Poison Panic, by Helen Barrell

Poison Panic: Arsenic Deaths in 1840s Essex (2016), by Helen Barrell, recounts the moral panic surrounding a series of deaths, allegedly by arsenic, in Essex during the early Victorian period.  It focuses on three individuals – Sarah Chesham, Mary May and Hannah Southgate – who were all, in different ways and for different reasons, suspected of having committed murder by the administration of arsenic.  She details their backgrounds, characters and relationships, and how they found themselves in their predicament.  In the process she paints a picture of rural life, particularly the difficulties of women living hard lives, with no property rights and often in unsatisfactory marriages.

Arsenic was cheap and remarkably easy to obtain over the counter as it had an extensive number of uses, some of a domestic nature which made it available to women.  It was used as a fungicide, in sheep dip, in barns and at home to kill vermin, to make glass and lead shot, and in a green dye that had a variety of purposes, including for clothing and wallpaper.  Used externally it was considered to have medicinal properties, and was used in cosmetics.  The effects of arsenic poisoning were similar to gastric symptoms, so its ingestion was not automatically obvious.

Unfortunately, its ready availability went hand in hand with an insouciant attitude to storage where it could easily contaminate foodstuffs.  Intentional poisoning was far rarer than accidental ingestion, but it is surprising there were not more instances of the latter, and such carelessness made it difficult to distinguish accident from malign intent.  Poisoning was historically associated with women, so it was easy to assume death from it was the result of a deliberate act, potentially leading to miscarriages of justice.

Add some snobbery, unfriendly neighbours, and the growing influence of a press, largely unfettered by regulation, whipping up public disapprobation (suggesting for example that the three women had formed a criminal conspiracy), and it is easy to see how ambiguous circumstances could be transformed into a certainty of guilt in the public and judicial minds.  The social situation was important in the ‘hungry 40s’ too, with the presence of cholera, high mortality rates and simmering unrest at home and abroad contributing to a sense of unease that could easily find release in the search for scapegoats.

One may have assumed the social currents that drove the earlier witchcraft trials had been swept away by this time, but suspicion could still take on a reality that put women on the gallows.  Belonging to a burial club, seen as enabling a policyholder to turn a profit, the inconvenience of illegitimate offspring, and the impossibility of divorce for most people, provided motives.  The ease of acquiring arsenic and slipping it into a meal provided the means, the dark underside of a wife’s household duties.  At a time when life expectancy was short, infant mortality high, and determining a cause of death not always precise, it was easy for speculation to flourish.

In teasing out these issues, Barrell has plumbed the archives, and the timeline of the cases and their linkages are set out clearly.  She explores the class and gender issues the trials highlight, as well as the nascent disciplines of forensics and toxicology; the scientific approach is shown to be developing in this period, with tests used on bodies to detect arsenic, though these were not infallible.  Of the women who were charged, those who could not afford representation in court, were illiterate, and had no opportunity to prepare their defence while in custody, were at a disadvantage compared to those who came from higher up the social scale with the means to retain counsel.

Newspapers often wheeled out stories for a fresh audience years after the conclusion of a case, complete with old, and sometimes new, inaccuracies.  Outraging middle-class readers over the breakfast table, whatever the actual facts had been, was profitable.  Finally, prodded by the climate of opinion following the scandals of the 1840s, the government discussed ways to control the acquisition of poison, introducing the poisons register in 1851, though the system was far from foolproof because it still provided opportunities to purchase lethal substances, and they continued to cause deaths by accident, suicide and murder.

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