Arsenic Poisoning

By Dr Kathryn Harkup

*Legal Disclaimer* This blog is designed as information rather than recommendation. The author cannot be held responsible for any subsequent unexplained deaths. Your search history can and will be used in evidence.

Arsenic the element is actually ok to swallow should such an occasion arise. What people are referring to when the talk of arsenic the poison is arsenic trioxide or white arsenic. So in this blog when you see arsenic I mean arsenic trioxide.

Arsenic has a long and glorious history of killing people. Its toxic properties have been known about since ancient times. When Cleopatra decided to end it all she tried out various poisons on her slaves to find the least painful. She tried arsenic and other compounds before deciding on the bite of an asp for herself.

Arsenic was a favourite of the Borgias because the symptoms of arsenic poisoning are similar enough to cholera that you can get away with it. That and your Dad being Pope and a reputation for anyone disagreeing with you dying in excruciating pain probably didn’t hurt when it came to avoiding prosecution.

After a long and distinguished history arsenic poisoning really got into its stride after the industrial revolution. The 19th century was the golden age for arsenic poisoning.  It became such a common method for disposing of wealthy relatives that it was known as ‘inheritance powder’.

Arsenic the element is commonly found in metal ores like gold and iron deposits and to get rid of the arsenic and purify the metal you can roast the ore. The arsenic reacts with oxygen in the air to produce white arsenic trioxide that condenses in the chimney. Every now and then you would need to push an urchin up the chimney to scrape off the arsenic and dump it in slag heaps.

Victorian industrialists didn’t like the idea of having piles of waste material that they couldn’t profit from so they decided to sell the arsenic to anyone who wanted to buy it and not ask too many questions. The arsenic could in fact be used for a number of things. It could be converted into sulphur or copper compounds and used as a dye because these compounds are bright red (AsS, Realgar) and bright green (Cu2AsHO3, copper arsenite or Scheel’s Green).

Victorians were extremely fond of red and green and arsenic compounds were used in almost every conceivable household object to make it look pretty. Consequently people could be poisoned by their clothes, wallpaper, candles, playing cards and even children’s toys.

If you were getting sick from exposure to arsenic compounds of course your doctor might prescribe you some medicine to treat the symptoms. One popular remedy called Fowler’s solution was initially used for skin conditions but also became a treatment for malaria, asthma and pretty much anything else. The active ingredient was of course arsenic trioxide.

You didn’t really need to go to the expense of buying medicine to get your arsenic fix as plenty of people were eating it in their food. Food like bread, sweets and even bear was often adulterated with arsenic because as a white powder it looks like either flour or sugar but was considerably cheaper.

When Victorians weren’t accidentally poisoning themselves they were of course intentionally poisoning each other. Arsenic trioxide was freely available to buy from chemists as rat poison. It was cheap and would be a perfectly normally addition to any shopping list. Suddenly poisoning was something that anyone could do not just people with power and money.

As I said earlier the symptoms of arsenic poisoning are a lot like cholera or a bad stomach bug in that it causes vomiting and diarrhoea. This is good as you can blame the death of a relative on an infection but bad because the victim often vomits up most of the poison and you have to keep administering more. Many poisoners seem to have been remarkably attentive nurses when their husbands suddenly became ill.

So how does arsenic trioxide actually kill you? It’s all down to the arsenic ion inside the body. Arsenic is just below phosphorus in the periodic table making them chemically quite similar and your body isn’t very good at distinguishing between the two. All the roles that phosphorus normally performs in your body such as forming bones, holding DNA together, electron transfer processes in cells and many others can be done by arsenic but really badly. As all these processes grind to a halt you die.

So, if you have a rich relative tenaciously clinging to life this is the bit of the blog is for you. To successfully bump off an average human being you will need about 1g of arsenic trioxide. It’s only sparingly soluble in cold water so hot drinks or soup are the best options for dissolving it all. Fortunately arsenic doesn’t taste of anything so you don’t need to disguise the flavour.

Your victim will have projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhoea so plan accordingly. Offer to nurse the victim yourself. They will probably have purged a lot of the poison so keep dosing until you get the desired result.

When the police arrive (and they will) ask to see your solicitor. In court you should use the Styrian Defence. The arsenic eaters of Styria were men and women who ate small amounts of arsenic grated on their toast two or three times a week. In small doses arsenic will increase production of red blood cells, great if you work at high altitude, and improve your complexion by killing the bacteria that cause blemishes.

An important note for anyone who’s partner has been asking a lot of questions about life insurance – By taking regular small doses of arsenic your body will build up a tolerance so you can eat increasingly large doses with no adverse effects. However, when you eventually die your corpse often doesn’t rot as the arsenic has killed the bacteria that would normally cause decomposition. This may be where stories of vampires come from but that is probably a subject for another blog.

More stories about chemistry can be found at

You can follow Dr Kathryn Harkup (@RotwangsRobot)

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