Sunday, November 15, 2015
Arsenic and Crime by C.J.S. Thompson 1904
Arsenic and Crime by C.J.S. Thompson 1904
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ARSENIC has, perhaps, been more frequently used than any other poison for criminal purposes. It was known to the ancient Greeks in the form of the yellow sulphide, commonly called orpiment. It is found in Greece and Hungary. Its bright yellow colour caused many of the early alchemists to consider it the key to the Philosopher’s Stone, and this is said to be grounded on some enigmatical verse in the
Sibylline oracles. The Emperor Caligula, according to Pliny, ordered a great quantity of orpiment to be melted and manipulated, so that the gold it was supposed to contain might be extracted from it.
Arsenic is the agent most commonly employed for criminal purposes in India, doubtless because it can be both easily and cheaply obtained. The reports of the analyst to the Bombay Government throw considerable light on the methods pursued by Indian poisoners. The poison is usually given in sweetmeats, and generally by a “strange woman,” who has been met in the street and who mysteriously disappears. This “strange woman” is found in every analyst’s report for the past twenty years, and under much the same circumstances. Most of the cases are typical of the people among whom they occur, as, for instance, the following:
“In a Scinde district a man went into a shop one day and entered into friendly conversation with a stranger he met there. On parting, by way of thanking him, the stranger presented him with some sweets for distribution among his friends. The result was that five men and a boy were poisoned, and the obliging stranger has never been heard of since.”
The professional poisoner in India—for there are many such—is rarely caught or even suspected. In a large number of cases, crimes of this kind are taken little notice of by the community; and sometimes the poisoner apparently thinks nothing of poisoning a whole family in order to make sure of his victim. The utter absence of motive in the majority of cases would point to the conclusion that they were largely the result of homicidal mania.
For more than a century after the properties of arsenic were well known, there was no certain method known for its detection, and very little advance was made until the early part of this century, when Marsh discovered his test in 1836, by means of which the minutest quantities of the poison may be detected.
It is characteristic of both arsenic and mercury, that their presence may be proved and demonstrated, even in the bones, years after they have been taken. In proof of this, the following remarkable case is given. A wealthy farmer died, and was buried in the tomb where his father had been interred thirty-five years before. An examination of certain of the bones of the father revealed particles of a metallic-looking substance, which was collected and tested, and proved to be mercury. It had thus been preserved in his body for more than the third of a century, the probability being, that he had been in the habit of taking it medicinally during the latter part of his life. Another strange case came under the notice of a Bristol chemist, in which he found abundant traces of arsenic in the bodies of several young children after they had been buried eight years.
A curious story is related by the late Sir Richard Quain that came under his experience, and one which would have proved a profound mystery to this day but for his practical knowledge and acumen. He was asked to make a post-mortem examination on the body of a man who was by trade a stone-mason. To continue the story in his own words, “One day, on coming in to his dinner, he went into the scullery, washed his hands, and, going into the kitchen, he said to his wife, ‘It is all over; I have taken poison.’ ‘ What have you taken?’ ’ ‘Arsenic,’ he replied, and she at once took him off to the Western General Dispensary. The senior surgeon was out when they got there, but two young pupils of his happened to be in, who thought it was a very important case, and they would treat it pretty actively. So they gave him tartar emetic, pumped out the stomach, and pumped oxide of iron into it, and and a good many other operations they performed. The poor man was extremely ill, and died in twenty-four hours. The coroner’s beadle went to the chemist and said: ‘How did you come to sell this man poison?’ He replied, ‘I sold him no poison; I thought he was off his head when he came.’ ‘What did you give him?’ ‘Oh, I gave him some alum and cream of tartar and labelled it poison.’ ‘He swallowed this, in the belief it was arsenic,’ says Sir Richard. ‘When I made the post-mortem examination, to my amazement I found a great deal of arsenic in the stomach. This was rather puzzling. I said, if it is in the stomach it ought to go further down. So I searched the intestines, but there was no trace of arsenic anywhere. The simple explanation of it was this, these two young fellows, horrified to find the man had died without taking arsenic after all, pumped some into the stomach.”
Another instance that terminated in a less tragic manner, in which a would-be suicide was frustrated by a watchful chemist, happened some years ago.
One morning a tall, decently dressed man, of seafaring aspect, entered a chemist’s shop in the neighbourhood of the docks of a northern seaport, and in a solemn and confidential manner asked for a shilling’s worth of strong laudanum.
“For what purpose do you require it?” asked the chemist.
“Well, you see, sir,” the man explained, “I’ve just come off a voyage from ’Frisco, and I find my sweetheart has gone off with Jim, you see, sir, and now it’s all up with me. Give me a strong dose, please, and if you don’t think a shilling’s worth will be enough___"
“But, my good man___" interrupted the chemist.
“I’ll shoot myself if not, sir, I will.”
“All right, then,” said the chemist; and, seeing argument was useless, he proceeded to mix an innocent but nauseous draught of aloes.
“Now put in a shilling’s worth of arsenic.”
“Very well,” replied the chemist, adding some harmless magnesia.
“And you might as well throw in a shilling’s worth of prussic acid,” said the broken-hearted lover.
The chemist carefully measured a little essence of almonds into the glass, and handed it to the would-be suicide. He paid, swallowed it at one draught, and solemnly walked out of the shop.
Crossing the street, which was quiet at the time, he deliberately laid himself flat on his back on the footpath, and closed his eyes.
A group of children gathered round, and stood gazing with their eyes and mouths open in wonderment, and an occasional passer-by stopped a moment, cast a glance at the unwonted sight, and then passed on.
After lying thus quite motionless for about five minutes, he suddenly raised his head, took a look round, then with one bound jumped to his feet and made off as hard as he could run.
It is a curious fact that arsenic has been the favourite medium of female poisoners from very early times; and in two celebrated poisoning cases of later years, in both of which women were accused of murder by the administration of arsenic, the plea that the poison had been used by them for cosmetic purposes has been put forward to account for having it in their possession. The effect of arsenic on the skin is well known, and that it is frequently used, both internally and externally, to improve the skin, by women, is an undoubted fact. [The recent rage for the so-called arsenical soaps which are supposed to improve the complexion and are being extensively used by women, goes to corroborate this statement.] That such a practice may lead to the taking of arsenic as a confirmed habit there is also evidence to prove, and the writer has met with more than one instance, in which the habit of taking solution of arsenic in large quantities has been contracted by women.
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