What’s My Poison? Arsenic and other Methods of Murder.

Poisons, and particularly arsenic feature frequently in Victorian novels.
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What’s My Poison? ‘It is clear that the “favourite” poison with us is arsenic.’

So wrote Charles Dickens in his journal, Household Words, in December 1851. Dickens argues for the enforcement of laws regulating the sale of medicines. Dickens refers to the Sale of Arsenic Bill passed in the last session of Parliament. The Bill stated that arsenic should not be sold unless in the presence of a witness; all sales must be recorded and signed for by the purchaser; no arsenic should be sold without being mixed with soot or indigo. But, says Dickens, the regulations are of no value since ‘nobody attends to them’. To prove his point, he cites a number of grisly cases.

Mrs Barber and her paramour, Ingham, murdered her husband; Mrs Hathaway, landlady of the Fox beerhouse in Chipping Sodbury, murdered by her wastrel husband; Mrs Dearlove, poisoned by her servant girl, Ann Averment; Mr and Mrs Waddington who murdered their daughter for the sake of £7 due from the burial club; Catherine Foster murdered her husband; and Jonathan Balls was thought to have murdered nine members of his family. Arsenic in every one.

Dickens quotes from Dr A.S. Taylor’s work Medical Jurisprudence. Dr Taylor cites ‘no less than 185 cases of poisoning, in England, by arsenic alone’ in the years 1837 – 1838. Dickens speculates that the number must be considerably higher by the time he is writing in 1851.

Dr A.S. Taylor – I knew that name. I had first come across it in Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers. Superintendent Kirk, pondering the death of Noakes, seeks his answer in Taylor’s Medical Jurisprudence ‘that canon of uncanonical practice and back doors to death.’ There’s a metaphor for you – ‘backdoors to death’ – the way into knowledge about the murderer’s cunning methods.

Alfred Swaine Taylor (1806-1880) is called the father of British Forensic Medicine. His speciality was the investigation of poisoning, and he frequently appeared as a witness for the Crown. In 1856, he gave evidence at the inquest on the death of John Parsons Cook, poisoned by the notorious doctor, William Palmer, who is credited with fourteen or fifteen murders, including five of his own children, his brother, his mother-in-law, and his wife. Dickens said that Palmer was ‘the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey Dock.’ Palmer’s choice of poisons for Cook was antimony first then strychnine to finish him off.

Taylor’s works survive. His Elements of Medical Jurisprudence Volume 1 appeared in 1836. The most recent edition of Taylor’s Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence came out in 1984.

Of arsenic, Taylor writes that ‘most of the persons who have been criminally or accidentally destroyed by arsenic have not been aware of any taste in taking the poison.’ No wonder, it was a ‘favourite’ with would-be murderers.

The effects of arsenic poisoning are minutely described in Taylor. Generally, the effects are felt after a time period of half an hour to an hour, though he cites one dramatic case in which the victim showed symptoms in the very act of eating a poisoned cake. Ursula Lofthouse murdered her husband, Robert, by means of the cake which she told him that she had made especially – well, she had, especially to kill him. Then there is the case of the victim who died from eating green blancmange – the cook mistook arsenite of copper for extract of spinach. Arsenite of copper, known as Scheele’s Green, was often used as a food colouring. A liberal dose of the mixture provided a rich emerald green colour to the blancmange. Tempting, I suppose, and a bit more appetising than pale pink or white. But, deadly. The cook was convicted of manslaughter.

A demonstration of arsenic in 1841. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Innocent cake, artless blancmange, even simple loaves of bread have been found, as Dr Taylor observes, to have been contaminated with this ‘noxious compound’. And if you survive your putative murderer’s afternoon tea then beware the interior decoration. Those pleasantly green walls. Wallpaper was often covered with arsenite of copper – look what happened to Napoleon. Paint, too. In 1867 Dickens was staying in an hotel in Glasgow. He wrote to his daughter, Mamie, that he was ‘taken so sick and faint that I had to leave the table’. It turned out that the passage leading to his room was being painted ‘with a most horrible mixture of white lead and arsenic’.

Suppose, however, that as the chronicler of Victorian murder, you wish to eschew the common vulgarity of arsenic. Dr Taylor is at hand to assist. There is sulphuric acid otherwise known as oil of vitriol – deadly, one would suppose, yet it was often added to strengthen gin. Given the amount of gin drunk in Victorian times, one wonders what the death rate was. It certainly explains the real meaning of that gin which was advertised as ‘The Real Knock Me Down’. A drink much favoured by those seeking oblivion – and fast. Vitriol was used in the manufacture of shoe polish – no doubt in the pots of blacking sealed and labelled by Charles Dickens when he laboured at the age of twelve at Warren’s Blacking factory. It was used in the home for cleaning pots and pans and for bleaching stains from laundry.  Vitriol thrown down a privy in Langley Lane, Long Acre, caused the death from ‘foul air’ of one George Cross. Vitriol was used in coining, too. In April, 1857, Henry James Jaggers, alias Thomas, alias Jarvis, committed suicide with oil of vitriol, which he kept for polishing his fake coins. The biter bit, I suppose. A ‘bit-faker’ was a slang term for a coiner.

Not surprisingly, there were many cases of murder or attempted murder involving vitriol. The bottles were not always labelled with the handy warning, ‘Vitriol Poison’ and a convenient skull and crossbones.

The supplement to Household Words, The Household Narrative of Current Events, gives the 1850 story of Louisa Hartley who was indicted for attempting to poison her father with vitriol in his coffee. She was, apparently, a poor simple girl who sobbed in the courtroom, and whose father sounds horrible. Perhaps she didn’t know what she was doing.

Honor Gibbons – Honor, indeed – and Bridget Garrety certainly knew what they were doing. In 1853, they were convicted for the wilful murder of Mary Gibbons, Honor’s daughter. Their motive was to collect the money from the burial club, a kind of insurance scheme for the poor.

Louisa Walborn was indicted for the murder of her baby in 1852. Traces of vitriol were found on the child’s tongue and a sharp-eyed policeman found a bottle of vitriol under a hedge in the lane outside the house which could have been thrown from Louisa’s window. But only ‘could have’. The evidence was not deemed strong enough for conviction.

‘The Brothel Vitriol Case’, 1840, is particularly chilling in the light of crimes that occur today. Elizabeth Cleveland was charged with throwing a quantity of vitriolic acid over a cab driver, George Day, whose face was badly burnt and whose right eyes was completely destroyed. In June 1850, Sarah Smith received a sentence of fifteen years’ transportation for inflicting similar injuries on her estranged common law husband, George Argent. There were many cases of blinding by vitriol throughout the eighteen forties and fifties

Vitriol could be prepared with sand mixed with saltpetre to make aqua fortis – again used in coining. It is essentially a corrosive solution of nitric acid. Both oil of vitriol and aqua fortis may be too easily identified by the hideous and immediate effects. Poisoning by vitriol or sulphuric acid: violent burning pain so severe that the body may be contorted; the skin turns black and the tongue has the appearance of being boiled.  In poisoning by nitric acid there is immediate violent vomiting and gaseous eructations – don’t ask! – and a bright yellow and swollen tongue. A dead giveaway, so to speak.

The case of William Palmer was the first in which the accusation was poisoning by strychnine, though Taylor had not found strychnine in Cook’s organs. However, the symptoms were there. Cook had died of tetanus and strychnine causes tetanic contraction of the muscles. Damning for Palmer was the fact that in his own book on toxology a marginal note in his own hand was found which read ‘Strychnine kills by causing tetanic fixing of the respiratory muscles’. Palmer seems to have been somewhat careless about leaving clues. A witness gave evidence that he purchased six grains of strychnine. Palmer had said that he had wanted to kill a dog. It must have been a large dog – half a grain can lead to death. In any case Palmer didn’t have a dog. I suppose it might have been dead. Batley’s Vermin Powder was widely available, a mixture of strychnine and flour with Prussian Blue added for colour. A sixpenny packet contained three grains – a fatal dose for an adult is from half a grain to two grains, according to Professor Taylor.

In the Palmer case, the witness testified that Palmer had also bought two drachms of prussic acid and two drachms of Batley’s solution of opium – just in case the strychnine didn’t work, perhaps. Mr Batley again. I don’t know if he was the chemist. Mr Batley, into whose shop Mr John Henry Deffell walked one day, masquerading as a doctor wanting to purchase a bottle of hydrocyanic acid. On receiving the bottle, he attempted to swallow the contents. Mr Batley’s assistant wrested it from him. In the struggle, Mr Drefell was splattered with the acid. He died later in a surgeon’s house.

Strychnine leaves no trace in the body, but its symptoms, as in the Palmer case, are very telling. The body remains unusually rigid for a long period of time, the hands clenched, the feet arched, and the facial muscles contracted into an expression named risus sardonicus. The blood is black and liquid and the heart empty – as seems to have been the case with William Palmer, as well as his victim. Wilke Collins uses the poison in his novel, The Fallen Leaves:

‘The fell action of the poison wrung every muscle in her with the torture of convulsion. Her hands were fast clenched; her head was bent back; her body, rigid as a bar of iron, was arched upwards… the staring eyes, the dusky face, the twisted lips, the clenched teeth, were frightful to see.’

Indeed, they are. Collins had read Professor Taylor’s work on strychnine, and out of the dispassionate facts, the novelist makes a tremendously hideous scene.

There was plenty of opium about the Victorian house. Of course, laudanum was widely used for aches and pains, and there are some wonderfully named concoctions to be bought over the counter, especially for fractious children: Godfrey’s Cordial, Dalby’s Carminative, Paregoric Elixir – it is to be noticed how the names disguise the potentially deadly presence of opium, though the grimly named Black Drop ought to have been a warning in itself. Taylor describes a case in which in 1837-1838 twelve children were reported to have been killed by this mixture. Cherry Pectoral sounds quite tasty, a sort of cherryade, but it was a mixture of opium and alcohol and very addictive. And there are plenty of overdoses, suicides and murders by opium in The British Newspaper Archive where I found the information for my opium novel, The Chinese Puzzle.

Perhaps, though, the crime writer should search something equally deadly but more subtle, more secret. There is a section in Taylor entitled: Aloes, Colocynth, Gamboge, Jalap, Scammony – such poetic names.  What about the ironic Hierapicra or Holy Bitters – distinctly unholy, I should think. The intriguing substance colchium comes from the innocently pastoral sounding plant meadow saffron. But don’t be fooled. Its bulbs are deadly. Wine of colchium was prescribed for rheumatism. In one case, the sufferer downed an ounce of the wine and was dead within three days. In another case, the victim took two ounces and was dead within 48 hours. The effects are rather hideous as Dr Taylor explains in copious detail: nausea, violent vomiting, heat and burning pain in the throat, great thirst, cold clammy skin, feeble pulse. Temptingly dramatic, but rather a lengthy process, I feel, leaving a bit too much time for questioning the nearest and dearest – and, first find your meadow saffron.

Of course, poison may not be your preferred means of despatch. Never fear, Dr Taylor’s backdoors are open for access to the murder of your choice. Garrotting, perhaps. Dr Taylor provides:

Arsenic Complexion Wafers

‘The person attacked, if he should recover, is seldom able to identify an assailant – he is rendered immediately senseless and powerless: he can give no alarm, and he can offer no resistance. Recovery or death in such cases depends on the lapse of a few seconds …’

Nice and quick. On the other hand, there is that green blancmange. Poison then – I don’t suppose it will matter to the victim. Decisions, decisions … I did make up my mind. I went for strychnine to poison a particularly deserving villain in my ninth Charles Dickens Investigation, Summons to Murder. I wanted drama, horror, hideous fascination, and I’d read about Thomas Griffiths Wainweight, artist, writer and forger, arrested for forgery in 1837 and transported. But he was suspected of having murdered his uncle from whom he had conveniently inherited a house and property. He invited his mother-in-law and her two daughters to live with him and his wife. He persuaded his mother-in-law, Mrs Abercrombie, to make her will in his wife’s favour. Mrs Abercrombie was dead within days. He insured the life of his sister-in-law, Helen. She died several months later. No proof of murder could be established, but it seems that when in Newgate, Wainewright admitted the murder of Helen Abercrombie because she had ‘very thick ankles.’

Dickens saw him when he visited Newgate with his friend and first biographer, John Forster, the actor, William Macready, and Hablot Browne, the illustrator. It was Macready who recognised Wainewright. Later, Dickens dined with Doctor Locock who had treated Helen Abercrombie. Locock had diagnosed ‘pressure on the brain’. It was when the old family nurse had pointed out the similarity in the sufferings in the victims that suspicion was aroused, and poisoning by strychnine was suspected. However, Wainewright was already in Australia.

Dickens connected to Professor Taylor, to Thomas Wainewright, to Doctor Locock, and to Wilkie Collins – the stars were aligned. Strychnine then, and those dreadful convulsions. Black blood, too.


Jean Briggs is the author of Summons to Murder, part 5 of the Charles Dickens Investigations.

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