Early this week, a British criminology professor wrote a slightly plaintive essay about the 19th century serial poisoner, Mary Ann Cotton. Why, he wondered, did no one remember the evil Mary Ann and her remarkable homicidal career: poisoning an estimated 21 people, including her mother, children and five husbands before being hanged in 1873?
In retrospective, I worry that my first reaction to these questions is not what he wanted to elicit. Oh, yeah, Mary Ann Cotton, I thought. Arsenic.
In the 19th century, arsenic (specifically arsenic trioxide (AsO3), also called white arsenic) was used so often that its nickname was “the inheritance powder.” That began to change in the mid-19th century after chemists – notably a determined British scientist named James Marsh – learned out to detect it in a corpse. Cotton was hanged, in fact, in part due to forensic evidence from the Marsh test.
And then my next thought was, well, yeah, but Cotton was kind of a dreary, sneaky kind of serial killer, a carefully drab woman who liked to slip into the kitchen and mix arsenic into porridge, soup, a cup of milk. The author of the Cotton essay, David Wilson, attempts to give her more flamboyance, arguing she enjoyed the deaths themselves, got a charge out of watching people suffer, that “she was, in other words, a psychopath.”
No argument from me. Cotton did kill some 21 people including her own children. Even if she didn’t get a charge out of watching, I think we could all agree that she possessed the most famous characteristic of a psychopath: “a profound absence of guilt or empathy.” Whether she was enjoying herself or whether she just possessed a kind of gray, sneaking evil, it’s the body count that really gives her away.
But Wilson, I think, underestimates the role of arsenic here, misses the seductive lure of the poison itself. An analysis of 19th century crime statistics by the American forensic chemist, Rudolph Witthaus of Columbia University (author of the 1896 book, Medical Jurisprudence, Forensic Medicine and Toxicology) found that arsenic alone accounted for about 40 percent of poison homicides in Europe from about 1835 and 1880.
At the time, poison was astonishingly easy to acquire – it was used in tonics,
cosmetics, to color everything from wallpaper to jewelry, as the lethal agent in fly papers and rat poisons. (Several decades after Cotton’s execution, a British insurance collector named Frederick Seddon was executed for killing a boarder in his house with arsenic obtained by soaking flypaper in water.)
It slipped easily enough into food and drink. Witthaus interviewed 822 people who had survived arsenic poisoning attempts. Only 15 had noticed the strange metallic taste in their morning cereal or evening cordial. And equally seductive for the killer, the poisoning symptoms of arsenic were frequently misdiagnosed as natural illness – the nausea and cramping as gastroenteritis, the joint pains as rheumatism, the sore throats and labored breathing as respiratory infections.
Arsenic, Witthaus noted, of 19th century crime statistics has been “in almost every instance, the agent used by those who, having succeeded in a first attempt at secret poisoning, have seemed to develop a lust for murder and have continued to add to their victims until their very number has aroused suspicion and led to detection.” And that pattern would continue until the Marsh test was so refined, the ability to detect a bare whisper of arsenic in corpse so good, that the poison lost its homicidal charm.
A notorious arsenic case of the 1920s – the murder of his wife by the British solicitor Herbert Rowse Armstrong – illustrated this effect perfectly. Armstrong’s wife, Katherine, died in 1921; her death certificate cited both heart and kidney disease as the cause. When suspicion led to her being exhumed in a year later, pathologists were easily able to find high levels of arsenic in her body still. In fact, arsenic, a metalloid poison, can be detected in human hair hundreds of years after death.
And one of my favorite passages from Witthaus’s book notes that the poison also acts as a preservative, keeping bodies eerily intact in appearance for some time. One body exhumed 54 weeks after burial “did not differ from a living person,” he wrote, except for the mold growing on the face. It appeared, the scientist added, that molds were unfazed by arsenic.
We do forget the Armstrongs, the Seddons, the Mary Ann Cottons. And we’ve
forgotten worse serial killers: Belle Gunness of LaPorte, Indiana, who in the early 1900s is thought to have killed more than 40 men with chloroform, strychnine, and an axe (later feeding their parts to the hogs on her farm.); Jane Toppan, of Boston, who poisoned at least 11 of her patients in the 1890s, telling police that her ambition was “to have killed more people — helpless people — than any other man or woman who ever lived…”
It’s a choice, I think, not to dwell in the darkest corners of human behavior, to spend too much time the company of aberrant personalities. But if we forget the poisoner, at least we do remember the poison. In the case of arsenic, most people would know the name, recognize the danger, be alarmed to find it close by. And that’s a memory worth keeping – just in case, you know, a modern day Mary Ann Cotton shows up at the door.