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Poison, Detection, and the Victorian Imagination

Ian Burney

(Manchester University Press; US: Jun 2012)

Poison—it’s hardly a new concept. Even in the Victorian era, it wasn’t new. From Socrates to Shakespeare, by the time Queen Victoria took the throne, poison already had a well-established history as a method for murder.


Still, for whatever reason, everything seems more complicated (or seems to have more meaning) when it’s prefaced by the term Victorian. Poison, murder, toxicology—all interesting, in a macabre sort of way, in any time period, but perhaps only in the 19th century do we have essays titled “On Murder, considered as one of the fine arts” and, later on in the century, poison hunters.


We also have Ian Burney’s Poison, Detection, and the Victorian Imagination, a brief but detailed examination of the historical, cultural, and literary facets of poison in the mid-19th century.


The book opens with a bang, telling us that in 1827, throat cutting might have been seen as the “honest” way of killing, but by 1859 Victorians had begun “to recognize the delights of ‘a good poisoning case’, in which the criminal ‘moves through circumstances of mystery,…and keeps brains puzzling, and hearts throbbing, and betting books going, until the verdict is given”. And by the 1860s, poison was sometimes considered “the poetry of homicide”.


Burney provides statistics: 59 poisoning cases were reported in The Times between 1830 and 1839, but hundreds were reported in the 1840s. Of these hundreds of cases in the 1840s, 60 percent involved female killers, and in almost 70 percent of the cases, arsenic was the poison of choice. He also notes numerous novels with poisonous plotlines, discusses what makes a poison a poison (instead of a medication), and talks about scientific advances and the rise of toxicology, but the most interesing parts of the book are often the stories Burney tells.


Consider the case of Captain John Donnellan who was accused of poisoning his brother-in-law, Sir Boughton, with arsenic. Lady Boughton, Sir Boughton’s mother, gave her son what was supposed to be “‘the most gentle and innocent’ medicinal draught” and then her son died. Much of the prosecution’s case was based on the smell of this draught. Lady Boughton’s exact words when asked, on the stand, to sniff a poisonous mixture: “This smells very like the smell of the medicine which I gave him”. Based primarily on this evidence, Burney relates, Donnellan was convicted and subsequently executed. 


The major story, though, is the crime of that century: the case of William Palmer. The book opens with his last words “I am innocent of poisoning Cook by strychnine”. While the book begins with this quote, and a brief overview of Palmer’s trial, including the fact that 50,000 people came to witness his execution, the main discussion of Palmer’s case is in chapter four, aptly titled “The Crime of the Age: the Case of William Palmer”.


On the surface, and by modern standards, Palmer’s crime(s) might seem somewhat ordinary. If the accusations were true, he poisoned people to cash in on insurance money. However, the way Burney describes it, Palmer’s case was about more than just murder; it also illustrated many of the societal concerns prevalent in England in the 1850s. An 1855 newspaper article described one such concern: “If you feel a deadly sensation within, and grow gradually weaker, how do you know that you are not poisoned? If your hands tingle, do you not fancy that it is arsenic?... your friends and relations all smile kindly upon you; the meal at each period of the day is punctual and looks correct; but how can you possibility tell that there is not arsenic in the curry?”


Palmer’s case also brought certain scientific concerns front and center. For example, Palmer was a physician and one paper noted “Give a medical man motives for getting rid of his patient, and it is clear that he has the man at his mercy… your medical man can always poison you if he chooses; and unless he is very clumsy… he can poison you without detection”.


Other issues were more economical in nature. In the 19th century, life insurance was not entirely respectable. While some regarded it as “one of the greatest blessings of the age”, others remembered insurance’s connections to gambling: “The origins of life insurance… lay in a convergence of commerce and gambling, involving… the use of policies as a way for gamblers to wager on lives in which they had no direct financial interest”. As Burney makes clear, Palmer took out life insurance policies on those he was thought to have killed, making life insurance yet another societal concern connected to this crime.


Burney packs a great deal into 200 or so pages (particularly considering the number of pages devoted to notes). The research is impeccable, and the quotes from Victorian periodicals and newspapers add a great deal to the book. Like many academic texts, the language can be a little daunting, but the “interdisciplinary professional” part of the audience will probably expect it. Whether or not “all those interested in the darker side of Victorian society” will enjoy this style is another question.

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