Arsenic – A Girl’s Best Friend

Nevermind the diamonds, arsenic has been a girl’s best friend for centuries. The mineral has been useful as cosmetics, fabric dye and as a component in home decorations like wallpapers, lampshades and paint. It has also proven to be gem in the war against rodents in the cupboards, and – of course – troublesome husbands.

In a time when divorce was a disgrace and/or difficult to get, arsenic was the perfect weapon of choice to end a domestic dispute. It was everywhere: in rat poison, flypaper and other useful things one kept at home. The symptoms of the poisoning were hideous though, as a body exposed to arsenic will shut down the digestion system. There will be vomiting, bloody feces – and quite a lot of pain.

Many famous people have succumbed to the poison: George III of Great Britain and Napoleon Bonaparte are just the tip of the iceberg. Arsenic is held responsible for Monét’s blindness and Van Gogh’s neurological disorders, though the latter weren’t poisoned; they just painted with the wrong kind of paint.

Poisoning in general and arsenic in particular has often been considered a woman’s method, and history is rife with incidents to support the claim. In honor of Women in Horror Month, here’s some horrific examples:

~ Lucretzia Borgia was the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI in the 15th century. The Borgia family was famous for their frequent use of poison to get rid of political opponents, though it’s unclear how much of the stories are true. The family recipe for their special powder, Cantarella, has been lost (if it ever existed), but it’s generally believed it had an arsenic base. Lucretzia was rumored to wear a hollow “poison ring” in order to easily season her guests’ food.

~ Catherine Medici, French Queen in the 16th century, was rumored to use arsenic as a means to remove opponents at court. She would allegedly 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 the Saint Nicholas di Bari. Toffana’s clients were urged to come see Toffana in private after they’d made their purchase to learn the real secret of the product. Many of them became widows shortly after.

When Toffana finally was arrested, the officials found it hard to find anyone willing to testify against her because she was considered a friend to women with violent husbands, providing a solution to a persistent problem.

Toffana’s make-up may have killed as many as 600 men before she was convicted and strangled to death in 1709. The secret ingredient in Acqua Toffana was, of course, arsenic.

Gesche Gottfried was a well-liked, kind and religious widow in Germany in the early 19th century who was convicted of fifteen arsenic murders (and suspected of fifteen more). Among the victims were her parents, two husbands, one fiancé and all of her children. Though the widow could remember exactly when she killed them, where they sat, what dish she administered the poison in and how much poison she gave them, she could never come up with a good explanation for why she had done it.

This fascinating talk with Professor Susanne Kord looks at female poisoners in general and Gesche Gottfried in particular – well worth your time.

The Angel Makers of Nagyrév, Hungary, used to be obedient housewives in a secluded 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, introducing the women to a different kind of men. When the war ended, the allied soldiers went back home, and the men of Nagyrév came home as well, shell-shocked and scarred, expecting everything to be as it was before. The women wanted it differently though. Guided by the midwife, Julia Fazekas, they boiled flypaper 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.

In the eighteen years the Angel Makers were at work, at least 42 people died from arsenic poisoning in Nagyrév.

~ The French court in the 17th century was rife with female poisoners. Most famous among them are 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 rumored to have given poor people arsenic-powdered food during charity visits to hospitals, just to see how the poison worked.

La Voisin worked as a midwife and fortuneteller 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.



~ Mary Ann Cotton lived in England in the 19th century. She is famous for killing 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.



Arsenic poisoning became so popular because the poison was easy to get hold of and hard to detect post mortem. No wonder then, that arsenic was also known as ‘inheritance powder’.

Vintage ad for Rough on Rats, an arsenic based rodent killer. 



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