by Ben Steele
If arsenic had a golden age, it was probably the Victorian era in England and the United States. It was in bloody everything, from wallpaper, to clothing dye, to cosmetics. If arsenic had a golden age in terms of literature, it was probably the mid-1900s, though by then its career as an actual murder weapon was being regulated out of relevance. Still, writers like Agatha Christie made arsenic one of the most well-known and sordid tools in popular crime fiction.
There is an absolute ton of juicy content to get into here. For a start, it really was as common as you hear, according to Sandra Hempel, an author and expert on the subject. She states, “Through much of the nineteenth century, a third of all criminal cases of poisoning involved arsenic. One reason for its popularity was simply its availability. All you had to do was go into a chemist’s shop and say that you needed to kill rats.”
Hempel also notes that a majority of murderers likely got away with it: without sophisticated detection methods, it was practically impossible to tell arsenic poisoning apart from the symptoms of cholera, dysentery, and even simple food poisoning. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an acute case of arsenic trioxide (the readily available white powder form of arsenic that people could get as a rat poison) can cause congestive heart failure and other symptoms of a heart attack.
Considering its long history in the world and in fiction, arsenic has a lot to offer authors today who are writing in a 19th century setting, and not just as a tool for murder. Arsenic became a source of panic and intrigue in popular culture, permeating its way into the minds as well as the cosmetics of newly literate workers. Newspapers ran headlines, according to Hempel, such as; “If your hands tingle, do you not fancy it is arsenic?” and “Your friends and relations all smile kindly upon you: the meal . . . looks correct, but how can you possibly tell there is not arsenic in the curry?” She also theorizes that reports of murder by arsenic inspired, and practically gave how-to guides to readers with the intent to kill. In some odd cases, people who were particularly arsenic-paranoid began attempting to dose themselves to build up an immunity. In some cases, this reportedly met with some success. Criminal defense lawyers had a field day, insisting that victims were simply paranoid and dosing themselves, or taking as a medicine (one of many strange medical concoctions of the time period) on doctors’ orders.
Arsenic seemed to make its name as a weapon of family inheritance warfare, said to be used by greedy relatives and wives taking revenge on their husbands. In my opinion, arsenic is a great tool if you want a character to get away with murder. In the following narratives, I believe that the murderers should have breezed through without so much as a whiff of herring, but didn’t due to either a misunderstanding of arsenic’s properties, inexplicable stupidity, and/or sudden onset clairvoyance (I’m squinting at you, Agatha Christie).
Rex Stout’s Poison à la Carte
There are some fundamental conceits to this plot that push a few logical limits. This is a rather absurd level of detail to criticize an author of that time over, but I hope this is demonstrative rather than critical. Vincent Pyle complains about a sandy texture to his caviar, proceeds to vomit and leave the room. He dies that night, soon after. The series titular character, Nero Wolfe, quickly suspects poisoning.
The first clear clue is the sandy texture to the caviar. According to the CDC arsenic trioxide has a very low solubility in water. If you do the math, however, its solubility limit (37 g/L) is around 37 thousand times a lethal dose (1-2 mg/L). Even accounting for the fact that caviar doesn’t have much water in it, I have my doubts that someone would detect arsenic powder contamination by texture.
Next, the speed of symptoms. The CDC notes that “initial symptoms occurring within thirty minutes to several hours include burning of the lips, pharyngeal constriction, severe abdominal pain and nausea.” Hempel notes that death can occur between two hours and four days, with twenty-four hours being the mean.
Here’s the rub, then: Pyle is unlikely to have noticed the texture in his caviar, and it’s unlikely he would have died quite that quickly (although it’s possible). We noted earlier that arsenic symptoms mimic a number of common conditions. I think in this case the protagonist got too lucky, and the murder probably should have gone unnoticed.
Agatha Christie’s The 4:50 from Paddington
Dr. Quimper masks a murder with what appears to be coincidental food poisoning. The curry is blamed, but he actually spiked the cocktails. Good so far: arsenic trioxide is very soluble in alcohol.
Then he planted arsenic in the curry after the fact, tipping the authorities off himself when he could have passed the whole thing off as food poisoning. Let’s not even talk about the eyewitness not recognizing him at all until our sleuth tricked him into putting his hands near her own throat. That’s trustworthy testimony right there. “Well, no, I don’t recognize his face, but the way he loomed…” Ah, I said I wasn’t in this to criticize, didn’t I?
If not for his own incompetence, Dr. Quimper almost pulled off the perfect murder.
But … The problem with arsenic trioxide is that it’s extremely unpredictable, and kills in minute doses. According to Hempel, the arsenic powder of the day acted more like an infectious disease than a poison. The severity of its effects, as well as the speed of onset, depend on general health as well as genetics. Dr. Quimper poisons the whole family just to kill one member! Adding just enough to cause minor distress, but not to kill, would have been a hit-or-miss chance at best, even for an experienced doctor.
Some other stories that include arsenic poisoning are: Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers, Fly Paper by Dashiell Hammett, The Landlady by Roald Dahl, and Dark Mirror by Barry Maitland. So, it’s out there …
I would encourage period writers to consider the role of arsenic as a social and economic force in the larger world. If you wanted to take a comic spin, you could have characters accosting the relatives every time they eat a dodgy curry. Alternatively, you could dig into arsenic’s role in the medical profession: there is an argument that its use was the basis for modern chemotherapy. Plus, there are arguments that some of the sillier stereotypes lasting through today, such as well-to-do women fainting under stress, were actually caused by the symptoms of gradual arsenic poisoning from their cosmetic products. Additionally, of course, people who murdered with arsenic tended to get away with it!
Ben Steele suffered a bout of infrequent writing due to trivial matters such as moving countries (again), getting married, buying a house, and navigating a fancy new job. Now that he’s running out of excuses, he’s going back to all those projects he said he would finish ages ago. You can follow Ben on Twitter here.