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Wicked Wednesday: Arsenic: A Girl’s Best Friend

April 10th, 2013

Nevermind the diamonds, arsenic has been a girl’s best friend for centuries. The mineral has been useful as cosmetics, fabric dye (“emerald green”) and component in home decorations like wallpapers, lamp shades and paint. It has also proven to be gem in the war against rodents in the cupboards, and – not to mention – troublesome husbands.

Arsenic used to be the perfect weapon of choice to end a domestic dispute or silence quarrelsome opponents. It was everywhere: in rat poison, fly paper and other useful things one kept under the kitchen sink. The symptoms of the poisoning are hideous, though, as a body exposed to arsenic will shut down all systems associated with digestion. There will be vomiting – and quite a lot of pain.

Many great people have succumbed to the poison: George III of Great Britain and Napoleon Bonaparte are just the tip of the ice berg. Arsenic is also held responsible for Monét’s blindness and Van Gogh’s neurological disorders. They weren’t poisoned though; they simply painted with the wrong kind of paint: the emerald green of arsenic.

Poisoning in general, and arsenic in particular, has often been considered a woman’s method; and history is laced with incidents to support the claim:

~Lucretzia Borgia was the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI in the 15th century. The Borgia family is famous for their frequent use of poison to get rid of political opponents. The family recipe for their special powder: “Cantarella”, has been lost, but it is generally believed that it had an arsenic base. Lucretzia was rumored to wear a hollow “poison ring” in order to easily season her guests’ food.

Lucretzia Borgia, portrait by Bartolomeo Veneto

~Catherine Medici, French Queen and Queen Mother in the 16th century used arsenic to take out opponents at court. She would lace book pages with arsenic and present the books as gifts.

~ Giuila Toffana was an Italian lady who, in the 17th century, invented a facial make-up product called Acqua Toffana. The product was supposedly made with a sacred liquid from the grave of Saint Nicholas di Bari. Toffana’s clients were urged to come see the lady in private after they’d made their purchase, to learn the real secret of the salve. Many of Toffana’s customers became wealthy widows shortly after. Toffana’s make-up might have killed as many as 600 men. Toffana was arrested, tortured and strangled in 1709. The secret ingredient in Acqua Toffana was of course arsenic.

~Vera Renzci lived in Hungary, early in the 20th century. She killed because men could not be trusted. If a man she liked looked at another woman, or she thought he looked at another woman, or she thought that he might be thinking of looking at another woman, she gave him a home cocked meal with her special seasoning and placed him in a coffin in her wine cellar. When she was exposed she had two husbands, a son and 32 dead lovers in her basement. Vera Renzci wasn’t particular about her choice of poison and would use whatever she had at hand, among her weapons: arsenic.

Joseph Kesselringer’s play Arsenic and Old Lace was inspired
by Vera Renzci. Here a scene from the 1944 movie version.

~ The Angel Makers of Nagyrév, Hungary used to be obedient housewives in a secluded and strict rural village. Then came WWI and their husbands went off to war. At the same time an encampment with war prisoners from the allied forces was established in Nagyrév. The women of the village were soon swooned by the handsome soldiers, while doing small tasks like washing and laundry at the camp. Many of them took lovers. Then the war ended… the allied soldiers went back home and the men of Nagyrév came home as well, expecting everything to be as it was before the war. The women wanted it differently though: guided by the midwife; Julia Fazekas, they boiled fly paper to get arsenic and slowly and systematically killed their husbands. It didn’t end there though, because killing their men had been so easy, they soon fell into the habit and murdered any family member that gave them grief; be it parents, in-laws or even noisy children. In the eighteen years the Angel Makers were at work, 40-45 people died from arsenic poisoning in Nagyrév.

~ The French court in the 17th century was rife with female poisoners. Most famous among them is Madame de Brinvilliers and the legendary La Voisin. De Brinvilliers and her lover were convicted and decapitated for having put her father and two brothers in an early grave to get hold of the family fortune. She was also rumored to have given poor people arsenic powdered food during charity visits to hospitals. La Voisin worked as a midwife and fortune teller and had many rich clients at court – among them the king’s mistress. Her most sought after remedy consisted of belladonna, opium and arsenic. She was burned as witch in 1680 after a failed attempt to murder the king.

La Voisin

~Mary Ann Cotton lived in England in the 19th century. She is famous for taking out as many as 21 members of her own family and close circle, among them husbands and children. Her preferred method was arsenic poisoning. She was hanged for her deeds in 1873. After her death this nursery rhyme appeared:
Mary Ann Cotton
She’s dead and she’s rotten
She lies in her bed
With eyes wide open.
Sing, sing, oh, what can I sing,
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string.
Where, where? Up in the air
Sellin’ black puddens a penny a pair.
Mary Ann Cotton
She’s dead and forgotten,
She lies in a grave with her bones all-rotten;
Sing, sing, oh, what can we sing,
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string.

Arsenic poisoning probably became so popular because the poison was easy to get hold of and hard to detect post mortem. No wonder then, that arsenic’s pet nickname was “inheritance powder”.


Pharmasist bottle of arsenic, ca 1900
(Photo: National Museum of American History)


Happy housewife with cake found on

One Response to “Wicked Wednesday: Arsenic: A Girl’s Best Friend”

  1. […] take on the Lizzie Borden story. Not only do we like Christina Ricci, but we have a particular fondness for female killers as well. I won’t say it wasn’t good – because it was. It was just not great. It […]

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