Arsenic Poisoning

One of the jokes that authors share is the hope that no-one ever examines their Google search history too closely. And today is one of those days.

I’ve been trying to find a way for the villain in the third Bluestocking book to poison someone slowly over time, in a way that gives the victim dementia-like symptoms. I found a bunch of fascinating articles on drugs in the Victorian era.
The Wellcome Collection: Drugs in Victorian Britain
Mental Floss: Laudanum
Victorian Truth: Drug Culture

But as appealing as opiates are as a poison, the symptoms didn’t match the victim in my novel. I then searched poisonous plants in England, picking through foxglove, hemlock, yew tree berries, wolfsblane, deadly nightshade, and cuckoo pint. Again, all the symptoms were too sudden, and killed the victim too quickly.

Next up, heavy metal toxicity. And here we have a winner – arsenic.

The symptoms of low levels of arsenic poisoning are headaches, confusion, drowsiness, and diarrhea. Higher quantities result in vomiting blood, cramping muscles, hair loss, and convulsions, before coma and death. And according to Patient Info, a person poisoned with arsenic has a garlicky smell on their skin and breath.

In the Victoria era, arsenic formed part of a beauty product known (in the USA) as “Arsenic Complexion Wafers” which promised to get rid of unsightly pimples. Arsenic poisoning has similar symptoms to cholera, and was often used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods to murder people without being caught. By the early 19th Century, this was so common, that arsenic gained the nickname “inheritance powder” due to persistent rumours that it was used by impatient heirs to speed up the death of their rich relatives.

A really good summary on the use of arsenic in history is here:
Dartmouth Toxic Metals Research: Arsenic

And that’s why it is the perfect substance for my villain in The Essence of a Bluestocking.

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