Murder By Poison

From The New Yorker:

In early-nineteenth-century England, a good way to get rid of your husband was arsenic. A medical examiner usually couldn’t tell whether the poison was involved, because the symptoms—diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain—are much like those of other disorders. Nor could he necessarily place you at the murder scene. The dying typically took hours. Also, you could administer the poison gradually, a little bit every day. In the mid-century, arsenic poisoning was commonly the resort of women. (In 1851, the House of Lords tried to pass a law forbidding women to buy arsenic.) But unpleasant husbands were not the only people you might want to eliminate. During this period of feverish social mobility, a young person might be waiting impatiently for an inheritance, and there was Uncle Ted, sitting on all that money and meanwhile bossing you around, toying with your hopes. In such cases, male poisoners presumably outnumbered females.

Marie Lafarge

A notorious arsenic case, of 1840, involved an aristocrat named Marie Lafarge.

These problems and their contribution to the role of medicine in the law are the subject of Sandra Hempel’s new book, “The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science” (Norton). Hempel, an English medical journalist, hangs her discussion on a specific case.

One November morning in 1833, George Bodle, seventy-nine years old and the owner of a prosperous farm near the Kentish village of Plumstead, came down to his kitchen for breakfast. The maid prepared the coffee. George drank a half-pint bowl, and a small cup was taken to his wife, upstairs. Then the grounds were reboiled, and three women of the household—two relatives and a maid—got to have some diluted coffee. After that, the charwoman came to the back door, collected the grounds, as she did every morning, and took them to her daughter, Mary, to boil for a third time, so that Mary’s seven children could have a hot drink. (They didn’t have coffee that morning; the eldest daughter thought the brew looked peculiar.) Within minutes, everyone in the Bodle household who had drunk the coffee fell violently ill. Soon afterward, they began to recover, except for George. He died three days later.

From the moment the doctor first examined George, he suspected poisoning. This raised some questions, however. Was the poisoner trying to kill George alone? If so, why did he poison four other people? The motive was more easily guessed at. George was an uningratiating man. His son, known to everyone as Middle John, worked for him as an ordinary laborer, and was treated by him as such. Middle John’s son Young John had also worked in his grandfather’s fields until George fired him. Unbeknownst to the Johns, Samuel Baxter, George’s son-in-law, had just witnessed a new will for George that was very much in Baxter’s favor. Who wouldn’t have wanted to get rid of the old man?

Through much of the nineteenth century, a third of all criminal cases of poisoning involved arsenic. One reason for its popularity was simply its availability. All you had to do was go into a chemist’s shop and say that you needed to kill rats. A child could practically obtain arsenic. The going price for half an ounce was tuppence.

Hempel points to another probable cause, an interesting one: the press. In 1836, right before the poisoning craze peaked, the government decreased the tax on newspapers from fourpence to a penny. This development coincided with another important change: a rapid rise in literacy among the working class. Working-class people liked murder stories. (So, no doubt, did readers of higher rank.)

Consequently, the number of newspapers shot up, as did the sales of any paper willing to report vividly and at length on poisoning cases. Hempel writes, “In 1856, when the Illustrated Times published a special edition on the trial of the ‘Rugeley poisoner,’ Dr. William Palmer—whose victims were said to include his wife and several of his children as well as a gambling friend, John Parsons Cook—circulation was said to have doubled to 400,000.”

The articles probably inspired a few poisonings. Indeed, they more or less provided instructions. To make things more exciting, the papers issued sinister warnings. “If your hands tingle, do you not fancy it is arsenic?,” a writer in the Leader asked. “Your friends and relations all smile kindly upon you: the meal . . . looks correct, but how can you possibly tell there is not arsenic in the curry?”

People accustomed to believe that poisoning was something done by foreigners now saw it at their own front door, and, in some cases, as a product of their own social ills. A trial that riveted the public in 1849 was that of Rebecca Smith, aged forty-three, married to an alcoholic and “suffering great deprivations.” In eighteen years of marriage, she had given birth to eleven children, most of whom, she confessed, she had put to death with arsenic, rubbing it onto her nipples before she nursed them. Her explanation was that she was afraid they “might come to want.” She wouldn’t mind being executed, she said, if it weren’t for her worry that her husband would neglect her one surviving child: her first, a girl, whom, apparently, she couldn’t bear to kill. Rebecca was hanged.

Arsenic is a chemical element that occurs naturally in the earth, and in its raw state it is not harmful. Because it can produce a brilliant green pigment, nineteenth-century manufacturers used it in wallpaper, paints, fabrics, and many other items. It becomes poisonous only when it is converted into arsenic trioxide, popularly known as “white arsenic.” Even white arsenic, however, is benign in low doses. Doctors prescribed it for asthma, typhus, malaria, worms, menstrual cramps, and other disorders. In high doses, though, it causes not just death but a horrible death. Madame Bovary killed herself with arsenic, and Flaubert described the process in detail: the retching, the convulsions, the brown blotches breaking out on the body, the hands plucking at the bedsheets. He is said to have vomited at the dinner table two nights in a row after writing this scene.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker