Victorian Pesticides & Homicides
This week I’m speaking at the Bainbridge Island Historical Society about the intriguing relationship between Victorian pest controls and the rise of the murder mystery as a popular form of fiction. It’s pretty fascinating, since Victorian gardeners struggled with many garden pests, just as we do today, and their pest controls were direct and simple. During the mid- to late Victorian period, a boatload of toxins were developed, giving them an almost incredible arsenal of deadly poisons to play with. Indeed, the lethal ingredients found in typical garden sheds inspired several generations of murderers as well as mystery writers.
Murders made headlines then as now, and sensational cases were followed by people of every class, from the kitchen to the drawing room. Mid-century pharmacies sold all sorts of toxins in glass bottles marked “poison” with no other identification, making “mistakes” dead simple. Anyone could buy arsenic or strychnine for killing rats and mice, then absent mindedly use it to remove a nagging spouse or wealthy uncle. Anyone could buy half an ounce of pure, odorless, tasteless arsenic for a penny at any pharmacy, though after a while, purchasers had to sign a register.
The Lady Killer
Another common way to effect a quiet, often unsuspected exit for an inconvenient relative was to overdose them with laudanum. Tightly corseted women had a hard enough time just breathing and no one was surprised if ladies given to fainting fit simply didn’t come round at some point. An over the counter “herbal cure”, laudanum was frequently used for sleeplessness, nerves, or stress, and was particularly popular for controlling ladies of delicate sensibility. This deadly stuff found its way into many a nursery as well, since it was considered a sovereign remedy for fussy babies, especially teething tykes (and cocaine tooth-drops for children cost only 15 cents). Described as an herbal remedy, laudanum is made from poppies, and contains every form of opiate, from morphine to cocaine to heroin. It’s rather amazing to learn that laudanum is still legally prescribed in the US, sold as Opium Tincture USP.
The Victorians didn’t stop at poisoning pests and each other, they also poisoned themselves. Early Bayer ads touted both the brand new aspirin and pure heroin, promoted as ‘the sedative for coughs’ as in Smith’s Glyco-Heroine, the ideal cough syrup. In the US, cocaine was sold over the counter until 1914 and was commonly found in products like toothache drops, dandruff remedies and medicinal tonics. Coca wine combined wine with cocaine, producing a compound now known as cocaethylene, which, when ingested, is nearly as powerful a stimulant as cocaine. Mrs. Winslow’s soothing syrup, “the mother’s friend for teething children” contained morphine and Warner’s Safe Cure for liver and kidney complaints was largely high proof alcohol.
Rats, Mice, And Murder
Read any household encyclopedia from the 19th century – even up to the mid 20th century – and you will find all sorts of noxious chemicals recommended for household use. Rat poison was almost pure arsenic, which was also used to bleach skin to proper fairness (!!!) and make hair glossy. Heritage pesticides often included mercury, strychnine, nicotine, and copper and pretty much all of them were used as an exit strategy for people as well as pest critters. Plant poisons were also prevalent, and though today, they can be identified through an autopsy or blood work, back in the day, many were the “undetectable” toxins beloved of many a budding mystery writer.
The Victorian garden itself offered many an easy way to get rid of an excess of relatives, from foxgloves (source for digitalis) to tobacco. Tobacco extracts are extremely toxic and were used to kill all sorts of things, from hornworms to husbands. I was interested to learn that tobacco is making a comeback as a pesticide/fungicide since health issues have reduced the popularity of smoking. Even when the nicotine is extracted, tobacco bio-oil kills off a wide range of fungi, bacteria, and even the Colorado Potato Beetle, which is notoriously resistant to pesticides. Full circle!