1879: Stuff That Wouldn’t Fit: Everybody Needs More Arsenic

We’ve previously talked about adulterants in food and cosmetics, and about the lavish use people in the Gilded Age and before made of arsenic. The stuff was everywhere – in the wallpaper, in that lovely green dress Lady Wanwaif lingers about in (poor thing is too tired to parade). Some early cosmetics actually advertised that they contained arsenic. There were wafers to nibble to keep yourself just poisoned enough to look fashionably pale. Were people really surprised that arsenic became the secret ingredient after people began to question why they were throwing toxic substances around by the bucketful?

Let’s look at Madame Rachel. She swanned around her Bond Street salon in fancy robes with expensive crystals and talismans and far too much jewelry, where the special was a caustic face wash guaranteed to take years off your appearance. It’d certainly remove any unwanted hairs, along with the top layer of your dermis. Her favorite ingredients, according to the article, were prussic acid, lead carbonate, and our old friend arsenic. For years she had rich women slathering this stuff over their faces, hoping to look younger. Well, the dead don’t age, do they. And then there was all the other stuff, the blackmail over debts, pawning customers’ jewelry when they couldn’t settle their debts, and generally being just the sort of ethically void person you’d expect to be peddling arsenic.

Sarah Rachel Russell was prosecuted for fraud in 1868 and in 1878, and died in jail in 1880. This puts her within the game world’s timeline, still peddling poison a year after the Rabbit Hole opened. Insert metaphor about being the tip of an iceberg here.

Of course, we have to talk again about wallpaper, and how the dust from it wafts particles of arsenic gently to your nose like the aroma released by your aging bulldog. Everybody knows about the wallpaper book, right? No? Shadows from the Walls of Death (what a socko title!) was published in 1874 by Dr. Robert M. Kedzie, professor of chemistry at Michigan State Agricultural College, later to be MSU. In a spectacular but really poorly thought out publicity stunt, Dr. Kedzie had a hundred copies of the book printed, and shipped them off to public libraries all across the state. These days, he’d have spent the rest of his life in Federal prison for sending hazardous substances through the mail. The book consisted of a title page, a preface, and a warning from the Board of Health to not allow children to handle the book, and 86 pages of wallpaper samples obtained from the more readily accessible dealers in home décor.

Quite a few libraries, alarmed over what they’d been sent, destroyed their copies in a perfectly understandable case of protecting the patrons. There’s only four copies left now, two of them at Michigan universities. Special permission is required to access the book. You have to wear protective gloves. Each page of the book has been individually sealed in plastic. They’re taking absolutely no chances with this thing.

And it’s made from wallpaper that anybody off the street could have bought for cash in a reputable shop. Did these people just not care that they were papering their front parlor with poison, that a slow and insidious death awaited them from that lovely green flocking? Surely they knew what was in that color. The newspapers had spoken of the wonders of arsenical green just a few years ago, and still discussed it every now and then, although the color was sliding down the social ladder and nobody who was anybody was really concerned about the lower classes, as long as they didn’t rise up in arms.

It didn’t help that nobody could agree in court as to how to detect arsenic in a suspected case of poisoning. Various chemical tests had been tried, and fought over. Smell-based tests were the first to fall. Orfila’s famous application of the Marsh test in the Lafarge trial, and the opposing authorities who used different methodologies, put paid to anything earlier and non quantitative. By the game period, we have the Reinsch test, but Alfred Swaine Taylor, a highly noted toxicologist, was found to have screwed up the method in 1859, and Thomas Smethurst was first sent to prison for murder, then pardoned after William Herpath demonstrated Taylor’s error. All it takes is one decent lawyer and one doctor or professor of chemistry ready to swear that the Crown prosecutor’s expert has, shall we say, a less than perfect understanding of the field. In the (dare we say toxic?) atmosphere of what has become known as the Arsenic Wars, every academic in the field has a very strong opinion on the matter, and the battle lines have been drawn. Finding someone willing to stand up in court and call a rival a blazing idiot just requires pointing them at the witness box.

So arsenic is everywhere, and people die of it here and there just from environmental exposure. If murder is suspected, there’s no definitive test for arsenic accepted by the court and the professional community. Even if there was, the general prevalence of arsenic in the everyday world means that most people in the mid to lower middle classes have some degree of exposure. How would you know if it was deliberate?

Something to think about while you’re trying to get to sleep. Pleasant dreams.

Tally Ho!