Reading About Arsenic and Regency Eccentrics

Reading About Arsenic and Regency Eccentrics

I have been reading some great stuff about the nineteenth century lately. One title was based on my interest in William Kitchiner after I made curry and started prying into his life a bit. The other book I stumbled onto at the library, entirely by chance.

The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work, & Play, James C. Wharton, Oxford University Press, 2010.

The Arsenic Century

The Arsenic Century, my accidental find, is an exhaustive look at the extremely liberal use of arsenic in the nineteenth century, with a focus on England and Victorian London. The author, James C. Whorton, delves into every aspect of it: how it is produced, how it was detected, the awful “cures” people used, and he does not shy away from graphic descriptions of the sicknesses and deaths it caused. It’s (in large part) a fascinating history book that is sprinkled with science and riveting murder mysteries in the form of poisoning cases.

To this day, I think that is the association most people have with arsenic: murder by poison. In many instances it was deliberately administered to the unsuspecting with the intent of causing death, but in others, people were poisoning themselves by working with it to make artificial flowers, wallpapers, and dyes. I’d heard of “arsenic green” but was unaware that arsenical compounds were used to make a vast array of colors.

People living in this time were also poisoned by their consumer products. If making the wallpaper was making the manufacturers sick, naturally it was making the people whose homes it hung in sick as well. Candles, cloth, paper, and more contained arsenic. Arsenic was sold alongside other products in pharmacies and dry-goods stores, and was sometimes mistakenly dispensed as something innocuous like baking powder. Mislabeled arsenic at home lead to deadly meals.

One of the saddest stories Wharton tells is about adulteration of candy, which was a known problem during this period before strict food ingredient, labeling, and quality laws. Wharton tells us of a candy maker who sent his assistant off to buy a large sack of plaster of Paris so he could make a large batch of peppermint candies with a great deal of filler to extend his profits. When it was time to make the candies, someone in the shop went to fetch the filler from the back room and instead grabbed a container of arsenic (which was labeled, but only on the bottom). When the candy was distributed for sale, dozens were killed, and many more were sickened.

Another aspect of arsenic use I found shocking was that people elected to deliberately take arsenic themselves on a regular basis, and that there were commercial preparations containing arsenic that were sold and intended for use much like vitamins today, or as facial washes to eliminate skin problems. Writers and the press called these people “arsenic-eaters.” They were convinced arsenic in controlled quantities made people more energetic, plumper, and more vital, and there was a lot of anecdotal evidence from people and animals like horses working more efficiently and putting on weight (of course underweight at this time often signified poverty or sickness) in response to small doses.

Wharton includes tale after tale of death due to stupidity, carelessness, or honest mistakes from being surrounded by arsenic. The body count gets so high in some chapters, it’s almost laughable, in a morbid way. Considering how much Wharton fits into this very dense and fact-filled book, it’s a lively read.

So what does Beeton’s say about arsenic?

There is faintness, depression, and sickness, with an intense burning pain in the region of the stomach, which gets worse and worse, and is increased by pressure. There is also vomiting of dark brown matter, sometimes mixed with blood; and mostly great thirst, with a feeling of tightness round, and of burning in, the throat. Purging also takes place, the matters brought away being mixed with blood. The pulse is small and irregular, and the skin sometimes cold and clammy, and at others hot. The breathing is painful. Convulsions and spasms often occur.

I will admit to you that I am completely blanking on the name of the doctor who wrote most of the chapter in the BOHM on medicine and treatments, aptly titled “The Doctor.” There is a section devoted to arsenic, and they recommend treatment with “Emetics, Lime–Water, Soap-and-Water, Sugar and Water, Oily Drinks.” So, something that would make the patient vomit, or dilute the poison. Wharton lists several “cures” Beeton’s does not mention that could be just as deadly as arsenic, such as calomel or opiates.

Dr. William Kitchiner, Regency Eccentric, Author of the Cook’s Oracle, Tom Bridge and Colin Cooper English, Southover Press, 1992.

I have also been reading about one of my new favorite people, William Kitchiner, MD, who famously wrote The Cook’s Oracle. Tom Bridge and Colin Cooper English do Kitchiner justice in a terse volume called Dr. William Kitchiner, Regency Eccentric, Author of the Cook’s Oracle. At the outset, the authors admit that not a whole heaping ton is known about Dr. Kitchiner’s life, which makes for my favorite kind of biography, one that does not start seven generations back on a beet farm.

Kitchiner, denied the ability to practice medicine in London since he was certified in Glasgow, was most famous during his lifetime for his Committee of Taste, a small group of men who rotated based on their availability. The Committee were the taste testers for the recipes that would come to fill out The Cook’s Oracle [1817].

The routine was invariably as follows: invitations were sent, a response was expected within a day, guests arrived at 5 p.m. sharp and the door was promptly slammed shut and locked at 5:02. Dinner was served at exactly half-past nine, and when the clock struck eleven, guests were handed their hats, the end, GET OUT.

As a writer of books and music, an inventor of a stove and a sauce (Zest) meant to fight scurvy in the Royal Navy, and an educated man of taste, Kitchiner was acquainted with renowned people and invited them to his tastings. Famous writers, actors, and poets were often in attendance, and Kitchiner even hosted George IV when he was still the Prince Regent, who was attracted by the plain, practical dinners and interesting company.

Many modern historians agree that Beeton certainly would have had a copy of The Cook’s Oracle, probably even before she began compiling the BOHM. Sarah Freeman, in Isabella and Sam [1978], calls Kitchiner “prissy, demanding, dictatorial,” which is well-evidenced by his dinner party dictates, but also that The Cook’s Oracle was “the oldest book she definitely made use of–though perhaps the most modern in spirit.” Freeman writes:

Isabella was preceded by Kitchiner in very many essential respects: he was the first cookery writer ever to give accurate weights and measures; he included detailed marketing tables listing the seasonal prices of foodstuffs…and he emphasized economy rather than elegance, taking as his motto: ‘ORDER AND ECONOMY ARE THE BASIS OF COMFORT AND INDEPENDENCE.” [Emphasis Freeman's.]

I will personally vouch for Kitchiner here. When I get to what looks like one of his recipes, notable for their clear measurements and unambiguous instructions, I know that I have encountered something that will actually work.

Kitchiner had one bastard son from a long-term relationship he had after his brief marriage, which resulted in a separation, but not dissolution. His legitimate wife is not mentioned in his will, but his companion, Elizabeth Friend, was provided for. Sadly, speaking of poisons, it it suspected Dr. Kitchiner was poisoned by amanita mushrooms under very suspicious circumstances shortly after changing his will to make his son a majority recipient of his estate.

Another enjoyable read, and the last chapter provides an interesting selection of his recipes from his most famous book.


A million thank yous to the Under Gardener, who told me a months ago to watch The Supersizers Go Victorian. A recent comment from MadamQ nudged me toward it again, and I was ready this time! In case you do not know the Supersizers, they are two British comedians/TV presenters who immerse themselves in the culture of a time period for a week. I thought this was a scream, but in the past year I have found increasingly bizarre things relating to the nineteenth century funny, so take me as you will.

The Supersizers enjoy a Christmas feast that would make Dickens envious, a calf’s head, many jellies, fried ears, very sad, thin soup for the poor a la Soyer, and more.

I like what cohost Sue Perkins said about the Victorians–I think she nailed it: “The fascination with rare and beautiful creatures, combined with the desire to kill them and eat them.”

Here is the first part:

The rest is on the YouTubes. I am still cooking, don’t worry. I’ll be back soon with glistening piles of who knows what.

19 Responses to “Reading About Arsenic and Regency Eccentrics”

  • 1. This made me wonder about what kinds of things people will write books about a century from now. “The consumption of ______ in 2010, was killing people in large numbers, and yet they kept eating/taking it for their health/hanging it on their walls.” Looks like a really good read- I might have to pick it up at the liberry.

    2. I wish I lived in an era where people were trying to get “plumper”! My dream is to have someone going- have a fourth helping, you look like you’re getting thin!

  • P.S. My grammar in the above comment is atrocious. Please forgive.

  • I don’t remember if I’ve asked/recommended this yet: Have you seen Victorian Pharmacy? It’s a BBC show about… wait for it… A Victorian Pharmacy! There’s, I think, 4 episodes and they go over how Pharmacies (and Pharmacists) changed and evolved, what was sold, and… how much of their product was actually killing people.

    Lead nipple shields! Opiates for fussy babies/colic! Coal tar soap! Arsenic arsenic arsenic! Good times.

  • Brigid: OOOOH BONER, thank you. I am on this. I am very open to recommendations right now, since I am not all swamped with work.

    Hope: You know, the author makes that very same point himself in his book in a very understated conclusory paragraph. What’s next, he asked? I shook my head at the Victorian cavalcade of dumbassery, but that pulled me up short.

  • Excellent post, as usual! I’m so happy more people are watching The Supersizers! I only discovered this recently, but the show is fantastic! Please do have a look at the sequel (The Supersizers Eat). After watching the episode on the French Revolution, I was forced to give up my view of the French as the epitome of a polished society…especially after the revolution took place. Equality bread indeed!

  • I am poking my way around the Supersizers on Youtube. I have done the 20s, 50s, 60s, 80s, Rome, Regency, and Edwardians (OMG duck press). French Revolution is on my list next!

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