Arsenic poisoning.

 

In the early part of the reign of Queen Victoria murder by arsenic poisoning was epidemic in England.

 

White arsenic or arsenic trioxide (As2O3) is a metallic oxide that was widely used in the 19th century as a pesticide to kill vermin and insects and also as a herbicide, tonic and as a component in medicines, agriculture as a dip for sheep, and wallpaper.  It was very cheap, freely available up to 1851 (see below) odourless, soluble in water and largely tasteless.

 

When taken in food the symptoms produced included vomiting, diarrhoea and severe stomach cramps which were not at all dissimilar to English Cholera and gastro-enteritis.  Cholera epidemics were not uncommon at this time with major outbreaks in 1831/2, 1848/9, 1853/4 and 1866 which killed in total some 140,000 people.
When taken in small quantities arsenic is not lethal but its effects are cumulative, i.e. it builds up in the body.  In large quantities it is lethal although not quick, death usually taking several hours.  Where death occurred and there were no obvious suspicious circumstances doctors often certified the cause as Cholera and did not order an autopsy.  Thus arsenic became the “weapon of choice” particularly among women who for two old pence (1p) could obtain enough of the substance to get rid of unwanted children, husbands and other relatives and often get away with it.  It is impossible to know how many cases of arsenic poisoning went undetected.

 

Up to 1836 there was no reliable means of detecting arsenic.  In this year James Marsh who was a chemist at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich published a paper giving a detailed methodology for testing for traces of arsenic and for measuring the actual quantity found.  He had been involved with the case of James Boodle in 1832 and Boodle was acquitted due to lack of good forensic evidence, although he later admitted poisoning his grandfather’s coffee.  There had been previous test methods, the earliest invented in 1775 by Carl Scheele and others devised by Johann Metzger, Valentin Rose and Samuel Harnemann, but these were not ideal.  The Marsh Test soon became the standard forensic procedure and samples of food, drink, stomach contents and tissue were examined using it.  The process was very sensitive and could detect as little as a fiftieth of a milligram of the substance.

 

In 1841 a German chemist named Hugo Reinsch published a description of a second method whereby metallic arsenic was deposited on copper foil from hydrochloric acid solution. The test was easier to perform than Marsh's, since it could be applied to a liquid containing organic matter.

 

Expertise at carrying out these tests built up in the newly opened teaching hospitals and there were soon a number of expert witnesses available to prosecutors.  As often seems to be the case detection was more of a deterrent than punishment and the instances of arsenic poisoning began to diminish.

 

In the decade from 1843 to 1852, 22 women were hanged in England and Wales.  17 of these were arsenic poisoners as detailed below.  As you can see several of these women were serial killers.

 

Date hanged

Name

Age

Place

Crime for which executed. Other probable victims

06/05/1843

Betty Eccles

38

Liverpool

Murder of her stepson, William.  Two daughters, Alice aged 10 and Nancy aged 6.

05/08/1843

Sarah Dazley

24

Bedford

Murder of her husband  Previous husband and her son.

13/01/1844

Sarah Westwood

42

Stafford

Murder of her husband.  None

02/08/1844

Eliza Joyce

31

Lincoln Castle

Murder of her stepson, William.  Stepdaughter Emma and daughter Ann.

28/12/1844

Mary Gallop

20

Chester

Murder of her father.  None.

11/01/1845

Mary Sheming

51

Ipswich

Murder of her infant grandson.  None

23/04/1845

Sarah Freeman

28

Taunton

Murder of her brother, Charles.  Husband Henry, son James & mother, Mary

17/04/1847

Catherine Foster

18

Bury St Edmunds

Murder of her husband, John.  None.

30/07/1847

Mary Ann Milner

27

Lincoln Castle

Murder of sister in law.  She confessed to poisoning three other relatives.

14/08/1848

Mary May

38

Chelmsford

Murder of her half brother, William Constable.  None proven.

09/08/1849

Mary Ball

31

Coventry

Murder of her husband.  None

21/08/1849

Mary Ann Geering

49

Lewes

Murder of her husband. 2 adult sons.

23/08/1849

Rebecca Smith

44

Devizes

Murder of her infant son.  She confessed to poisoning seven of her children.

13/04/1850

Mary Reeder

20

Cambridge

Murder of sister, Susan Lucas.  None.

25/03/1851

Sarah Chesham

42

Chelmsford

Attempted murder of husband.  Possibly two sons and another child.

19/08/1851

Mary Cage

40

Ipswich

Murder of her husband.  None proven.

10/04/1852

Sarah Ann French

27

Lewes

Murder of her husband.  None.

 

Note : Mary Milner hanged herself on the eve of her execution but is included as no reprieve was forthcoming and all the preparations had been made for her execution.

Including Mary Milner there were 97 executions in England and Wales during the period and thus women represented 22.6% of the total, the highest proportion ever.

 

The activities of “Sally Arsenic” as Sarah Chesham was dubbed by the media together with other female poisoners, finally reached the notice of parliament.  After sustained pressure in the press, the Earl of Carlisle introduced the Sale of Arsenic Regulation Bill in early 1851.  This required the supplier to keep a register showing the name of the person making the purchase, the amount bought and the reason for buying it.  The purchaser had to sign the register.  The seller could only sell to persons they knew or if they didn’t know them to persons accompanied by a witness who could verify their identity and who had also to sign the register.  From now on arsenic had to be coloured for normal sized purchases so that the defence that the poisoner had simply added it to food by mistake could not be used. Uncoloured (white) arsenic could only be bought in commercial amounts, a minimum quantity of 10 lbs being specified. The Bill received the approval of the House of Lords on the day before Sarah Chesham was hanged and was originally to have contained a clause banning women from purchasing the substance although this was later dropped.

 

 

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