If Looks Could Kill- Rod Amos – 14th July 2014.

You could be for­given for think­ing that the talk would be about facial expres­sions and their effect on indi­vidu­als, but you would be wrong. The talk was about a much more sin­is­ter matter: the use of pois­ons for col­our­ings, fla­vours, and cos­met­ics in the Victorian era.

Dangers in the Victorian home:
poisonArsenic, a very power­ful poison can be found almost any­where in the world and is asso­ci­ated with heavy metals and sul­phur. For the tech­nic­ally minded t its chem­ical symbol  is As, it has an atomic number of 33 and an atomic mass of 74.9216. It com­bines with sul­phur, chlor­ine and oxygen to form inor­ganic com­pounds.

In the Victorian period it could be sold and bought by anyone includ­ing gro­cers. I say includ­ing gro­cers because they did sell it and it looked very much like sugar or salt: it was not unknown for moth­ers to send their chil­dren out to buy it from the local shop. It was used in the home to kill mice and rats but on occa­sions acci­dents would happen and people would be poisoned or made ser­i­ously ill.

The Bradford Sweet Disaster:
It was common prac­tice by sweet makers to add ‘daft’ (plaster of Paris, lime­stone powder, or lime sulph­ate) to their mix­tures to increase prof­it­ab­il­ity. In 1858, Joseph Neal, a sweet maker sent his lodger to Charles Hodgson, the drug­gist to get 12 lbs of ‘daft’. Although Hodgson was in the phar­macy he was ill, so he told a William Goddard, his assist­ant to get the daft. He was told that it was in the cellar in a corner. By acci­dent Goddard got 12 lbs of arsenic tri­ox­ide by mis­take and this was sold to Neal who gave it to his sweet maker to  add to his sweet mix­ture as ‘daft’ instead of sugar. The sweet maker became ill and com­men­ted that the mix­ture looked a little strange; nev­er­the­less it was turned into hum­bugs. These were then sold in the Green Market in cent­ral Bradford by William Hardaker, oth­er­wise known as “Humbug Billy”. As a con­sequence 20 people died and over 200 were ser­i­ously ill.

Arsenic On The Walls:
Arsenic was used to pro­duce vivid green dyes and was used in the man­u­fac­ture of wall paper and paints. Over the course of time dust from the wall paper would float in the air in the room caus­ing its occu­pants to become ser­i­ously ill. Children also became ill or died from chew­ing the wall­pa­per and the paint on their cots.

Arsenic in ladies gowns and hats:
Green was a very fash­ion­able colour and arsenic dyes were used to dye the cloth from which ball gowns and hats were made from it was also used in the man­u­fac­ture of arti­fi­cial fruits which were used as dec­or­a­tion in ladies hats. It was said that a lady in green at a ball car­ried enough arsenic around with her to slay all the men at the ball.

Sickness Of Artificial Flower Makers:
Girls and young ladies who made arti­fi­cial flowers became ill after a short time at their work because they would be work­ing for four­teen hours a day, exposed to the dust from arti­fi­cial leaves and stems of the flowers. It is said they didn’t live to a great age.

The 1900 Arsenic Poisoning Epidemic:
This mani­fes­ted itself in beer drink­ers around Salford and Manchester and was attrib­uted to arsenic con­tam­in­a­tion in cheap beers made using con­tam­in­ated gluc­ose from Bostock & Co, sugar refiners of Garston, which had been made using sul­phuric acid con­tain­ing arsenic, sup­plied by a firm in Leeds (Nicholson & Son). Over 6,000 people suffered from pois­on­ing and at least 70 died. The real death toll was prob­ably much higher because many deaths had been put down to chronic alco­hol pois­on­ing , cir­rhosis of the liver, Addison’s dis­ease or other causes.

Rod Amos related many more instances when poison was used to enhance looks, includ­ing arsenic in cos­metic potions to make ladies skin look paler. Arsenic was also used by taxi­derm­ists to pre­serve their work; under­takers used it in embalm­ing to pre­serve bodies.  In the 18th Century red lead was put into Double Gloucester cheese to make it more attract­ive. The list goes on!

We had a thor­oughly enter­tain­ing morn­ing and we look for­ward to another talk by Rod.