A is for Arsenic

A peek into the devilishly deadly world of Victorians and arsenic

When you think of Victorians and arsenic you probably think of black widows bumping off their latest husband, embittered servants taking revenge on brutish masters and in general, murder most foul. It’s gorgeously Gothic and macabre… but sadly it’s only like 10% of the truth.

Now don’t get me wrong, the Victorians loved them some arsenic and it did tend to be the murderer about towns choice of poison BUT it wasn’t deliberate poisoning that made up the vast amount of arsenic deaths. It was accidental poisoning.

And most of these accidents were thanks to a little something called Scheele’s Green.

Carl Wilhelm Scheele
Carl Wilhelm Scheele – this guy…

In 1775 Carl Wilhelm Scheele made history, when he created a brand new shade of green. Vibrant and bold, it verged between emerald and the kind of effervescent green that you only see in the freshest flowers. Quite simply it was stunning and it soon became an international obsession.

And we know what happens when a colour suddenly pops off, its EVERYWHERE. Much like Millennial Pink in 2016, in the mid Victorian era you couldn’t move for Scheele’s Green. It was on clothing, accessories, furniture and even in sweets! But the makeup of Scheele’s Green made it very different (in an exceptionally deadly way) from your average fad colour.

Grab your goggles because here comes the sciencey bit.

You see, Scheele’s Green wasn’t made by water soluble agents like most other dyes. Instead it was a chemical compound made by combining sodium carbonate, arsenic and copper. It was this unique mix of arsenic and copper that really made Scheele’s green pop and gave it its unparalleled bright hue. However there was a downside to this formula – it made Scheele’s Green lethal.

But with little to no regulations on arsenic in products, Scheele’s Green was flying off the shelves. And it wasn’t long until the bodies started racking up.

Whipping up a batch of good old fashioned death!
Whipping up a batch of good old fashioned death!

Living with death

In 1862 children in London’s Limehouse area started to die. At first the deaths were put down to diphtheria, but pretty soon the doctors were arguing over whether this disease truly was the culprit.

You see each of the children had sore throats and breathing issues prior to their deaths, but bar that had shown none of the other major signs of the disease. There had been no thick coating of the throat, no mass swelling or ulcers, basically none of the things that normally accompany diphtheria. Not to mention that this disease was known to wipe out areas on mass for a reason and yet, after four children died there were no more fatalities.

Public health officer and chemist, Henry Letheny was bought in to play the role of Sherlock Holmes. He quickly discovered the cause – the wallpaper.

The children’s room had recently been redecorated with (you guessed it!) brand new Scheele’s Green wallpaper which after examination was shown to hold a whopping 3 grams of arsenic per square foot.

In case you’re wondering, it can take just 0.148 grams of arsenic to kill an adult. Oh but, don’t worry it gets worse…

The lethal Limehouse wallpaper actually held a relatively tiny amount of arsenic compared to others on the market. With some wallpapers later reported to have held on average 20 grams of arsenic per square foot and 70 grams in extreme cases.

And this wallpaper was everywhere. By 1858 it was estimated a million miles of deadly arsenic wallpaper had been produced and were now hanging in homes all around England.

William Morris
‘Darling this wallpaper is so stunning my heart appears to be bursting in sheer excitement!’ – example of William Morris Scheele’s Green wallpaper

It was a true epidemic, but (perhaps unsurprisingly, depending on how optimistic you are) the people churning out this death printed paper didn’t care.

The most notorious of these is perhaps celebrated designer:

William Morris.

William designed some of the most popular interiors, prints and textiles of the age. He was also a notorious socialist idealist, pushing for his industry to not only respect the environment but to ensure workers were looked after. And he did a sterling job looking after the environment, his workers and consumers by popping arsenic into his products.

Coincidentally William’s Dad owned mining company, Devon Great Consols, which was the worlds largest arsenic producer. Funny that…

In fact, it was with the money from the family arsenic mining business that William set up his design company. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that in 1885 William when asked about the (now proven) dangerous health ramifications of arsenic, he said:

‘As to the arsenic scare, a greater folly is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were being bitten by witch fever.’

Sadly it wasn’t witch fever, but arsenic poising. The workers at Devon Great Consols frequently died from it. And yet William happily exposed his own workers to the stuff.

And they were far from alone. All over the country workers making arsenic laced furnishings were being exposed to highly dangerous levels of the poison. Every. Single. Day.

And then there were the poor souls whose health was being torn apart everyday all in the name of couture.

The Arsenic Waltz, Punch 1863
OK fine…maybe it;s deadly but it’s so fabulous! – The Arsenic Waltz, Punch 1863

Fashionably dead

Of course, the highly fashionable hue was all over the most fabulously dressed. At the time it was estimated that one ball gown made using Scheele’s Green would carry an estimated 900 grams of arsenic.

Naturally, those modelling a Scheele’s Green look saw some pretty horrid side effects! After a night out you might peel off your gown to find a rash or maybe an oozing sore. Not great, and yet it still wasn’t enough to make people stop buying Scheele’s Green.

You see these women had the dress lining not to mention layers of petticoats and crinolines separating their skin from the real damage arsenic can rage. So although there were physical side effects, these were very much the equivalent of a modern day bra welt or blisters from breaking in new heels – just the price of looking good, right?

But what about the women who were making these looks?

One of the things that made making Scheele’s Green clothes and accessories so dangerous was the techniques often used.

Say you were making something small, like a flower crown (yes Victorian ladies loved this look too, sorry Coachella!) then you’d literally press the pigment into the fabric. That’s a ton of arsenic getting right up into all those crevices in your hands (which you’ll then use for everything from eating, peeing and picking at your face) that’s not to mention all those arsenic particles you’re unknowingly breathing in.

Imagine churning out countless crowns just like this.

In 1861, a 19 year old flower maker called Matilda Scheurer started convulsing and vomiting green liquid. The whites of her eyes turned green and so did her fingernails. She had arsenic poisoning.

Matilda went on to die a slow and very painful death. She wasn’t the only one. French physician, Ange-Gabriel-Maxime Vernois, wrote that after visiting a fake flower factory in Paris (similar to the one Matilda worked in) that the daily contact with arsenic wrought havoc on the bodies of the workers, with the arsenic literally eating away at their flesh.

1859 examples of damage caused by green arsenic, from Wellcome Collection
I mean it’s a strong look – 1859 examples of damage caused by green arsenic, from Wellcome Collection

So with all this deadly buffoonery going on, why wasn’t arsenic just straight up outlawed?

Well there were two key  reasons:

1. Not everyone was dying – remember arsenic products were everywhere! And yet, the entire country weren’t just dropping like flies. So it was easy for those selling the arsenic laced goods to put the cases where people did die to already existing ill health.

2. The science wasn’t concrete – although it was understood how ingesting arsenic was deadly (why murderers used it!) It wasn’t crystal clear how arsenic being used in manufacturing was lethal. Yes, there were the physical symptoms exhibited by workers and extremely strong indicators of deaths caused by arsenic products, but there was no clear scientific explanation as to why! In fact it wasn’t until 1933 scientists came up with a theory for the deaths (gosio gas created by the arsenic in damp conditions) and even this theory is pretty patchy!

So In 1870 people were working to ban products they reckoned might have fatal consequences. And let’s be real, whilst these products were bringing in that sweet cash, ‘reckoning’ was pretty useless (just look at America’s vaping crisis for an example)

But there would be an end to arsenic’s hay day! Not from the government, but through the people.

With word spreading that these products were dangerous, many newspapers started taking a stand against them. Then in 1879, Queen Victoria made headlines when she stripped Buckingham Palace of arsenic products after a visiting dignitary complained of feeling sick when near them.

If it wasn’t good enough for old Vic, it wasn’t good enough for anyone!

The people had spoken with their wallets and arsenic manufacturing soon fell out of favour.

We won’t ever know the true body count caused by Scheele’s Green (though myth says Napoleon was among the number!) but it’s doubtless countless people fell victim. Either paying with their health or lives.

Remember, it’s not easy bring green. Because it will literally kill you.

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