33. Arsenic: It’s Not Easy Being Green

Considering how synonymous this episode’s element is with “poison,” it’s astounding how eager people have historically been to ingest the stuff.

Featured above: A typical label found on an arsenic-based medicament.

Show Notes

What an appropriate element this is for us to cover around St. Patrick’s Day, eh?

Anyway, it’s always a good time to watch The Princess Bride. Of all the iconic scenes in that film, let’s recall this one now:

“What you do not smell is called iocane powder. It is odorless, tasteless, dissolves instantly in liquid, and is among the deadlier poisons known to man.”

With the pedantic nitpick that arsenic dissolves much better in hot liquids than in cold ones, this describes element 33 to a T! And arsenic was most frequently available as a powder, as well. But the most remarkable similarity is the one that sounds most outlandish: It is, in fact, fully possible to develop an immunity to arsenic by slowly consuming sub-lethal doses over long periods of time! (Please note that I am in no way advising this.)

In fact, a population of peasants in the Austrian province of Styria gained a degree of infamy in the 19th century for being “arsenic eaters.” They would start by consuming tiny doses of arsenic once a week, then up the frequency to several times a week, then daily. From there, they would slowly increase the dosage they took every day, until these folks were fully capable of consuming a dose of arsenic that could kill a man three times over, and suffer no ill effects whatsoever. The claims that arsenic was good for complexion and could provide a little pep in your step were not entirely unfounded, and those were the reasons the Styrians claimed.

This also happened to immaculately preserve a person’s body after death.

For more on the subject, you can read excerpts of John Parascandola’s book Arsenic: King of Poisons online.

I was under considerable pressure to get this episode out on time this week, so I’m actually still adding my sources to the transcript! Do check back in a day or two for the complete citations, as well as perhaps a few additional stories here in the show notes. (e.g., why arsenic makes a rather ironic rat poison.)

Click To Read Transcript

Sources

  1. History Extra, Arsenic: A Brief History Of Agatha Christie’s Favorite Murder Weapon. Kathryn Harkup, January 7, 2016.
  2. National Geographic, Arsenic-Life Discovery Debunked — But “Alien” Organism Still Odd. Richard A. Lovett, July 10, 2012.
  3. Racked, The History Of Green Dye Is A History Of Death. Jennifer Wright, May 17, 2017.
  4. A delightful and well-researched account of this can be found at The Pragmatic Costumer: Historical Costuming For The Rest Of Us.
  5. Is Arsenic An Aphrodisiac? The Sociochemistry Of An Element, p. 146. William R. Cullen, 2008.
  6. The Toxicity Of Trimethylarsine: An Urban Myth. The Journal Of Environmental Monitoring, December 6, 2004.
  7. Huffington Post, Arsenic: The Near-Perfect Murder Weapon. Sandra Hempel, December 6, 2013.
  8. The Hairpin, That Girl Is Poison: A Brief, Incomplete History Of Female Poisoners. Meredith Haggerty, December 16, 2014.
  9. Wired, The Imperfect Myth Of The Female Poisoner. Deborah Blum, January 28, 2013.
  10. As opposed to misdemeanor murder, which is when culpability can be shown, but motive cannot.
  11. Slate, Don’t Chew The Wallpaper. Daniel J. Kevles, April 6, 2006.
  12. Hayes’ Principles And Methods Of Toxicology, p. 15. Edited by A. Wallace Hayes and Claire L. Kruger, 2014.
  13. Toxicology In The Middle Ages Ad Renaissance, Chapter 6. Mike Dash.
  14. Aqua Tofana: Slow-Poisoning And Husband-Killing In 17th-Century Italy. Mike Dash, April 6, 2015. Ordinarily I wouldn’t link to a blog as a source, but this is exhaustively well-researched and worth reading in its own right.
  15. Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program, Arsenic: A Murderous History.
  16. The Conversation, Handle With Care — The World’s Five Deadliest Poisons. April 12, 2016.
  17. Thanks to my own dad for inspiring this dadliest of dad jokes.

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