The Cure That Killed
THE ARSENIC CENTURY:
How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play.
By James C. Whorton.
Oxford Univ. Press. 464 pp. $29.95
Arsenic gained its foot-hold in the imagination of 19th-century Britons as the go-to poison for murderers, figuring in many a Victorian potboiler. Though its primary purpose was to control the nation’s burgeoning rat population, arsenic—a mining industry byproduct—looked an awful lot like household flour. It killed no more people than cholera or smallpox, yet it was a sensation in the medical reports and penny rags of the time. It turns victims the color of copper, scales their skin, and may cause such sensory overload that they can barely endure the touch of a finger. A...