MURDER BY POISON
The rise and fall of arsenic.
By Joan Acocella
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.
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.
Until the twentieth century, doctors had no idea how to treat arsenic poisoning. They tried just about everything. Mostly, they fed patients milk, vinegar, linseed, sugar water, egg whites—you name it—in order to induce vomiting. They also used that old standby: bleeding, whether by incision or, more often, with leeches. A famous doctor of the period recommended putting twelve to fifteen leeches on the belly at the place where the patient said the pain was worst. If the pain moved to a new spot, the leeches should be pried off and repositioned accordingly.
Beyond treatment, there was another, more fundamental mystery: doctors usually didn’t know whether the condition they were dealing with was arsenic poisoning. The tests for the presence of arsenic sound almost comical. A favorite was to throw a sample of the victim’s stomach contents into the fireplace. If, as it burned, it smelled like garlic, the corpse was thought to contain arsenic. But that was assuming that the doctor had a sample of the stomach contents. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Hempel writes, most medical men “would have regarded tasks such as scraping flakes of dry vomit from a sickroom floor as being beyond their professional remit.” They began collecting such evidence. Soon some diagnosticians acquired better material. At the beginning of the century, postmortems were rare. It was considered irreligious to interfere with a dead body. (For corpses to dissect, medical schools often depended on grave robbers.) Now autopsies became more common; doctors could get samples of the victim’s stomach contents. But they still lacked dependable methods for analyzing them. Often, they just resorted to the garlic-smell test.
The first person to come up with a reliable chemical test for arsenic poisoning was an obscure but determined chemist named James Marsh. His procedure, as Hempel explains it, involved feeding sulfuric acid and zinc through an apparatus that combined tubes, rods, stopcocks, nozzles, and a great deal more. Marsh presented his invention in 1836, and won a big prize for it. (With modifications, it was used for a hundred and fifty years.) Arsenic was now traceable in the body. For that reason—and because the enactment of divorce laws made domestic homicide less tempting—arsenic poisoning fell into disuse.
George Bodle was a rich man, worth two million pounds—more than three million dollars—today. Still, the coffee grounds had to be boiled three times. (And, until the beans were ground, they were kept locked up.) Hempel is good on the pinched quality of the Bodles’ lives and their lack of feeling for one another. After George’s death, fittingly, no one in the family was willing to pay for an investigation of the circumstances. Apparently, they weren’t curious.
With the severity in Hempel’s portrait comes a large measure of sheer disgustingness. When officials in France exhumed a body for arsenic analysis, they “gave up on their lifting equipment and sent instead for a large spoon.” In an 1847 trial involving the alleged murder of two little boys, the toxicologist showed the jury two stomachs, one that looked normal and another in “a soft, pulpy, cheese-like condition.” Nor do we reach the end of this book without knowing the color and the consistency of an arsenic victim’s feces.
Melodrama also plays a large role in “The Inheritor’s Powder.” Hempel is fond of foreshadowing, but cliffhangers are her special joy. Just as the freshly poisoned Bodles are staggering around the house, she switches gears and begins a discussion of the history of toxicology. Only about forty pages later do we find out that George died and the others survived. Why the digression? Because, I think, Hempel was worried that her book would be unexciting, or too short.
“I don’t really know how to tell you this, sweetheart, so I’m just going to come right out and say it: Your goldfish ran away.”
It must be said that some of her digressions are more interesting than her main story. This is true, for example, of the 1840 case of Marie Lafarge, which seems to have been the most popular arsenic-poisoning story in nineteenth-century Europe. The defendant was a twenty-four-year-old Frenchwoman, an aristocrat and an orphan, who had been forced by her relatives into marriage with a certain Charles Lafarge. Lafarge had presented himself as a wealthy manufacturer and the owner of a château, but it turned out that he was bankrupt and the château was infested with rats and a frightening mother-in-law. Furthermore, according to a contemporary account in the Times, Lafarge’s attentions to Marie “were paid in a manner that shocked her refinement.” A few months into the marriage, Charles began having spells of vomiting and diarrhea. (This seems to have been a case of gradual poisoning.) In time, he died, whereupon his family cried foul. At the resulting trial, the raven-haired Marie at first excited great sympathy. Her lawyer, Hempel says, made sure that the jury knew of “the excellence of her piano-playing, her delightful voice, her competence in more than one science, her reading and translation of Goethe, her fluency in several languages and composing of Italian verse.” She also had a flair for drama. When it was reported in court that a group of doctors had found no evidence of arsenic in the corpse, Marie responded, Hempel writes, by “clasping her hands, raising her eyes to heaven, and then fainting and having to be carried out of the court, while her lawyer sat weeping.” Other experts, however, believed that arsenic was present. About a year into the trial, the renowned toxicologist Mathieu Orfila was called upon to examine Lafarge’s remains. A “suitably dramatic storm burst over the town and in a darkened courtroom, lit fitfully by lightning,” Orfila announced that, according to the Marsh test, the body contained arsenic. By then, Marie’s hair was streaked with gray and she had to be carried in and out of courtroom on a sofa. She was found guilty and sentenced to hard labor for life.
Compared with Marie, the Bodles, in Hempel’s telling, are a dull bunch, and after a while, partly because of the digressions, you stop trying to figure out who killed George. So why didn’t Hempel choose a sexier case, like Marie’s? I think the reason is that, whatever her taste for fitful lightning, she was trying to write a serious book. The Lafarges were just too camp. Besides, they were not English, and Hempel’s book is about nineteenth-century England. Finally, l’affaire Lafarge, together with most other poisoning cases of the period, may have been inadequately documented outside the sensationalist press. Hempel is careful to use respectable sources. The Bodles appear in parish records, tax registers, trial transcripts, and the like, and, as Hempel’s endnotes show, she relied heavily on such material. That may be why the Bodles are boring.
In dealing with the arsenic fad, Hempel is writing about public health, and the appropriate story to compare with her arsenic book is not another tale of murder but another tale of public health—for example, her preceding (and first) book, “The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump: John Snow and the Mystery of Cholera” (2007). Here, as is not the case with “The Inheritor’s Powder,” the medical threat was an emergency. There were four major cholera outbreaks in England between 1831 and 1866, causing many thousands of deaths. Furthermore, cholera is more interesting sociologically. Because it has to do with sanitation, it is more common among the poor, and what you learn from this book about the life of poor people in mid-nineteenth-century London—the orphanages filled with children vomiting on the sheets, whole families living in rooms eight feet by ten feet, the drinking water “a cloudy brew of slime, industrial effluent, and the recycled waste of people’s bowels”—you will not soon forget.
Almost every respected medical professional in England at that time was certain that cholera was due to miasma: air polluted by emanations from dung, rotting flesh, etc. The person who exploded this theory was a doctor named John Snow. By tracing a specific outbreak, in Soho, Snow proved that the disease was due not to polluted air but to polluted drinking water—a matter much more solvable than the rather mystic miasma. Reforms were instituted, and by the end of the century cholera was more or less gone from England.
Detecting arsenic poisoning, however useful, is a small matter compared with eliminating cholera. Also, “The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump” has depth and poignance, especially in its portrait of Dr. Snow. He was a quiet-living man—a bachelor, a vegetarian—from a poor family, and he was generally disregarded by London’s medical élite. He died of a stroke at forty-five, without ever guessing that he would later be known by many as the father of epidemiology. By contrast, much of what Hempel tells us about James Marsh has to do with his widow’s efforts to obtain an adequate pension.
You can say this, though: “The Inheritor’s Powder” is a nice, nasty murder story, and thus part of an honored English tradition. Many nations contributed to the genre of the murder mystery, but it is rightly considered an English specialty. Hempel may have had Agatha Christie, the author of sixty-six detective novels, in the back of her mind when she chose to describe the Bodle poisonings. Christie’s preferred method of homicide was poison, and arsenic was one of her favorites. In any case, George Orwell most certainly had been thinking of Christie’s murderers, with their understandable motivations (love or money), when, in 1946, he wrote his essay “The Decline of the English Murder,” deploring what he saw as the new, casual style of murder: drivers killing hitchhikers whom they had picked up and not thinking much about it afterward.
The Bodle case is recognizably pre-decline. I won’t tell you who the culprit was, but the motive was time-honored—money—and the trial was an enjoyably disgraceful spectacle, with accusations of theft and fornication, and worse, flying back and forth. Unlike the cool-tempered crimes that Orwell complained about, this story still delivers the old shock: that someone actually plotted and accomplished the death of another human being. Even if we forget about the moral problem, what about the risk? Plus, George Bodle’s murderer poisoned five people in order to kill only one, and succeeded. That’s something.