March 08, 2004

Don't Eat the Dumplings!

Posted by Ed

In recent weeks, I've seen quite a few newspaper and magazine articles describing untraditional historical studies. Just today, for example, Michael Kammen of Cornell has published a Chronicle of Higher Education article describing his new book on how the four seasons have been viewed in American history. Of all the books I've come across, however, the most entertaining is probably Katherine Watson's "lip-smackingly gruesome history of poisoning," which was reviewed in Saturday's Guardian. It doesn't exactly sound like profound history, but it does sound like an entertaining read.

What makes the book sound so intriguing? Consider these paragraphs from The Guardian:

The typical Victorian poisoning took place in a home which was poor, but with enough spare capital to make killing worth the trouble. The typical murderer sat down to a meal with the victim.

In this lip-smackingly gruesome study of poisoning, the historian Katherine Watson examines poison from 1752, when the first scientific evidence of poisoning was presented in court, until the first world war. There were more than 50 different substances used in the 540 cases she has uncovered, but you kill according to your means and the poor used arsenic: in Yorkshire in the 1840s citizens could buy an ounce of it for twopence.


Juries often needed no medical evidence; they convicted on circumstantial evidence and their worldly knowledge. Theirs was a time in which, though men were as likely to use poison as women, the most common relationship of poisoner to victim was mother or stepmother (with wife being the second most common). Female domestic servants resorted to it to dispatch abusive employers. Women were also more likely to appear as multiple poisoners (several at one go) and as serial poisoners (repeated murders, often of successive husbands). In at least one case, in 1842, two teenage girls killed a female lodger in what today would be called a "thrill kill".

Men alone were likely to kill people while poisoning them as part of a practical joke, though how funny the victim found it, even if they survived to laugh, is questionable. Children were surprisingly likely to use poison. A Punch cartoon showed a child barely able to see over a druggist's counter buying arsenic; the youngest poisoner Watson encountered was just 11 years old.

Children were also quite likely to be poisoned. Between 1863 and 1887, homicide victims (from all causes) were more likely to be children under five than all other age groups combined, and poison took its share of this grisly toll. "I'll poison you out of the road" was a threat easily understood by children of the Victorian poor.

Courts forcing fathers to pay for the upbringing of their illegitimate children often resulted in a swift dispatch of the infant. Even more miserable were cases such as that of Rebecca Smith, who poisoned eight of her babies for fear they might "come to want", so that she could give what little food she had to the remaining child. In 1849 she became the last women to be hanged in England for the murder of her own baby

Dumplings, it seems, were an especially good vehicle for poison; hence the title of this post.

The Guardian's review left me a little confused, I have to admit: why were there so many poisonings in 18th- and 19th-century English history? (Or were there? Perhaps the cases described by Watson were more noteworthy for their gruesomeness than for their frequency...) Was the lack of regulation of poisons the main cause? How did the crime rate compare to the murder rate today?

Then again, perhaps it's the present day--when poison isn't a terribly common means of murder--that's atypical. Reading The Guardian's review, I have no idea how serious a work of history Watson's book really is. Even so, I get the clear sense that I'm ignorant of a lot of Victorian history. What makes this review so intriguing, I think, is the way it combines the familiar with the unexpected. No one who's even vaguely familiar with Dickens should be surprised that poverty and starvation faced a lot of Victorians. Nevertheless, the fact that English children were able to resort to poisoning, and the idea that this didn't surprise the readers of Punch, comes as something of a shock. But should it?

One of these days I may get around to writing about some more serious history. For now, though, I'll just indulge my interest in English crime as I wait for my dissertation proposal hearing. The excitement never dies!

Posted by Ed at March 8, 2004 01:27 PM
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