Md. author explores fascinating, fatal arsenic

  • "King of Poisons" by John Parascandola.
"King of Poisons" by John Parascandola. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
March 02, 2013|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

For such a long time, arsenic was the perfect poison.

It is odorless, colorless and tasteless, so it's difficult to detect when slipped into a food or beverage. Its effects are gradual and cumulative — deflecting suspicion from the killer. The symptoms of arsenic poisoning mimic those of other diseases common in the 19th century, such as cholera and dysentery.

Because the elemental form of arsenic occurs naturally in the environment, it is inexpensive and easily obtained. And until a clever British chemist named James Marsh devised a test in the 1830s, it was impossible to trace the poison in the human body.

No wonder Rockville resident John Parascandola dubs arsenic "The King of Poisons" in his readable, newly published history.

Parascandola, 71, retired as the historian for the U.S. Public Health Service and currently teaches the history of modern biology and of poisons at the University of Maryland. As a young man, he studied chemistry in the 1960s at Brooklyn College and at the University of Wisconsin, where he later earned his doctorate in the history of science. So when Parascandola realized that no one had ever written a popular history of arsenic, he had the ideal background to tackle what became a three-year project.

And the deeper that Parascandola explored the poison, the more intrigued he became.

In advance of his reading at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Reisterstown Road branch, the author recently discussed some of the strange ways the poison has been used — as a murder weapon, in products such as wallpaper and chicken feed, as an aphrodisiac, as a medicine, and even as a health and beauty aid.

As Parascandola puts it, "Arsenic is kind of the quintessential poison."

Your book contains many fascinating murder stories. One particularly interesting one was the small Hungarian village where the women got together and conspired to murder their "inconvenient" relatives.

Yes, that was Tiszakurt. At least 40 people were killed with arsenic between 1911 and 1929. Thirty-four women and one man were eventually arrested. Six women were sentenced to death, although only two were actually executed, and 12 others received prison sentences. The midwife who supplied the poison committed suicide before she could be arrested.

Some women killed their husbands because they were trapped in bad marriages, were being abused and their lives were in danger. Sometimes a mother would poison a child because she thought the family was too poor to feed another mouth. Sometimes an elderly relative was murdered to receive an inheritance.

You have to remember that the options for these women were limited. Divorce was not allowed or even thinkable, and there was no birth control. She had no property of her own, and she wasn't a good candidate for remarriage.

I was also very taken with the Styrian peasants who claimed they consumed lethal doses of arsenic in the 1850s on a regular basis without suffering ill effects. Is it possible to build up a tolerance for arsenic?

They said they ate the arsenic to acquire a fresh complexion and a healthy appearance, or to improve their respiration when working in the mountains. They fed it to their horses because they thought it made them stronger and their coats more glossy.

And this is when arsenic got its reputation as a sexual stimulant. People would eat it if they were fatigued.

It's such a weird story. For a while in the early 20th century, the arsenic eaters were kind of debunked. But more recently, evidence has accumulated that they might have been telling the truth. We've known for a long time that some plants are very tolerant of arsenic in the soil. Some recent studies have shown that it might be possible for certain animal and even human cells to slowly build up a tolerance for arsenic.

But, it's fair to say that the evidence is still out. Don't try this at home.

After the world learned about the Styrian arsenic-eaters, Victorian women started buying the white powder for use as a cosmetic.

They did. Some of the women accused of killing their husbands or lovers used that as their defense: that they had purchased the arsenic as a beauty aid

The Victorians thought that arsenic improved their appearance by making them plumper and smoothing out their wrinkles, and by clearing up their complexions. They thought that arsenic made their skin whiter and paler. In the Victorian era, that was prized.

But I don't know that there's much validity to that notion.

You write that arsenic was used for a time to cure malaria, syphilis, cancer and other diseases.

There's a theory that arsenic helped rid Europe of the bubonic plague by killing the rats that carried the infected fleas. At the time, society didn't have a lot of good, effective drugs for curing infectious diseases, and arsenic was effective against malaria, syphilis and some cancers.

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