Wednesday 25 April 2012

DEATH IN THE POT - Poison in Victorian Britain.

In this week's post about poison in Victorian Britain, we look at the hidden dangers in food. We start with the chilling tale of the sweet-shop owner, Joseph Neal, and his peppermint drops.

Punch parody of sweet making in Victorian Britain.

One Monday in October, 1858, Mr Neal sent his assistant to buy a quantity of plaster of Paris from the druggist. The reason? It was much cheaper than sugar and could be used as 'daft' or an inexpensive substitute to bulk up sweets. The assistant called on the chemist, who sent his apprentice to the cellar, where he weighed out twelve pounds of daft. Unfortunately, the new assistant measured out and mistakenly sold him the wrong white powder - arsenic. This deadly poison was taken back to the sweet shop where it was incorporated into peppermint drops - which killed twelve people and made over a hundred seriously ill.
Victorian Bradford - where Joseph Neal had his sweet shop.
But how did the chemist's apprentice get confused? The poison was labelled "Arsenic" but on the base of barrel. Also, the 'Sale of Arsenic Act' required the poison to be coloured before leaving the shop, but took no account of tubs of arsenic in storerooms waiting to be dispensed.
Peppermint creams.
The nub of the peppermint problem was substituting ingredients to increase profit, but this was nothing new. (A medieval test for sugar in beer was to sit a man in leather breeches on a stool covered in beer. When the ale dried, if the man stuck to the seat, the brewer was guilty of adulteration.) More seriously, it was not unusual to brighten sweets with the addition of red lead glaze, or copper to tinned pickles.
It was said that merchants were so driven by money that:

"the possible sacrifice of even a fellow creature's life is a secondary consideration."

In the 1820's the German chemist, Friedrich Accum took on a person crusade to stop food adulteration, the practice being so widespread:
"There is death in the pot."
Even bread and cheese commonly contained adulterants.

Even before Accum, in the 1790's an article in The Tatler warns about a:

"Fraternity of chemical operators, who work undergrounds…hidden from view…transmuting base ingredients [sub standard wine]…into the choicest products of the hills and valleys of France."

They did this by adding alum (to brighten colour) gypsum (to remove cloudiness) and sugar of lead (to counteract acidity). Not only that, but they often used bottles bought from pedlars who in turn had bought them from druggists who had previously used them to store arsenic!

Interestingly, one victim of adulterated wine was Francis Blandy (see Part One), when he partook of tainted wine in the Red Lion, Henley. His two drinking companions died; whilst he survived (He was later poisoned by his daughter who thought she was giving him 'forgiveness powder.')

And finally.
You would have expected the Victorian parliament to bring in rigorous laws, prohibiting the use of food adulteration - but not a bit of it! On the one side a public outcry led to an anti-adulteration bill being put before the House of Commons in 1857, but it was voted down, as was a similar bill in 1859. Oratory denounced the legislation as interference, that it:

"Treated the people of this country like children"

In other words, people could make their own decisions about what they bought and if might harm them - much like fast food today?

"Soon government would have such power as even to lay down the proportion of water a man might put in his grog."

Echoes of rebellion against the modern 'Nanny' state?
Additives? What additives?

Wednesday 18 April 2012

DEATH CLUB - Poison In Victorian Britain.

In the early 19th century, the rise of the insurance industry gave murderers a new motivation - a quick profit! At the time it was said of life insurance that although it gave peace of mind, it also provided a path to easy wealth; "by insuring a life and destroying it."
For those Victorian's with a mind to 'get rich quick', poison was the perfect tool since many of the victim's symptoms could be passed off a natural disease. Added to that arsenic, strychnine and other toxins easily available, for use as rat bait and the like, and could be bought from the local chemist.  The Victorians became paranoid about poison because of a deadly combination of ease of purchase, poor regulation and newspapers reporting on murder trials.

Arsenic was widely available as rat bait.

"To take heed against poison [was now] one of the waking thoughts common to all."
Journalist writing in 1850.

Whilst the upper classes took out life insurance, the lower classes joined 'Death Clubs' to avoid the disgrace of a pauper's funeral. Run by Friendly Societies (where tradesmen paid in a weekly amount, in return for financial support if they couldn't work), the idea behind a Death Club was to contribute to a fund that paid out on death, to cover funeral costs.

The average cost of a funeral was one to two pounds, and some Manchester clubs paid out four or even five pounds. Because of the tidy profit to be made by disposing of an unwanted spouse, parent or child, the membership lists soon became known as "The catalogue of the doomed," and amongst the women who inhabited the Manchester tenements there was a saying:

"Aye, that child will not live, it is in the burial club." 

Some poor children were enrolled in multiple clubs, so that when each of which paid out on death, the parents reaped twenty pounds or more. A clergyman's wife visiting a bereaved mother to comfort her for the loss of a daughter, was shocked to overhear a neighbour saying:

"A fine thing [for the mother] as the child's in two clubs."

Later in the Victorian era Death Clubs were widely regarded as: 'the prolific mother of arsenical murders" and in response to the problem, in 1850 Parliament enacted a statue prohibiting the insuring of children under 10 for more than three pounds.

Mary Ann Cotton - or "The Black Widow Poisoner."

An example of such fearful ruthlessness was Mary Ann Cotton, a candidate for the title of being the most prolific serial killer prior to Doctor Harold Shipman in the 1990's. Cotton, a woman of 'comely' appearance and a former Sunday school teacher used arsenic to murder her mother, three husbands, fifteen children and step-children, and a lodger. In each case the cause of death was 'gastric complaints' and Mary benefited from insurance payments. It took twelve years for people to become suspicious, for Mary to be put on trial and sentenced to death.

The yard at Durham Prison where Mary was executed.

But finally, what really unsettled the Victorian's was that the killer, Mary, was female. Poisoning was a cowardly, secretive, skulking act and that a female murderer was convicted only confirmed a growing male suspicion that women were sinister, deceitful beings in an almost hysterical way.

"It is the softer sex who are everywhere addicted to this propensity.[to poison]"

The ultimate rat killer!

Next week: Sweet Temptation - the hidden danger of poisoned sweets.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

ACCIDENTAL MURDER - Poison in Victorian Britain.

Part ONE - A Story of Agony.

"Murder…by poison is the most dreadful, as it takes a man unguarded and gives him no opportunity to defend himself"
Counsel for the Crown in the Mary Blandy case. 1752

Welcome to a new series of blog posts about poison in Victorian Britain. Murder by poisoning was an obsession with the Victorians - whilst ignoring the poison surrounding them in their homes; from the rat bait that could be mistaken for flour, to the pigment in wallpaper. Over the next few weeks we will look at the poisoner's art, accidental poisonings, dangers in the home and at work, and how physicians poisoned their patients.

The Case of Mary Blandy.

The root of the Victorian horror of poisoning can be found a hundred years earlier, in the case of Mary Blandy.
In childhood Mary was disfigured by smallpox, but with a dowry of 10,000 pounds she had hopes of marriage. However, none of her suitors met the stringent standards set by her father, Francis Blandy. Then along came Captain William Cranstoun, who although a short, pock-marked, clumsy man, had the advantage of being a scion of Scottish aristocracy and his suit was welcomed by Mr Blandy.
Mary and William became engaged, but then disaster! Francis Blandy found out his prospective son-in-law was already married. Captain Cranstoun left in disgrace, but unknown to Mr Blandy, kept up a correspondence with the infatuated Mary.

Cranstoun wrote to the besotted woman, enclosing a 'powder of forgiveness' to put into her father's tea. Apparently, with this potion, her father's objection to them being together would vanish and all would be well. She did as instructed on numerous occasions, even doubling the dose when it seemed to have little effect and then Mr Blandy grew ill, suffering terribly:

"A fireball in his stomach" and "one of the effects being that the teeth dropping out of his head, whole from their sockets."

Servants noticed a strange white residue at the bottom of his tea cup and called a physician, who concluded the powder was arsenic. When the father was informed his daughter was likely poisoning him, he replied:

"Poor love-sick girl! What will not a woman do for the man she loves!"

Francis died 14 August 1751, but he had exaggerated his wealth and his daughter's dowry was a fraction of the 10,000 pounds he advertised. So who knows if Cranstoun would have resorted to a capital offence so such a lesser amount?

Mary was arrested and imprisoned at Oxford, and her story dominated the newspapers, and a play written about her story. "The Fair Parricide, A Tragedy in Three Acts."

We will never know whether Mary had been duped or a willing accessory to murdering her father - but she was hung on 6 April 1752.

On news of Mary's arrest Cranstoun fled to France and evaded punishment. However, nine months later he became ill, the symptoms not unlike those of poisoning:

"Such torments…such great agonies as to make him wish for death some days before he died."
Mary's ghost is said to walk the grounds of Park Place, Henley-On-Thams.

The poison used by Mary Blandy was arsenic. The poison can be absorbed through the skin, gut or mucous membranes such as the vagina or rectum. In the 18th century one servant, who failed to kill his mistress with arsenic laced soup, succeeded by adding it to her enema liquid!

Indeed, a 16th Century German farmer is attributed with murdering three wives by inserting an arsenic coated finger into their vaginas after coition.

So if arsenic had been around for a long time, why did the Victorian's fear of it reach near hysterical proportions? Find out next week!
Easter Lilies are poisonous to cats and cause kidney failure.

Next week: Death Clubs.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

The Great Seducers- Forewarned is Forearmed!

            In this, the last post on 'The Great Seducers' I look at the other side of the coin - their victims! Just as the seducers can be categorised, so can the people they prey on. So here goes - if you're not a master seducer, then caste your eye over the following list and see where you are most vulnerable to their attentions.

The Reformed Pleasure Seeker.
In their younger years they were happy go lucky but the day came when they decided to settle down to marriage and a family. But from time to time this leaves a lingering sense of resentment or loss, when they think of recapturing those lost pleasures an elicit relationship…

The Disillusioned Dreamer.
As children they were loners, immersing themselves in books and films. They dreamed of romantic heroes and as they grew older, became disillusioned by the pettiness of everyday life. They learn to compromise but deep down, still hunger for something grander and more romantic.

The Pampered Princess.
The classic spoilt child whose every whim was met by their adoring parents. As adults when their parents are no longer available, they tend to get bored and restless. They seek pleasure and move from job to job, looking for fulfilment. What they really want is a person who will spoil them and give them what they crave.

The New-Age Prude.
The prude is concerned about appearances, about political correctness, fairness and tastefulness. Deep down they are excited by transgressive pleasures and as an over correction, run in the opposite direction. They are judgemental and addicted to routine …and attracted to those they feel need reforming, making them vulnerable to those who confide in them and seem open to redemption.

The Neglected Star.
At one point in their life the crushed star was the centre of attention; perhaps an athlete or a high achiever, but that time passed. To cope they tamp down their desires, but attention makes them glow, and someone who makes them the feel special is powerful indeed.

The Intellectual.
The intellectual debates and analyses the simplest thing, and are actually trapped in a mental prison of their own making. Unconsciously they long to have their reason overwhelmed by someone who is purely physical.

The Ageing Beauty.
She constantly worries about her fading looks, and so pretends she doesn’t value beauty. Her weakness is some one who worships her looks, but crucially, also celebrates her intellect and humour.

The Roué
They often appear cynical and jaded, having led lives of pleasure fuelled by money and position. Their weakness is the young and seemingly innocent, qualities they begin to covet in themselves.

The Drifter.
They have an inner emptiness, searching the world for a cause to satisfy them. They are vulnerable to someone who seems worthy of follower, who represents a noble cause or high ideals.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. From your observations of human nature…what others can you suggest?