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 in those days - and to give them fresh complexions. (It did indeed result in a rosy cheeked complexion - regarded as a sign of good health - because it damaged the blood vessels in the surface of the skin.) The men also claimed it gave them more energy, aided digestion, prevented disease, made them more courageous, and increased their sexual potency.

It appears that the Styrian peasants first developed a taste for arsenic in the 1600s when mining began in the region. They got the arsenic trioxide from the chimneys of the small huts in which minerals were smelted and from which fumes of white arsenic were often observed to be emitted. Their name for the arsenic was hittrichfeitl referring to the white smoke, and they ate the arsenic trioxide like salt, sprinkling it on bread and bacon.

The arsenic-eaters were brought to public notice by a Dr Von Tschudi in 1851 who wrote about them in a medical magazine. This was repeated by Charles Boner in Chambers' Edinburgh Journal and was so sensational that it was reproduced in more than 30 other journals around the world. It received even more publicity when J. F. W. Johnston wrote about it in his book The Chemistry of Modern Life published in 1855 and even got academic acceptance when Professor Henry Roscoe spoke about it at the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society in i860. Roscoe also included it in the influential textbook Treatise on Chemistry which he co-authored with Carl Schorlemmer in 1877.

The Styrian arsenic-eaters started with doses of around half a grain (30 mg) taken two or three times a week; they slowly increased this to a grain and then two grains, and took such doses for most of their working life. Some men were known to be able to eat five grains (300 mg), well above the fatal dose for a normal adult, and one Styrian poacher was reputed to be able to eat almost a gram (1000 mg) of arsenic trioxide. The peasants were skilled in measuring the dosage, cutting the necessary arsenic from a larger chunk, and some continued with this regime for as long as 40 years without coming to any apparent harm. Nor was it only humans who benefited from the hit-trichfeitl; those who worked with horses also gave it to their steeds claiming it improved their health and appearance, and increased their stamina too.

Many regarded tales of arsenic-eating in the way we now regard urban myths. Clearly such natural scepticism could only be disarmed if arsenic-eating was proved by a scientific demonstration, and one done publicly. Such a demonstration was conducted in front of a large gathering at the 48th meeting of the German Association of Arts and Sciences at Graz in 1875. A Dr Knapp presented two arsenic-eaters to the audience, one of whom then consumed 400 mg of arsenic trioxide, the other 300 mg of orpiment (arsenic sulphide). The following day the two men appeared again still in the best of health and it was announced that samples of their urine had been collected and analysed and proved that they were indeed excreting large amounts of arsenic. There could now be no doubt that it was possible to eat arsenic and become almost immune to it by gradually increasing the dose.

Arsenic-eating had its downside. It interferes with the essential element iodine, which the thyroid gland needs to produce the hormone thyroxine that governs several metabolic processes, not least of which is keeping the body temperature steady. The iodine-deficiency disease goitre was prevalent among the Styrian peasants, as was cretinism among their children.

Following from the discovery that the peasants of Styria really were able to make themselves immune to arsenic poisoning, came the Styrian Defence, used by barristers to defend their murdering clients when they came to trial. It was a two-pronged defence which maintained that the arsenic in the victim's body might well have been there because he - and it generally was a he - was a regular taker of arsenic, while the arsenic found in the accused's possession was likewise explicable because she - and often it was a she -was dosing herself with arsenic to improve her complexion. The effects of arsenic in improving the complexion led to several patent cosmetic treatments appearing in the late 1800s, such as Dr Simms Arsenic Complexion Wafers which were said to produce a 'beautiful transparency', remove wrinkles, brighten the eyes, and raise the spirits. We shall hear more of the Styrian Defence, which was used at the trials of Madeleine Smith in 1857, Florence Maybrick in 1889, and even at the Maierhofer trial in Austria as late as 1937.

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