I came across the following story while looking for evidence of my Archer forebears. I have a couple of James Archers of suitable age on my family tree but wasn’t able to identify the James Archer mentioned in the story…although most Archers lived in the West Riding wool towns at the 1881 Census, it is no longer certain that they came from a common root. Nevertheless, I found the story interesting as an item of West Yorkshire history.
Death from poisoning was not uncommon in the days before the regulation of poisons. Arsenic trioxide (usually referred to as simply “arsenic”) was a common feature of everyday life in Victorian Britain…arsenic was cheap and effective as a rat killer but, because of its ready availability, arsenic could be used to murder. Many “murder by arsenic” cases were domestic in nature…how easy it was for an unscrupulous wife to slip a small amount of arsenic powder into the husband’s tea in order to collect the life insurance after his sad death…or for a desperate wife to rid herself of an abusive husband.
Arsenic does not usually have an immediate effect when swallowed. It doesn’t burn on its way into the stomach. It gets absorbed into the blood stream and carried throughout the body. Some hours later, it causes cramp-like pains, vomiting and diarrhoea…a dose could kill the victim within a day…or he could linger for a couple of weeks.
Poisoning trials are frequently described in the medical journals and newspapers of the 19th Century and many of the accused were women. Arsenic was cheap and widely available, there was no control over its sale and, where brute force killing was not an option, a woman intent on murder could administer it easily enough. Not to be entirely sexist here, men sometimes used arsenic to kill too!
Accidental death from arsenic poisoning
Because it was odourless and tasteless, arsenic could easily be mistaken for innocuous substances like flour and other household white powders, so accidental deaths were common too.
Scheele’s-green, loaded with copper arsenite and Paris-green (emerald green) made with copper acetate triarsenite were use to dye wallpaper and fabric. Gowns made in these colours made women ill and sometimes eventually killed them, perhaps the reason that green became known as an unlucky colour to wear at weddings. When Scheele’s-green wallpaper became damp and then was heated by a gas or coal fire, it released toxic gas which may have caused the slow painful death of thousands of people across the world.
Arsenic was used to whiten the skin in cosmetics and was combined in medicines to treat skin complaints, asthma and even cancer. In the 1870s, arsenic somehow got into babies’ talcum powder and cause the poisoning of many infants in Essex.
Arsenic was and still is a very dangerous poison.
Dying for a Humbug
Our story takes place in Bradford in 1858 and our first subject is Billy Hardacre, a humbug seller known locally as “Humbug Billy”. At that time, boiled sweets had become very popular. Exhumations from the graveyard around the Piece Hall at Halifax, showed that many Victorian people suffered from advanced tooth decay, due to their high sugar and carbohydrate diets and lack of dental hygiene.
However, sugar was very expensive and highly taxed, so it was often cut (mixed) with another white powder, such as plaster of Paris or sulphate of lime to make it go further. The cutting agent used by sweet-makers was known locally as “daft”.
Billy Hardacre’s sweets were bought from a wholesale confectioner named Joseph Neal and they contained daft. Neal’s usual practice was to cut his sugar with daft, then boil it with gum and flavour it with peppermint. The resulting sweets must have had a curious chalky texture, but they were cheap to make, harmless, and were sold on at wholesale price to Humbug Billy, who went on to make a nice profit selling his humbugs at the “Green Market” in the centre of Bradford.
The fateful day came when Neal took a typical order for humbugs from Billy Hardacre. Neal had a lodger, a James Archer, who intended to go to the chemist at Baildon Bridge that day. Neal asked him to also obtain 12 pounds of “daft”. Unfortunately, Hodgson, the chemist at Baildon, was feeling unwell and had left his customers to his young assistant, William Goddard. Goddard had to ask where the daft was kept and he was sent to the stockroom to find it. Perhaps Goddard misunderstood the directions or wasn’t paying attention, because the young man unfortunately chose the wrong barrel – and weighed out, not daft, but 12 pounds (5.5 kilos) of arsenic trioxide, which James Archer duly carried back to his landlord.
Joseph Neal employed an experienced sweet maker, James Appleton, who unknowingly boiled the supplied 12 lbs of arsenic trioxide with 40 lbs of sugar, 4 lbs of gum and some peppermint oil. This made a large batch of peppermint humbugs. Tasting, to check the strength of the peppermint flavour, would be required during the making process, so it is not surprising that Appleton fell ill shortly after making the sweets. Joseph Neal gave Humbug Billy a discount on 40 pounds of the humbugs, because they didn’t look as good as usual and, in spite of being ill after eating one, Humbug Billy went on to sell the first 5 pounds of them from his market stall for a penny-ha’penny for 2 ounces.
It was now too late to stop the poisonings. Humbugs were being shared around or greedily gobbled up, by adults and children alike, all over Bradford. Those who ate the most swiftly died, some 20 of them, including children. At least 200 more individuals were taken seriously ill but survived and it wasn’t long before questioning of the survivors established that they had all eaten peppermint humbugs.
Goddard, Hodgson and Neal were arrested and all charged with manslaughter and quick action by the police prevented further sales of the humbugs. Evidence given by an investigating analytical chemist identified that each sweet contained between 910 and 970 milligrams (about 0.03 of an ounce) of arsenic and that “each one was capable of killing two people”. The amount of sweets that Humbug Billy had bought could have killed up to a couple of thousand if they had all been sold.
The charges against Goddard and Neal were later withdrawn and Hodgson (the chemist) was acquitted at York Assizes on 21st December 1858. It had all been a “tragic accident”.
Changes in the Law
As often happens after a tragedy, the law is eventually changed. The Bradford poison scandal contributed to the lobbying for new legislation in order to protect the public from any similar tragedy. The 1860 Adulteration of Food and Drink Act attempted to change the way food could be adulterated by other ingredients. Samples could be tested by appointed inspectors, but many local authorities failed to comply and the Act was a failure, leading to its repeal.
Ten years and many more arsenic deaths after the Bradford event, the first Pharmacy Act of 1868 was passed, which required record keeping of all sales of named poisons, including arsenic trioxide. It was the first step in the regulation of poisons but was many hundreds of deaths too late.
The abolition of the Sugar Tax in 1874 meant that sugar became affordable to all and it was the Sale of Food and Drugs Act of 1875 which proved to be the lasting measure. Sweets could now be made with sugar and not cut with any other ingredient…and all they did was rot the teeth.
© Christine Widdall 2020