1879: Stuff That Wouldn’t Fit: Everyday Poisons

We did a section in the 1879 Gamemaster’s Guide about poisons, but didn’t get into specifics, choosing instead to focus on mechanism of action and the game mechanics necessary to determine whether a character was affected by a poison, and if so, how severely. The London sourcebook didn’t go into any great detail about poisons, although given the number of deliberate poisonings, we could have discussed the topic a bit in the Crime and Criminals chapter. Popular culture tells us that the Gilded Age was a dangerous one to live in, as poisons abounded and were easily available. But what exactly were the threats the average Londoner faced on a daily basis? What were the odds of being poisoned, either accidentally or deliberately? Pretty bloody high, as it turns out.

Let’s talk about the food supply. Refrigeration was a new thing, based on ammonia as other coolants hadn’t been discovered or implemented yet, so it was stinky and posed a toxic threat all of its own if there was a significant leak, and there often were. Food was often packed in ice for shipment, and getting across town was a shipping issue all of its own, never mind sending cream up from Devon. Would the ice melt before the food got to its destination? Was it sufficient to start with? Could you really trust that bit of fish the man sold you from the cart? Best cook it by supper at any rate, as it certainly won’t keep. The legends about people using spices to cover the flavour of meat that was starting to go over are to some extent true. A good roast was expensive, you certainly couldn’t afford to throw it out just because it smelled a bit off, and probably nobody would get sick from it, or any sicker that they already were from their pushcart lunch and the breakfast from the walk-up bakery.

Bread was everywhere, a much more important staple than nowadays. A penny bun and a penny cup of coffee bought on the way to work and eaten while walking carried half the workforce into office or onto the docks. A slab of a good hearty bread, the kind you can sink your teeth into, spread with butter and if you could afford it a touch of jam, and you were good to go. Bread was so important the government set standards for the size and weight of loaves by price. If you charged eight pence for a loaf of bread, it had bloody well better be a proper quartern loaf, weighing in at 4.33 pounds and made with a quarter stone, or three and a half pounds, of wheat flour. But wheat, even after the repeal of the Corn Laws and the flood of cheap foreign grain into Britain, was pricey, and the margins on bread are so slim. What could a baker do to improve that margin? Alum, sawdust, chalk, so many different things you could drop a little of into the dough to extend it. Bread made with a bit of alum has a whiter crumb and is heavier, partly due to water retention and partly due to the fact that alum, a compound of aluminium now used primarily in detergents, is more dense than wheat. In a coarsemeal bread, sawdust might go unnoticed. People certainly make jokes about wholemeal bread nowadays involving speculation on sawdust content. In the 1880s, you could be pretty much guaranteed there was cellulose filler, obtained way cheaper than flour as an industrial by-product, and again holding water during the baking process and weighing more than wheat to begin with. Chalk gave the bread a whiter crumb and a nice crispy crust, as did plaster of paris.

Avoiding the bread for fear of what might be in it? Maybe not such a bad idea, depending on where you could shop for it. Oh, but don’t think they stopped at the bread. Oh no. Colorants, extenders, things to hide spoilage, the modern day didn’t invent the idea of food additives. Oh my, no, the Victorians came up with all sorts of ideas to make the produce more visually appealing, the meat salable for another day. We mentioned cream earlier. Devon sent milk to London as well, by the railcar full, whether in whacking great reusable cans in the earlier days, or in glass-lined tank cars closer to the end of the century. A drop or two of boracic acid in a gallon and that sour taste and smell are gone. Sometimes this was done by the distributor, but oft the housekeeper or cook or lady of the house would do it herself, “freshening” the milk the way we now “freshen” the air by spraying chemicals into it to cover the offensive odour. Borax can cause abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea — does that sound like our old friend cholera? Or the symptoms of arsenic? Worse, though, bovine tuberculosis grows happily in an acidic environment. One cow with BTB and the entire day’s distribution from all the farms in the region could be contaminated. Spinal deformities and organ damage follow, and over the century, it’s estimated a half million children died from BTB in the milk, with far more surviving in horrific condition. Pasteurization ended that, thankfully, although it was 1947 before the first U.S. state law required it, and 1973 before the U.S. Federal government required milk being shipped across state lines to be pasteurized. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to find out when pasteurization became required by law in the U.K.

And then there’s arsenic. It was in everything. Medicinal soap, used to clean bedding when lice and bedbugs got in, or used as a facial wash for a paler complexion. Pallor might be a better term here. You could send your child down to the high street chemist for five pence worth of arsenic powder and nobody would bat an eye. The stuff came in cardboard boxes that looked an awful lot like the ones baking soda came in. Tragedies ensued. Carbolic acid, a widely used disinfectant, came in a bottle easily mistaken for something comestible. You’d think that sharp, medicinal odour people associate with doctor’s offices and pharmacies (yes, the smell has lingered for over a century) would be sufficient a warning, but after living in a city where the coal smoke mixed with the fog and made a brown haze so thick you couldn’t see to the middle of the street some days, sometimes people’s sense of smell wasn’t up to the task. If Mary Ann Cotten wasn’t slipping you arsenic in your tea, the possibility of adding it to the scones yourself on accident was pretty high. Wasn’t until 1902 than Parliament finally made a law that said you had to package the poisons in ways that were clearly different from what the food came in. Well, that august body has never been renowned for alacrity.

So yes, the options for poisoning were wide and varied. Accidental or deliberate, well, when the baker is chucking alum into the bread dough they’ve got to know it’s bad for people don’t they? Can’t really call it accidental when you come down sick from bread that’s got an extender in it, can you? There were cases, yes, where food adulterers got fined and sent to prison, but it was so widespread. When Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1904, practices in the meat packing industry were still so grossly unsanitary that the novel’s revelations led to the Meat Inspection Act. Even today, do you really know what’s in your food? Was that chicken shipped from the US to China for slaughter and then shipped back? Did the refrigeration work properly in the cargo hold or the shipping container? Do you store your household cleaners above or below your sink, and are they in childproof containers?

Are you really any safer than your character?

Tally Ho!