Wednesday, 1 June 2011
"Breath of Death."
“A great deal of slow poisoning is going on in
.” Great Britain
Dr William Hinds 1857
In the 1850’s a change came over the nation. Oil lamps, with their brighter light, replaced candles as the main source of household illumination and so walls no longer needed to be pale reflective colours. Dark shades became fashionable and of these, the greatest demand was for Scheele’s Green and Schweinfurt Green. Anyone who considered themselves fashionable, had to have a ‘green room,’ and manufacturers estimated that in 1858 there were an estimated 100 million squares miles of green wallpaper in
alone. Unfortunately, what people failed to realize at the time was that their highly prized wallpaper was coloured with arsenic, and very likely to be poisoning them. Britain
The first hint of trouble was recorded in the Limehouse district of London, in 1862. First one child, then a second, and tragically a third from the same family, died with symptoms similar to diphtheria. However, after an inspection of their home by the Medical Health Officer, he was not convinced and made a special note of the green wallpaper in the children’s bedroom. After tests it became clear that the painful, constricted throats that ailed the children were not due to diphtheria at all, but arsenic found in the Scheele’s green wallpaper decorating their nursery.
A correspondence on the subject of arsenical wallpapers took place in The Times newspaper. One respondent, signing himself ‘A. Sufferer’ wrote that when he told his decorator that he was distributing poison, the man then:
“…denied the possibility of ill resulting and offered to eat a pound of paper.”
The wall paper manufacturers’ had much lose economically, and with a similar attitude to the tobacco manufacturers of the 1960’s, denied the evidence for harm, saying things such as:
“Look, I can rub it [wallpaper] hard, I can lick it [wallpaper] a dozen times with my hand and nothing comes off.”
Their defence was that good quality wallpapers didn’t shed arsenical dust and so could not poison people. It took until the 1890’s for science to show that arsenical vapour (not just solid arsenic) was deadly.
As stories spread people became more suspicious of that their décor was making them ill. When one lady sickened, and her pet cat’s fur fell out, she swapped rooms with her maid and made a full recovery…whilst the maid took sick. To make matters worse, the Victorian remedy for illness was to be confined to a room and avoid cold air. This meant that people suffering with headaches, fatigue, chest complaints and nauseau (all symptoms of arsenical poisoning) were likely to take to their beds in a green bedroom with the windows tight shut against draughts and thus :
“Breath air loaded with the breathe of death.”
It didn’t take long for infamous green wallpaper to appear in fiction…as a murder weapon.