RogerBW's Blog

Poison Romance and Poison Mysteries, C. J. S. Thompson 08 March 2018

1899 non-fiction; Dr Thompson, a medical historian, examines the history and practice of poisoning.

This is a curiously disorganised book. Even the chapter headings, starting off promisingly with "Poisons of Antiquity", "Poisons and Superstition", and so on, soon divert into specific poisons, then particular cases, then back to specific poisons, then addictive drugs, poisons in ficton, some more cases… and individual chapters are similarly disorganised, with things put in apparently in the order that Thompson thought of them, with occasional jumps back to add another sentence about an earlier point. This often feels like an unedited first draft; of course, the word processor made it much easier to fix the kind of bittiness seen here, but other writers of this era copied the thing out again with revisions, and I suspect Thompson didn't.

These plants were frequently employed in India for putting a sudden end to domestic quarrels, and to this practice may be traced the origin of the custom of "Suttee," or widow burning, as the Brahmins found from experience that, by making a wife's life conterminous with the husband's the average husband lived considerably longer.

(That idea is taken from Diodorus, who probably copied it from Hieronymus of Cardia, who made it up as an example of the silliness of marrying for love.)

There are curious omissions, perhaps of people who have only been brought to prominence by modern scholarship; La Voisin is a mere footnote to Exili and the death of Madame de Montespan (who here is described as having died in 1672 apparently of poison, which isn't consistent with the historical de Montespan at all). Of course there are no sources cited.

More interesting is the more contemporary material, such as the Maybrick and Bravo cases; but again it's a good idea to read Wikipedia or other sources as well as this book, because Thompson gives only a single narrative and can't be trusted to have checked any others. He's always more interested in a good story than in the facts.

One does get a great sense of unsophistication among these criminals (of course these are the ones who were suspected enough to be put on trial); if you are a doctor and your friend becomes unwell whenever he is under your care, and gets better every time you go away, there's a fairly obvious place for the police to start looking when he dies and you write out the death certificate. Especially if you then produce a document in which he claims that he is solely liable for a whole mass of debts which you have accumulated. And then when a post-mortem is to be conducted you offer the post-boy a bribe to break the specimen jars in transit… of course one doesn't know how much one of this can trust, and I suspect it's mostly taken from contemporary newspaper accounts.

Thompson is never afraid to moralise, or to claim authority for his statements, but for most things I've checked there seem to be distinctly contradictory versions elsewhere.

The opium question is so complex in its nature, and is so largely influenced by the habits and constitution of those nations who are addicted to its use, that it is obvious that only those with skilled medical knowledge, who are on the spot and have lived and had a daily experience of the people, are in a proper position to deal with the question at all.

And then there are bits of utter strangeness, which are such fun that one doesn't care whether they're true.

According to a West End physician quite a new and most reprehensible vice has recently become fashionable—viz., a craze that has arisen among women for smoking green tea, in the form of cigarettes. Though adopted by some fair ladies merely as a pastime, not a few of its votaries are women of high education and mental attainments. "Among my patients," he states, "suffering from extreme nervousness and insomnia, is a young lady, highly distinguished, at Girton. Another is a lady novelist, whose books are widely read, and who habitually smoked twenty or thirty of these cigarettes nightly when writing, for their stimulating effect." Though tea does not contain a trace of any poisonous principle, it can, when thus misused, exert a most harmful influence. Doubtless, the high pressure at which most of the dwellers in our great cities now live, and the worry of too much brain work on one hand, or the lack of occupation on the other, is one of the chief causes of taking up habits of this kind.

It's a strange book, more of a pleasing diversion than a serious historical document, but still quite enjoyable. Just don't take it as any sort of authority.

But would-be experimentalists in the effects of hashish would do well to remember that it may not be indulged in with impunity, and most authorities agree that the brain becomes eventually disordered with frequent indulgence in the drug even in India.

Freely available from Project Gutenberg.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 11:54am on 08 March 2018

    Sounds like the sort of thing Linda Stratmann would be interested in... Or did she put you on to it?

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 12:15pm on 08 March 2018

    No, I haven't seen her lately. This is more useful as a guide to what people thought at the turn of the twentieth century than as a guide to poisons.

  3. Posted by Michael Cule at 07:55pm on 08 March 2018

    Yes, but she writes historical detective fiction. Right in her ballpark I would have thought.

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