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The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play
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The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play

4.01  ·  Rating details ·  206 ratings  ·  46 reviews
Arsenic is rightly infamous as the poison of choice for Victorian murderers. Yet the great majority of fatalities from arsenic in the nineteenth century came not from intentional poisoning, but from accident. Kept in many homes for the purpose of poisoning rats, the white powder was easily mistaken for sugar or flour and often incorporated into the family dinner. It was al ...more
Hardcover, 412 pages
Published March 28th 2010 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published January 1st 2010)
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Feb 07, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: enthusiasts of Victoriana, murder mysteries, enviro issues or chemistry
Recommended to rabbitprincess by: the Guardian, I think
An extremely fascinating look at the Victorian period from the perspective of everyone's favourite poison -- arsenic, the murderer's friend, "inheritance powder", odourless and tasteless and therefore very easily mistaken ("mistaken"?) for baking powder or sugar. Whorton takes us through every aspect of life that was touched by arsenic, starting of course with its use for homicidal purposes, before wending his way through food and drink, occupational exposure, everyday household objects, clothin ...more
Feb 09, 2015 rated it really liked it
I'll go on record as saying I am utterly bewildered as to how anyone in Great Britain survived the 19th century.

Going by this book, it seems like EVERYTHING was out to get people. Their books, wallpaper, dresses, sweets, hats....even their socks were out to get them!

The most shocking thing about the book was learning that the government of Great Britain over that century were more interested in keeping industry going than protecting the lives of their citizens. It took several major poisoning ou
Margaret Sankey
From a historian of medicine, the 19th century as a minefield of unregulated chemicals available over the counter for rat killing and murder--a parade of household killings (deliberate and sordid, or just extremely stupid--the number of "I found a white powder residue at the bottom of a box in the kitchen and scraped it up to use in a cake" defenses is astonishing), apprentice mixups (hmmm, two unlabeled barrels of white powder in the store back room--one of them must be flour, right?), industri ...more
Mary Whisner
Lively writing and interesting stories woven through some of my favorite subjects: England, science, and crime.

Some readers might find that there are a few too many stories of poisoners, but I liked them. Ooh, that sounds wrong. It's not that I liked the idea of a mother poisoning her children to get the money from the small burial plans for them—or any of the other horrible stories, but I thought they were interesting. And face it, anyone who's read shelves of murder mysteries or watched a fai
Robin Stevens
Sep 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing
An absolutely fantastic and incredibly informative account of what must be one of the biggest public health scandals of the 19th century. In the 1800s arsenic was part of pretty much every industry and household good - in sweets, in wine, in wallpaper, in medicine (no, really, it was), in children's toys, in clothes ...

There are so many fascinating, horrifying stories, well-told and extremely well-researched. It's incredibly wide-ranging - at times the examples given seem almost too much. But t
Catherine Richmond
As a comprehensive look at the impact of one chemical on life in 19th century Britain, this book could have titled, "Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Arsenic, But Were Afraid to Ask." Arsenic was common and inexpensive. Uses for the chemical ranged from murder to wallpaper. I intended to research a few questions for a story I'm working on, but ended up reading the entire book. Editing to remove duplications would have been appreciated. I enjoyed the deft touches of humor, such as "Shee ...more
Jun 11, 2013 rated it really liked it
It's pretty horrifying the kinds of things that manufacturers will put into their products and sell to the public. There's some sick humor in the case of the baker who was adulterating his products by using plaster of paris instead of flour, and ended up poisoning his customers because the plaster of paris had been adulterated with arsenic (it was really cheap).

Glad that Strong Poison got a shout-out! /LordPeterWimseyFan
Jan 29, 2011 rated it really liked it
An enjoyable and engaging read! Whorton provides a good contextual background history as to the uses of arsenic pre-nineteenth century, when poisoning became the crime of the century. The book is filled with so much detail, and I particularly like the way Whorton uses real-life case studies and recounts grisly murders to support his historical research. I would definitely recommend.
CN - spousal and familial murder, historic animal abuse (experimentation)

I thought this book was excellent. Whorton relates a great deal of academic research in relatively accessible language, all the while relating the issues of arsenic in the Victorian century to relevant issues today, both in term of accidental poisoning (as in wells in Bangladesh today) and in terms of marketplace poisoning (as we discover new synthetic materials that may or may not affect our health, or, as lobbyists from c
Jul 05, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book covers in great detail the use of one of the world's most well known poisons. It could be said that it covers the area with a degree of repitition as many points are laboured several times over before the author moves on. That being said, I will never view the colour green again without thinking of arsenic.
May 22, 2017 rated it liked it
Started off interesting, but became quite repetitive.
Above all, the best and most interesting fact I got from this book is that some people are immune to arsenic.

There go my plans.
Miriam Smiley
Sep 17, 2017 rated it liked it
Educational, disturbing, but somewhat dry... Reads like a particularly entertaining doctoral thesis
Dec 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
As a chemist, this book was very interesting. How much food and drink was tainted with arsenic. OMG!
Less reviewed than it is discussed in my blog post, "Adventures in Morbid Non-fiction": https://librarianslauderdale.wordpres...

"Fashion Victims," like "Bitten by Witch Fever," also cited Whorton’s book, so I finally gave in and requested "The Arsenic Century" through ComCat. ... No wonder everyone was citing it. It’s a fascinating, occasionally funny, always horrifying, and terrifically thorough survey of the prevalence, and the many and devastating effects, of arsenic in Victorian Britain. ...
Elspeth G. Perkin
A grim and oddly fascinating look back at “the poisons of poisons”.

The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play is one book that may not be for everyone, but for me this was exactly what I have been looking for: a comprehensive well-told mixture of medical and legal case histories that involved a truly unusual portion of history and central subject. It seems I am drawn to these types of titles that can serve me well to learning more about certain eras and The A
Feb 28, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: kindle
[ This review was originally posted on my blog: ]

I’m a crime and thriller junkie, so I’m always curious about the real-life effects of poisons and the like (I also own Deadly Doses: A Writer’s Guide to Poisons by Serita Stevens and Anne Klarner), so it’s par for the course that I want to learn as much as possible about the content of my favourite books.

This book is an enlightening view to the dangers of life in Victorian Britain - everything seemed to hav
Lynnee Argabright
This is an enjoyable nonfiction read for the interested public. Its approachable (and occasionally humorous!) prose, engaging chapter openers and closers, and choice of chapter content made this a worthwhile book choice to learn about the subject of arsenic in Victorian England. I didn't know arsenic was involved in so much of societal products and therefore caused not just intentional murders and suicides but also accidental deaths and illnesses. This book includes great primary sources and man ...more
Dec 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Good background on Victorian England in several ways. When I first started reading this book, I was really disappointed. I thought I was picking up a book having to do with arsenic poisoning due to food and the presence of arsenic in things around their homes. The first few chapters were purely on people using arsenic to poison other people. It was very interesting, but that wasn't what I wanted. I knew about arsenic being a common poison used against other people, but I've been studying the pro ...more
Aug 31, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2016
Interesting read and good writing. Fascinating how long arsenic was touted as a beneficial or harmless drug! As we love/fear lead today, so the Victorians had their relationship with arsenic!

I would have liked more information on arsenic in fabrics and clothing as well as pictures of emerald/arsenic greens--I was led to this book by researching arsenic dresses (I'm a loony costume fiend with a love for history!) and wanted to know more. What information this book had on arsenical fabrics was go
Apr 16, 2016 rated it really liked it
OMG! Arsenic was everywhere! It was used in face creams and other beauty preparations. It small doses they used as medicine. Dies for fabric, wallpapers and food colorings were brightened with its addition. Children were poisoned from eating birthday confections. Toxic rooms were created with beautiful, green wallpaper. It was mistaken for various baking supplies (as people stored it in the cupboard with them) and mother would kill her family with biscuits. Beer and wine had it as a clarifier. A ...more
Mar 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
Very interesting look at how arsenic reached into what seems like almost every part of life especially in the 19th century: not just food and drink, but also wallpaper, dresses, artificial flowers, make-up ... Quite a bit about murders but even more about accidents, and the effects of industrial use of arsenic. How did anyone survive at all? Most significant perhaps for us today is the opposition to any kind of protective legislation, driven by business interests ("'Elf-and-Safety", anyone? "int ...more
Lea Wait
May 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating history of arsenic -- its uses and misuses - throughout the 19th century. Incorporating case studies, trials, industrial accidents - and non-accidents - James Whorton does an outstanding job of explaining what happened and why -- and who was involved. (Basically: everybody.) Social history at its best, and a grim reminder of what can happen when untested substances are used. Highly recommended.
Jul 28, 2010 rated it really liked it
Who knew a book about arsenic poisoning in Victorian England could be interesting? I learned quite a bit about life in Victorian England for the working class, and much about arsenic and the way it does a person in. My only negative would be to say that this book went in to too much detail at times. I just skipped over a few sections here and there. Overall, I enjoyed the book.
Dec 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
I can't believe my ancestors survived this century. Arsenic was in everything! A thoroughly engaging book, but sometimes a little repetitive in places. I really enjoyed reading about the ways arsenic was found in everyday things,food,wallpaper,clothing etc. Anyone interested in Victorian times will love this book. If you are a time traveller, remember not to touch anything green!
Feb 17, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, medicine, science
Lots of information on all the many ways arsenic got into people, including accidents that could be mistaken as murder and visa versa. Also detailed descriptions of symptoms. Would be an excellent resource for a writing setting a book in this era, especially if poison was involved. Also a good compliment to Swindled by Bee Wilson.
Jan 17, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
The symptoms of arsenic poisoning, which are covered in excruciating detail, remind me way too much of when I was having chemotherapy. This is not a book to read at the table.

As a matter of fact, arsenic actually is the chemotherapy for acute promyelocytic leukemia.
Jun 24, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: junk
The text is easily read and that is about it. The text is very moralistic and of low quality. Should have been written more than a century ago it would have certainly been something remarkable. Today it is just another christian text about sin and the women who cause it.
Madeleine McLaughlin
Mar 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Excellent history book about how Victorian goods and foods had arsenic in them and so poisoned the people. Can you believe that no one wanted to do anything about it because of laissez-faire? This book details how that all turned around. Great read on Victorian history.
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