White Arsenic comes in the form of a white powder which has no taste – this renders it most dangerous. Alfred Swaine Taylor who is called the father of forensic science observes that ‘most of those persons who have been criminally or accidentally destroyed by arsenic have not been aware of any taste in taking the poison.’
Charles Dickens wrote an article about arsenic in his periodical Household Words. ‘It is clear’, he says; ‘that the favourite poison with us is arsenic’. He quotes from Alfred Swaine Taylor: ‘Doctor Taylor cites no less than 185 cases of poisoning by arsenic alone in England in the years 1837 to 1838.’ Dickens is writing in 1851 and he wonders how many more cases have come to light since. It wasn’t until 1851 that the sale of arsenic was regulated. The new law 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. Dickens was very sceptical about the enforcement of these regulations and to prove his point that nobody attended to them he refers to a number of cases.
Mrs Barber and her paramour, Ingham, murdered her husband; Mrs Hathaway, landlady of the Fox beer house in Chipping Sodbury was murdered by her wastrel husband; a Mrs Dearlove – clearly she was not – was murdered by her servant girl, Ann Averment. A Mr and Mrs Waddington murdered their daughter for the sake of £7.00 from the burial club. Sarah Chesham murdered her husband – there was arsenic in every one.
And it wasn’t just the pretext of poisoning rats that made arsenic available so easily. Arsenite of copper was used as a food colouring – it was called Scheele’s Green. In a case which was the subject of a criminal trial, this deadly compound, as Dr Taylor calls it, was proved to have caused the death of a gentleman at a public dinner for arsenite of copper was used to impart a rich green colour to the blanc mange – I suppose one can see why – pink or white blancmange is not very appetising. The cook, incidentally, was convicted of manslaughter.
Murder was done by arsenic in a cake. Dr Taylor quotes the case of Rex V. Lofthouse where a wife, Ursula Lofthouse, murdered her husband, Robert, by means of a cake she said she had made especially – well she had, especially to kill him. The cake was laced with arsenic. Dr Taylor cites the case as an example of one in which the poison acted the victim in the very act of eating.
Arsenic was all over the place – in blancmange, in cakes, in buns, in bread – even on lampshades, and in wallpaper which was often covered in arsenite of copper – look what happened to Napoleon.
It was in paint, too, which brings me back to Dickens. In 1867 he was staying at 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.’