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The Arsenic Century: The Case of the Poisoned Partridges


By Kirsty McHugh, OUP UK

Arsenic is understandably infamous as the poison of choice for Victorian murderers. Yet the great majority of fatalities in the nineteenth century came not from intentional poisoning, but from accident. James C. Whorton has written The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play, and draws on a wide range of medical, legal, and popular literature of the time to paint a vivid picture of arsenic’s insiduous presence in Victorian daily life. The excerpt below, from the Preface, tells the sorry story of the poisoned partridges.

The bizarre and the grotesque have ever been the daily bread of journalists, and the reporters of Victorian Britain were no exceptions: ‘Wife Driven Insane by Husband Tickling Her Feet’ (1869), ‘Death From Swallowing a Mouse’ (1876). But even when judged by such a standard as ‘Child Stolen by a Monkey’ (1870), the story that greeted readers on page eight of The Times (of London) for 13 December 1848 was extraordinary, a tale so macabre as scarcely to be believed. ‘For some months past,’ it was revealed, hunters in certain rural districts had been coming upon entire coveys of partridges nestled together, sitting on the ground ‘with their heads erect and their eyes open, presenting all the semblances of life.’ Yet when approached the birds refused to take wing and provide sport, for, appearances notwithstanding, they were as stone dead as statues.

Arsenic CenturyA curious Hampshire outdoorsman who discovered a group of ten such birds sent two of them up to London to a physician he hoped might determine what was going on. Dr Fuller found the animals ‘plump and in good condition’ externally. But within, each one’s oesophagus was severely inflamed and its intestines abnormally clean, as if they had been vigorously rinsed with water—or cleared by diarrhoea. Suspecting poison, he cut some meat from the breast and legs of one of the birds and offered it, along with the liver, to his cat, which ate it ‘with avidity’. Within half an hour, the deceived creature was overcome by vomiting ‘and vomited almost incessantly for nearly 12 hours, during the whole of which time she evidently suffered excessive pain’. Happily, Puss recovered, and all the wiser for her ordeal: even after an enforced fast of a full twenty-four hours she remained resolute in her refusal to eat even ‘an atom more of the bird’.

The cat’s symptoms were suggestive of arsenic poisoning, so the flesh of the second partridge was subjected to chemical testing, along with grains of wheat taken from the crops of all ten of the birds: considerable quantities of arsenic were found in every sample. As it turned out, all the dead partridges, and many dead pheasants as well, had been found in areas where farmers had recently adopted the practice of soaking their wheat seed in an arsenic solution to protect against parasitic infestations. Clearly the animals were being killed by eating the seeds scattered in planting; why they expired so eerily, sitting up with eyes open instead of keeling over as proper birds did, has yet to be explained.

The case of the poisoned partridges is but one illustration of a social problem of no little significance in nineteenth-century Britain: arsenic was everywhere. The poison was not confined to country fields, its depredations were by no means limited to wildfowl. Arsenic lurked at every turn in the Victorian world, and chief among its victims were human beings.

First, it reigned throughout the century as the poison of choice for committing homicide, and for suicide was second only to opium. Through much of the 1800s, upwards of a third of all cases of criminal poisoning in Britain were due to arsenic, giving the poison so lurid a reputation as an agent of mayhem as to set it apart from all other methods of ending life. By 1849, a London physician could complain that the odious crime of arsenical murder had become ‘a national disgrace’ (all italicized words appearing in quotations throughout this book were given that emphasis in the original), an offence that had increased so dramatically in recent years as to make it ‘the greatest blot upon the civilization of the nineteenth century’. The greatest blot overstates the case certainly, but a serious enough blot it was, and would remain so down to the end of the century. Despite the enactment of a law to make purchase of the deadly substance more diffi cult, and despite the development of more reliable tests for detecting it in the bodies of the slain, rendering arsenical murder a notably chancier proposition, victims continued to fall. As late as 1889, the editor of the nation’s leading medical journal, reporting on a recent incident in which a man had killed his father-in-law with arsenic, worried that the ‘very sordid’ crime was of a type ‘which has been unhappily too frequent of late’; the entire past year, he regretted, ‘will be ever memorable for its many [arsenic] poisoning cases’.

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