Long Live King Arsenic
The classic poison and its history
A Primer on Arsenic
Arsenic is an element. Not like ‘Earth, Air, Fire,’ but like helium, carbon, and oxygen. We all process a tiny amount of the stuff every day, and it is a natural part of the Earth’s crust.
It can be mined from the earth in a pure crystalline form, or it can be combined with other metals such as sulphur.
Most notably, the stuff can be had in two forms called orpiment and realgar. These form around volcanoes and can be mined around old volcano vents.
We have known where to find the stuff for a long time. How long is hard to say. Back in the Bronze Age, copper was mined in England, Ireland, and Cyprus, among other places, and copper-arsenic alloys made better tools and bronze.
In fact, the mines in Ireland produced copper with a lot of arsenic and was exported to England because it was better. Did they know it was because of the arsenic? Impossible to say.
Arsenic as orpiment was mined principally in Asia Minor, Central Asia, Macedonia, and Hungary in ancient times.
It was used in China as medicine roughly 5000 years ago, and Alexander the Great seems to have brought news of its toxicity and uses to the Mediterranean. It diffused to the rest of Europe from there.
We know it was popular because many famous ancients discussed it. Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen all detailed its use and abuse. A fellow named Dioscorides described it as a poison and a treatment in his ‘De Materia Medica’ in 50 AD.
Gerber? Albertus Magnus? Will The Isolator of Arsenic Please Stand Up?
However, just because you know what a product is and what it does, doesn’t mean you know what it is made of. And that is where I found a snarl.
I kept coming across blogs and university websites that give Albertus Magnus credit for isolating arsenic by mixing soap and arsenic trioxide.
He does mention it in his ‘Book of Minerals’ in book 5, but what I read from that is he said you can heat orpiment or realgar with air to get white arsenic. He doesn’t say that he did it himself. It is possible that the soap with trioxide recipe is in the original text since I only read an annotated abstract.
(People, you can buy a translation off of Amazon for $364, but I only needed the abstract for the research I’m doing for my murder mystery. Also, I don’t love any of you that much. If you want to check it out, search for De Minerabilis or Book of Minerals, by Albertus Magnus. But I should warn you, this is the same guy who repeatedly refers to ‘king bees’ in his ‘On Animals.’)
I’ve also seen Jabir ibn Hayyan credited with isolating arsenic sometime before 815 AD. I haven’t been able to track down a book where he might have written that, but it is entirely possible. It’s also possible Albertus and Jabir tried the same trick independently.
However, it is Dioscorides’ ‘Materia Medica’ that described how to break orpiment down by putting it in a new earthen bowl and heating it in coals while stirring. Maybe people were isolating the element without realizing it, but Albertus Magnus was the famous name who made it official.
Either way, it was Johann Schroder who found two ways to prepare it in 1649, and the first synthetic version was made by Louis Claude Cadet de Gassicourt in 1760.
What Did People Want All That Arsenic For?
The ancients found plenty of uses for it. Texts from China recommended it for removing lice. Hippocrates recommended realgar as an escharotic (which is stuff that burns your skin off.)
Dioscorides and Galen mentioned that it removed hair and treated lung ulcers. This would come in handy later.
Mostly, though, the ancients seemed to originally like it as a pigment or paint. Orpiment made a nice gold color, and realgar was sometimes used in cosmetics and dyes. People were willing to trade long-distance for the paint. As someone whose daughter willingly spends $3 on getting the right colored pencil, I get it.
By the Middle Ages, not only was orpiment a favorite paint, but realgar was used to remove hair from skins when making leather.
Alchemists were wild about the stuff because it had a gold color. It could also be used in pest control.
Physicians liked to have a solution of the stuff on hand during the Middle Ages. It had a multitude of medical uses, and Paracelsus, the ‘dose makes the poison’ guy, gave precise directions of making metallic arsenic in the 1600’s.
But the Poison!
I’m getting there.
Yes, it was famous for being poisonous as far back as Roman times. In fact, Lucius Cornelius Sulla had to write a law against poisoning, called the Lex Cornelia, in 80 BC because using it to poison people was so popular.
Arsenic was great as a poison because it is tasteless, and you only need a pea-sized amount to inflict death.
It also has no smell unless you heat or hit it. Then it smells like garlic.
However, while it was frequently available because its usefulness, it was not the cheapest ingredient.
This meant it was used in a number of high-profile cases. Nero had Britannicus poisoned with the stuff, for instance.
A solution of arsenic called Arsenolite became such a commercial success in the Middle Ages that professional poisoners always had it on hand. It was what Charles the Bad used in his poisoning attempt on Charles IV of France in 1314.
Two famous cases in the Early Modern Era involved women in Italy. The most famous one was named Tofana, who made and sold Aqua Toffana to women wanting out of their marriages. This had arsenic in it, along with a few other ingredients. Under torture, she admitted to seeing off 60 men. But, hey! No one got a divorce!
The less famous case happened in 1659, and involved a woman named Hieronym Spara. She set herself up in the same business as Tofana and came to the same sticky end, though she seemed to have improved the business model before she went.
And yes, the Borgias and the Medicis. Man, the Italians are always gettin’ a bad rep. Catherine Medici is said to have experimented with dosing people with arsenic by giving poisoned food to hospital patients and poor beggars and then taking notes on the effects.
Alexander and Cesare Borgia were famous for poisoning rivals with it. In particular, Pope Alexander VI appointed cardinals whom he encouraged to accumulate wealth and then treated with arsenic-laced wine at dinner. When they died, he got their ill-gotten gains.
Reputedly, Alexander died when a servant accidentally served him from a bottle of wine that was supposed to go to those cardinals. (How accurate is this? Not sure. Whatever you do, leave poor Lucretia out of this. The girl was bounced around like a pinball from the day she turned 12.)
A case in the 1700’s involved a lady who was convicted because she had a white powder on her that smelled like garlic when it was heated and looked like arsenic trioxide.
And that was the catch. For centuries, poisoning was almost impossible to diagnose. There weren’t any tests for poisons other than dosing a nearby cat with a suspect food, and that wasn’t always reliable. (Also, leave the kitties alone.)
Arsenic poisoning in particular could look like cholera or gastritis, and a slow poisoning could simply look like someone fading away from natural causes. If you wanted to claim the victim was just sick, there wasn’t a sure way to prove otherwise.
And then John Marsh happened. In the 1850’s, he invented a way to identify arsenic in a substance. It involved steaming the sample under a mirror and looking for a silver-black sheen on the glass. If you got the black sheen, the sample held arsenic. This was called the Marsh test.
After that, arsenic cases started to taper off, though only slowly. Arsenic was used in Western countries throughout the 1800’s for a wide variety of household applications such as cleaning and pest control. Fowler’s Solution, invented in 1786, was a favored way to improve a lady’s complexion for decades, and it was basically liquid arsenic. The Pharmacopiea listed it front and center as an over-the-counter product in 1912.
It was famously still being used in pigments too. Scheele’s Green was used everywhere and contained plenty of arsenic.
This availability made it a tempting weapon, and many countries had to mandate keeping a ledger of poisons at pharmacies so the police could trace the buyer if someone was poisoned with it.
But arsenic was the first poison that could be identified in a dead body beyond doubt. That took away some of the appeal to a murderer, and they started to focus on more devious means.
The King is Dead, Long Live the King
When modern chemistry took off, it found a number of safer substitutes for the arsenical compounds your average housewife was using. You could buy better rat poisons, less toxic paints, and more effective skin bleaches. This means that the arsenic in your house is not in a formula you can stir into someone’s coffee.
But arsenic is probably in your home in some form. It’s fed to chickens, applied to pressure-treated wood, and used to dope computer chips.
And we are finding new uses for it all the time. It is in some chemotherapy drugs, and it is still in ritualistic cosmetics in some parts of the world.
It is also still in homeopathic preparations and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Well, in the case of homeopathy, it should be diluted out of any pill you might buy, but if Borion gets sloppy in production, you can easily get a helping of arsenicum in your medicine.
My point is, don’t get all uppity and think we moderns are above using a potentially toxic substance in everyday life. The element is here to stay, and it is too useful to leave out altogether.
De Materia Medica, by Dioscorides
Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. “Interesting Facts About Arsenic.” ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/interesting-arsenic-element-facts-603360.
Prehistoric Metallurgy (ancient-wisdom.com)
Arsenic’s murky past — Arsenic — University of Maine (umaine.edu)
Arsenic: A Murderous History | Dartmouth Toxic Metals
Arsenic: an ancient toxicant of continuous public health impact, from Iceman Ötzi until now | Springer Link
Arsenic Exposure and Toxicology: A Historical Perspective
The metalloid arsenic is a natural environmental contaminant to which humans are routinely exposed in food, water, air…
The History of Pest Control | INSECT COP