- The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play
It was the most unlikely setting for a murder conspiracy, the charming British village of Clavering where tidy cottages clustered along the green edge of the River Stort. But in 1846, investigators discovered that a small group of housewives there had been trading more than the standard recipes. They’d been sharing information on the best way to mix a lethal dose of arsenic into soup and cereal. As the Times of London put it, “deeds which the imagination connects with the Medici are seen at this moment naturalized in an uneducated English county” (p. 35).
The following year, one of the women was executed for killing her brother with arsenic to gain an insurance payout. The purported ringleader of this homicidal group, Sarah Clavering (christened “Arsenic Sally” by the papers), was convicted and executed in 1849 for the arsenic death of her husband. And while such a murderous network might be unusual, notes James Whorton in his fascinating book, The Arsenic Century, the deliberate use of this particular poison was not: “Throughout much of the 1800s, upwards of a third of all cases of criminal poisoning in Britain were due to arsenic” (p. viii).
As the book’s subtitle indicates though, this is not just an exploration of British society at its most murderous. While arsenic—probably the most famed homicidal poison in human history—offers Whorton plenty of scope to tell criminal tales, his purpose is more ambitious. It’s not just that he traces the poison in far greater depth, through industrial, commercial, and agricultural uses as well. It’s that he sees the Victorian embrace of this singular element as predictive, a warning flare for the wider societal embrace of industrial chemistry that would follow in later centuries. Or, to quote from the book’s preface: “The infiltration of arsenic into 19th century domestic life was the template for pollution in the modern industrial world, the pilot episode if you will. . . .” (p. ix).
Does he successfully make that case? Only partly, I think. One problem is that the murderous characteristics of arsenic tend to overwhelm the story—they’re more easily made fascinating. That’s the reason I opened this review on a homicidal note and, in fact, Whorton starts his book with a murder story as well, the tale of a daughter who kills her father to please her lover. It’s nearly impossible to make wallpaper (during the nineteenth century, arsenic was used to color it an elegant green) as interesting as evil plotters in a country village.
The other problem is that while Whorton does pack the book with [End Page 929] facts, anecdotes, newspaper accounts, statistics, and all the terrific details provided by excellent scholarship, the results don’t necessarily add up to a sense that the Victorians were building our toxic future by their use of arsenic. Rather, they add up to a portrait of a largely pre-regulatory society just beginning to realize chemical risks, a culture more trusting than the one we live in today.
But, as a case study of society’s surprising love affair with a very lethal compound, this is compelling work. Whorton doesn’t mince words about arsenic’s horrific effects. His opening chapter, titled “Such an Instrument of Death and Agony,” does justice to the title, describing in detail the poison’s destructive path through the human body. And despite its known dangers, the poison was mixed into an astonishing variety of commercial products, from candles to candy, occasionally and not surprisingly killing consumers. Further, physicians prescribed it for a range of health conditions. During a particular incisive look at medical practices, Whorton points out that even Charles Darwin took an arsenic solution to treat eczema and may, indeed, have been among many sufferers of chronic poisoning (p. 251).
We’ve become more prone recently to cast such suspicious looks at our chemical past. Last fall, for instance, a...