Some Interesting Articles and Observations about Arsenic Poisoning in New England, 1889

I have been doing a bit of research about medical literature in 1889.  I came across this great site for the New England Journal of Medicine, which listed the topics discussed and papers represented to a meeting of the staff of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in 1889. It didn’t take me long to realise that arsenic poisoning was the great topic of interest for the year, and interested I was – with a side order of fascination with Victorian food additives and an amazement of the use of medicinal tampons to treat genealogical problems.

'The Girl Embroidering' Painting by Georg Friedrich Kersting - displaying the popularity of Scheele's Green, made with arsenic.

‘The Girl Embroidering’ Painting by Georg Friedrich Kersting – displaying the popularity of Scheele’s Green for wallpaper, made with arsenic.

For the year 1889, the topics relating to arsenic were:

  • In March – On Chronic Arsenical Poisoning especially by Wallpaper, based on the analysis of Twenty-Five Cases in which Arsenic was Found in the Urine
  • In May Some Historical and Statistical Facts Pertaining to the Use of Arsenic as a Poison
  • In August The Chemistry of Arsenic
    • The Anatomical Appearances Resulting from Poisoning by Arsenic
      • The Clinical History of Arsenical Poisoning
        • The Somerville Cases of Arsenical Poisoning
  • In September – Arsenic in the Courts

As you see, just the titles of these articles are telling a story about how the Boston medical fraternity has something of an obsession with arsenic, most likely to do with the Somerville cases of poisoning, and having to give evidence in court about arsenic poisoning. Somerville is most probably the suburb north of Boston, and not a family name. I have spent a couple of hours on search in the internet searching for the details of this poisoning event, but I’ve had no luck.

I don’t think it can be about a murder, as every case of murder by poisoning was something of a media circus in the Victorian era. The American Florence Maybrick allegedly poisoned her English husband, James, with arsenic in 1889, and the case inspired a whole industry around it. This makes me inclined to think there must have been a rash of accidental poisonings, and maybe not fatal poisonings.

Remember I mentioned the New England Journal of Medicine was also dominated by articles about food additives, including toxic food additives. I’m leaping to assumptions … but it isn’t hard to imagine that some cases of food poisoning were attributed to arsenic. The unfortunate James Maybrick took it as an aphrodisiac, which certainly muddied the waters at Florence Maybrick’s trial. (I recommend reading up about the trial – it was a real mess.) Arsenic was also used in a myriad of ways around the home in the Victorian era, thanks to its lovely green colour. May I point out the title of the March article again: On Chronic Arsenical Poisoning especially by Wallpaper, based on the analysis of Twenty-Five Cases in which Arsenic was Found in the Urine…

I’m not going to reiterate my previous article on the toxic environs of the average Victorian household … I will reblog it instead.

As a writer, this find is pure gold. As a short story, it practically writes itself.  As ‘colour’ for a Steampunk narrative, it is first class. This is one of the benefits of research – INSPIRATION!

If you are interested in Steampunk, I also have a Facebook site: Steampunk Sunday, Queensland Australia

https://www.facebook.com/SteampunkSunday

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2 Comments

Filed under Historical Personage, History, Research, Setting, Steampunk

2 responses to “Some Interesting Articles and Observations about Arsenic Poisoning in New England, 1889

  1. You always find the most interesting things in your research. I wish there were a job where I could get paid to look up obscure bits like this. I would happily go to “work” every day and night, LOL.

    • Alas, I am unemployed – except self-employed as a writer. With my background in research, I use my research to inspire my writing. Nothing adds verisimilitude to a fictional narrative as quickly and easily as factual accounts.

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