Showing posts with label poisons. Show all posts
Showing posts with label poisons. Show all posts

02 February 2017

Arsenic and Old Lace

by Eve Fisher

There are lots of reasons to prefer modern times: air conditioning, central heating, indoor plumbing, anesthesia, and antibiotics are the top five in my book. I also really enjoy entertainment on tap, as it were - music, television, movies, books. And I certainly do not wax nostalgic about the good old days of 37 pounds of clothing worn over corsets (see Judith Flanders' "Inside the Victorian Home"), food cooked until it was a puddle of goo, or the constant smell of unwashed... everything. Bodies, clothing, you name it.

But the Victorian age was a great age to kill somebody.

For one thing, there were no regulations on food or drugs, and no real recognition of drugs. So you could buy laudanum, cocaine, heroin, and other fun stuff, clearly labeled, over the counter. (Remember Sherlock's 7% solution... he wasn't buying it from one of the Bow Street Runners, although he might have gotten it from the Baker Street Irregulars...) And almost all the patent medicines contained cocaine, heroin, and/or alcohol.

Food itself was pretty hazardous: bread was whitened with chalk and/or alum, strychnine gave an extra kick to beer, sulphate of copper kept pickles green, and lead was added to chocolate, wine, cider, and a whole lot of other foods. Tea leaves were dried and recycled, and dyed with red lead to make them look fresh. Red lead was also added to cheese for coloring, chalk to milk, and copper to gin...  The London County Country Medical Officer discovered, for example, the following in samples of ice cream: cocci, bacilli, torulae, cotton fiber, lice, bed bugs, bug's legs, fleas, straw, human hair, and cat and dog hair. Such contaminated ice cream could cause diphtheria, scarlet fever, diarrhoea, and enteric fever. "The Privy Council estimated in 1862 that one-fifth of butcher's meat in England and Wales came from animals which were 'considerably diseased' or had died of pleuro-pneumonia, and anthacid or anthracoid diseases." (See the Victorian Website HERE) Plus the Victorians didn't believe that either vegetables or fruit were wholesome, unless they were cooked to a puree, and even then, should only be taken in moderation. If you couldn't figure anything else out, you could probably just kill someone by diet alone...

But let's get on to the real stuff: poison. Arsenic was everywhere. Arsenic was in "wallpaper, beer, wine, sweets, wrapping paper, painted toys, sheep dip, insecticides, clothing, dead bodies, stuffed animals, hat ornaments, coal, and candles". It was used as a beauty treatment - soak your flypapers in water, and drink a few drops in fresh water (which probably came through lead pipes - lead was everywhere) to make your skin translucently white. It was used as a treatment for obesity, and it certainly could take the weight off. Sometimes all of it. Green wallpaper and green clothing were both soaked in arsenic to fix the color. And so was that Victorian mandatory wear for women, crepe, which was THE fabric of mourning.

Now widows were required to dress from head to toe in black, including complete veil, for at least one year, if not longer. Sweating in black crepe mourning garments (37 pounds of it) in summer was common, and I've run across receipts telling women how to wash the [arsenic-laden] black stains from their armpits and neck (both prime lymph node areas). Plus they were walking around, breathing through an arsenic-laden veil all day, every day... Personally, I think we have the explanation why the widow in so many Victorian memoirs and novels falls into a decline and dies young...

And then, of course, some people deliberately used arsenic to kill. Charles Francis Hall, an American Arctic explorer in the mid-1800s, died sometime around October, 1871, on his 3rd expedition. The ship was frozen in for the winter, and he'd returned from an outing with an Inuit guide, when he had a cup of coffee, collapsed, and fell into vomiting and delirium. After the expedition, an official investigation said he died of apoplexy, but a 1968 exhumation showed monumental levels of arsenic. It seems there might have been a feud between him and Dr. Bessels...

And there was pretty Madeleine Smith of Glasgow:  In 1857, when she was 20, she (GASP! HORROR!) had an affair with an apprentice nurseryman named Pierre Emile L'Angelier. Her parents, meanwhile, knowing nothing of Madeleine's behavior, found her a husband. Miss Smith tried to break off her affair with L'Angelier, and asked him to return her letters; instead, he blackmailed her. So off she went to an apothecary's and bought some arsenic - for flies, of course.  Or her complexion.  In any case, you could buy it over the counter.  A few days later, L'Angelier died of arsenic poisoning. Her letters were found, she was arrested and charged with murder, and the trial proceeded. Somehow, she was acquitted. (She was young, she was lovely, she had a good lawyer, and the police had messed up the letters, mixing up the pages...) But she had to leave Scotland. (She later married - twice - and lived until 1928.)

Neil-cream.jpg
Dr. Thomas Neill Cream
Strychnine. Distilled from the seeds of the strychnos nux-vomica tree, which arrived in the West in the 17th century from China and India, strychnine became the standard poison used to kill birds in the country and rats in the city. And people. Dr. William Palmer was the first to be caught using it in England, for killing his gambling associates.  Dr. Thomas Neill Cream (what is it with doctors?), a/k/a the Lambeth Poisoner, used it to kill a number of prostitutes, and claimed to have killed more as Jack the Ripper just before he was hanged. (No, he wasn't "Saucy Jacky", because he was in prison in 1888, when Jack the Ripper was writing letters and postcards.)

Chloroform. Also available over the counter. The most famous story of murder (?) by chloroform is the Pimlico Mystery, and the death of Thomas Edwin Bartlett. A wealthy grocer, he married a Frenchwoman 10 years his junior, Adelaide. The couple had a special friend, the Reverend George Dyson, who hung around a lot. Anyway, one morning Adelaide got up and found her husband dead in bed. The coroner opened him up and nearly passed out from the odor of chloroform rising from the stomach. Adelaide said that he'd been threatening suicide. Dyson said he'd bought the chloroform for the Bartlett's to remove grease stains. (Who knows? Maybe it works.)  But there were no burn marks on the inside of Bartlett's throat, which there should have been if he'd been drinking chloroform.  So Bartlett's father - who'd never been able to stand Adelaide - thought it was all suspicious and had her charged with murder.


At the trial what really spared Adelaide's life was a simple incident, remembered by the servants. One day, Mr. Bartlett was looking through his wife's drawers (God only knows why, but it certainly sounds like the archetypal Victorian paterfamilias), found a pill, and took it, without asking anyone what it was or why it was there.  (Again, God only knows why.)  Later he told everyone, including the servants, what he'd done. Adelaide's barrister suggested that Mr. Bartlett had gotten up in the middle of the night with stomach pains or some such, found the bottle of chloroform, and knocked it back without asking any fussy questions of anyone first. (The barrister said that by drinking it quickly, there would be no burns on the throat.)  The jury didn't entirely believe this, but she was acquitted, to rapturous applause from the spectators. An internationally famous surgeon/pathologist of the day, Sir James Paget, said of the case, "Now that she has been acquitted for murder and cannot be tried again, she should tell us in the interest of science how she did it!"  Feel free to post any solutions to that little problem. Adelaide never told anyone, because she vanished immediately after acquittal, and no one knows where she went.

So, the Victorian Age - your environment is deadly, the food could kill you, poisons abound, and the symptoms of all are pretty much the same.  It was a coroner's guessing game, a jury's whim, and there was no CSI team waiting in the wings.  There was only one Sherlock, and he was on paper only.  No cameras, no social media, no radio, no publicity.  You really could get away with murder.  Especially if you were young and pretty...


















05 October 2012

What's the Objective?

by Dixon Hill

Recent events in my life -- unrelated to writing -- caused me to remember the old adage about "putting things behind you."  When something is over and done with, you can't go back and change it; you have to just keep moving ahead.

I don't know when I learned this adage, but my time in the Army brought me face to face with some of the most painful occurrences requiring it's implementation   Thankfully, those days are over.  Now, for me, the path ahead is inevitably made easier by the love of my wife and family.

And, I'm reminded that the easiest way to turn my back on the past -- putting something behind -- is to focus on an objective ahead of me  This is a good trick for writers to remember: both in their personal lives, and in our writing.

When the inevitable rejection slip arrives, for instance, it's always much easier to deal with when I've got a new work in progress.  I take a moment (maybe an hour or two -- to be sure I've got it right) to repackage the rejected material for the next market I've got on the list in my computer.  I try to list as many markets as possible for each work, in advance, because I find it hard to remember where I intended to send the manuscript next, when it's just come back to me.  Once it's repackaged and shipped off, I do my best to drop it and forget it until the manuscript either sells or comes back again.  And, it's much easier to drop it and move on, if I've got a new objective ready and waiting: that new work in progress that's calling me from my Word program.

My recent ruminations about putting things behind, by focusing on an objective farther ahead, has also led me to consider how this concept fits into writing.

The Series

Lee Child, author of the Reacher series
Currently, I've been reading novels from the Jack Reacher series, since a friend of mine decided to get rid of about a dozen books she had read, and these included a lot of Reacher novels.  I've read several other successful series, in the past, and it seems to me that protagonists in nearly all of them were focused on distant -- often unobtainable -- objectives.

These objectives are often not mentioned directly, within the novels of any given series.  However, even if they are not clearly spelled out, or alluded to, these objectives still come through, via a manner of transmission similar to that of an unstated theme:  The words may not mention it, but the characters' actions, words and/or thoughts shout it loudly (or, at the very least, seem to repeatedly murmur it) to the reader.

I haven't quite decided what Jack Reacher's objective is, but I suspect it's something along the lines of: Finding roots that he can pull out and carry with him when he moves on.  Reacher is a wanderer -- he moves from place to place -- from what I've seen of the series. (Some of you know him much better, and I invite comments or corrections.)  This idea of a wandering protagonist, in search of some objective or ideal, is an oft-repeated theme in literature -- but seems even more recurrent when it comes to series protagonists.

Though he occasionally winds up working in New York, Mexico or California, for the most part Travis McGee seldom gets far from where his houseboat, The Busted Flush, is moored at slip 18F (if memory serves me correctly), yet I would argue that he's also a wanderer.  He wanders from job to job (though they're all part of his "salvage" operations), and from woman to woman.

Through the life of the series, he wanders mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually.  And, in all that wandering, he's seeking.  What is he looking for?  Well, perhaps it's True Justice and True Love, coupled with Fiscal Security.  I suspect, however, that he'd trade away Fiscal Security, if he thought he could get the other two as a result.

There may be those who are shaking their heads, wondering why I'm writing about objectives, when what I just wrote about Travis McGee looks more like motivation.  And, that's not a bad question to ask.  To me, objectives and motivation seem to be two ends of the same stick.  The objectives the character wants to achieve -- even if they're beyond the character's grasp -- motivate that character to do what he does.  More importantly, they motivate that character to do these things the way he does them.     

An objective such as True Justice may lie far beyond the story parameters.  It may well be an objective that cannot be achieved just by solving any plot problem -- such as a criminal investigation -- but if the protagonist is seeking True Justice, that may well influence the way s/he deals with people who pop up as obstacles to solving the case.  And it would certainly influence how the protagonist deals with having to kill or injure someone.

This is one reason why I think it's important for the author to have a firm grasp on the protagonist's long-range objectives, even if the other characters, or even the protagonist, are unaware or a little "iffy" on the subject.  Keeping the protagonist's long-range objectives in mind helps keep that protagonist in character -- no matter how many installments finally make up the series.  When the protagonist changes over time, which can happen in a long series, it also helps an author understand what sort of soul-searching that protagonist is going to have to go through as s/he changes.  Maybe the change is internal, but the long-range objective remains unchanged, thus providing a touch-stone for how the character will change.  Or, perhaps the objective itself may change, which could engender much greater soul-searching.    Either way, this is one reason to keep a protagonist's objective in mind while writing.

Another Reason

NUMBER  "B"
How many Westerns feature a gunslinger with a good-guy streak, who goes around righting wrongs?  The movie The Magnificent Seven may have been based on The Seven Samurai, but I suspect its tremendous success was the result of snatching up seven such wandering gunslingers and putting them all together on a mission to right a wrong.  And, each of the seven clearly had his own objective for doing so.

This plot line reverberated with audiences, who felt as if they knew where these guys were coming from. I suspect, however, that the mechanism for making the audience members identify with these guys had more to do with those objectives, than with the gunfights.  Action may sell a film, but I suspect audience identification with the main characters is what makes a film great.  People may wonder: "How would I handle those bandits?"  But, when viewers think, "How would I handle this, if that were my objective, if that was what I was worried about and/or trying to achieve -- how would I act in that man's shoes?" then the guts begin to twist, and celluloid springs to real life.

I think it works the same way in novels, too.  No one would enjoy being in an actual fire-fight, and few readers can say, "Yeah!  I remember what that was like.  I totally identify with this guy being shot at and shooting back."   Give the protagonist some long-range objectives, however, similar to those other folks might have, and suddenly the reader identifies with the character.  S/he has a reason to care about that guy being shot at, because there's a connection there.  After all, we all have unobtainable objectives in our lives -- don't we??

When I was in the Army, I was much younger and quicker as well as single.  I also spent a lot of time flying between far-flung places, where I was not always surrounded by friends.  And, there was a Sci-Fi "Men's Action" series I used to read, about a wandering band of travelers in a post-apocalyptic world.  The group had stumbled across a network of teleportation devices, which made it possible for each novel to begin in a completely new setting.   Essentially, it worked as a Sci-Fi version of a traveling band of Old West gunslingers who went from town to town cleaning up each place they moved through (i.e. killing the bad guys, thereby liberating the oppressed populous).

At the time, I had enough blood and guts in my life, without adding more from my reading.  What kept me buying the books (aside from the fact that I could find them in most airports) was the unstated group objective.  What the group was really traveling around, looking for, was A Safe Place to Nurture Love.

Now that would hardly seem like a successful objective for a "Men's Action" series, but I'm convinced it was indeed the group objective.  Each of them had lost people they loved to sudden, unexpected violence several times in the past.  Each was now in love with another member of the small party, but unwilling to fully commit to that love, for fear it would "Jinx" the relationship, causing them to lose another person they loved to the sudden senseless violence that ran rampant in the post-apocalyptic world they inhabited.

Not that any of the macho male characters would even have been caught  even thinking about nurturing love!  And, none of the female characters -- who were a bit more intelligent than the male characters -- would have deigned to mention it aloud to any of the males.  I got the feeling, however, that everyone understood this was what they were looking for.  Their personal histories, their actions, words, thoughts -- the way they went about doing things -- made this very clear.  And, that objective, A Safe Place to Nurture Love, was absolutely unobtainable, given their circumstances.

At the time, when I was reading these books, I knew that I identified with the main characters.  But, I didn't know why.  Only in retrospect did I realize that my personal objective at the time was quite similar.to theirs.  They were seeking a safe place to nurture love.  I – a single soldier on an A-Team, who was in and out of the country quite a bit ˆ was seeking a way to live, which would give love a chance  to grow in my own life.  That seemed unobtainable to me, back then.

And -- when I tried to re-read one of the books in the series, years later, after my wife and kids had become such a fundamental part of my life -- well, I suspect that's why the book couldn't hold my interest.  I was no longer a part of the target audience for the series, because my own objectives had changed.  I no longer identified with the main characters.

In Conclusion

Certainly, there are other ways of helping readers to identify with characters. But, helping them identify via connection between objectives is useful.

I've always felt the line that gave the Declaration of Independence it's greatest strength, was mention of "the pursuit of happiness."  It probably also gave the framers of the Constitution their biggest headache, too.  I often picture them sitting around saying, "That damn Jefferson!  It's one thing to write about the pursuit of happiness, as if you're a poet!  We all know there's too much random chance in life, creating unexpected sadness, to make True Happiness possible.  Yet, we have to write a document that gives people the latitude to at least try to pursue happiness.  How the hell are we supposed to that?"

And, that's one of the nice things about writing fiction.  We don't actually have to make any of our characters achieve True Happiness.  In fact, doing so would probably destroy the ability of a reader to suspend disbelief (unless you're writing for children).  We just need to remember what our main characters' objectives are, so readers have another way of identifying with them.

For what it's worth, that's my two cents.
--Dix