While my search into the history of arsenic dyes did not dredge up any stories of mysterious Medici deaths-by-ball-gown, I did pull up a few interesting tidbits on historical and mythological poisoned garments.
Perhaps the earliest cases come from the Greeks, and the story of Madea. When her lover Jason betrays her, she sends a poisoned robe and diadem to his new woman. The garment kills not only the intended victim, but also her father has he tries to remove the terrible garment.
Another Greek myth is that of Heracles and the Shirt of Nessus. This time the murder is accidental, when Heracles’ wife is tricked into giving him a chiton doused with the blood of the centaur, which “corrodes his flesh” and results in the hero throwing himself on a funeral pyre.
The one historical reference I found to actual murder (rather than myth) comes from India. In 1870, the Manual of Medical Jurisprudence for India (essentially the forensic pathologist’s handbook of the day) detailed many crimes and poisons specific to the sub-continent, including 3 cases of poisoned khilat (ceremonial robes) treated with contact poisons.
The rash of poisonings in the early and mid 1800s eventually lead to legislation regarding the labeling, storage, handling, sales, and general treatment of poisons intended for the open market and household use. If you think, however, that the days of dangerous dresses have passed, however, then you’d be mistaken. Even today hazardous chemicals like formaldehyde are used in clothing to set dyes and create a wrinkle free finish. In the United States, this can be used on any textile and no additional labeling is required except in California, but even those labels are not required to state the chemical or the percentage used, only that they are “known to cause cancer in the state of California,” though other side effects such as skin irritation can also result. The urban legend of the “poisoned dress,” rooted in the 1930s, involved an embalming fluid-soaked dress (frequently a wedding dress) removed from a body for one reason or another and then returned/pawned/thrifted and then resold to an unsuspecting young woman, who then dies of inhaled or contact absorption. While this would be almost impossible, it has been immortalized many times in print, film, and television, notably CSI: NY’s episode “To Death Do Us Part.”
I hope that you’ve found this series as interesting to read as I did to write. If you would like more information, my list of sources can be found below:
“Arsenic, the Victorian Viagra That Poisoned Britain.” Canadian Content Forums RSS. The Daily Mail, n.d. Web. 30 Aug. 2014. <http://forums.canadiancontent.net/history/89558-arsenic-victorian-viagra-poisoned-britain.html>.
“Arsenic.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 30 Aug. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arsenic#History>.
Bernard, Tara Siegel. “When Wrinkle-Free Clothing Also Means Formaldehyde Fumes.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 Dec. 2010. Web. 31 Aug. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/11/your-money/11wrinkle.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&>.
“Current Exhibition: Fashion Victims.” Current Exhibition: Fashion Victims. The Bata Shoe Museum, n.d. Web. 30 Aug. 2014. <http://www.batashoemuseum.com/exhibitions/fashion_victims/index.shtml>.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Penicillin (drug).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 30 Aug. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/449849/penicillin>.
Gordon, Martin E. “Arsenics and Old Places.” The Lancet. Elsevier, 8 July 2000. Web. 30 Aug. 2014. <http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%252805%252973189-5/fulltext>.
Hartree, Naomi. “Arsenic Poisoning | Doctor | Patient.co.uk.” Patient.co.uk. Ed. Richard Draper. Egton Medical Information Systems Limited, 22 June 2011. Web. 30 Aug. 2014. <http://www.patient.co.uk/doctor/Arsenic-Poisoning.htm>.
Haywood, John K., and Harry J. Warner. Arsenic in Papers and Fabric. Rep. Washington, D.C.: US Government, 1904. Arsenic in Papers and Fabrics. Archive.org, 2007. Web. 30 Aug. 2014. <http://archive.org/stream/arsenicinpapersf00haywrich/arsenicinpapersf00haywrich_djvu.txt>.
Hempel, Sandra. The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science. N.p.: W. W. Norton, 2013. Print.
“Let Us Ask the Maiden.” The Murdoch Mysteries. CBC. Toronto, Ontario, 13 May 2009. Television.
“The Last Kiss.” Snopes. Snopes, 30 July 2006. Web. 30 Aug. 2014. <http://www.snopes.com/horrors/poison/dress.asp>.
“Medea Summary.” Study Guides & Essay Editing. GradeSaver LLC, n.d. Web. 30 Aug. 2014. <http://www.gradesaver.com/medea/study-guide/short-summary/>.
Meharg, Andrew. “Killer Wallpaper.” Popular Science. Popular Science, 21 June 2010. Web. 30 Aug. 2014. <http://www.popularscience.co.uk/?p=509>.
“Poison Dress.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 30 Aug. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poison_dress>.
“Poisoners and Polkas.” Punch 15 Nov. 1862: 197. Google Books. Google. Web. 30 Aug. 2014. <http://books.google.com/books?id=04ZEAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA197&lpg=PA197&dq=poisoned+gowns&source=bl&ots=HXF2ECHX6L&sig=SaFJKlVR3r8g6NHtXdoC0eVu5_M&hl=en&sa=X&ei=plgCVKDXCpSQNp-ogtgI&ved=0CDwQ6AEwBzgU#v=onepage&q=poisoned%20gowns&f=false>.
“Shirt of Nessus.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Aug. 2014. Web. 30 Aug. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shirt_of_Nessus>.
“Till Death Do We Part.” CSI: NY. CBS. 16 Feb. 2005. Television.