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