A Field Guide to Historical Poisons

[From the archives]

The Long Way Home takes place in the court of Louis XIV during the Affair of the Poisons. During this period, many people from all walks of life were employing poison to dispatch with rivals and even family members to improve their fortunes or standing in court. As you can imagine, poison plays a large part in the plot of The Long Way Home. Here are three that are featured in the book along with symptoms so you’ll be first to know if your enemies have dosed your wine.

You know, just in case.

Arsenic (also known as Inheritance Powder)

Arsenic was the most commonly used poison at this time, and was used alone or to add extra toxicity to other lethal concoctions. It was the primary ingredient in Inheritance Powder, so called because of the frequency with which it was against relatives and spouses for the sake of inheritance.

Tasteless as it was potent, arsenic usually went undetected in wine or food, although it was also added to soap and even sprinkled into flowers. It could easily kill someone quickly, but was more commonly distributed over a long period of time to make it appear that the victim was suffering from a long illness. The symptoms begin with headaches, drowsiness, and gastrointestinal problems, and as it develops, worsen into convulsions, muscle cramps, hair loss, organ failure, coma, and death.

Unusually for a poison apart from lead, arsenic has had many other common uses throughout history. It was used as a cosmetic as early as the Elizabethan period. Combined with vinegar and white chalk, it was applied to whiten the complexion as a precursor to the lead-based ceruse popular in later centuries.

Ad for Arsenic Wafers, 1896. Arsenic was a common complexion treatment until the early 20th century.

By the Victorian period, arsenic was taken as a supplement to correct the complexion from within, resulting in blueish, translucent skin. Victorian and Edwardian doctors prescribed it for asthma, typhus, malaria, period pain, syphilis, neuralgia, and as a nonspecific pick-me-up. It was also used in pigments such as Paris Green, Scheele’s Green, and London Purple, all of them extremely toxic when ingested or inhaled. A distinctive yellow-green, Scheele’s Green was a popular dye in the nineteenth century for furnishings, candles, fabric, and even children’s toys, but it gave off a toxic gas. It may have even played a part in Napoleon’s death. While it took nearly a century to discover the dangers of the pigment, it was later put to use as an insecticide.

A Glass of Wine With Caesar Borgia. John Collier, 1893. From left to right: Cesare, Lucrezia, their father, Pope Alexander VI, and a young man with an empty glass. The implication is that the man doesn’t know if it will be poisoned.

Cantharides (also known as Cantarella or Spanish Fly)

Cantarella was a poison that was rumored to have been used by the Borgias (among others). Although it appeared in literature as something that could mimic death, cantarella was probably made from arsenic, like most of the common poisons of the era, or of canthariden powder made from blister beetles, and was highly toxic. Cantharides are now more commonly known as Spanish Fly.

Although it was only rumored to have been used by the Borgias, it was definitely 8fda6-cantharidesassociated with the Medicis. Aqua Toffana, or Aquetta di Napoli, was a potent mixture of both arsenic and cantharides allegedly created by an Italian countess, Giulia Tofana (d. 1659). Colorless and odorless, it was undetectable even in water and as little as four drops could cause death within a few hours. It could also be mixed with lead or belladonna for a little extra f*** you.

In case you’re wondering how one would catch enough blister beetles to do away with one’s enemies, cantharides were surprisingly easy to come across. They were also used as an aphrodisiac. In small quantities, they engorge the genitals, so it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. In larger quantities, however, they raise blisters, cause inflammation, nervous agitation, burning of the mouth, dysphagia, nausea, hematemesis, hematuria, and dysuria.

Oh, and death.

The powder was brownish in color and smelled bad, but mostly went unnoticed with food or wine. More than one character in The Long Way Home has come in contact with it, and it even plays a part in the story.

Ad for Pennyroyal Pills, 1905.

Pennyroyal

Pennyroyal was not often used to intentionally poison anyone, but I’m including it in this guide because of its toxic effects. Usually drunk as tea, is was used as a digestive aid and to cause miscarriage. Is was also used in baths to kill fleas or to treat venomous bites.

Although this is the least toxic of the bunch, the side effects are much more worrying. Taken in any quantity, it may not only result in contraction of the uterus, but also serious damage to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system. It’s a neurotoxin that can cause auditory and visual hallucinations, delirium, unconsciousness, hearing problems, brain damage, and death.

Along with Inheritance Powder and Cantarella, Pennyroyal also appears in The Long Way Home and causes some interesting complications for a few of our characters.

*

All of these poisons were common and easily obtainable in much of Europe during the time this book takes place and as you can see, continued to be commonly used for a variety of purposes until very recently. The use of Inheritance Powder in particular is very well-documented and it played a huge part in the Affair of the Poisons as well as commanding a central position in The Long Way Home.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Bloody, Sexy Murder: Sexual Magic, Missing Evidence, and Jack the Ripper

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Whitechapel, 1888

Theories still abound about the identity of Jack the Ripper, a nineteenth-century serial killer who was never caught. Experts debate endlessly over the victim toll and the actual start/stop dates of the gory murder spree in London’s Whitechapel neighborhood (Odell, 2006). Officially, two prostitutes were murdered on August 31 and September 8, 1888, before two more were “ripped” in the “double event” on September 30. A fifth murder occurred during the early hours of November 9. Some victims were gutted, all had their throats slashed, and some body parts were taken. The spree drew international coverage and a massive police effort.

newsarticleDuring this period, hundreds of letters arrived to police and news outlets purporting to be from the killer (Evans & Skinner, 2001). One nasty note offered the grim moniker, “Jack the Ripper,” although there’s no proof that Red Jack sent any letter. If he (or she or they) did send one, some Ripperologists view the “From Hell” letter as the best candidate.

This mysterious missive arrived shortly after the double event to the head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, enclosed with half of a preserved human kidney that had the appearance of a disorder from which victim #4, Catherine Eddowes, had suffered (and her kidney was missing). The note’s author claimed he’d consumed the rest before taunting, “Catch me when you can” (Evans & Skinner, 2001). Crime historian Donald Rumbelow (2004) discovered that the original note had gone missing from police files, and some experts think it ended up with a private collector.

This note’s potential provenance became the starting point for my fictional murder mystery. I linked it with a Ripper suspect whose background offers plenty of spooky detail.

ripperfromhellletter

The “From Hell” letter

A circle of occult practitioners believed that their crony, Dr. Roslyn “D’Onston” Stephenson, was the Whitechapel killer (Edwards, 2003; Harris, 1987-8; Odell, 2006; O’Donnell, 1928). He was a former military surgeon who knew his way around knives and who’d studied magical practices in France and Africa. His wife had gone missing in 1887, possibly murdered, and he claimed to have killed a female shaman in Africa. He was unmoved by brutality. D’Onston associated with Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical group, adding to his obsession with the occult. Some members said that they never saw him eat and whenever he appeared, he made no sound.

Despite being highly secretive, D’Onston openly shared his ideas about the identity and modus operandi of Jack the Ripper. He named a medical colleague. D’Onston was himself arrested but not detained. He sought out a sponsor to fund a private investigation, but D’Onston’s associates remained convinced that he was the killer. One of them reportedly discovered a box under his bed that held books on magic, along with several stained black ties. D’Onston’s friends thought the ties had been worn during the murders to hide body parts carried away, as blood would not show up on black material.

fourthrippervictimeddowes

The fourth victim

On December 1, 1888, D’Onston published a detailed article about the murders in the Pall Mall Gazette, offering a black magic angle (Edwards, 2003; Harris, 1987). He suggested that the killer had walked around Whitechapel to select specific locations for six murders that would mirror Christian symbolism, in order to pervert it. Sexual energy, released with “sacrifice” of a “harlot,” would tap into psychic energy for demonic ceremonies. Female body parts, he said, were essential, along with such items as strips of skin from a suicide, nails from a gallows, and the head of a black cat fed on human flesh for forty days.

“Yet, though the price is awful, horrible, unutterable,” he wrote, “the power is real!”

Intrigued with D’Onston’s description, surveyor Ivor Edwards (2003) measured the distances between murder sites and found them strikingly consistent. He mapped out two equilateral triangles and added an elliptical arc to form the Vesica Piscis, the almond-shaped intersection of two circles, a vaginal symbol. This aligned with D’Onston’s notions about erotic energy and his belief that triangles had supernatural power.

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Whitechapel’s London Hospital

In addition, throughout the spree, D’Onston had been a self-committed patient in Whitechapel’s London Hospital for a fatigue disorder (easily malingered). What a perfect hiding place! He could easily have eluded police after each murder. Although most Ripperologists dismiss D’Onston as a viable suspect (Dimolianis, 2001), Odell admits that “Edwards’ idea of murder by measurement produced some intriguing symmetry.”

I agree, and from such mysteries can one effectively form fiction.

theripperlettercoverKatherine Ramsland teaches forensic psychology and has published 58 books and hundreds of articles, mostly nonfiction devoted to crime, forensics, and serial murder. Lately, she has added paranormal murder mysteries with The Ripper Letter and it’s sequel, Track the Ripper, published by Riverdale Avenue Books. There’s romance, sure, and sex, but she has wrapped it all in Ripper lore, along with other figures from history that nicely fit. She doesn’t claim to be a Ripperologist, but she knows enough from extensive research (including trips to London and Paris) to realize that all of the theorists make assumptions and take some leaps to make their ideas work. Within the gaps and ambiguities she has found room to develop fictional plots that still retain historical accuracy.

Sources

Dimolianis, S. (2001) Jack the Ripper and Black Magic. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Edwards, I. (2003) Jack the Ripper’s Black Magic Rituals. London: John Blake.

Harris, M. (1987). Jack the Ripper: The Bloody Truth. London: Columbus Books.

Odell, R. (2006). Ripperology. Kent, OH: Kent State Press.

O’Donnell, E. (1928). Confessions of a Ghost Hunter. London: Thornton Butterworth.

Rumbelow, D. (1975, 2004). The Complete Jack the Ripper. London: W. H. Allen.

Evans, S. P., & Skinner, K. (2001). Jack the Ripper: Letters from Hell. Stroud: Sutton.

 

The Tourist Trade Was Murder in Victorian England

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The Burial of William Weare, from “The Fatal Effects of Gambling Exemplified in the Murder of Wm. Weare.” T. Kelly, 1824.

Today we have CSI: Every City in America and then Some. Patricia Cornwell makes a killing with her Scarpetta series. People binge watch Making of a Murderer. But in Victorian England, citizens had no such luxurious entertainments. When murder didn’t come to them, they went to the murder.

The murder tourism trade was rampant during the Victorian era in England as the time saw a powerful focus on death and dying. Victorians took on many rituals surrounding death, developing traditions during periods of mourning, and maintaining keepsake notions like clipping a lock of hair from a dead person and keeping it in a locket, and even death photos in which the dead were photographed. This delight with death sparked a surge in entertainments focused on murder.

Murder tours were all the rage. The Radlett murder in 1823 sparked a wealth of murder entertainment. The Radlett murder involved three men mired in the vices of gambling and boxing who killed a fourth man, William Weare. The three murderers were led by John Thurtell, a sports promoter. He believed Weare had cheated him out of money and murdered him on October 24, 1823. Tourists would visit the location of the murder, a cottage in Radlett, Hertfordshire, England to survey the scene of the crime. Even Sir Walter Scott would visit the cottage a few years after the crime.

Tourists flocking to murder scenes was so common, a trade built up around it. Sightseeing tours to murder locations became quite common. In relation to the Radlett murder, the tour would take visitors not only to the cottage where the murder took place but to the local churchyard and the pond where the murderers hid. Finally the tour would stop at the Artichoke Inn, the place where the corpse was carried during the execution of the murder, and the proprietor of the inn, a Mr. Field, would be required to answer questions of the visitors.

L0036393 Mourning brooch containing the hair of a deceased relative. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Mourning brooch containing the hair of a deceased relative. Photograph 19th Century Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Mourning brooch containing the hair of a deceased relative

So popular were these tours, that tradesmen began to capitalize on them by creating souvenirs for tour-goers. In the case of the Radlett murder, at the end of the tour you could acquire a bit of the sack that was used to carry the corpse of William Weare or a book and a map of the murdered body’s journey. Staffrodshire pottery was even developed around the murder. But tourists took it even further.

When news of a murder got out, murder-hungry tourists would race to the location in the hopes of a public auction. Fanatics would buy up any materials that were auctioned off in the hopes of getting something from the murder scene. When that wasn’t enough, they would flock to the executions to see the murderers hanged. In the case of John Thurtell, an estimated 40,000 people attended. But it wasn’t just the crime scenes and mementos that pulled in the tourists. Murder spawned entertainment of a much more creative nature as well.

Murder plays and poetry abounded from sensational murders. Poetry accompanied action illustrations in broadsheets published during murder trials at the height of public frenzy. In the case of the Radlett murder, Thurtell once again was the focus with –

From bad to worse he did proceed,
‘mid scenes of guilt and vice,
Until he learn’d the cursed art,
To play with cards and dice.

Spectators would buy up these broadsheets, especially if they couldn’t afford newspapers. These publications would feed their yearning for more sensation as the trial went on. But even more so did plays move to stoke the public’s interest.

The Gamblers, or, The Murderers at the Desolate Cottage opened at the Surrey on November 17, 1823, not one month after the murder. The Gamblers would reappear on stage immediately following Thurtell’s execution. So hungry for murder plays was the public that it was not uncommon for plays based on real-life murders to play over and over again to packed houses.

While it may seem uncouth or perhaps disrespectful to the dead for people to carry on so, I bring you back to the present where the recent adaptation for television of the O.J. Simpson trial won an Emmy for outstanding limited series. Perhaps we’re not all that different from Victorians. Perhaps it’s just that advancements in technology has changed how people revel in the forbidden of murder. Getting safely close to the danger of murder through entertainments like shows and books. Perhaps now murder simply comes to us.

Jessie Clever

Sources:

Flanders, Judith. The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011, pp. 20-41.

About Jessie Clever

jessieclever_tobeadebutante_800In the second grade, Jessie began a story about a duck and a lost ring. Two harrowing pages of wide ruled notebook paper later, the ring was found. And Jessie has been writing ever since.

Taking her history degree dangerously, Jessie tells the stories of courageous heroines, the men who dared to love them, and the world that tried to defeat them.

Jessie makes her home in the great state of New Hampshire where she lives with her husband and two very opinionated Basset Hounds.

Her most recent release is To Be a Debutante: A Spy Series Short Story. Find out more at jessieclever.com.

Attempted Mass Murder at Sea: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson

map-of-route-through-bahamas-lotgevallen-van-den-heer-o-h-bonnema-1853-used-with-kind-permission-of-collectie-tresoar

Map of route through the Bahamas. Lotgevallen van den Heer O.H. Bonnema (1853). Used with kind permission of Collectie Tresoar

When 208 passengers boarded the William & Mary in March 1853, they had no idea of the drama that would ensue after the ship set sail from Liverpool for New Orleans, or that violence and murder were in their future. Captained by the relatively inexperienced Timothy Stinson, it soon became clear to the emigrants that they were in a very vulnerable position, not least because the crew refused to give them enough food. Fourteen died as they crossed the Atlantic, a relatively high mortality rate, due in part to Captain Stinson’s failure to engage a ship surgeon for the voyage. Instead, when people were confined to their berths with fever, he consulted a pamphlet he carried in his breast pocket and prescribed them bacon, which did precious little to help those suffering with measles and typhus below deck.

Many captains skimped on surgeons and provisions, and got away with it, but it was when the ship reached the Bahamas that Stinson’s true character – or lack of it – was revealed. He chose to sail through the treacherous shallows of the New Bahama Channel, an area notorious for its hazards and shipwrecks, and the William & Mary was soon impaled on a rock. The ship was washed onto another rock nearby then an enormous wave freed her, allowing the water to pour in through the hole in the hull. They were sinking.

william-and-mary-lotgevallen-van-den-heer-o-h-bonnema-1853-used-with-kind-permission-of-collectie-tresoar

Lotgevallen van den Heer O.H. Bonnema (1853)

Stinson strode about the crowded deck in his slippers, threatening the emigrants with his own desertion, and lying about the depth of water in the hold, doubling it and panicking the passengers. The exhausted emigrants pumped through the night while the crew devised a plan of escape and quietly removed provisions (and themselves) to the least leaky lifeboat. The distress flag was taken down from the mast and hidden, ensuring that any passing sailors would assume all was in hand, and while the passengers were distracted, Stinson changed his slippers for boots and abandoned ship. Some of the unlucky emigrants attempted to follow, swimming for the lifeboat, only to be hacked at with hatchets and murdered before their families’ eyes. The captain stood, raised his hat, and called “Friends, may you fare well” as his crew rowed him to safety.

Stinson’s lifeboat was soon picked up by a ship on its way to New York. He reported the William & Mary as lost before his eyes, then disappeared when journalists pressed for details. The New York Times of 18 May 1853 smelled a rat:

“…the cause [of this wreck] is traceable to culpable negligence and carelessness. Had the officers in charge kept a bright watch for dangers, there is nothing to indicate that the reef might not have been avoided; had the Captain taken more effective measures for the preservation of his passengers and his papers, the loss would have been less serious. And, finally, the silence and speedy exodus of Captain STINSON argues that there is little to be offered in extenuation. That a sea-captain should coldly report that his vessel had ‘gone down’ and ‘it is supposed that all on board perished,’ is altogether too systematic and provokes disagreeable emotions. It was at least due to the public that a statement duly authenticated by the survivors, should have been prepared and published by the Master, before he found it convenient to leave New-York for his home in Bowdoinham. If there is a reason for this silence, or an explanation for this seeming carelessness, the public will be glad to hear it.”

Newspapers gave brutal assessments of his character, and the Irish newspaper the Freeman’s Journal of 31 May 1853 referred to the incident as “convincing proof of the cowardice or insensibility of Captain Stinson”.

Why, in a time of chivalry and strict salvage laws, would this captain and crew have done such a thing? It is impossible to tell for sure after over 160 years have passed, but it appears as if Captain Stinson, whose father-in-law was part-owner of the ship, was attempting to bury all evidence of his mistakes – and save the owners money while he was at it. If the passengers died, little or no compensation would have to be paid out, and by leaving the people in his charge on a sinking ship with no provisions Stinson could be reasonably sure that only his version of events would survive.

He must have been shocked to the core to find his attempt at mass murder had failed.

“No news item of the month has been so worthy of rejoicing over, as the intelligence of the rescue and safety of the emigrant passengers of the ship William and Mary, wrecked amongst the Bahamas on its way from Liverpool to New Orleans. About one hundred and seventy human beings, given up to the waves and monsters of the deep, rescued by wreckers, it seems, while their sinking coffin was tumbling about among rocks and breakers and just ready to make the fatal plunge, are thus happily saved.” (Spirit of the Times, 7 June 1853)

Thanks to the courage of a crew of wreckers who saw the sinking ship two days after the hull was holed, and the perseverance and sheer will to survive of those on board the William & Mary, the majority of the emigrants were saved. The cowardice of Captain Stinson did not kill them, and the story of what happened on this ordinary emigrant ship full of extraordinary people is lost no longer.

The Lost Story of the William&Mary - Gill Hoffs - hi res image.jpgGill Hoffs is the author of Wild: A Collection (Pure Slush, 2012) and two shipwreck books, The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’ (Pen & Sword, 2014, 2015) and the recently released The Lost Story of the William & Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson (Pen & Sword, 2016). She lives in Warrington, England, with Coraline Cat. If anyone has any information regarding these shipwrecks and the people involved, they can email her at gillhoffs@hotmail.co.uk or find her on twitter @GillHoffs.