Victoria King discovers the history of the infamous element.
WHEN ARSENIC BECAME the poison of choice
for murder-mystery writers, it already had an interesting past.
Arsenic minerals were known to fourth-century Greeks, but arsenic
alone was not. Albert the Great (c.1206-80), the famed theologian,
philosopher and scientist, is credited with arsenic's discovery.
It was identified as an element in the mid-1600s.
and Old Lace
was one of many mystery works that employed arsenic
as its poison of choice.
Arsenic was used in a compound called Paris Green developed
around 1775 by Carl Scheele, which was used as a pigment in
paints, wallpaper and fabrics. Throughout the 1800s, there were
reports of people becoming ill from living in houses decorated
with the poisonous wallpaper, however, Paris Green was not recognized
as a health hazard until the end of the century.
When Napoleon died in 1821, his doctors recorded the official
cause of death as stomach cancer. Although trace amounts of
arsenic were found in Napoleon's hair, the amount could have
been absorbed naturally and not intentionally administered.
Napoleon could have absorbed arsenic through eating a seafood
meal, as it appears naturally in sea water and in sea dwellers.
Towards the end of Napoleon's life, he spent increasing amounts
of time indoors, where his home was decorated with Paris Green
In the 1830s, British chemist James Marsh developed a method
for arsenic detection that was so sensitive it could detect
the residue of fruit spray containing arsenic on food and in
stomach contents. Marsh was the first to use arsenic detection
in a jury trial. However, arsenic was often untraceable as the
liver metabolizes it into naturally occurring chemicals. Arsenic
lingers in urine, nails and hair.
Arsenic was an ingredient in Victorian fly papers. When soaked
in water, it would combine with the water to create a deadly
liquid that was easily disguisable in beverages and food. Arsenic
was also popular due to its easy availability in rat poison
and insecticides. Some even called it "inheritance powder".
Poisoning was a common subject in newspapers in the 1800s, and
arsenic-poisoning cases seemed almost fashionable. One of the
well-known cases was the trial of Madeleine Smith for the murder
of her lover, Emile L'Angelier. Smith was from a well-to-do
family in Glasgow, where she met L'Angelier in 1855. Smith began
an affair with L'Angelier against her parents' wishes. When
Smith became engaged to her parents' choice, she ended her relationship
with L'Angelier. Smith requested her letters back and asked
for his silence. L'Angelier, learning of her engagement, refused
and threatened to show the letters to her father.
It is believed Smith agreed to meet with L'Angelier several
times over the following month. On three occasions during that
period, Smith bought arsenic. She signed the Poison Book (a
register of purchased poison) and told the clerk she wished
to kill rats. On 23 March 1857, L'Angelier died. Over the previous
month he had suffered stomach pains and his death was attributed
to arsenic. Smith's letters were found and she was arrested.
She did not deny the letters were hers or that she had been
L'Angelier's lover, but denied poisoning him.
Smith was placed on trial and was not allowed to plead her case
according to the law at that time. In her statement she claimed
the arsenic had been for her complexion as it was known for
making eyes bright and causing skin to exfoliate.
The jury returned the verdict of "not proven". This verdict
signified Smith was not found innocent, but the prosecution
had not made a strong enough case to convict. Smith was free,
but the stigma followed her.
In the 1890s, medical authorities in Italy were concerned about
the unexplained deaths of over a thousand children. A chemist,
E. Gosio, was consulted. Gosio did not examine the children,
but the rooms where the deaths occurred. He discovered the deaths
had two common factors: Paris Green wallpaper in the rooms and
a presence of mildew. The children, being shorter and playing
on the floor, inhaled the heavy arsine, the byproduct of arsenic
and dampness. The removal of Paris Green from wallpaper prevented
Up to the 1940s, arsenic was successfully used to treat syphilis;
it was a key ingredient in a compound named Salvarsan. It has
also been given to leprosy victims and sufferers of yaws (a
contagious tropical skin disease).
Arsenic probably reached its greatest popularity in the golden
age of murder-mysteries. When not in the hands of writers, arsenic
is used today to remove color from glass, as a growth promoter
for livestock, as a metal alloy and as a preservative in taxidermy.
This article originally appeared in our October/November