A Poisonous Method : Arsenic

By Krysia Weir

‘A Poisonous Method’ is an up and coming trilogy of lectures that focus on the statistics, economics and social issues that were caused by common poisons in 19th century Scotland. Unfortunately, the easy accessibility of numerous poisons facilitated the murders of many Scottish citizens. This first part of the series focuses on the use of arsenic as a murder weapon as well as discussing its role in the economy and impact on society.

Known as ‘inheritance powder’, arsenic is a harmless chemical element in its natural form but can be processed into cheap and toxic arsenic trioxide, which was readily sold as rat poison from the local chemist’s in 19th century Scotland. Arsenic was additionally used in this period to stuff animals, create green dyes, and preserve flowers. Its common use and ability to be absorbed through the skin led to many members of the public receiving repeated low level doses of arsenic.

Tasteless, odourless and soluble in hot liquids meant this compound was the ideal choice of poison for murder. Once absorbed into the bloodstream a high dose of arsenic could cause a fatality in as little as 2 days with the victim initially suffering from heart failure resulting in them entering a comatose state,  before they finally succumb to death Poisoning via this method was highly successful since the symptoms were the same as those for common diseases.

Diverging from arsenic, the lecture progresses to discuss how the prevalence of poisoning eventually led to the involvement of the authorities and the medical community. This participation caused the fast decline of arsenic related murders due to public and medical campaigns which resulted in arsenics being regulated. Additionally, these campaigns led to the regular use of medical witnesses and forensic evidence in court to prove a crime has occurred. For those with a fascination in medical and criminal cases of the past this series is a must see!

Future lectures of the trilogy

A Poisonous Method: Opium

The availability of opium in 19th century Scotland, without the requirement for a prescription, made criminal intent very difficult to prove. This lecture summarises the tragic history of opium’s involvement with infanticide cases, as well as the related economic and social history by focusing on unique cases. Additionally, the curator of the Surgeons’ Hall Museum will discuss the medical evidence required for a conviction.

A Poisonous Method: Acid

This rare form of poisoning generates some of the most painful symptoms possible. ‘A Poisonous Method: Acid’ focuses on the types of acid poisoning that were available in the 19th century and highlights the famous acid poisoning trials.

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