We know arsenic as a deadly chemical, but history shows that it has not always been viewed this way. In the first century CE a Greek physician and botanist recommended it as an antiseptic, while in 18th century England physician Thomas Fowler used it in a treatment he prescribed for fever and headaches. By the 19th century arsenic was being marketed as rat poison and was a popular, er, murder weapon. Prior to this, arsenic appeared in the brightest, most fashionable wallpapers of the Victorian ages – but sometimes with deadly results. It’s also the inspiration for a green shade in the Farrow & ball collection of paint colours – Arsenic.
A fascinating new book by Lucinda Hawksley exploring ‘wallpaper and arsenic in the Victorian home’ traces this journey while presenting 275 samples of wallpaper designs produced in the nineteenth century that have all now tested positive for arsenic content in the laboratories of the UK National Archives.
First used in the colour pigment Scheele’s Green in 1775, arsenic was a cheap commodity and paint and dye manufacturers used it to increase the brilliance of colours in their wallpapers. These papers became hugely popular and although some doctors eventually cautioned against hanging them in the home, most people in Victorian Britain believed they were entirely safe – unless licked!
By the 1850s British political activist Harriet Martineau was writing in Charles Dickens’s magazine, Household Words, about the green dust falling from walls that were “prettily hung, not long ago, with a paper where a bright green trail of foliage was the most conspicuous part of the pattern. Day after day everything in the room was found covered with a green dust; and the pattern on the wall faded in proportion.”
By 1862, Dr Thomas Orton, one of Victorian London’s most senior physicians, was called to a home in Limehouse where over six weeks a couple, called the Turners, had lost three of their children to a mysterious illness and feared for the life of their fourth, three-year-old Ann Amelia. She was gravely ill, in severe pain and unable to swallow. Each of Ann Amelia’s siblings had been diagnosed with diphtheria but had failed to respond to treatments for it and after investigating the home, the neighbourhood sanitation and the local water supply, Dr Orton was convinced the diagnosis was wrong. The only feature of the Turner house to ring alarm bells for him was the vivid green wallpaper in the master bedroom, which reminded him of a frightening theory being raised in some medical circles – that wallpaper could kill.
Ann Amelia died within a month and after Orton sought permission for a post mortem, a renowned chemist at the London Hospital, Dr Letheby, tested tissue samples from her body and confirmed the likely cause of death was arsenic poisoning. Later studies showed that an identical level of arsenic poisoning can prove fatal to children, the infirm or the elderly, while having little or no effect on a healthy adult.
Despite more and more accounts of similar deaths arising in the courts and in the press, the idea that wallpaper could be deadly had many sceptics, not least William Morris who dismissed the naysayers by suggesting they “were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever”.
The first arsenic-free wallpaper in Britain was produced in 1859 by William Woollams & Co, but Morris’ famous company Morris & Co didn’t bow to public pressure and follow suit until the 1870s – even then Morris himself supposedly remained unconvinced of the case against arsenic. He was widely criticised for his slow uptake of the idea, in part because his family’s wealth came from copper mining of which arsenic was originally a waste product.
Hawksley’s book touches on other fascinating historical stories surrounding death by arsenic in interior decoration, even debunking its link to the death of Napoleon Bonaparte who happened to meet his end in a room decorated with wallpapers in gold and green.
Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Nineteenth-Century Home by Lucinda Hawksley is published by Thames & Hudson and The National Archives, Kew, 20 October 2016, £28.00 hardback.