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The Arsenic Century, By James C Whorton

Victorian lives of poison, passion and peril

Reviewed,Rebecca Armstrong
Friday 19 March 2010 01:00 GMT

The next time you're having a bad day, pause for a moment to be grateful: that you weren't born in the Victorian age and consequently are not likely to be in danger of being poisoned by arsenic. Come, come, you might be thinking. This is a slender reason to be cheerful – who's to say that anyone would wish to slip a splash of arsenious acid into my cup of tea? But as James Whorton's book points out again and again, you didn't need to have a disgruntled spouse or a deadly enemy to be at risk from a gruesome death caused by arsenic. You didn't even need to leave the house.

True, in this history of "how Victorian Britain was poisoned at home, work and play", there are plenty of criminal cases where arsenic was used to speed up inheritances, stop up hungry mouths for good and clear the way for a new, improved partner. Easy to buy, simple to administer and extremely effective, arsenic was the tool of choice for murderers and suicides alike.

So popular was it as a method of dispatch that the physicians and doctors of Queen Victoria's day had to strive to find new ways to determine whether it was arsenic, rather than cholera (victims of which displayed many of the same symptoms) that had filled another grave. Lawyers for the prosecution and defence were keenly interested.

But establishing that arsenic was present in a corpse didn't necessarily mean foul play (at least, not a clear-cut murder conviction). As Whorton makes clear, it was impossible not to find "Arsenic in odd places: such was the insidious threat against which the British public had to stay... on guard throughout the Victorian age." He's not joking.

Arsenic was used in sheep dip, candle manufacture, brewing, making paint, taxidermy, as a pesticide, as embalming fluid, and in green dyes which fast became the height of chic, used on wallpapers, in fabrics and even, unbelievably, as food colouring. Today's industrial pollution scandals have nothing on the 19th century. But even if the average Victorian managed to escape deliberate poisoning, or illness due to candles, beer or wall hangings, they could still be in danger from an unlikely cause – their doctor.

Despite its lethal effects, the medical fraternity seems to have been obsessed with the efficacy of arsenic, whether in treating cancer (which, it transpired in the following century, it caused), lethargy, weight loss, skin discolouration (also caused by arsenic), asthma and a ream of skin complaints. It appeared in travelling salesmen's snake oils, but also in the bags of the most trusted physicians. So insidious was arsenic, as Whorton elegantly explains in his carefully structured account, that you had to be having a very good day to avoid the stuff.

I'd recommend this fascinating book with two caveats. First, those of a squeamish disposition may find the detailed accounts of the myriad ways in which arsenic can damage the human body (green vomiting, watery stools, pus-filled boils, inflamed organs) a little too enthusiastic. The careful line drawing of scrotal skin eruptions does rather stick in the mind. Secondly, modern readers may find that their nearest and dearest balk when they see you buried in a book on arsenic. Just smile, make them a cup of tea, and tell them to be glad they're not a Victorian.

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