The usefulness of arsenic

In the late 19th century, when doctors were still speculating about the possible causes of typhoid fever and worried about the high mortality of children working in factories, they already knew that arsenic in the home constituted a health risk.

Arsenic green wallpaper

Two samples of arsenic green wallpaper contained in the Second Annual Report of the State Board of Health, Massachusetts, published Boston 1871. For information on a possible link to the death of Napoleon, click here.

But, before the discovery of penicillin, this poisonous element was  the recommended treatment for both syphilis and gonorrhea; a lady could still go to the chemist and  buy enough arsenic to dose her husband’s venereal complaint or, if the relationship deteriorated further, to finish him off altogether.

In February 1897, this knowledge informed the judge who, presiding over the first ever murder trial in the British Consular Court in Yokohama,  thrilled the onlooking public by donning his black cap to condemn Edith Carew to be hanged – and commended her soul to God.

Mrs Carew had certainly purchased arsenic and the investigation into the death of her husband caused quite a scandal, forcing several important men to leave town. Her husband, Walter, secretary of the Yokohama United Club, was well known locally and his complicated relationships and tiresome behaviour became general knowledge within the British community. Perhaps as a consequence, Mrs Carew’s sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment and, after many years in Holloway prison, she ended up in Dinas.

Miss Carew (always Miss Carew in Dinas), whose first name was not known to her neighbours until after her death, was originally from the West country where her father had been three times Mayor of Glastonbury. She was a gifted violinist, had an encyclopaedic knowledge of gardening and a cut-glass accent that intimidated the local villagers who had, nevertheless, gleaned some information about this new arrival.

Word in the village was that she had married an older colonial who led her a merry dance with his louche alcoholic lifestyle and, being at her wits’ end, she had dispatched him by some means or other – never elaborated upon. For this she had been found guilty and although sentenced to hang, was subsequently released on compassionate grounds. Thus she arrived in the Dinas backwater of Cwm yr Eglwys where she lived a quiet life cultivating her garden with the help of a good looking young man, who appeared to be thirty years her junior. Nobody was entirely clear about his relationship to /with Miss C but, as they both exhibited a degree of social refinement alien to the village, they were accorded the benefit of the doubt.

My father’s cousin, a friendly person who always impressed me with her encyclopaedic knowledge of the people in her neighbourhood, was out with her young son when she met Miss Carew in Cwm yr Eglwys and they were invited through the little gothic style entrance into her garden. Starting at the wrought iron gate, a circuitous stone or crazy paving path acquired an air of mystery and intrigue from the bamboo (or was it gunnera – those large rhubarb like exotics, or yuccas?) that immediately baffled the enquiring eye. Miss Carew showed them around and bedazzled them with her knowledge of the plants.

Troed y Rhiw‘Penfeidr’* was Miss Carew’s home for 25 years and she became totally integrated into the local community; her history was never touched upon nor her circumstances discussed. When she died her house was sold and the name changed. You may, however, still see bamboo from her famed oriental garden (or Mediterranean garden as it was known in our family).

*Welsh for ‘End of the Road’

About bookvolunteer

I'm passionate about books, about Oxfam and about making the world a better place. When I'm not filling the shelves in Oxfam Wilmslow, I might be found reading the books I've bought in the beautiful surroundings of North Pembrokeshire.
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1 Response to The usefulness of arsenic

  1. Doug Clark says:

    Thanks this is very interesting. I have studied Edith’s murder case in detail and these tidbits of local law about her a fascinating. I have added this to my blog:

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