In the late 1600s the men of Naples and Palermo were afraid of their women. A woman called Toffana sold a compound called Acqua Toffana. It contained arsenic and her customers used it to poison husbands and fathers, or any unwanted man.  Toffana must have had many customers because it has been estimated that over 600 men were killed, including two Popes.  She operated undetected for several decades.  A substantial number of women must have known of her existence and passed her name and address amongst themselves.  The men eventually realized what was happening, but what could they do?   Which loving smile might conceal a murderous heart? Which gentle hand might prepare a fatal cup? Should they fear their wife, a daughter or a female servant?

Arsenic could be administered to kill swiftly, or provide a lingering death that could easily pass for an  illness. It was difficult to detect.  How could they protect themselves?

This story is from Whorton, J.C., 2010. The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play, OUP Oxford.

Professor Whorton’s book is very well written and provides a comprehensive history of arsenic in Victorian Britain.  I like to think I have some knowledge of history, but I knew very little of this story.  Almost every page provided a surprise.

In Victorian Britain arsenic was everywhere. It was cheap and easy to buy. It was used in foods, farming and industry.  It was in the hands of poisoners, and, often undetected,  in the bodies of their victims. Food adulterers used it by mistake and killed dozens. It was in sheep dip, and killed or tormented farm workers.  It was in Scheele’s Green, a vivid colouring used everywhere. So much so that green eventually became associated with death. It was in wallpapers [hence the story about Napoleon being killed by green wallpaper in his house on St Helena], in clothing and in cosmetics.

Women used it to improve their complexions, and men to increase their virility.

Some parents treated their children like a cash crop. They insured the children, and then killed them with arsenic.

When it didn’t kill it could cause hideous suffering.  Arsenic dust from industrial processes collected on the skin of workers, especially in skin folds.  If they did not wash frequently and very thoroughly they could find their genitals covered in agonizing suppurating sores, or even lose all the skin from their scrotum.

Parliament was remarkable reluctant to regulate the sales and use of arsenic.  Apparently, politicians felt that it would somehow be an infringement of people’s liberties to prevent them from being poisoned. The regulation of arsenic was seen as an affront to the laissez faire principles of the time. It was better than a few people should die or suffer than government should interfere with commerce. America agreed, but other European countries took a different view.

The attitude that private profit is more important than public good is still evident in Britain.  If it was not for EU regulation UK companies would still be free to use whatever hazardous chemicals they wished in their products.

It seems strange to us that the Victorians failed to act to regulate something that was so obviously dangerous. It will seem even stranger to future generations that, until recently, manufacturers of pesticides and industrial chemicals could introduce whatever chemicals they wished to the environment. It was then up to the injured to prove what had caused them harm, rather than the producers having to prove a chemical was safe before they could use it. That is still the situation in the USA [article].

The 20th century had plenty of poisonous equivalents of the Victorian’s arsenic. Lead in petrol did enormous harm before being banned. Remember DDT and ‘Silent Spring’. Studies have estimated that over 50,000 Americans and 40,000 Europeans are killed each year by air pollution. We do not seem to have changed much.

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