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The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Playby James C. Whorton
"Arsenic gained its foot-hold in the imagination of 19th-century Britons as the go-to poison for murderers, figuring in many a Victorian potboiler. Though its primary purpose was to control the nation's burgeoning rat population, arsenic — a mining industry byproduct — looked an awful lot like household flour. It killed no more people than cholera or smallpox, yet it was a sensation in the medical reports and penny rags of the time. It turns victims the color of copper, scales their skin, and may cause such sensory overload that they can barely endure the touch of a finger. A single dose of as little as 300 milligrams (a mere hundredth of an ounce) can cause death within 24 hours, but even smaller quantities, repeatedly ingested, prove lethal over days or weeks." Colin Fleming, The Wilson Quarterly (read the entire Wilson Quarterly review)
Synopses & Reviews
Arsenic is rightly infamous as the poison of choice for Victorian murderers. Yet the great majority of fatalities from arsenic in the nineteenth century came not from intentional poisoning, but from accident.
Kept in many homes for the purpose of poisoning rats, the white powder was easily mistaken for sugar or flour and often incorporated into the family dinner. It was also widely present in green dyes, used to tint everything from candles and candies to curtains, wallpaper, and clothing (it was arsenic in old lace that was the danger). Whether at home amidst arsenical curtains and wallpapers, at work manufacturing these products, or at play swirling about the papered, curtained ballroom in arsenical gowns and gloves, no one was beyond the poison's reach.
Drawing on the medical, legal, and popular literature of the time, The Arsenic Century paints a vivid picture of its wide-ranging and insidious presence in Victorian daily life, weaving together the history of its emergence as a nearly inescapable household hazard with the sordid story of its frequent employment as a tool of murder and suicide. And ultimately, as the final chapter suggests, arsenic in Victorian Britain was very much the pilot episode for a series of environmental poisoning dramas that grew ever more common during the twentieth century and still has no end in sight.
About the Author
James C. Whorton is Professor Emeritus of the History of Medicine at the University of Washington, Seattle, and has written numerous articles and books on the history of medicine and health, including Nature Cures: The History of Alternative Medicine in America, also published by Oxford University Press.
Table of Contents
1. 'Such an Instrument of Death and Agony'
2. 'A New Race of Poisoners'
3. A New Breed of Detectives
4. 'The Chief Terror of Poisoners'
5. A Penn'orth of Poison
6. 'Sugared Death'
7. 'The Hue of Death, the Tint of the Grave'
8. Walls of Death
9. Physician-assisted Poisoning
10. 'A Very Wholesome Poison'
11. Poison in the Factory and on the Farm
12. 'Dangers that Lie Wait in the Pint-Pot'
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