Working in France in 1903, Augustin Cabanès and Lucien Nass declared, “De toutes les armes que le génie de l’homme a inventées pour nuire à son semblable, le poison est la plus lâche; l’empoisonneur est le plus méprisable des criminels” (1). Although these authors were trying to describe the opinion of poisons in France, they equally well could have been describing the opinion of poisons in Great Britain at the same time. In both countries, popular opinion seems to have insisted that only cowards used poison and that in such instances poison was typically used as an agent for murder. Yet this sentiment, even if widely held, belies the true nature of poisonings at this time. In actuality, most people who died from poisonings could seldom be classiﬁed as having been murdered, but rather were more likely to have met their fate either accidentally or deliberately at their own hands.
Careful examination of coroner reports from nineteenth-century England and Wales reveals that, to a statistically signiﬁcant degree, the majority of poison- related deaths during this time period were not murders. Instead, they were either accidental or suicidal. A close reading of Parliamentary testimonies and evidence shows that although the government may have been aware of this problem, they were unable to devise a suitable remedy. Finally, a survey of popular press articles and literature concerning poisonings demonstrates that despite the circulation of such data, poisons were still considered to be exclusively in the domain of the criminal.
In 1839, the House of Commons issued a summary describing all poison-related deaths in England and Wales that occurred during the years 1837 and 1838, as reported by county and borough coroners and determined by the verdict of a jury (2). This document provides many clues as to how and why people came to die from being poisoned. During this period, a total of 555 people were known to be killed by some form of poison. Out of the 445 of these cases for which an immediate cause of death is available, 194 entailed accidental poisonings, 242 involved suicide; only nine concerned murder victims. Murders only account for roughly 2% of all known poison-related deaths. Certainly, these data show that the great majority of those poisoned did not die at the hands of a criminal.
It is important to note, however, that all of these statistics are based on the returns of coroner inquests. These numbers necessarily omit cases where foul play was not suspected or detected even if someone had been legitimately murdered. Although they do not provide an absolute index of murders, suicides, and accidents, they do allow for us to appreciate contemporary data. Even if it cannot be ascertained to what extent the public did not trust these statistics, or realized their fallibility, coroner reports are still useful indicators and provide for this rudimentary statistical analysis. Moreover, these coroner reports provide an opportunity to appreciate better the nature of these poisonings.
Richard Dolby’s death represents a typical suicide case. Dolby, a ﬁfty-year-old man from Leicester, ingested white arsenic on 20 August 1837 and the coroner’s inquest returned a verdict of lunacy (2). Lunacy, ﬁts of insanity, temporary derangement, and other forms of unsound states of mind were perhaps the most common verdicts for suicide cases. Occasionally, the cause of mental derangement was also known, as in the case of Elizabeth Bosworth, a thirty-one-year old woman from the County of York, who poisoned herself with arsenic on 24 March 1838. The coroner concluded, “Deceased unmarried, and in a family way; the arsenic bought and taken by herself during temporary insanity” (2). We ﬁnd many other instances of social pressures driving people to poison themselves.
Humphrey Harper, for example, a twenty-eight- year-old man from Manchester, poisoned himself with prussic acid in a ﬁt of insanity “arising from pecuniary wants and disappointment” (2). Jane Jackson is another example. Jackson, a forty-ﬁve-year-old woman also from Manchester, poisoned herself with arsenic because of “want of employment” (2). The number of such cases seems to be endless. Mary Schulen, for example, a sixty-six-year-old woman from the Borough of Ipswich, poisoned herself with laudanum while in a state of “excessive despondency and impaired reason” brought on by the death of her so. (2).
Nonetheless, cases of inexplicable temporary derangement remain. Joseph Hilton, a forty-six-year- old man from the County of York, poisoned himself with prussic acid two days before Christmas 1838. George Dyson, the coroner who investigated Hilton’s death, declared, “Taken at the Halifax Inﬁrmary. Deceased intimate with the porter, and occasionally assisting him. The deceased was an odd fellow” (2). Jesse Barr, who was of “flighty habits,” is another example of someone poisoning him or herself for no apparent reason (2). Nonetheless, a sizable portion of these suicide cases were classiﬁed as felonies, which would have required the deceased to have been of sound mind.
Previous to 1870, English law required that the estates of felonious suicides, or felos-de-se, be forfeited to the state and thus the law automatically disinherited any surviving kin and nulliﬁed wills (3). Prior to 1823, the corpses of those found to be felos-de-se were not even buried in traditional cemeteries and were impaled through the heart before burial to prevent ghosts (3). Often, deaths falling into this category were simply listed as “felo-de-se” without explanation. Sporadically, we ﬁnd enough details to flesh out a case. George Harrison, for example, a seventeen-year-old male from the Liberty of St. Peter’s, poisoned himself with corrosive sublimate on 26 September 1837 because he “had been guilty of some trifling misconduct, and for fear of punishment took the poison voluntarily. Felo-de-se” (2). The situation of Jane Curry also typiﬁes these cases. Curry, a twenty- three-year old woman from Westminster, poisoned herself with arsenic because she was “in the greatest want, with no prospect of improvement” (2). Similarly, Elizabeth Wilson poisoned herself with vitriol since “she thought God had forsaken her” and Michael Brunskill, a medical student, poisoned himself with prussic acid on account of “too much study” (2). Thus we ﬁnd many instances of seemingly hopeless situations leading to premeditated suicides.
Reflecting on 1837, J.B. Grindon, the coroner for the Borough of Bristol, wrote “The people of Bristol are too busy to think of poisoning themselves” (2). But this statement supposes that all poisonings were deliberate and therefore fails to account for the many accidental poisonings that were common during this period. Most reports of accidental poisoning during this period seem to involve small children ingesting some poisonous substance or an adult mistakenly administering a poison as a medicine. Consider, for example, Alice Langliorne, a two-and-one-half-year old toddler who drank from a saucer containing arsenic intended to kill flies (2). Alice’s death, though tragic, was certainly not unique. Many young children simply swallowed various rat traps or other poisons without an explicit motive. The second class of accidental poisonings was equally common. Many people unknowingly administered a lethal poison with the intent to administer a medicine. The accidental poisoning of Sarah Hainsworth, a one-year-old infant from the County of York, with oil of vitriol which was Image Courtesy of Jacob Goldberg and Lisa Hurowitz mistaken for Godfrey’s Cordial, represents many similar cases of this nature (2).
Murders, if the most rare, perhaps are the most straight-forward of these cases. John Bruce, for example, was poisoned with arsenic “administered by an apprentice, who was tried, convicted, and condemned, upon the clearest of evidence, of the most malicious murder” (2). We ﬁnd that in the early nineteenth century murders by poison were relatively rare. Much more common was an accidental poisoning out of ignorance, or a deliberate, suicidal poisoning as a response to social and emotional pressures. More striking than this imbalance of deaths is the fact that arsenic was implicated in 186 out of the total 555 poison-related deaths during this period; arsenic accounted for more than one-third of all poisonings.
Partially in response to these alarming statistics, Parliament passed “An Act to regulate the Sale of Arsenic” in April 1851, with the justiﬁcation that “the unrestricted sale of Arsenic facilitates the Commission of Crime” (4). Yet the crucial fact to realize is that this act did not attempt to reduce the number of accidental poisonings or suicides, but rather attempted to limit the number of murders committed with arsenic. But as we have already seen, the real threat of arsenic to the general population was not as a murder agent, but rather as a commonly available poison. Although this act, with the intention of facilitating detection of murderers, provided for a ledger to be kept of all those who purchased arsenic and required that all arsenic sales under ten pounds be colored with soot or indigo to make arsenic harder to disguise in food or water, it had very little impact on accidental or suicidal poisonings. A registry of those who had purchased arsenic would not prevent a child from accidentally ingesting the substance and certainly would not prevent a grown adult from committing suicide. Likewise, the added coloring would do little to prevent a suicide since the perpetrator was already likely to know the identity of the poison. Thus, it is not surprising that this act had little impact on the state of poisonings in the nineteenth century.
Perhaps sensing that the Arsenic Act was not a success, the House of Lords initiated a Select Committee to reexamine the sale of poisons in the summer of 1857. The result of this committee was “A Bill Intituled An Act to restrict and regulate the Sale of Poisons,” which was to go into effect on 31 December 1858 (5). This bill, however, did not pass until 1860 but, more importantly, it was not Parliament’s ﬁrst attempt to limit the availability of poisons. A “Bill for Establishing Regulations for the Sale of Poisonous Drugs, and for better preventing the Mischiefs arising from the inattention or neglect of Persons vending the same,” introduced on 17 May 1819, would have required a “Poison” label to be placed on a variety of compounds, including arsenic and oxalic acid, before being sold (6). This bill, speciﬁcally acknowledged the fact that “dangerous and fatal accidents frequently occur, from certain Poisonous Drugs and Medicines being mistaken and sold for those of a useful and harmless quality” (6). Unfortunately, it did not pass and the Select Committee of 1857 reconsidered many of its same ideas some thirty-eight years later.
The Select Committee interviewed several prominent ﬁgures for whom the proposed legislation would have a direct consequence. The testimonies began with the questioning of Jacob Bell, Thomas Newborn Robert Morson, and George Waugh, representatives from the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (7). These pharmacists stated that they were relatively pleased with the Arsenic Act since it provided a convenient excuse not to sell arsenic to “persons who are not to be trusted” but cautioned that “no act of Parliament will ever prevent the sale of arsenic, or of any poison, to a person who is determined to have it” (7). They continued to object to many of the clauses of the proposed legislation, especially in regards to the provision that poisons be mixed with some form of coloring agent.
The pharmacists explained that not only might the added coloring interfere with the activity of the medicine, but that the added security would be worthless since in principle it is not that difﬁcult to separate the poison from the coloring agent (7). Following this reasoning, George Waugh argued, “If I wished to poison, I should be less likely to be found guilty of criminal poisoning now than I should have been two or three years ago before the Arsenic Act passed, because now, if they do not ﬁnd some black flakes in the crust of the pudding, they will think it is all right” (7). They continued to assert that besides the practical limitations of coloring poisons, such coloring would do little to prevent accidental poisonings. Waugh summarized their argument succinctly: “People would just get acquainted with this black colour, and when it is accidentally the case that there is the white arsenic, it gets mixed with the flour” (7), On two levels the coloring mechanism breaks down. For one, if there is no color, someone might mistakenly assume that there is no poison. For another, eventually the novelty of the coloring scheme will fade. As an alternative, Jacob Bell recommended, “I believe that the labeling of everything with the word ‘poison’ is the best safeguard which could possibly take place” (7).
In the course of these interviews, it became clear that the Arsenic Act was not a success. William Herapath expressed his doubts about the Arsenic Act, explaining that “although the poisoning from arsenic has been lessened, it has had the effect of driving the secret poisoner into other poisons which are harder to detect” and that the total number of poisonings had remained constant (7). Herapath then advised the Committee that “if a measure is introduced it must have three objects in view; ﬁrst, secret poisoning; secondly, suicide; thirdly, chance medley” but that “as to suicide, I think it will be totally impossible, under any circumstances, to prevent it” (7). Similarly, Alfred Swaine Taylor, Professor of Chemistry and medical Jurisprudence at Guy’s Hospital, estimated that “there was not one criminal case to above 10 or 12 accidental” in regards to arsenic poisoning, even despite the Arsenic Act (7).
The Committee continued to search for other possibilities for controlling access to poisons with other pharmacists, chemists, doctors, and other professionals concerned with poisons. To these ends, Frederick Crace Calvert of the Sanitary Association of Manchester suggested adding carbo-azotic acid to all poisons to prevent them from being ingested, arguing that because of its intense bitterness and difﬁculty to remove from a mixture, it would be hard to be accidentally or intentionally poisoned, and also that because of its propensity to act as “a kind of self-detector” by turning human skin yellow even if taken in small quantities, it would act as a warning system for those who were being poisoned slowly (7). This proposal was never adopted.
Thus, taking all this evidence into consideration, Parliament passed the Sale of Poisons Act, as described above. Briefly, this bill would have repealed the Arsenic Act, broadened the deﬁnition of poison to include more substances, expanded the requirements for the poison sale registry, required all poisons to be labeled as such, provided for the continued coloring of arsenic, and limited those who were allowed to vend poisons to medical professionals and pharmaceutical chemists who were accordingly licensed (5). But other than making poisons slightly more difﬁcult to obtain, this act did not signiﬁcantly ameliorate the situation. Those wishing to kill themselves would already be aware that the substances that they were using were poisonous and the labeled poison bottles would not prevent the poison from being transferred to another unlabeled container. Thus it is not surprising that in 1863 “A Bill for the Prevention of accidental Poisoning” was introduced (8). This bill, which also never passed, would have required that all poisons be stored in special hexagonal bottles prominently labeled with the word “Poison” and printed directions for use. This bill was one of the last major attempts of the century to legislate against poisonings.
By the end of the century, it seems that Parliament had given up hope of solving the poison problem directly, but instead had begun to look at more subtle poisoning prevention, namely by trying to limit unintentional chronic poisonings. For example, an 1883 report on poisons “presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty” explained, “The attention of Her Majesty’s Government has been directed by the National Health Society to the injurious effects arising from the use of arsenical and other poisonous pigments in the tinting of wall-papers and various textile fabrics for industrial and decorative purposes” and presented correspondence regarding pertinent legislation on the Continent (9). Here, we begin to see a change in the nature of regulations; instead of trying to limit an individual’s direct access to poisons, Parliament now recognized environmental poisons as being equally dangerous.
Even so, the same problems remained. A census of English and Welsh coroners conducted for the years 1887-1891 showed that 375 people (182 males, 103 females) died from ingesting carbolic acid (10). Of these, 138 resulted from an accidental poisoning and 236 involved a suicide. During this period, there was only one murder with carbolic acid, which might not be surprising given the ready availability of more efﬁcient poisons. Thus we ﬁnd that little changed during the course of the century in regard to poisonings; accidents and suicides dominated all other cases.
But if indeed Parliament realized that most people who died from ingesting poisons did not do so at the hands of a murderer, a statistic that remained relatively constant throughout the century, popular opinion did not. The popular press is laden with examples of sensationalism surrounding murder trials concerning poisons. We can illustrate this phenomenon by examining several articles from The Penny Illustrated Paper.
In 1871, The Penny Illustrated described “A Most Extraordinary Poisoning Case” in which packages of poisoned food were sent to many people in Brighton with the message “A few home-made cakes for the children; those done up are flavoured on purpose for yourself to enjoy. You will guess who this is from; I can’t mystify you, I fear” (11). The author of the article then gave many details to the size and description of the packages and warned that recently a quantity of strychnine had been obtained with forged documents (11). In 1872 The Paper described the “remarkable murder” perpetrated by a twenty-one-year old woman who apparently poisoned her husband’s previous wife with arsenic in order to be able to marry him (12). In 1873, a family was poisoned with arsenical butter and meat at breakfast (13). In 1888, there was the “Camberley Poisoning case” in which “Henry Bowles was tried for the wilful [sic] murder of his wife and illegitimate son by poisoning them” (14). There are many more examples along these lines. Murder by poison was big news; however, suicide by poison does not seem to have the same interest.
Period toxicology texts reinforced this notion by describing the tremendous advances made in forensic science in being able to detect poisons, particularly in cases of murder. Alexander Wynter Blyth reported that in England and Wales between 1883 and 1892, 6,616 people died from ingesting poisons (3,790 accidents, 2,784 suicides, and 42 murders) and explained that in a given year there were only nineteen poisons that accounted for more than one suicide (15). He speculated that “the higher the mental development of a nation, the more likely its homicides are to be caused by subtle poison—its suicides by the euthanasia of chloral, morphine or hemlock” and that “the greater the development of commercial industries…the more likely are accidents from poisons to occur” and in his book, Poisons: Their Effects and Detection, he placed a special emphasis on the chemistry of obscure poisons and criminal law (15).
Yet in addition to these examples, Victorian literature is full of murders by poison. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most convenient example. Holmes is expressly interested in criminal business and he explains to Watson, “I have to be careful…for I dabble with poisons a good deal” (16). Doyle propagated the myth that poisons belonged to murders and not to ordinary people. This myth has persisted in various forms to the present day. In a recent scholarly article, Peter Bartrip claims, “Crowther and White are surely correct in their assessment that suicide by poison was rare, homicidal poisoning rarer, and that the main dangers lay in accidental poisoning at home and at work” (17). Clearly, all available data suggest that the number of suicides was roughly equal to the number of accidents. Although Bartrip suggests that “the movement for arsenic regulation was principally concerned with ‘secret poisoning’, probably because ‘the secret and premeditated use of poison had a powerful hold on the public imagination,” he neglects the prominence of both suicides and accidents as the predominant cause of poison-related deaths (17).
While deaths from poison seem to have remained in constant proportion in regards to motive throughout the century, popular opinion steadily held that poisons were for murders. Although Parliament may have realized the true nature of the situation, their legislation was ineffectual and their efforts did little to change popular opinion. Although there are many examples of poison-induced suicide, perhaps the most ﬁtting example comes from a work of ﬁction: “By the crushed phial in the hand and the strong smell of kernels that hung upon the air, Utterson knew he was looking on the body of a self-destroyer” (18). Of course, the body Utterson was looking on was that of Mr. Hyde, the notorious killer who, like so many others, murdered without poison; but, like so many others, chose to take his own life with the contents of a small glass phial.
1. Cabanès A.; Nass, L. Poisons et sortileges; Librairie Plon: Paris, 1903.
2. Return from Coroners of England and Wales, of Inquisitions where Death was caused by Poison, 1837 and 1838; House of Commons. 1839 sess., House of Commons Papers; Accounts and Papers, http:// gateway.proquest.com/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&res_dat=xri: hcpp-us&rft_dat=xri:hcpp:fulltext:1839-018467 (Accessed Nov 12, 2006).
3. Marshall, W. M. Suicide. The Oxford Companion to British History; Cannon, J. Ed.; Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1997.
4. Bill, intituled, Act to regulate Sale of Arsenic; House of Commons. 1851 sess., Bills, http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?url_ ver=Z39.88-2004&res_dat=xri:hcpp-us&rft_dat=xri:hcpp: fulltext:1851-027372 (Accessed Nov 12, 2006).
5. Bill, intituled, Act to restrict and regulate Sale of Poisons; House of Commons. 1857-58 sess., Bills, http://gateway.proquest.com/ openurl?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&res_dat=xri:hcpp-us&rft_dat=xri: hcpp:fulltext:1857-034002 (Accessed Nov 12, 2006).
6. Bill for establishing Regulations for Sale of Poisonous Drugs, and for preventing Mischiefs from Neglect of Vendor; House of Commons. 1819 sess., Bills, http://gateway.proquest.com/ openurl?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&res_dat=xri:hcpp-us&rft_dat=xri: hcpp:fulltext:1819-005865 (Accessed Nov 12, 2006).
7. Granville, G. Select Committee of House of Lords on Sale of Poisons Bill. Report, Proceedings, Minutes of Evidence, Index; House of Commons. 1857 sess. 2, House of Commons Papers; Reports of Committees, http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?url_ ver=Z39.88-2004&res_dat=xri:hcpp-us&rft_dat=xri:hcpp: fulltext:1857-033383 (Accessed Nov 12, 2006).
8. Bill for Prevention of Accidental Poisoning; House of Commons. 1863 sess., Bills, http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?url_ ver=Z39.88-2004&res_dat=xri:hcpp-us&rft_dat=xri:hcpp: fulltext:1863-038972 (Accessed Nov 12, 2006).
9. Correspondence respecting Presence of Arsenic and other Poisonous Pigments in Wall-Papers and Textile Fabrics; House of Commons. 1883 sess., Command Papers; Accounts and Papers, http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&res_ dat=xri:hcpp-us&rft_dat=xri:hcpp:fulltext:1883-059931 (Accessed Nov 12, 2006).
10. Return of Number of Deaths in England and Wales caused by Carbolic Acid, 1887-9; House of Commons. 1893-94 sess., House of Commons Papers; Accounts and Papers, http://gateway.proquest. com/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&res_dat=xri:hcpp-us&rft_ dat=xri:hcpp:fulltext:1893-070815 (Accessed Nov 12, 2006).
11. A Most Extraordinary Poisoning Case. The Penny Illustrated [Online], August 26, 1871, p 3. Collect Britain. http://www. collectbritain.co.uk/collections/pip/ (Accessed Nov 12, 2006).
12. Trial for Poison. The Penny Illustrated [Online], July 20, 1872, p 14. Collect Britain. http://www.collectbritain.co.uk/collections/pip/ (Accessed Nov 12, 2006).
13. A Family Poisoned. The Penny Illustrated [Online], April 5, 1873, p 3. Collect Britain. http://www.collectbritain.co.uk/ collections/pip/ (Accessed Nov 12, 2006).
14. Camberley Poisoning Case. The Penny Illustrated [Online]. 21 January 21, 1888, p 10. Collect Britain. http://www.collectbritain. co.uk/collections/pip/ (Accessed Nov 12, 2006).
15. Blyth, A.W. Poisons; their effects and detection; a manual for the use of analytical chemists and experts, with an introductory essay on the growth of modern toxicology; Charles Grifﬁn: London, 1895.
16. Doyle, A.C. A Study in Scarlet; Hart: New York, 1976.
17. Bartrip, P. A ‘Pennurth of Arsenic for Rat Poison’: The Arsenic Act, 1851 and the Prevention of Secret Poisoning. Medical History, 1992, 36, 57.
18. Stevenson, R.L. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Vintage: New York, 1991.