Thursday, December 02, 2010

Arsenic: It's not Just for Rats in the 19th Century

Sears, Roebuck and Co. 1909 Catalog. New York City: Ventura Books. 1979
I read with interest Miriam Midkiff's post entitled The Strange Tale of Uzza Robbins; or His One Hanging, Two Murders, Three Exhumations and Four Burials on her blog AnceStories. Simply, it is the tale of her ancestor who killed two family members and tried to kill a third. One of the tools he used was arsenic.

In the 19th century arsenic was easily accessible as a rat poisoning. One could go buy some with the excuse that they had rats in their barn or somewhere else. Quite a few women killed their loved ones or others with arsenic. One of the more famous cases was immortalized in the play/movie Arsenic and Old Lace.  A recent book about the real story behind the fictionalized version is The Devil's Rooming House: The True Story of America's Deadliest Female Serial Killer. The true story is one where greed played a large factor.

Women were familiar with arsenic for another reason. They used it to better their complexion. The above advertisement is from a reproduction of a Sears catalog from 1909 that I recently bought from a used book sale (page 382).  The advertisement  tells women that "By taking them according to directions, a clear, dainty, transparent and altogether beautiful complexion is possible." It goes on to say "Dr. Rose's splendid tabules produce a transparent and pellucid complexion. The effect of these arsenous tabules upon the skin and muscular tissues of the body is to drive out  impurities, banish unnatural oiliness and give a transparent texture and beauty." This beauty aid came in the form of a wafer which you ate. Of course your complexion took on a whole new look if you ate too many.

Arsenic was not only ingested for beauty's sake but for other reasons as well including the belief that it helped men. (I will let you guess what it helped men with; life has not changed that much throughout history). just came out with a new collection of Sears catalogs.  You can conduct a keyword search and find other instances of arsenic sold as a beauty aid, condition powder for cattle and a homeopathic remedy.

Makes you wonder about our ancestors. It would be interesting to know how many of our ancestors used arsenic for activities other than poisoning rats.  It also makes me wonder what poisons we are ingesting that generations from now our descendants will think are strange.


GrannyPam said...

We have one ancestor whose death certificate reads, "Arsenical Poisoning". His wife and a live in farm hand were suspected. The cases against both were finally dismissed. Some older relatives said the cases were dismissed because there would have been no one to care for her six children. Interesting background in the catalogs, I'm off to read.

Nolichucky Roots said...

Must be the topic of the day! See this NY Times article for another take.