- The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play
In this disheartening chronicle, James C. Whorton fully justifies both his title and his subtitle. Of course arsenic was not a product of the nineteenth–century chemical imagination, as were, for example, aniline dyes and artificial phosphate fertilizers. It is a chemical element (number thirty-three in the periodic table, itself another product of the nineteenth-century chemical imagination), and many of its uses had been known for centuries before Whorton’s account begins. In the nineteenth century, however, its impact became increasingly pervasive. There were several reasons for this shift. Arsenic often occurs naturally in association with other metals, and it was produced in large quantities as a by-product of mining and smelting. It turned out to have numerous commercial applications, and so it was widely disseminated in the Victorian environment. In addition, it was [End Page 140] readily and inexpensively available as a poison (intended, at least ostensibly, for rodents or insects) and as a medicine (intended for humans). But these two targets could easily be interchanged. While in earlier periods arsenic had been deployed as a weapon predominantly by elite murderers, Whorton shows that, beginning in the eighteenth century, its homicidal use was “democratized” (xiii). Death could result from unintentional or negligent poisoning as well as from malice aforethought, but only the latter was considered to be criminal.
The Arsenic Century is full of vignettes and anecdotes, of which the most immediately compelling are a series of sensational murder cases. Based largely on legal records and journalistic accounts of trials (since contemporaries also considered them sensational), they repeatedly illustrate that poison was the weapon of the weak. Malefactors included daughters who killed their parents, mothers who killed their children, and ex-girlfriends who dispatched suitors who had become disappointing or inconvenient. Members of the same household were particularly vulnerable to arsenic poisoning, since it could be subtly administered in stages by a person they trusted to feed and dose them. Indeed, once post-mortem chemical analysis became common in cases of suspected poisoning, evidence of a single massive recent ingestion of arsenic was frequently taken to indicate suicide. But evidence of slow steady ingestion did not necessarily indicate murder. In the course of the nineteenth century it became increasingly clear that arsenic could accumulate in British bodies from many sources.
Clever lawyers often suggested that apparent victims had indeed been poisoned, but not by design; in consequence, even notorious poisoners might be acquitted. There were, however, some circumstances that could not be extenuated. For example, when James Maybrick died after experiencing suspicious symptoms for several days, his wife Florence was tried for murder. The couple had been on bad terms, the result of her extravagance and his infidelity, which she finally decided to repay in kind, albeit briefly. A maid had discovered arsenic in her mistress’s possession, and, thus alerted, had opened what turned out to be an incriminating letter. A search of the house uncovered numerous sources of arsenic, both where it should have been (fly paper) and where it should not have been (food and medicine intended for James). Her lawyer argued that, like many other women, Florence used arsenic to improve her complexion, and that James had been an extreme hypochondriac who treated his supposed ailments with the poison. Nevertheless, the jurors who heard her case rapidly returned a guilty verdict, which carried an obligatory death sentence. It seemed clear at the time that she was being punished for adultery rather than for murder. (A public uproar resulted in her sentence being commuted to life in prison, but not to her release.)
Less spectacular but much more sobering are the reasons that lawyers could make such arguments. After all, even during the period when contemporaries decried an epidemic of domestic poisonings, such homicides were relatively rare, especially in comparison with the numerous victims of accidental and...