|Oxford University Press|
the guardian Sat 20 February 2010
By the time you get just a few pages into this book you will have learned a new word, the oddly compelling "arsenical". It is simply the adjective from "arsenic" but, given that the deadly poison found its way into every aspect of daily life in the 19th century, the Victorians found themselves using it an awful lot. From roughly 1840 to 1900 there was a huge panic that the entire nation was being snuffed out by a virtually odourless, tasteless powder whose demure looks meant that it could easily be mistaken for (or passed off as) sugar or flour. But it wasn't just swallowing the stuff that was fatal. Arsenic was also used in the new bright dyes, saturating everything from wallpaper to clothing, giving off a toxic bloom which could fell a whole family in a matter of weeks. In the 1860s there was even a particularly worrying moment when it appeared that people were being killed by their arsenical cardigans.
James C Whorton has written a lovely book, a near-perfect blend of rigorous scholarship and jaunty storytelling. At its centre is a set of properly melodramatic case histories in which a series of devilish women try to do away with disappointing husbands or faithless lovers by slipping them a carefully counted dose of arsenic. Too few grains and the victim would simply have a funny turn from which he soon bounced back, ready to annoy/bore/beat you with renewed vigour. Too many grains and his writhing death agonies would alert the authorities, who would insist on doing an autopsy. What you wanted, really, was to play a long game. Start him off with a few grains, which would build a convincing picture of a man in digestive decline. Then, when everyone had got used to the idea of him as a fading flower, bump him off with a final dose and marshal your body language to play the grieving widow, friend or neighbour.
Given how easy it all sounds, it's amazing how often things went wrong. Poisoners got careless, impatient or lazy, and before too long found themselves facing a show trial, complete with media frenzy. Whorton makes the very good point that, while sex remained difficult for Victorians to talk about publicly, murder was another matter. Much of the hoo-hah that surrounded the trials of adulterous poisoners was actually a way of thinking about sex, while ostensibly talking about nothing more saucy than element number 33 in the periodic table.
Just as often, though, it was an itch for money rather than romantic fulfilment that made women reach for the arsenic. There was, for instance, Mary Ann Cotton, a handsome Sunday school teacher in County Durham who managed to use the poisonous powder to get rid of her mother, three husbands, a lodger who was unlucky enough to double as her fiancé, and most of her 15 children and step-children. In each case death was diagnosed as some form of gastric complaint, and in nearly every case Cotton was the beneficiary of an insurance policy. The fact that the authorities, not to mention family members, were so slow to catch on bears witness to the high levels of mortality in coal-mining communities. So all praise to the fourth Mr Cotton, who realised that there might be something funny afoot when, having refused to get his life insured, he found himself unceremoniously dumped.
This was the sensational side of the arsenical century. More harrowing, in many ways, was the growing awareness that most deaths were unintentional and therefore avoidable. Kept in many homes as a rat poison, the powder could easily get incorporated into the family dinner by a hasty housewife or a cook who had not learnt to read. Shepherds' wives were particularly vulnerable, thanks to the way that arsenic from the sheep dip transferred itself into the kitchen through poorly rinsed buckets and hands. And even when arsenic was given a different colour by being mixed with other materials in commercial products, it could still be mistaken for food by the particularly greedy or short-sighted. Hammond's Rat Cake Poison so closely resembled "common brown cakes" that a schoolboy died after taking one from a friend's jacket pocket.
Perhaps most sinister of all, though, was the way that arsenic insinuated itself into the very fabric of the Victorian home. The poison was used in the production of green dyes, which were incorporated into everything from ribbons to playing cards. The scene was set for a neo-Websterian tragedy in which beautiful maidens and society bucks crumpled to their deaths following a gift of haberdashery or quick game of whist. Even more fateful was the craze for deep green wallpaper, which led to thousands of families meeting their deaths as a result of their taste in home furnishings. Not that they actually licked their walls: the dye was very unstable, so the slightest breeze could dislodge a puff of toxic dust. Queen Victoria herself was so appalled by the homicidal tendencies of green wallpaper that she ordered every room in Buckingham Palace to be stripped of the stuff.
After going on for far too long, the extended crisis sputtered to a halt. New procedures were designed to test for arsenic and laws were put in place to contain its sale and distribution. By the time you get to the end of Whorton's brilliantly informative and entertaining book, you may feel just a little bit giddy from all the genuinely new things you have learned. You will, though, be very grateful to be living at a moment in history when, no matter how chilling the environmental threats that surround you, you no longer have to worry that your arsenical gloves are trying to kill you.
Kathryn Hughes's The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton is published by Harper Perennial.