Early Forensics: The Dittrick Museum Blog

L0057809 Blue ridged glass bottle for arsenic, Europe, 1701-1935Are you interested in the contents of that lovely blue bottle? It is the subject of murder and mayhem in the 19th century–a plague if arsenic poisonings!

Forensic science had a long history before CSI and other detective shows made it popularly regarded. At the Dittrick Museum of Medical History,  we hope to explore more of this rich history for a spring exhibit: Steampunk, Sherlock, and Forensics (details not yet available). To whet your appetite, here is a teaser–go to the Dittrick blog page for the rest of this blog post! As for details on the event, they will be forthcoming as available.

From Early Forensics: The Problem of Arsenic, Dittrick Museum

In the early part of the 19th century, a fine, white powder was all the rage among murderers (and some would-be beneficiaries). It was easy to acquire and easy to administer, too. Tasteless and colorless, it might be added to food or water and ingested. It was even called the “inheritor’s powder” because it aided in the rapid passing of the rich and elderly.

What was arsenic doing on shelves to be purchased, you might ask? In the 19th century, arsenic was used in wallpaper, beer, wine, sweets, painted toys, insecticides, clothing, hat ornaments, coal, and candles (A further list of uses may be found in James C. Whorton’s The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play). But of course, arsenic is still used today, frequently an ingredient in ant poison and insecticides; Michael Swango, a 20th century Dr. Death, used arsenic to sicken his colleagues before going on to kill his patients with other drugs. Swango got caught–but early 19th century poisoners did not. Why? (…read more…)

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