Review – Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and Their Victims – Crime/History/English History

Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and their Victims – by Katherine Watson


From Mary Ann Cotton, the Victorian serial murderess, to Dr Crippen, poisoners have attracted a celebrity unmatched by violent killers. Secretly administered, often during a family meal, arsenic (the most commonly-used poison) led to a slow and agonising death, while strychnine (with its characteristic bitter taste) killed very quickly. Poisoned Lives is the first history of the crime to examine poisoning and its consequences as a whole. Unwanted husbands, wives or lovers, illegitimate babies, children killed for the insurance money, relatives, rivals and employers were amongst the many victims of these calculating killers. Difficult to detect before 1800, poison undoubtedly had its heyday in the nineteenth century. In response to many suspected cases, forensic tests were developed that made detection increasingly likely, and the sale of poisons became more tightly controlled. Because of this, twentieth-century poisoning has become a crime largely associated with medical professionals including, most recently, Dr Harold Shipman, the world’s most prolific serial killer.

5 stars

Many of the true crime books focus solely on the murders themselves, as one would expect. Usually the same twenty or so crimes are discussed and not often in detail. This book is different. Over 500 cases from 19th century to the early 20th century are included, although many as comparisons and not in detail. That said the author does a great job of discussing the ‘whys and wherefores’ of the crimes – the societal aspects, how they changed, the rise of the police force, and the increased awareness of poisoning as a crime. Before the 1900s sanitary conditions amongst the poor were dire, life expectancy short and infant mortality high. Many of the cases discussed, and the situations covered reflect this – people poisoning as to not have another mouth to feed, to get a few pounds from the ‘burial clubs’ which sprang up, ostensibly to help the poor, and the new ‘life insurance’ schemes which abounded. Poisoning is viewed as the most despicable of crimes; usually it is a slow and very painful process, and often the perpetrator is well known to the victim – spouse, parent, servant, nurse/doctor. It’s easy to judge by the modern standards when life expectation is relatively high, health provision freely available (in the UK at least), a social security system, divorce attainable, much less stigma on illegitimacy and very few people are truly desperately poor. Oh and poison is much harder to get. But one must realise that sometimes disposal of an unwanted, violent spouse, was the only way out some people could see. There were simply no viable alternatives.

Watson discusses the changing views and social ideas – the emerging rights of women; ideas pertaining towards mental illness; religious and moral ideology and the rise of the forensic scientist, the role of the coroner and much more. It’s a potted history which changes vastly over time.  This, I think, is the most fascinating aspect. There is no sensationalisation of the cases – which sometimes appears in books on true crime – the subjects are dealt with in a sympathetic way. It’s a book of tragedy – lost lives, destroyed lives, desperation and the depths of human misery, but there is also hope. Murder by poison is rare now and more easily diagnosed. And society is not as brutish, or terrifying as once it was for the common person.

Well researched, well argued and highly interesting I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in true crime, 19th Century history, the rise of science and the social reasons for crime.


The Elements of Murder – Book Review and Brief Summary.

The Elements of Murder

This is not your run of the mill true crime book, it’s a good deal more – with scientific analysis of the poisonous elements and interesting chapters on other uses. Each element only has one or two murder cases discussed in detail, and the rest comprises of more scientific information, such as a particular element’s place in the natural world, whether we need it to survive and medical or industrial uses. There are cases discussed dealing with accidental imbibing, including historical hypotheses (such as Napeoleon’s arsenic-laced wallpaper, Roman emperors and lead poisoning, and unsolved cases where poisons may have been involved. Some of these deaths turned the course of history (such as the mental illness and infertility of many of the Roman leaders, the madness of King George III, and the death of Bonaparte.

It’s interesting to trace the history of such elements, some of which were (or are) used in a medical capacity. One such example is Fowlers Solution – a medicinal tonic and treat-all which was arsenic-based; overdoses were a reality and adding a little extra to the mix was not unheard of. This concoction was responsible for more than one end – a helping hand was given or self-inflicted. James Maybrick (who was at one point considered a candidate for Jack the Ripper), was poisoned with arsenic. He was, by many accounts a self-dosing hypochondriac and was using Fowlers Solution, amongst other ‘medicenes’. His wife, Florence, was tried for his murder (after distilling arsenic from flypapers – also a Victorian practice to produce a face wash). Florence had an affair (or a couple) and was mostly tried on this behaviour, proving the hypocrisy of the time as James had a mistress and five illegitimate kids. Did she do it? The jury thought so but many advocates of her cause say she was innocent and the poison was taken by James himself, or planted by family members who didn’t like her.  My point is – there were legitimate uses for poisons in the right quantities.

The rising technology and scientific method in the 19th century led to arsenic, antimony and other poisons being more easily traceable. Many of the symptoms of the poisoning would resemble other illness, particularly gastrointestinal disorders, dysentery etc. at a time when food hygiene and personal hygiene were rather lacking.

See links for Marsh Test

Mercury based medicine came to be used in the treatment of syphilis, but mercury and mercury vapour are toxic. In many cases the mercury would kill the patient if the syphilis didn’t. Mercury was often seen as a wonder element;  it was even thought to prolong life in China and Tibet, and the ancient Egyptians used balms and tonics made from mercury compounds, and the Romans used mercury cosmetics.

This unusual element was at one time thought to be First Matter, from which all other metals derived, and alchemists used it (and were poisoned by it) in the search for transmutation.

Its unusual properties gave an almost mythic status but this dangerous metal caused all sorts of unpleasantness. Mercury usages in industry include use in batteries, dentistry, paper and paint manufacturing, and gold and silver mining. Artists used vermillion paint, which is made from cinnabar (a mercury compound) and it’s thought many of Van Gogh’s mental health illnesses could be linked to mercury poisoning from his paints.

The wiki page for mercury poisoning states: ‘ Common symptoms of mercury poisoning include peripheral neuropathy, presenting as paresthesia or itching, burning, pain, or even a sensation that resembles small insects crawling on or under the skin (formication); skin discoloration (pink cheeks, fingertips and toes); swelling; and desquamation (shedding or peeling of skin).

Mercury irreversibly inhibits selenium-dependent enzymes (see below) and may also inactivate S-adenosyl-methionine, which is necessary for catecholamine catabolism by catechol-O-methyl transferase. Due to the body’s inability to degrade catecholamines (e.g. epinephrine), a person suffering from mercury poisoning may experience profuse sweating, tachycardia (persistently faster-than-normal heart beat), increased salivation, and hypertension (high blood pressure).

Affected children may show red cheeksnose and lips, loss of hairteeth, and nails, transient rashes, hypotonia (muscle weakness), and increased sensitivity to light. Other symptoms may include kidney dysfunction (e.g. Fanconi syndrome) or neuropsychiatric symptoms such as emotional labilitymemory impairment, or insomnia.

Thus, the clinical presentation may resemble pheochromocytoma or Kawasaki diseaseDesquamation (skin peeling) can occur with severe mercury poisoning acquired by handling elemental mercury.’


Thallium was used in medicine as a ringworm treatment – one of the effects is hair loss so a patient would be given thallium so any ringworm or other parasites could be treated. It was the standard use for hair removal for 50 years. Thallium is used to make lenses, in smelting, and insecticides. There have been ancient and modern cases of it being used for evil. For me the most interesting case example was the Graham Young case, as the man in question came from a town not far from where I grew up (Bovingdon). I’m familiar with the case from previous books but this account was detailed and complimented the scientific accounts of this metallic poison.

The great Agatha Christie used thallium as the murder element in her story The Pale Horse – where she describes the effects of this poison, which was little known at the time.

Overall as a book on poisons and murder this is certainly one of the better offerings. The author clearly has done a good deal of research, and chosen suitable but not always common cases to review. The scientific side of the poisons is rarely put forward in such books. Perhaps not a book for the casual reader, as some knowledge of chemistry would be a help.

Recommended for true-crime buffs, historians, and those who enjoy the science of crime.

5 stars.