Victorian Poisoning Panic
In the Victorian era, poisons such as arsenic and strychnine were readily available with little control. Sensational media coverage of poisoning murders added to a widespread anxiety about dying an agonizing death at the hands of a killer.
Easily Available Poison
In the early Victorian era there was no control over the buying of poisons. Such compounds as strychnine were cheap and used to keep the population of vermin under control. In the wrong hands they could also reduce the human population.
Some controls came into force in the 1850s, but it was still simple for people to get their hands on a bottle of arsenic. It was the poison of choice because it was largely odourless, tasteless, and cheap. It was an anonymous white powder that could be mistaken for flour or sugar.
Arsenic poisoning causes vomiting and diarrhea before its victims expire, making it look like garden variety food poisoning. In an era before refrigeration and with primitive sanitation, dying from arsenic could look a lot like typhoid, cholera, or a dodgy oyster pie.
And with forensic toxicology in its infancy, it’s reasonable to assume many people got away with disposing of an inconvenient business or love rival.
Madame Marie Lafarge
Marie Fortunée Cappelle had the bad luck to be married off to Charles Pouch-Lafarge in 1839. Her middle name turned out to have a particular irony in that, although she was fairly well off, her husband misrepresented himself as a rich French nobleman. He was from peasant stock and bankrupt.
Marie kept up the pretense of a happy marriage and comfortable life on the Lafarge estate, which was, in reality, a tumbled down ruin. On top of that her husband was a violent man.
Within months, Charles Pouch-Lafarge left for Paris and was able to secure a large loan from Marie’s family. Back at the “estate” the young bride was writing a passionate love letter to her husband and packing it up in a parcel with a portrait of herself, and some cakes that she made.
Soon after he received the parcel and eating some cake, Charles became ill with a cholera-like sickness known as la maladie parisienne. He returned home, with most of his loan missing, to be nursed by his wife. Within a couple of weeks Charles Pouch-Lafarge was dead and his wife was in custody on suspicion of killing him with arsenic.
The trial was a sensation and resulted in a guilty verdict. Marie Lafarge was sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour. She died in 1852 of tuberculosis at the age of 36.
The widespread coverage of her crime put a scare into people all over Europe.
The press were eager for more poisonings and along came Sarah Chesham to satisfy the cravings.
In January 1845, two of Sarah’s children died suddenly in the village of Clavering, Essex, in eastern England. The diagnosis was cholera, but the village gossip said otherwise. Sarah had a long-standing reputation as a poisoner.
The chatter got to the ears of authorities and the bodies of the children were exhumed; they were full of arsenic. Between six and seven thousand people turned out for Sarah Chesham’s hanging.
If there was one Sarah Chesham, reasoned the equivalent of today’s tabloid editors, there must be others. And, sure enough there were more to be found.
Historic U.K. notes “There were other cases of arsenic poisonings in Essex, far to the east of Clavering. The press claimed that all the cases were linked, as if women were conspiring en masse to kill.”
Then, 16-year-old William Bird bought strychnine from a chemist near Southampton. His plan was to kill the family of his employer on Boxing Day 1850.
The lurid coverage of these and other crimes was enough to cause dread to pass through many households. What if cook is unhappy with her Christmas gift and slides a spoonful of white powder into the rice pudding? Remember how Aunt Augusta was so angry about Granddad’s will? I would not eat her Fig Newtons if I were you.
Born in 1829, Christiana Edmonds developed a fondness for her doctor and he returned the affection. Ms. Edmonds’s plans for a long and blissful marriage were spoiled by the existence of the physician’s wife, so she decided to remove the impediment through the use of strychnine.
Her plan was foiled by the suspicious doctor who told Christiana never to darken his doorstep again. It seems she decided that someone was going to have to pay for this unjust rejection; it might as well be anyone.
In the town of Brighton on the south coast of England she began ordering chocolates from a confectioner’s store. She put poison in the candies and then sent them back to the shop saying they were not what she wanted. Back on the store shelves, the deadly sweets waited for the family of four-year-old Sidney Barker to buy their child a treat.
Young Stanley died and what the newspapers dubbed The Chocolate Cream Poisoner was brought to trial. The public followed the story avidly. It contained all the elements that struck fear into the hearts of Victorians; a random death by poison committed by a jilted lover.
All this happened in 1872 and heightened a concern that was already bubbling behind the gentile facades of Victorian dwellings.
Christiana Edmonds was declared mentally ill and spent the rest of her life in a prison for the criminally insane.
As a result of the Marie Lafarge case, the word “lafarged” was coined by Dickens Magazine to describe anyone murdered by poison.
Wallpaper can kill. Yes it can. Trendy Victorians often decorated the homes with vivid green wallpaper. The vibrant green pigment was produced using a compound called Scheele’s Green Dye, which contained copper arsenite. In the 1860s, it was realized that the arsenic in the dye could be released into the air and ingested. This caused the deaths of several people, particularly children.
The great crime fiction writer Agatha Christie worked as a chemist during the Great War. As she dispensed arsenic and recorded the sale in the poison book she wondered if it was really going to be used to kill mice or for some more nefarious purpose. Her favourite way of bumping off her fictitious victims was poison and she wrote in her autobiography that “since I was surrounded by poisons, perhaps it was natural that death by poisoning should be the method I selected.”
Arsenic stimulates the blood and it’s still used today in leukemia treatment.
- “Why the Victorians Were So Terrified of Death by Poison.” Kelly Faircloth, Pictorial, May 12, 2016.
- “Madame Marie Lafarge, Murder, and Arsenic.” Geri Walton, August 31, 2016.
- “Poison Panic.” Helen Barrell, Historic U.K., undated.
- “1851: Sarah Chesham, Poisoner.” Meaghan Good, Executed Today, undated.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor