Mercury metal and mercury vapour

Little Willie from his mirror Licked the mercury right off, Thinking in his childish error It would cure the whooping cough. At the funeral his mother Brightly said to Mrs Brown ''Twas a chilly day for Willie When the mercury went down.' Harry Graham, Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes, 1899 Liquid mercury is the form of the element that most people are familiar with and this is comparatively harmless. Little Willie was not likely to have met his end by this means. If you swallow liquid...

The poisoning of Pope Clement II

The human body defends itself against lead in two ways. Firstly, it resists absorbing it into the system, although some always gets through if lead enters the stomach. Secondly, the lead which passes through the stomach wall and enters the bloodstream is taken to the skeleton and deposited in the bone where it can do least damage. For these reasons a person can withstand lead poisoning for many weeks until the body's defences eventually crumble under a prolonged attack. The fact that lead...

Arsenic is everywhere

For more technical information about the element arsenic, consult the Glossary. Arsenic has a long historical and disreputable pedigree its very name seems to condemn it as something unspeakable. It appears to have been first isolated by Albertus the Great (1206-80) although it was not identified as an element until several centuries later. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first recorded use of the English word arsenic was in 1310, and certainly it must have been widely known by...

Antimony in medicine

Antimony in one form or another has been used in the treatment of disease for more than 3000 years. Egyptian papyri reveal that the naturally occurring mineral stibnite (black antimony sulphide) was given to patients to treat fevers and skin conditions. The Roman physician Dioscorides of Anazarba (southern Turkey), who lived in the second half of the first century ad, was also familiar with stibnite which he called stibi and recommended it for skin complaints, ulcers, and burns, and that it was...

The marriage of Florence Chandler and James Maybrick

James Maybrick was born in Liverpool in 1839, the second son of a parish clerk. He had three brothers Thomas, who was older, but with whom he had little contact Edwin, who was younger and unmarried, with whom he was in partnership as a cotton broker and Michael, who was also younger, a well-known composer under the pen-name of Stephen Adams.* At the age of 20 James Maybrick was apprenticed to a shipping broker in London. There he * His best-selling song was The Holy City, which sold millions of...

Too clever by half

A more recent case was that of George James Trepal. He has an IQ in excess of 150 and we know this because he was a member of the elite group Mensa who only admit people to their ranks on the basis of a high IQ. George Trepal is currently awaiting execution in a Florida prison after being found guilty in June 1991 of murder he poisoned a whole family and killed one of them. What drove Trepal to such action was the endless noise these neighbours generated, which took the form of loud music and...

Arsenic in the air

So what was the toxic vapour given off by wallpaper decorated with a green arsenic pigment The Victorian chemists knew of one deadly arsenic gas and that was arsine in which three hydrogen atoms were bonded to the element (AsH3), and that they could make this by treating a solution of arsenic trioxide with zinc and sulphuric acid. The German chemist A. F. Gehlen (1775-1815) discovered how dangerous arsine could be when he made some in 1815. Within an hour of sniffing the gas he became ill,...

The expedition that vanished

On 19 May 1845, the 59-year-old explorer Sir John Franklin set off to search for the supposed Northwest Passage around the top of Canada, which was seen as an alternative route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. His two ships Erebus and Terror were well provisioned with five years' supply of food for the 129 officers and crew, whose quarters were equipped with central heating. In August the ships were seen in Baffin Bay, in north Canada, but then they disappeared. By 1848, when nothing had been...

Lead glaze

Glazed pottery appeared in the early Middle Ages and became popular from the 1500s onwards. The glazing had a high lead content, which could leach lead from the walls of such a vessel when anything acidic like wine, cider, vinegar, fruit juices, or pickled foods were put in it. Homemade wines were to be a source of lead poisoning especially in the 1800s and 1900s, and sometimes the source of the lead was difficult to trace. A typical puzzling case was the illness of a 52-year-old village...

Fluoride can be fatal

The element fluorine is a highly toxic and reactive gas, used in industry in the making of all kinds of chemicals, of which the best known is Teflon. Fluoride, on the other hand is relatively unreactive and is how the element occurs in nature, being the negatively charged fluorine atom F-. That it had a role to play in living things came to light as long ago as 1802, when it was detected in ivory, bones, and teeth. By the mid-nineteenth-century it had been found to be present in blood,...

Florence Bravo 184678

Antimony potassium tartrate was also responsible for the death of 30-year-old barrister Charles Bravo of Balham in 1876, and he appears to be a rare example of someone dying as a result of a single dose. There was an earlier example of such a death when, in 1856, a Mrs McMullen had given her husband a 'quietness' powder of potassium antimony tartrate, ostensibly to treat his liking for drink but more likely to quell his sexual demands. He died and she was convicted of manslaughter. The Bravo...

Arsenic in the human body

Chickens that are fed an arsenic-free diet do not grow properly and it appears this element may have a role in animal development, at least in chickens and maybe in humans. If so, we need very little of it and our requirement each day may be as little as 0.01 mg, although we take in and can tolerate much more than this. The average person, weighing 70 kg, contains around 7 mg of arsenic, which represents a level of 0.1 ppm. Our blood contains less than this, but our skeleton contains more, and...

Mercury mining and mining with mercury

Native mercury occurs naturally as tiny droplets in mineral deposits of the ore cinnabar, which is mercury sulphide (HgS).* Mercury itself is abundant in some cinnabar mines and in the Rattlesnake Mine, in Sonoma County, California, it would sometimes come spurting out of the ore when a pick was sunk in. Generally it was released by heating the ore which caused the sulphur component to react with the oxygen of the air and be lost as sulphur dioxide gas, leaving metallic liquid mercury behind....

A world driven mad by lead

Not all compounds of lead are heavy solids some are liquids and some of these are slightly volatile. Such a compound was discovered in Germany in 1854. It consisted of a lead atom to which were attached four ethyl groups (CH3CH2) and it was known as tetraethyl lead (TEL). It is these groups that give it a relatively low boiling point, for a metallic molecule, of 202 C, which is not low but is high enough for its vapour to be dangerous to breathe. Little interest was paid to this molecule for...

The alchemists

Alchemy flourished in China, India, the Middle East, and Europe, wherever gold was valued and the desire for more was ever present. In the West, alchemy can trace its roots to ancient Egypt where one of the earliest identifiable alchemists lived. He was Democritus and he dwelt in the Nile Delta about 200 BC. He wrote Physica et Mystica Natural and Mystical Things , which included not only useful recipes for dyes and pigments, but also some for making gold, although his instructions were written...

Modern uses and misuses of lead

In the 1900s, lead arsenate was used as a pesticide against leaf-eating insects, although not permitted on crops destined for human or animal consumption. It was regarded as safe when dusted on tobacco crops, but the result was that smokers has more lead in their bodies than non-smokers. That misuse of lead has now ceased and at least smokers need no longer worry about their exposure to these two toxic elements. More lead today is mined, recycled, and used than in any previous time in history....

The arseniceaters

In the 1800s it was rumoured that the peasants of the Styrian Alps, near Graz on the border between Austria and Hungary, consumed arsenic trioxide as a tonic and in more than lethal doses. To many it seemed inconceivable, and doctors generally disbelieved such tales despite assurances from their colleagues in the Graz region that they really were true. The men ate arsenic to help them to breathe better at high altitudes, while the women ate it to make them plumper - a desirable female feature...

How much lead can the human body accommodate

The total amount of lead in an average adult today is probably around 100 mg. In the next generation it might be as little as 50, and in subsequent generations even as low as 10 mg. Most lead in the body is to be found in the skeleton, which can have up to 30 ppm. The level to which people in the past were exposed to lead is preserved in their bones and it has been possible to mark the degree of lead exposure by analysing bones from former ages. If the date of death is accurately known then...

Lead and dead

GOUT was once a common malady that immobilized many of the upper class males of ancient Rome and imperial Britain. Both societies blamed it on too much rich food and wine, and they may have been right. The Roman writers, Seneca, Virgil, Juvenal, and Ovid all poked fun at the sufferers of gout, as did the London cartoonists the popular belief was that it was a just punishment for over-indulgence. Physicians knew of the pain it caused and discovered that it was due to sharp crystals of uric acid...

Arsenic and cancer

In the USA in the 1990s, claims were made that arsenic caused cancer of the skin, lungs, bladder, and prostate, and that it was linked to diabetes, heart disease, anaemia, and disorders of the immune, nervous, and reproductive systems. The last of these followed from the assumption that it was a potent endocrine disrupter, in other words that it could interfere with the working of hormones. Most of these scares proved to be unfounded, but not all. Arsenic is classed as a cancer-forming chemical...

The murder of Maud Marsh

Chapman now needed a barmaid and in August 1901 he saw an advertisement placed in a newspaper by an 18-year-old Maud Marsh, who was seeking such a position. Chapman replied to the advert and a few days later Maud, accompanied by her mother, came to be interviewed. In reply to Mrs Marsh's questions about his status, Chapman told her that he was a widower, and when he said that Maud would be expected to live on the premises, Mrs Marsh wanted to know who else was resident in the building. She was...

Medicinal mercury

Until the advent of modern drugs, there were certain conditions where mercury compounds were beneficial, and so they found widespread use. Solutions of mercury(II) salts made very effective antibacterial agents because the mercury(II) ion, Hg2+, forms insoluble salts with their proteins and kills them. As late as the 1970s mercury compounds were still to be found in the pharmacopoeias of most countries although they had fallen into disuse as new and better products took their place....

Arsenic in plants and food

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the daily intake of arsenic into the human body that can be tolerated with no observable effects is 14 g kg body weight, which for the average 70 kg adult amounts to around 1000 g. In fact the normal human diet contains much less than this, between 12 and 50 g day, and the amount excreted is within this range. However, in Japan the average intake and excretion is in excess of 140 g day due to the eating of fish and shellfish, which are...

Mercury and metabolism

The human body can tolerate quite large amounts of mercury, although if the total exceeds 4 g there is serious risk of death. (A fatal dose of methyl mercury is probably around 200 mg.) About one person in ten has a level of mercury in their body that would make them unsuitable as food for any cannibals who followed the nutritional guidelines regarding excess mercury levels in meat, that it should not exceed 0.05 ppm. Today most mercury comes from our food, but in former times the use of...

The effects of lead on the human body

The body's response to a sudden large dose of lead is to expel the poison by the usual routes of vomiting and diarrhoea, but when it comes in the form of many small doses it can infiltrate the body and be partly assimilated. Then its malevolent effects may go unrecognized for years provided the daily dose is small. The best indicator of exposure to lead is its concentration in the blood. This can be related to the symptoms it is causing, and those to the metabolic processes it is disrupting...

The adult poisoner

When Young left Broadmoor on Thursday, 8 February 1971, he went first to spend the weekend at his sister's home. Winifred was the only person in the outside world to whom he could turn. His father had retired and moved to Sheerness to live with his sister and her husband Jack, and they had had no communication with Graham for many years. Nor did they want anything to do with him now. The following week Young turned up at the Government Training Centre in Slough, where he began a three month...

Minamata Bay disaster

The most puzzling mass poisoning by organo-mercury came from naturally produced methyl mercury compounds, albeit from mercury discharged from industry, and this occurred around Minamata Bay in the 1950s. Minamata Bay is on the eastern shore of the Shiranui Sea and part of Kyushu, Japan's southern island. In 1907 Jun Noguchi founded a chemical company there that later became the Chisso Chemical Company* and he built a factory in Minamata, the effluent of which was discharged into the Bay. In the...

Louisa Jane Taylor 184683

There are features of this case that make it unique in many ways. It was unusual in that the murderer, 37-year-old Louisa Jane Taylor, was already in police custody on a charge of stealing her victim's clothes at a time when her would-be victim was still alive and her health improving. The case is also unusual in that the murdered woman, a Mrs Mary Ann Tregillis was able to accuse her murderer at a Magistrate's Court hearing and make a statement before she died. Even more curious was the fact...

Arsenic in wallpaper

Scheele's green was ideal for printing wallpapers, especially those with floral motifs. Wallpaper production rose steadily throughout the 1800s in the UK it reached 1 million rolls a year in 1830 and 30 million rolls by 1870. When tests were then carried out it was found that four out of five wallpapers contained arsenic. Arsenic in wallpaper had a habit of diffusing into the air of a room and thereby affecting its occupants. This had been suspected as long ago as 1815, but the mechanism by...

Severin Klosowski

Antonio Klosowski was 30 and his wife Emilie 29 when their son Severin was born. They were Roman Catholics, and Antonio was the village carpenter. When he was seven years old, on 17 October 1873, Severin started primary school, which he attended for the next seven years, leaving on 13 June 1880, with a good final report. Later that year, on 1 December, he was apprenticed to Moshko Rappaport, in Zwolen, 90 km south of Warsaw. Rappaport would train him to be a feldscher, an occupation combining...

Leaded delights

The juice crushed from grapes will ferment naturally due to the yeasts from the grape skins, and the resulting wine can contain as much as 13 alcohol. Such wine has been made, traded, and enjoyed since ancient times but there were risks to the vintner in that other yeasts could invade the wine and convert a lot of its alcohol to acetic acid. This sour wine we know by its French name of vin aigre, i.e. vinegar, and while it could be sold as a commodity in its own right there was much less demand...

Cot death and antimony

From the 1950s onwards most babies slept on foam mattresses with waterproof polyvinyl chloride (PVC) covers. In 1988 it became a legal requirement to use additives to reduce the risk of fire from household furniture, and this meant that mattresses had to contain fire-retardants. In most cases this meant adding antimony oxide to the PVC covers. From the 1950s onwards, the incidence of cot death started to increase, and by the late 1980s about 23 babies in every 10000 were dying for no apparent...

Ye poysoning of Sir Thomas Overbury

The most famous murder committed with mercury was that of the poet Thomas Overbury. He survived four attempts to poison him and was only killed when he was given an enema containing corrosive sublimate. He was dead within hours. Rapid death from mercury can occur and there are cases on record of people dying of heart failure after being given a mercury-based medicine. Clearly some people are particularly sensitive to this metal, but Overbury was not one of them. He had already survived at least...

The Murder of Mary Spink

At Leytonstone, Chapman met 39-year-old Mary Isabella Spink, the estranged wife of a railway porter. During their marriage they had had two children, Shadrach, the eldest, had been taken by his father, and William, born after they separated, was living with his mother. When Mary met Chapman, William was about five years old. Mary told Chapman that there was a furnished room to let in the house where she lodged in Forest Road, and he went to see it and decided to take it. It was not long before...

Medical uses of lead

Despite its poisonous nature, lead was used by doctors for around 2000 years to treat all kinds of illnesses. The practice started with Tiberius Claudius Menecrates, physician to the Roman Emperor Tiberius (ruled 14-37). His diachylon plasters contained a paste made from lead oxide and they were used to treat skin complaints such as sores, boils, and other infections. The Roman recipe recommended heating litharge until it went gold-coloured then grinding this with linseed or olive oil and...

The poisonings of Handel and Beethoven

George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) was the first of the great entrepreneurial composers. Born in Halle, Germany, he was eventually appointed musician to the court of the Elector of Hanover, and when the Elector became King George I of England Handel moved with him and lived the rest of his life in London, producing a stream of operas and oratorios. His most popular work was the Messiah, which was premiered in 1742. This * Although it is not recorded, it is more than likely that those exposed...

The many uses of mercury

Down the centuries, humans have found more than a thousand different applications for mercury, and while most of these have now been abandoned, many persisted well into the second half of the last century. Thermometers, thermostats, barometers, ultraviolet lamps, fluorescent lights, contact switches, batteries, medicaments, disinfectants, antifungal agents, agricultural chemicals for protecting seeds, and detonators all made use of metallic mercury or its compounds. One such compound was...

Arsenic in the hair

In his last will and testament Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) wrote 'I died before my time, murdered by the English oligarchy and its hired assassin.' Indeed he did die before his time - he was only 52 - and indeed he was probably right in thinking that the English would like to see him dead, but did they hire an assassin to carry out the job Some think they did, and know who it was. Others take a less contentious view of his death, maintaining it was a perforated stomach ulcer and that this...

Driving you hairless

For more technical information about the element thallium, consult the Glossary. William Crookes named thallium after the bright green colour it produced when its salts were put into a Bunsen burner flame. He compared the colour to that of a fresh green shoot, so he based its name on the Greek word for this, which is thallos. Thallium's deadly nature was not at first appreciated and it became part of the treatment for ringworm of the scalp, given in relatively large doses to children because it...

The murder of Bob Egle

Young's modus operandi was to add the poison to the victim's morning coffee or afternoon cup of tea. He was able to do this without arousing suspicion because it was one of his duties as the junior storeman to fetch the drinks from the tea trolley in the corridor. Every person had a differently patterned mug which made it possible for the poison to be fed with certainty to the intended victim. Moreover, while he was collecting the drinks he was out of sight of anyone for part of the journey...

Thallium as a homicidal agent

As a murder weapon, thallium sulphate has its attractions. It is soluble in water, gives a colourless solution that is virtually tasteless, and what little taste there is can easily be masked by other things, such as tea, coffee, or cola - and a fatal amount can be given in a single dose. Its symptoms are delayed and, as we have seen, can be mistaken with those of other diseases. It seemed such an ideal murder weapon that corrupt regimes used it to dispose of unwanted individuals. Indeed there...

Arsenic in warfare

The forces of the Byzantine Empire, the successor to the Eastern Roman Empire, had at their disposal a wonder-weapon Greek fire. According to one account it appeared in the reign of Constantine IV Pogonatus (who ruled from 641-68) and its invention was credited to a refugee from Syria who fled to Constantinople (now Istanbul) after his native land was conquered by the Arabs. Others say that it was really a development of an existing weapon that the Byzantines had used in the 500s but, however...

Potassium the essential deadly poison

In the body, potassium has many functions, the more important of which are operating nerve impulses and contracting muscles. Potassium is present as the positively charged ion K+ and it concentrates inside cells, which is where 95 of the body's potassium is located, unlike sodium and calcium, which are more abundant outside cells. A cell membrane has millions of tiny channels through which potassium ions flow and every one is capable of transferring hundreds of potassium ions per second in and...

The strange death of King Charles II

King Charles II was not an alchemist as such, but he was very interested in science and especially 'chymistry'. He had a laboratory built in the basement of his palace at Westminster and there, with the aid of one or two assistants, he spent time smelting and refining mercury, and indeed he became accomplished in the experimental techniques of the alchemists. Charles had his laboratory staff extract mercury from cinnabar and even distil it. No doubt his aim was to transmute base metals into...

Arsenic in drinking water

When arsenic contaminates drink at levels like that in the beer once brewed in Manchester (see Chapter 5) it will eventually be discovered and dealt with, because it leads to toxic symptoms in those who consume a lot of it. When arsenic contaminates drinking water at similar levels it may go unnoticed for several years because much less water is drunk at any one time. And therein lies its opportunity to inflict widespread damage. The symptoms which appear are generally skin lesions and skin...

The medical uses and commercial abuses of thallium

Thallium salts were once part of the medical pharmacopoeia, and used to remove hair. This unusual effect of thallium was discovered by accident in the 1890s when thallium was tested on tuberculosis patients as a cure for night sweats. It didn't stop them having them, but their hair fell out. Dr R. J. Sabourand, the chief dermatologist at the St Louis Hospital in Paris, reported this side effect in 1898 for a while he used it specifically to remove body hair from those with ringworm but gave up...

Organomercury and autism

Autism is a distressing condition and five children in every 10000 are afflicted with it, and of these the ratio of 4 boys to 1 girl.* What causes a seemingly normal baby to develop autism is still unknown, but many in the USA believe that mercury is the cause. In the late 1990s it was accused of causing attention deficit syndrome, stammering, and especially autism. Some thought that thimerosal was to blame. This is a mercury-containing antibacterial agent which was added to vaccines to...

Lead and the decline of empires

The Ancient Greek poet and physician Nicander described the symptoms of lead poisoning, including hallucinations and paralysis, and recommended strong laxative treatments to cure it. Yet lead continued to poison unchecked, largely because the link between the metal and its adverse effects on health was not obvious. On the other hand its benefits were obvious, indeed the more lead was used in a society, the higher the standard of living of its citizens. Lead can be an extremely useful metal...

Antidotes

Thallium mimics the nutritionally essential element potassium, and as a result it passes through the gut wall and into the bloodstream. The body is not fooled for long by thallium and excretes it into the intestines. This is not particularly effective, since a little further along it is once again mistaken for potassium and reabsorbed. The cure for thallium needs to break this cycle of excretion and reabsorption, and the best cure is Prussian blue, the dye of blue ink. This is a complex salt of...

The poisoning of George III

During his long reign from 1760 to 1820, King George III had several attacks of an unusual illness. Most of these were mild, but some of them involved mental disturbances that alarmed his family and his Government ministers. The minor illnesses of 1762, 1790, and 1795, were free from such madness, as was the more serious attack of 1765 when he was 26 years old. However, the attacks of 1788, 1801, 1804, and 1810 were all accompanied by alarming mental disturbances. The illness of 1788 was the...

Murder of Fred Biggs

With David Tilson and Jethro Batt out of the way, and likely to remain so for quite some time, Young now reverted to using antimony sodium tartrate. In the last two weeks of October he gave doses to Diana Smart and 56-year-old Fred Biggs, both of whom went down with the Bovingdon bug again. Unfortunately Biggs was finding Young's inability to cope in the stores an irritation and this led to confrontations between the two men. There was only one answer as far as Young was concerned and that was...

The madness of Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton was one of the greatest scientists of all time. His achievements were impressive he explained the nature of light and colour he established the theory of gravity and deduced how the solar system works he devised the laws of motion and he invented an early form of differential calculus. What is less well known is that he spent most of his time when he was Professor of Mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, as an alchemist. When, in 1940, the economist John Maynard Keynes opened...

The child poisoner

In 1960 the 12-year-old Graham was ready to take practical steps to relieve the knocks he was taking from the world, and particularly from his stepmother. To begin with he merely resorted to black magic curses and he made an effigy of her which he stabbed with needles. Needless to say, in the hands of a novice these efforts were unsuccessful, so he moved to the more reliable magic of chemistry. In April 1961, he bought 25 grams of antimony sodium tartrate from a local pharmacist and he signed...

Thallium in the human body

We all have a little thallium in our body, probably no more than half a milligram, and the level in blood is only 0.5 ppb. The average person takes in about 2 g of thallium a day as part of his or her diet this accumulates in the body over time and most ends up in the skeleton. Indeed thallium finds its way into all tissues except fat, and it can even pass the placental barrier. There is no biological role for thallium although some marine organisms appear deliberately to concentrate it, but...