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How Arsenic became such a popular poison?

If you are a fan of Agatha Christie’s work, then you’ve encountered Arsenic poisoning enough times. It got me digging more about Arsenic being used as a poison, how did the world discover this substance, and how did it become such a popular poison while also being a supposed essential mineral for the human body?

I talk a lot about traveling and food and culture, maybe today we talk about poisons?

What is Arsenic?

Arsenic, chemical symbol ‘As’, is the fourteenth most common element in the Earth’s crust. Like most other elements, Arsenic does not occur as a pure element but rather as a compound. Arsenic was first isolated in the thirteenth century and was considered to be a grey metalloid.

The name ‘Arsenic’ comes from the Persian word ‘zarnikh’, meaning ‘yellow orpiment’. Orpiment is a bright yellow compound of arsenic and sulfur. Zarnikh then went on to get translated into Greek – ‘arsenikon’, which was found relating to another Greek word – ‘arsenikos’, which means ‘masculine’ or ‘potent’. It was from here that the word ‘arsenic’ was derived.

When arsenic is being referred to as a poison, it is ‘white arsenic’ or arsenic trioxide, or any of the other poisonous compounds of arsenic being talked about. Arsenic as a pure element would not be as poisonous as it cannot be absorbed by the human body in significant amounts.

How was arsenic discovered to be a poison?

It has been found that Queen Cleopatra knew about the poisonous effects of arsenic in her time. When she decided to end her life, it is said that she tested a lot of different poisons on her slaves, one of them being arsenic. Cleopatra wanted to ensure that her death was painless and her body still looked attractive after death. Unfortunately, arsenic did not meet these criteria and Cleopatra is said to have decided that it was a rather unpleasant way to bid adieu to the world.

A Greek physician – Dioscorides,in the court of the Roman emperor Nero had described arsenic as a poison. In the fourth century BCE, Roman politics was colored with poisonings. There were conspiracies not just among the Royals but also widespread among the common public. Arsenic, undoubtedly, made for a popular choice – it had no distinct taste or color, and the symptoms were hard to detect.

Further ahead in history, poisoning and politics continued hand in hand during the Renaissance period. Arsenic poisoning was a very popular murder modus operandi in Renaissance Europe. In the Middle Ages, the Borgias – Pope Alexander VI and his son, Cesare, were the most infamous poisoners in Italy. Some say Cesare’s half-sister – Lucretia had no part in the Borgias toxicology incidents, but when you’re a part of such an infamous family it is usually impossible to distance yourself from what’s happening, and her name continues to be associated with arsenic poisonings orchestrated by the Borgias. The Borgias specialized in getting rid of cardinals and bishops. As Pope, Alexander VI appointed and encouraged the cardinals to increase their personal wealth through the perquisites granted to them by the Church. In those times, it was often believed that arsenic enhanced the taste of wine, but alas, those who tasted it did not live to tell the tale! The Borgias ensured their guests had more than enough of the arsenic-laced wine. By Church Law, in the event of inevitable, untimely death of a victim, the ownership of the person’s property would be reverted to their executioners. The Borgias would invite their appointed cardinals home for a meal after the cardinals had amassed the wealth. Over the meal, they would be served the special wine. This was not it. The Borgias would spread arsenic on the entrails of a slaughtered pig, which were then allowed to rot. The resulting mess was then dried and made into a powder they called the ‘La Cantarella’. When this powder was used, if the arsenic failed to kill the consumer, the toxins from the rotten entrails would definitely kill the person. The Borgias sure accumulated large chunks of property, courtesy the arsenic wine, making their way to the list of the wealthiest and most popular men in all of Italy. Lucretia also had three marriages to very wealthy families which further increased the Borgia’s financial status. Cesare was the captain-general of the Papal army which gave the financial status a further boost.

The end of the Borgias family came in a rather poetic way too. One day, the Borgias were scheduled to have some cardinals over for dinner, but the Pope and Cesare returned home early. They asked for a bottle of wine to begin the celebrations early. Nobody knows for sure if it was by accident or by design, a servant brought in the bottle that was intended for the cardinals. The Pope died but Cesare had a mule slaughtered and dressed, then wrapped the carcass about himself. There was an ancient superstition that if one entered the body of an animal, it would ward off the effects of poisons. Incidentally, Cesare’s recovery is the only proof that this remedy could work. Even though Cesare survived the poisoned wine, he was never able to gain a position of wealth or power again in his lifetime.

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, poisoning became a peculiar Italian art, but its popularity spread to the French Royal Court too. The aristocracy was found to be hand-in-glove with La Voisin who was a notorious poisoner alleged to have taken part in black masses. Investigations into the numerous poisonings revealed such involvement of the aristocracy that a special court had to be convened called the Chambre Ardent or Burning Court. The name was derived from the commonly used method of execution for the guilty. The court reported only to the King owing to the big names involved in the cases. Arsenic was found to be the poison of choice, so much that it earned the moniker – poudre de succession or the inheritance powder.

Remember that Game of Thrones episode where they say that poisoning was principally a woman’s weapon? Arsenic poisoning was used in numerous ways by women and there were countless scandals around it. Among the most infamous women poisoners during those times was Toffana. Toffana specialized in making arsenic-laced cosmetics. She would label her deadly cosmetics with images of famous saints, poetic, isn’t it? She would then guide the women buying the cosmetics on how to use them. Another renowned woman poisoner was Hieronyma Spara who infamously used to organize group instruction on homicidal uses of arsenic for young married women who aimed to improve their situation in life by becoming wealthy young widows. Arsenic-laced cosmetics continued to remain popular through the twentieth century.

It is also a popular theory that Napolean Bonaparte was also a victim of arsenic poisoning, though it was never officially confirmed. It is said that Napolean was administered arsenic by someone in his cortege. During his final months in exile on St. Helena, he was keeping very unwell. During this time, he was attended to by multiple doctors – both French and British. He experienced sever stomachache and medicines did not improve his condition. After he died, his autopsy was conducted in the presence of seven doctors, who concluded that Napolean died of stomach cancer. However, rumors were rife that he was poisoned. Over a century later, samples of Napolean’s hair that had been cut from his head shortly after his death as mementos were analyzed. An unusually high amount of arsenic was found in the hair, begging the question how did this happen. There are multiple theories around this. One of the most popular ones was Napolean inhaled arsenic that got released from his wallpaper. Samples of his bedroom wallpaper were discovered in the 80s and were discovered to contain very high levels of arsenic. Poisoned or not, arsenic likely played a role in Napolean’s death.

Even when people in power employed official tasters and kept tight control of who was allowed into the kitchens and handle the food and drinks, there were still many ways arsenic could be administered to victims. Gloves, riding boots, shirts, pants, all kinds of garments were soaked in arsenic solution, usually with a blistering agent to enable quicker absorption into the bloodstream.

Arsenic as an ingredient claims innocent victims post-Industrial Revolution

With the industrial revolution, the demand for iron and lead shot up. The ores for these metals often contained arsenic. The arsenic would react with oxygen during the extraction process and condense in the chimneys as a white solid – arsenic trioxide. To prevent the chimney from getting clogged, these solids would have to be scraped off. Industrialists realized that instead of dumping the arsenic compound as industrial waste, it could be a great profit-earning opportunity by selling it as poison for pests – rats, bedbugs, cockroaches, etc. Prices fell and everybody could afford arsenic easily. Needless to say, with this, cases of arsenic poisoning shot up as well. Working class women were the cost common culprits, it was said, yet trials for these cases were surprisingly low, just about two or three in the whole of England and Wales!

White arsenic looks very similar to powdered sugar or coarse flour. Mistakes were bound to happen. Victorian England saw rampant food adulteration. Sweet-makers were known to add ‘daft’ an inert substance, usually Plaster of Paris or Powdered Chalk to bulk up their sweets as it was way cheaper than sugar. Infamously, in 1858, a sweet maker in Bradford used what he thought was daft from a barrel but it turned out to be white arsenic. Children ate the sweets, the mistake was realized, but about 200 people had become seriously ill by the time the candy was recalled. Twenty people died as well. Surprisingly, nobody was prosecuted for this deadly error. But people weren’t always as lucky. In 1836, a cook named Eliza Fanning was executed for attempted poisoning of the household that employed her. Apparently, Eliza had made dumplings and the entire household, including Eliza fell ill after consuming them. It was found that some weeks prior a packet of arsenic had disappeared from the household. Despite the flimsy evidence, Eliza got convicted and was executed.

With time, waste arsenic found more uses. Arsenic compounds were found to have vibrant colors like orpiment, realgar, Scheele’s green, etc. These compounds began being used as dyes as they were significantly better than the commonly used vegetable dyes of the time – they didn’t fade, they were cheap, they were easy to manufacture. From wallpapers to clothes, arsenic-based pigments found application in everything that need colors, even cake frostings and sweets.

Aresenic-pigment containing paints and wallpapers were immensely harmful not just to the people who manufactured them but also to the residents of the households they were applied in. They became hugely popular as they had beautiful colors and houses that used them saw fewer bedbugs. Reacting with moisture and subsequent fungal growth, an arsenic-based gas was produced from these wallpapers, which had a typical garlic-like smell – trimethylarsine – a highly toxic gas.

Arsenic and Beauty

In 1851, a Viennese medical journal reported that men and women from Styria region of Austria were consuming arsenic regularly. Lumps of arsenic trioxide were crunched between the teeth or it was grated on toast 2-3 times a week. Consumption would begin with a rice-grain sized dose and build up from there, giving the consumers apparent immunity to the compound. The report stated that men believed arsenic helped them breathe easier while performing hard physical labor in the thin mountain air of the region while giving them more bulk and clearer skin, everybody wants to be more attractive, after all! Women consumed arsenic with the belief that it would make them more curvy and a typical ‘peaches and cream’ complexion. Little did they know that while the arsenic was killing spot and blemish causing bacteria, it was also giving the consumers edema – fluid retention in the muscles, as well as vasodilation of capillaries under the skin which caused the rosy red cheeks they so desired. You would believe that this would make the consumers very sick but surprisingly, nobody complained of feeling unwell if they took their dose regularly. Instead, they complained of being unwell when they missed a dose. However, on deeper scientific analysis it was found that no true resistance to arsenic was developing here. The reason the arsenic consuming men and women weren’t dropping dead or falling seriously sick was because they were consuming arsenic in large lumps which slowed absorption into blood stream, so most of the arsenic made its way out of the body way before it could be absorbed in. If you remember Agatha Christie’s ‘Evil Under The Sun’, a widow with an arsenic-eating husband walks free in his murder trial for this very reason.

Long before formaldehyde began being used for embalming, arsenic was the compound of choice for preserving and embalming human bodies. Formaldehyde came to the fore mainly because it covered up any instances of homicidal arsenic poisoning.

In Conlusion

At the time Agatha Christie began her writing journey, arsenic compounds were readily available as medicinal tonic, fly papers, pesticides, weedkillers, etc. However, with time, usage of arsenic was phased out during the first half of the twentieth century. Alternatives were found for rat killers, herbicides, etc. There are still some specific industrial uses of arsenic compounds but medically only one use of arsenic trioxide remains – as part of the treatment for acute promyelocytic leukemia. The treatment definitely risks arsenic poisoning, but the treatment is still administered in cases.

Interesting, isn’t it?

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