Earlier this summer I was fascinated to see that a Toronto Museum (The Bata Shoe Museum, to be specific. I can’t even imagine an entire museum dedicated to shoes. My head might explode) is doing an exhibition about poisoned garments. It reminded me of a story that I heard while living in Florence, about a Medici woman who died of poisoning via ballgown. Curiosity piqued, I decided to do a little research to see if I could dig up the poor woman’s name, and verify the usage of fashion as murder weapon.
While I couldn’t verify the story I’d heard, I did find a lot of fascinating information on historical dyes and all of the interesting ways they could cause insanity and death, from the mercury that caused “Mad Hatter’s Disease” to hazardous chemicals found in our own clothing today. Call it a morbid fascination if you will, but the more research I did, the more I wanted to know.
Arsenic is a common poison used for pest control (including troublesome spouses, siblings, parents, rivals, and political figures) since ancient times. Metallic in origin, it occurs naturally in everything from soil to the human body, though rarely in concentrations large enough to kill…at least until humans get involved. Arsenic has been a vehicle for murder since it’s discovery, and was an unchallenged favorite for the homicidally inclined well into the 1800s. Easily mistaken for flour, sugar, or baking soda, it can be easily added to any meal or beverage. Lethal in small doses, odorless, tasteless, and undetectable in corpses until 1836, acute arsenic poisoning mimics the symptoms of several common diseases (especially cholera), with the key elements being tightness in the throat, difficulty swallowing, cramps, nausea, and vomiting.
Sprinkling a few grains into a (not so) loved one’s meal would go unnoticed for about ten minutes, perhaps longer, while the poison is digested and absorbed into the blood stream. As the blood vessels react and become inflamed, the throat constricts making it hard to breathe and swallow. As the poison races through the body, the other symptoms quickly follow, including violent bouts of retching. Once the stomach has been emptied, the bowels may follow. Dehydration sets in as water is pulled from all parts of the body to replace what is lost, but any attempts to drink will only set off another spasm.
The strain on all bodily systems eventually prove too much for the heart, and death can follow as quickly as two hours after ingestion, but unfortunate souls have been known to linger up to two weeks.
If the dangers of arsenic were so well known—and so savage—from such an early time, then how did it come to be used in clothing as late as the 1890s?
To answer that, we have to go back over three thousand years.
The word arsenic has roots in several languages, and can be traced back through French, Latin, Greek, Persian, and finally to Syriac, though it is the Persian (“zarnikh”) which gives us our first hints of every day danger: zarnikh translates literally to “gold-colored.” King Tut himself was buried with a pouch colored with orpiment, a yellow arsenic dye that was popular with alchemy enthusiasts, as it was thought to be derived from gold itself. This made arsenic a popular ingredient for those searching to turn lead into gold, though a more accurate subheading for the study might be “1,001 Uses for Poison.” It was used to create ink and paint, and can be found in both the Book of Kells and the Taj Mahal. Orpiment had a red counterpart that was popular for pottery about the same time called realgar. These two pigments sparked a craving for arsenic-based colors that would last until 1900.