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.