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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
This is a fascinating book by James C Whorton which illustrates just how dangerous it was in Victorian times, with virulent poisons readily on sale and obtainable. One of the worst was Scheele's Green, a dye which produced a lovely green colour on items like wallpaper, fumes from which could be very debilitating and on occasion fatal. The book discloses that Napoleon probably did not die of arsenical poisoning, although he, Josephine and their son were found to have had arsenic residue in their hair over a number of years, probably via Scheele's. Illustrations are largely confined to line drawings. A must for Victorian scholars and anyone who likes true-crime fact, although I found the writing a bit pedestrian, which was disappointing and resulted in the loss of a star. Worth buying though.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
To be Victorian was, it seems, to be arsenicated. The poison was in everything: used as a dye in textiles, wallpaper and even children's toys, added to sweets and foodstuffs, employed to dip sheep and as an insecticide on fruit. It even found its way into beer. It was made into medicines (some of which remained in use well into the 20th century). It was also, of course, used by murderers and would be murderers (perhaps its most familiar role to us). After reading this book, one might wonder how anybody survived the 19th century at all.

In this book, Whorton traces the history of arsenic and its use, including the struggles of forensic chemists to develop tests (all those murder trials!) and traces some of the involved routes by which the chemical came to be consumed. It's not for the fainthearted. The descriptions of the agonies inflicted by arsenic poisoning are hardly lunchtime reading, and the attitude of the authorities, as the scale of the chemical's penetration into everyday life became apparent, can be infuriating. Vested interests (William Morris refused to accept that use of the poison in the wallpapers his firm produced was a danger - he referred to the "arsenic scare") and a laissez-faire attitude unwilling to risk damage to trade, repeatedly hampered attempts to control the use of arsenic. Whorton, of course, draws parallels with later environmental and health threats (though perhaps they hardly need spelling out).

It is an excellent read.

Recommended.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
TOP 100 REVIEWERon 21 February 2012
I hadn't expected this to be such an enjoyable read. When I say enjoyable, I mean informed, intelligent, entertaining and well researched. The level of detail about the physiological effects of arsenic when ingested is extremely unpleasant, but is necessary to help the reader better understand how and why it was favoured by poisoners.

I learned a great deal about social conditions (especially housing and work). The Victorian period is well depicted and there is fascinating comment on the development of Coroner's Courts and tests for arsenic.

I had not fully appreciated the extent to which arsenic was a factor in day to day life (even well into the latter part of the 20th Century). Frightening! Mr Wharton creates a real sense of social deprivation and injustice and there are some memorable accounts of trials. The prose is assured and elegant; it flows easily and this makes for a lively read of an occasionally difficult subject. Excellent and I'd recommend particularly to anyone who enjoys social history and crime.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 27 January 2012
This book is about the direct use and accidental use of arsenic in the Victorian Age.

It would seem that there was some confusion about whether it was actually bad for the populace or not and as today, manufacturers did not take kindly to campaigns to make their practices more stringent and safe. Arsenic was in everything it seems, the whole environment, food, clothes, the air and worse still sometimes beer!

The book goes into detail in each chapter about the ways that arsenic caused a problem and doesnt leave any stone unturned. There is a lot of information about how murderers went about their horrible work and later how they got caught and sometimes got off due to the insufficient abilities of chemists during the century.

Makes you wonder how our ancestors managed to survive. An excellent book, really good read
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 2 December 2010
Over the last year I have started to enjoy reading Science. Furthermore, I have always been fascinated by a good murder! So what could be better than a book that combines the two. It truly is a spell binding read from beginning to end. I picked it out because of my interest in the use of arsenic in crime but I have to say what truly fascinates me is how arsenic was so indiscriminately and often unscrupulously used in everyday products such as, wall paper, candles, beer, sweets and cake decorations! It is both an accesible scientific read and a social history of the Victorians. Extraordinarily interesting and perhaps offers a timely reminder about our over reliance on toxic chemicals and nuclear power?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 12 June 2011
"How much can you really say about Arsenic?" was my first thought when I ordered this book but I was encouraged by the positive ratings. Also, it turns out you can actually say a whole lot about Arsenic, in fact there is an entire history to it! An absolutely fascintating read that kept me interested throughout. It's amazing how much of an effect that Arsenic had on so many people, in so many ways! The book is very well written and very educational which made it a pleasure to read. Although, I did scare my friends a bit by continuously coming out with random Arsenic facts and stories etc lol but I couldn't help but share.

Would definitely recommend this book, 10/10 :)
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If you like reading about 'orrible murder and agonising death this is the book for you. Whorton weaves a highly entertaining narrative of husband poisoners, careless and ignorant industrialists, bickering and ignorant doctors and crooked racehorse trainers, to mention just some of the fascinating facts gathered in this book.

There's just one thing wrong. And that's the facts. Whorton writes a lot about the dangers of Victorian wallpaper, repeatedly emphasising the dangers of Scheele's green in the make-up of the paper. However, Cullen and Bentley killed this story (in 2005, well before publication of this book) in "The toxicity of trimethylarsine, an urban myth". Available for free here: [...]

This makes me a bit doubtful about the other facts in this book. Arsenic in small doses (it depends on which compound) is fairly harmless, and may even be essential as a trace element. So the chronic exposure suffered by many Victorians may not have been as bad as the author says, indeed the illnesses reported might have had a quite different cause.

Nevertheless, a good read, and the author has a droll style. I particularly liked the story of the poisoner who got off in court. The prosecution wanted to get him, so they charged him with bigamy instead. The defence showed that he wasn't a bigamist as his first wife was a bigamist so the first marriage was invalid. Ah, said the prosecution, but the first wife's first husband was also a bigamist, so her first marriage was invalid so her second was valid and so the accused was a bigamist after all. Life was so complicated before the divorce laws, eh?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 13 April 2011
This is very well written book - save for the few strange Americanisms and grammatical errors. The big question is, how did so many people survive the Victorian era (I think another reviewer mentioned this as well)?! All-in-all I found this book incredibly interesting (and educational). An unusual subject and the type of book that many would ignore, but as with many unusual books, those potential readers would be missing out. Strongly recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 17 February 2012
I'm only up to Chapter 4. This wonderful book is riveting. If you're fascinated by the history of medicine, health, crime and environmental health then this book won't disappoint. I would love to write like James Whorton, it is thoroughly researched, knowledgeable, and humorous. There are times I've laughed out loud. But if you don't like details of bodies, disease symptoms, avoid it like the plague. Best read in ages.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 5 October 2011
I bought this book on the strength of other reviews, particularly one review in a national newspaper. I thoroughly enjoyed it - very well written, so interesting and fascinating - even to the lay person. Very well researched scarey topic, am just glad I was not around in Victorian times!
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