In the depths of the Victorian era, the heyday of arsenic, there were four ways you could get yourself killed by the deadly poison: feloniously, aesthetically, medicinally, and recreationally.
It was the recreational use of arsenic, practiced by a secretive group of men in Austria, that would come to be known as one of the most bizarre and dangerous ways ever devised to get high.
The “perfect murder”
Just about everyone has heard of arsenic, whether as the murder weapon in an Agatha Christie novel or the key plot-point in that play your cousin’s community theater put on last year, Arsenic and Old Lace.
But chances are, you don’t know what it is, precisely.
The most succinct explanation of where arsenic comes from and what it’s supposed to do when it’s not murdering people comes to us courtesy of the historic Cornish mining industry:
“Arsenic is a chemical element which can be found in many minerals, usually combined with metals or sulphur. It was a valuable by-product of tin and copper mining [and] was widely used in a variety of industries … such as glass manufacture (as a decolouriser), in the production of lead-shot, in leather tanning and in wallpaper manufacture (to create green and yellow print).”
All well and good, but it was the toxicity of arsenic that made it a popular domestic staple.
In Victorian London: The Life of a city 1840-1870, Liza Picard records that arsenic was practically ubiquitous as a vermin-killer, used for everything from de-worming horses to exterminating rats to ridding the house of bugs.
Calling it “the most common of all poisons,” Picard notes that arsenic was the murder-weapon-of-choice for unhappy wives and impatient heirs. “Arsenic could be found all over a normal house and stable, and many cases of death by ‘gastric upsets’ may well have been murder by arsenic.”
“Its popularity as a poison was probably due to its availability, inexpensiveness, and lack of taste and odour. It has the appearance of sugar (it is also known as ‘white arsenic’) and does not destroy the appetite,” adds D. M. Jolliffe, via the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine,
As the World Health Organization describes it, arsenic poisoning could mimic any of a host of Victorian maladies. “The immediate symptoms of acute arsenic poisoning include vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea. These are followed by numbness and tingling of the extremities, muscle cramping and death.”
Reflecting on the “perfect murders” of Britannia’s empire days, George Orwell — who incidentally decided to quit his job to become a writer while on vacation in arsenic-ridden Cornwall — opined in his 1946 essay, “Decline of the English Murder”:
“The old domestic poisoning dramas [were a] product of a stable society where the all-prevailing hypocrisy did at least ensure that crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them. … Respectability — the desire to gain a secure position in life, or not to forfeit one’s social position by some scandal such as a divorce — was one of the main reasons for committing murder. In more than half the cases, the object was to get hold of a certain known sum of money such as a legacy or an insurance.”
Writing in The New Yorker, Joan Acocella estimates that “through much of the nineteenth century, a third of all criminal cases of poisoning involved arsenic.”
As the Victorian era wound down, the development of an accurate test for arsenic poisoning made rich uncle assassination a dangerous proposition. “For that reason,” writes Acocella. “And because the enactment of divorce laws made domestic homicide less tempting — arsenic poisoning fell into disuse.”
Those “perfect murders” were relegated to the occasional miniseries on the BBC and the pages of mystery novels.
The aesthetic arsenic victim
In Victorian and Edwardian Fashion: A Photographic Survey, Alison Gernsheim describes one of the most popular chemical dyes of the time: a vivid, emerald green shade created from arsenite of copper. However, she hastens to add, “this was abandoned by Parisians in the early ‘sixties following a report in the Union Médicale of the illness of a young woman who went to a ball in a green dress and was poisoned. A Berlin physician testified that no less than 60 grains of arsenic powdered off from a single dress in the course of an evening’s dancing — enough to kill thirty people if administered in doses.”
And the danger of poisonous dust, according to Gernsheim, wasn’t confined to the swirling skirts of would-be Cinderellas. “In London, an artificial-flower maker succumbed to the effects of working on wreaths coloured with this arsenical dye (which, incidentally, was used for the bright green cloth covers of many Victorian books).”
An example of a bright green cloth-covered book printed in 1875 is pictured here:
This isn’t a photo from Gernsheim’s book or from a museum. I own this book. And I don’t think I want to touch it ever again.
Killed by over-the-counter medicine
Read enough books from or about the Victorian era, and you’ll eventually run across a notorious pair of words: “Fowler’s Solution.”
Though usually presented without comment in same the way a 21st-century writer might reference “Tylenol,” context will lead you to guess that “Fowler’s Solution” is a general-purpose patent medicine of the ineffective snake oil variety.
“Fowler’s Solution” was chock-full of arsenic.
Named for English physician Thomas Fowler, “Fowler’s Solution” was introduced in 1786 as a flavored solution of arsenic trioxide that was used to treat anemia, rheumatism, eczema, asthma, cholera, and syphilis.
“In the nineteenth century arsenicals were ingested, inhaled as vapours, injected intramuscularly and intravenously, and given in enemas. They caused cutaneous capillary dilatation — the fashionable ‘milk and roses’ complexion,” writes Jolliffe.
This highly toxic cure-all and beauty remedy was readily available from local pharmacies.
The Austrian arsenic-eaters
In the back pages of Phantastica: Narcotic and Stimulating Drugs, a 1924 survey of recreational intoxicants from around the globe, German pharmacologist and toxicologist Louis Lewin included a curious entry about arsenic.
“In Germany, Austria, France, and England there are many persons who indulge in the use of arsenic. Sometimes they begin taking the drug out of curiosity, sometimes after having read some book on the subject, or more frequently out of pure imitation. … It may be that arsenic-eaters copied the example of horse-dealers. Already in the sixteenth century these latter employed arsenic in order to feed worn-out horses more easily and to get them into better condition. The results, however, were not of long duration.”
It seems incredible that arsenic — which, as noted earlier, produces vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea — would have been put to such a use by horse breeders. But it was, and eventually the practice crossed the species barrier into a group of men living in Styria, a region located in what is currently the southeast of Austria.
“The Styrian arsenic-eaters generally take the substance every week or fortnight, sometimes every second day or even daily,” wrote Lewin. “They begin with the ‘Hidrach’ dose, which is the size of a millet seed, and gradually increase it to doses the size of a pea.”
The Austrian arsenic-eaters consumed their drug of choice mixed with alcohol, with bacon, or spread on bread. Sometimes their use waxed and waned with the moon. Tellingly, “The consumption of arsenic is kept secret, especially from the female sex.”
According to Lewin, the practice dates back to at least 1750. And he wasn’t the first to record this inexplicable practice.
In 1885, the New York Times ran an article titled “The Arsenic Eaters.” In it, the newspaper described, “Austrian peasants [who] can swallow arsenic to an extent and with an impunity unprecedented in the annals of toxicology. … The arsenic eaters of Styria are all of them robust mountaineers, whose forefathers have eaten arsenic from generation to generation.”
Placing an ominous coda on the tale of the enigmatic, recreationally self-poisoning woodcutters and foresters of Austria, the New York Times states, “No genuine arsenic eater ever ceased to eat arsenic while life lasted. … When a man has once begun to indulge in it he must continue to indulge; for if he ceases, the arsenic in his system poisons him.”
It was a drug habit with no parallel.
According to Lewin (and no other source I’ve been able to dig up), “There are also male and female arsenic-eaters in the south of the United States of America, the so-called Dippers.”
These “Dippers” were said to drink arsenic dissolved in coffee. “It is stated that advanced Dippers are liable to die suddenly from slight causes,” Lewin adds mysteriously.
If there’s one thing I’d like to read someday, it’s the confessions of an Alabama arsenic-eater. I can’t imagine what their story might be.