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CURRENT ISSUE: Mar. 2007
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History Magazine cover
The 1650s
Victoria L. King examines a decade of civil unrest and enlightenment in Europe.

Birth of the Boardwalk: A Sandy History
Russell Roberts looks at the illustrious beginning of the "walk of boards".

Gutta-Purcha
David A. Norris looks at the plastic of the Victorian Age.

The Battle of Cannae
Nicky Nielsen tells the story of the ancient battle between Hannibal Barcas and his sworn enemy, Rome..

Barter and Trade in Colonial America
Joanne Liu looks at the early history of Colonial America where currency as we know it was scarce.

Chroniclers & Scribes — Medieval Historical Writers
William Stroock chronicles some of the great medieval documents that have survived.

The Pedigree of Platinum
Steve Voynick relates the fascinating history of the "other" precious metal.

Pyramids and the Occult — Fact or Fiction?
Pamela D. Toller chronicles the search for the magical meaningn of the pyramids.

The Early Days of Radio
From the book With Amusement For All: A History Of American Popular Culture Since 1930, author LeRoy Ashby looks at the early programs that made radio so popular.

"The Storm": Killer Hurricane Devastates Galveston, Texas
Joanna Bostwick Backman tells the story of a killer hurricane.

Fire Below! The Devastating Reality of Coal Bunker Fires
Patrick McSherry chronicles the dirty and dangerous history of coal bunker fires and the men that fought them.

The Timeless Appeal of Clocks
Phill Jones chronicles the history of timekeeping and its impact on history.

Lizzie Borden and the Fall River Axe Murders
Daniel M. Hoenig describes the enduring interest in this case of murder most foul.


Arsenic

Victoria King discovers the history of the infamous element.

Arsenic and Old Lace was one of many mystery works that employed arsenic as its poison of choice.

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.

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 wallpaper.

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 further deaths.

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 2001 issue.
 

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