Shirleen Davies

Arsenic Poisoning in the 19th Century

Before you can solve the mystery of who done it, you need to solve the mystery of whether or not someone was murdered. But, when arsenic was the weapon, murder and mayhem were pretty hard to trace.

Cartoon in Punch Magazine.

Detecting arsenic poisoning wasn’t easy in the1800’s. The main symptoms—vomiting and diarrhea—are common ailments caused by many illnesses like food poisoning, dysentery, cholera, and more.

How was arsenic administered?

Usually, when someone used arsenic as poison they put it in the victim’s food or a hot drink. Arsenic is tasteless and odorless, but it’s not that soluble. It has to be dissolved in hot liquids like coffee or tea or disguised in bread, porridge, or other food. When the liquid starts to cool the arsenic will discharge a bit and the victim might see or taste peculiar sandy or gritty particles.

Arsenic Granules

Results of arsenic poisoning.

People typically die within 24 hours of consuming a potent dosage of arsenic but death can come as fast as two hours or as slow as two weeks. Arsenic is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and then deposited throughout the body. The first effects of arsenic occur thirty to sixty minutes after swallowing it—a sharp, burning pain in the stomach and esophagus. That symptom is followed by nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Ulcers may break out all over your skin, leaving scabs and sores wherever your body touched or rubbed against anything with arsenic in it. In addition, hair loss can occur and some people vomit blood. It shuts down internal organs such as the heart, liver, and kidneys. Though it was used for suicide, eventually people realized how torturous it was to die from arsenic. So, in the latter 19th century, opium replaced it as the main poison of choice for suicide.

How arsenic was used for murder.

Arsenic Poisoning

A person’s genetic make-up and overall state of health contribute to the type and length of suffering they’ll endure if poisoned by arsenic. When someone is given arsenic in small dosages, they’ll experience weakness, confusion, and paralysis. However, if they’re given a large, single dose they’ll suffer severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting, often followed by death from shock. With a really high dose, arsenic poisoning can cause multisystem organ failure driven by cell death and hemorrhaging.

Famous and infamous people who suffered arsenic poisoning.

Arsenic was widely available in the 19th century, in bottles of Fowler’s Solution and in dyes for curtains, drapes, and even dresses. It’s no wonder that it’s suspected as the cause of the ailments and deaths of many famous people of the day.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte: Rumors persist that Napoleon was poisoned with arsenic by a member of his retinue. But hair samples from his corpse didn’t show signs of arsenic when tested using modern scientific techniques. Still the rumors persist.

Charles Darwin: He took Fowler’s Solution for a skin condition he had. That tonic was a widely used arsenic-based cure in the 19th century. Darwin recorded the range of ailments he suffered from in his health diary. They fit the symptoms of arsenic poisoning and many believe that Fowler’s Solution was the cause.

Jane Austen: Some believe Austen died from arsenic as the symptoms she wrote of in her letters which began about a year before she died were upset stomach and progressive weakness, tiredness, and discoloration of the skin. So, they do match those caused by arsenic.

Jane Austen



Arsenic products used before results became known.

Accidentally eating arsenic-tainted food was the cause of most 19th century poisonings. A good many people were poisoned from pudding. In 1805, Arsenic-contaminated pudding made a family of nine sick though none of them died. Then, in 1842, there were four reported cases of food-related poisoning. In 1847, five children under the age of 9 and their father were struck down by accidental arsenic-contaminated pudding. Additionally, arsenic had widespread use as rat poison and in 1845, a child died from accidentally eating a paste used for exterminating mice.

Arsenic was used in a broad spectrum of consumer goods including flypaper, cosmetics, candles, fabric dyes, wallpaper, and in medications for everything from asthma, and cancer to reduced libido and skin problems, as well as in the factories that made these products, and in the polluted air.

Green arsenic dye used in 19th century.

Moreover, it was the preferred treatment for syphilis. It was even used as a sexual stimulant that some men took as an aphrodisiac.

In 1814, the Wilhelm Dye and White Lead Company created a new, bright, bold emerald green dye that was far more stunning than any other available at the time. Nineteenth century women loved it. It was around this time that people started using gas light, which was much brighter than candlelight. So, women wanted to wear gowns that stood out when they attended balls and parties in gas lit homes. And the emerald green ones did just that. This jewel green hue was the most popular dye of the time.

But theses arsenic compounds of Scheele’s green and Schweinfurt green weren’t just in ball gowns, this death dye was everywhere. Manufactures also used it in gloves, socks, shoes, carpets, drapes, artificial flower wreaths and more. It could even be found in all types of paper from the kind used to wrap packages to what the kids used in school for art projects. Pretty much anything that was dyed green had arsenic pigment in it.

Babies who played on green carpets are rubbed up against green wallpaper in the nursery got sick and sometimes died. Of course, it affected grownups as well and since it was used in either the drapes, the carpet, the bedspread, or the wallpaper most people were often put to bed from the ill effects in the same room that caused them. 

Arsenic was also fatal to the poor factory workers who made these dyes.

In 1861, Matilda Scheurer worked in a factory where she dyed fake flowers green. Eventually, her work killed her. She threw up green vomit, the whites of her eyes went green, and just before she died, Matilda said that everything she looked at was green.

In the 1830’s arsenic candles became popular but not for long. They looked like wax candles but were so much cheaper to make since they used ingredients other than fat. They also included arsenic so they’d have the right solidity and rigidity. When you lit the candles, the arsenic vaporized, causing anyone in the room with them to get head and stomach aches. The toxicity of the candles was quickly publicized and the factories soon found ways of making candles without arsenic. The candles were the first domestic arsenic product that was recognized as a health threat, so they heralded things to come. 

However, making emerald green dye had become a huge, prosperous industry so the manufactures just ignored all evidence that Scheele’s green and Schweinfurt green compounds were toxic…even deadly.

Arsenic poisoning is an important sub-plot in my latest book, Bay’s Desire, book 9 in the MacLarens of Boundary Mountain Historical Western Romance series. It releases January 29, but is available for preorder now!



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