Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

18 September 2014

Arsenic, Cyanide and Strychnine - the Golden Age of Victorian Poisoners

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In July 1857 a sensational murder trial swiftly became the most talked about case in the country. The accused was Madeleine Smith, a young middle-class woman charged with murdering her lover with arsenic.  

Pierre Emile L'Angelier had attempted to blackmail Smith with their old love-letters once she tried to end their relationship. The Illustrated London News described in detail “the violent illness and sudden death of L’Angelier”, and “the prisoner’s declaration in which she admitted having purchased arsenic but stated that she used it in washing, as a cosmetic…for the alleged purpose of killing rats”.  The post-mortem found approximately 88 grains of arsenic in the stomach of the victim, a hitherto unheard of amount, whilst L’Angelier’s diary alluded to feeling ill after being served coffee by Smith. Smith was found not guilty, but the case still gained a lasting notoriety, fed by the Victorian fascination for a new ‘Golden Age’ of poisoning.

  Poisoner c13485-54
Noc  Joanna preparing the poison for Sir John Cleveland - Reynolds’s Miscellany [PP.6004.b Vol.21 No 525 p.1] Images Online 

One of the main reasons why poisoning became such a common means of murder in the Victorian era was, quite simply, ease of access. Cyanide was everywhere, in everything from paints to daguerreotypes to wallpapers. As a poison, its effects were unmistakable, including unconsciousness, convulsions, nausea, cardiac arrest and death, often in a matter of seconds. Its speed, from a poisoner’s point of view, was a plus, but its distinctive effects were easily recognisable and hard to pass off as anything but murder.

Strychnine, meanwhile, was broadly used as a form of pest control in big cities. In humans, it caused frothing at the mouth and muscle spasms which increased in intensity until the victim died from asphyxiation due to paralysis of the neural pathways. Although a fairly unsubtle way to kill someone, strychnine was a popular poison for some years, favoured by murderers such as Thomas Neil Cream and Belle Gunness. In a particularly sinister instance, The Penny Illustrated reported a case in 1871 in which poisoned food parcels were sent to families in Brighton bearing the message: “A few home-made cakes for the children; those done up are flavoured on purpose for yourself to enjoy. You will guess who this is from; I can’t mystify you, I fear”.  As the paper noted, a large quantity of strychnine had recently been obtained from a local chemist by way of a forged order.

Despite the popularity of Cyanide and Strychnine, Arsenic was nonetheless the chief poison of the Victorian era. Readily available in a staggering array of forms from flypaper to cosmetics, it was comparatively difficult to detect. A tasteless, odourless compound, its effects could often be written off as food poisoning, making foul play harder to trace. Its popularity led to the Arsenic Act of 1851, which enforced tighter restrictions on its sale and required most arsenic to be coloured indigo to make it harder to disguise. Measures like this, as well as development in the fields of toxicology and pathology, marked the beginning of a decline in the poisoner’s free-for-all of the early 19th century. With poisons becoming more easily traceable and mass media broadcasting their effects more widely, old favourites such as cyanide, strychnine and arsenic gradually became less commonly used. However new drugs and new poisons were developed, with figures such as the notorious Doctor Crippen representing further flowerings of disturbing invention on the 19th century murder scene.  

Julia Armfield
Former Intern, Printed Historical Resources     Cc-by

Further reading:  

Esther Inglis-Arkell, The Deadliest Poisons in History 

Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, A Poisonous History of Victorian Society

Royal Holloway Victorian MA Blog, Murder! The Glasgow Poisoning Case, July 1857

Douglas McGowan, The Strange Affair of Madeleine Smith (Edinburgh: 2007)

15 September 2014

King Silence - the lives of Victorian deaf children

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As a historical source, an autobiographical novel presents the problematical challenges of both fiction and autobiography, and often doubles as a polemic for the author’s own world view. However, King Silence: A Story written by Arnold Hill Payne has provided me with insight into the lives of Victorian deaf children that I did not find in more traditional sources. 


Title page King Silence Noc


Arnold Payne was the hearing son of Benjamin Payne who was the deaf principal of the Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Swansea between 1876 and 1909.  Prior to attending a local school at the age of seven, Arnold’s everyday companions were deaf children boarding in this very well respected institution. Like his parents he was a passionate advocate for sign language in a time when ‘oralism’, or teaching the deaf to lip read and speak, was decreed to be the better method of communication.

Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb Noc

The Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb - from Annual Reports of the Cambrian Institution at Swansea Central Library 

Arnold Payne became assistant chaplain to the Royal Association in Aid of the Deaf and Dumb in London, regularly speaking against oralism as he believed that signing enabled deaf people to be better educated and to interact with each other. He also wrote a comprehensive entry for ‘the deaf and dumb’ in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica and spent a year at Gallaudet College in Washington DC, the leading higher education establishment for deaf students.

The descriptions of the fictional ‘Sicard College’ in Washington DC which featured in King Silence were recognisable as Gallaudet College. His father, Benjamin Payne can also be identified in the book as ‘Mr Gordon’, the principal of the fictional institution remarkably similar to the Cambrian Institution in Swansea.

Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb schoolroom Noc

Cambrian Institution Schoolroom - from Annual Reports of the Cambrian Institution at Swansea Central Library 

The depiction of one pupil in King Silence highlights the loneliness and isolation experienced by a deaf child. A seven year old boy who had been born deaf stood ‘silent, lonely, passive, patient’ while his mother discussed his admittance to the institution with the principal. When another pupil entered the room and used signs and gestures to the boy, he was transformed by the ‘sudden revelation that there was someone here who talked in a language he could comprehend’. He had been accustomed to people around him talking about him, while keeping him ‘in ignorance’ of what they discussed. Here however were children who could communicate with him and had also experienced his isolation, ‘the sensitiveness, the shame, the loneliness’; the boy burst into tears because he felt he was ‘no longer alone!’.

Principal Benjamin Payne would have been familiar with these feelings of isolation, even though he had not been born deaf, and although the above account in King Silence is tinged with sentimentality, it is nevertheless a recognisable portrayal of discovering one is not alone. Indeed, Benjamin Payne used isolation as a punishment, preferring to forbid pupils from talking to a miscreant for a short while, rather than using corporal punishment. Some institutions beat pupils for using forbidden sign language and some reportedly tied the pupils’ arms to their sides for the same ‘offence’.

In King Silence, Arnold Payne enhances our understanding of the feelings and emotions of deaf children sent away from home in the nineteenth century. For many children, the experience was a positive one which enabled them to befriend and communicate with other deaf children, possibly for the first time.

Lesley Hulonce
Historian and Lecturer, Swansea University


Further reading:

Arnold H Payne, King Silence: A Story, London: Jarrolds, 1919. British Library 012603.g.16.

Paddy Ladd, Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2003.

Lesley Hulonce, ‘”Likely to conduce to the happiness and advantage of the inmates”? Victorian Education for Deaf Children’, Workhouse Tales



11 September 2014

Introducing the India Office Medical Archives Project

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Are you interested in the history of medicine? Fancy getting your teeth into treatments for snake bites?  Ever wondered how the perceived relationship between climate and disease influenced the practice of medicine in British India?

The India Office Medical Archives (IOMA) project has been funded by the Wellcome Trust to increase the visibility and accessibility of sources for medical history within the India Office Records.

IOR/F/4/2398/129162 Regarding a Doolie of very ingenious construction invented by Surgeon J S Login 25 Oct 1850


The project builds upon the work of a previous AHRC-funded project – Sources for Science and the Environment in the India Office Records – and its resulting publication Science and the Changing Environment in India 1780-1920, (London: British Library, 2010).

Over a 15 month period the IOMA project will:

• Add over 2000 electronic catalogue records to the online Search Our Catalogue Archives and Manuscripts

• Expand entries that are particularly rich in detail or illustration

• Create authority files for key individuals, institutions, subjects and places within the collections

• Identify additional material on infectious disease across the India Office Records and India Office Private Papers


Medicine basket
 Add Or 1586 Hakeem and Coolie with medicine basket


The records illuminate a diverse range of subjects, including:

• Medical topography

• Diseases, including smallpox, bubonic plague and cholera

• Drugs and cures

• Medical education

• Institutions, including asylums, lock hospitals and laboratories

• Public health and sanitation

Keep an eye out on the Untold Lives blog and Twitter account @UntoldLives for project updates and interesting links.

If you have any questions about the project or the India Office Records in general, please leave a comment below or contact me

Alex Hailey
Cataloguer, India Office Medical Archives Project