Arsenic and old books

A few days ago I retweeted the following from the Yorkshire Post

Strangely, I was not surprised. The mid Victorian period really was peak arsenic. It was everywhere, in patent medicines such as Fowler’ Solution, and doubtless many others. It featured in murders, most prominently in the Madeleine Smith case, where Madeleine was put on trial for murdering her boyfriend, who was blackmailing her over her remarkably explicit letters describing their sexual encounters.

Madeleine was accused or murdering him by putting arsenic in his cocoa. (I suspect that if it wasn’t for the sexual component the murder of Emile l’Angelier would not have achieved the notoriety it did.)

There was also the case of the arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall who died mysteriously. Hall was treating himself with a patent medicine for a stomach ailment when he died.

His body was exhumed a century after his death and his fingernails sampled for arsenic. It was found that he had a high concentration of arsenic in his body, suggesting that he died of the effects of arsenic poisoning.

We don’t know the patent medicine Hall was using, or if it contained arsenic. Shortly before his death Hall complained that his coffee was too sweet (arsenic reportedly has a sweet taste). Given that he was not well liked by his men there is a lingering suspicion they may have added a little extra arsenic to his diet to help him along.

Arsenic was readily available and, while there were some attempts made to keep records, it was easy to obtain covertly. There are numerous cases of wives in mid-Victorian times poisoning their abusive husbands – in a society without divorce and where men controlled a wife’s assets – it could well be better to be grieving widow than a battered and beaten wife.

© Punch and the Estate of John Tenniel

Arsenic really was everywhere in the nineteenth century, in artist’s paint, in dyes, in wallpaper, in textiles

It’s been suggested that the green arsenic based dye in Napoleon’s wallpaper in St Helena had a part to play in his demise.

William Morris used arsenic based dyes extensively in his wallpaper designs, something that may have inadvertently hastened the end of some of the Victorian middle class. Morris did not believe that his arsenic based wallpapers were toxic and argued that the arsenic based inks gave a better colour, and did not remove the arsenic based inks from his wallpapers until 1880. (It’s one of the happenstances of history that a few years after her trial, Madeleine Smith married George Wardle, William Morris’s workshop manager).

Likewise, arsenic based dyes were used to dye textiles giving dresses and other garments a deep and shimmering green, even if their use may have hastened the wearer’s demise, so it’s not really surprising that arsenic based dyes have turned up in book covers.

In fact, given how common the use of arsenic dyes was in the mid nineteenth century it would be surprising if it didn’t turn up in old books.

The Winterthur Museum in Delaware has been running a project to investigate the use of arsenic in old book bindings, and has produced not only a guide to handling possible arsenical books, but also a list of the books they’ve identified.

Personally, given how common arsenic inks and dyes were, I’d treat any book published before 1900 with suspicion – while the dyes had more or less dropped out of common use by 1880 it’s probably a good idea to give oneself a margin of error, just as one would if handling wallpaper or textiles from the period – it’s safer to assume arsenical than not.

So, that old family bible, botany guide or Walter Scott novel with a green binding should be treated with suspicion – you never know what secrets it could be hiding …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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