The Arsenic Century by James C. Whorton

arsenic century book cover cropped   arsenic century back blurb

Taxidermy historically contained a cocktail of preservatives and pest repelling chemicals including arsenic. After finding an article snippet, dating from 1834, describing Richard Glennon’s particular ingredients of arsenic, sulphur, snuff and alum, I was keen to find out more about arsenic and its deadly reputation. Elizabeth Glennon likely followed the methods of her father in the production of this diorama and so understanding and testing for arsenic will be important for managing the risks associated with the execution of conservation treatments.

Richard Glennon Arsenic Para

Dublin University Magazine, Vol III Jan-June, pp.174, William Curry, Jun and Co., Simpkin and Marshall, London.


As well as understanding arsenic and its chemical properties, I was interested to place the diorama within the historical context of its production and perhaps glimpse the world of the Glennon family through the materials they employed. This led me to the book that I felt compelled to share in this book review, ‘The Arsenic Century’ by James C. Whorton.

Through newspaper articles, medical journals, legal records and a host of other contemporary documents, Whorton leads the reader into 19th Century Britain chronicling the rise, the rampage and attempted curbing of the impact of arsenic on all corners of society. Murder, mystery and intrigue are the vehicle for exploring the way in which arsenic came to the fore as a cheap (but rarely cheerful) method of dispatching rodents and troublesome relatives alike. Densely researched and jammed packed with fascinating case studies, Whorton brings countless stories alive with the interspersing of contemporary quotations and his own wry observations.

‘..had to leave his quarters when their vomit began dripping through the ceiling and onto his dining table.’

While accounts of arsenic exploitation by the criminal element undoubtably steal the show, the development of toxicology procedures and legislation in reaction to the arsenic epidemic are no less interesting. The shocking actions of the poisoners described are placed firmly in the context of Victorian Britain where accidental arsenic poisoning was also rife. As Whorton explains, inheritance hungry relatives pale into insignificance in a time where a person was at far more risk of being poisoned by their own wallpaper. Children’s toys, women fashions and even confectionary were risky luxuries in the 19th Century.

‘..he took his complaint to be a bilious derangement.’

Of particular interest in the scope of the diorama project are the accounts of the hazards presented to individuals unlucky enough to work with arsenic in the course of their profession. Taxidermists are one such group mentioned with a detailed account of the miscarriage and incapacitation suffered by the wife of a taxidermist who regularly cleaned his workshop. I wonder what, if any, ailments or ill effects were suffered by the Glennon family taxidermists in the pursuit of their craft.

Not only did I look forward to opportunities to plough through a chapter of The Arsenic Century, I found myself carrying it around the house to squeeze in a paragraph here and there in between other jobs. A non-fiction page turner?! Absolutely! The outlining of arsenic as a chemical element is brief and accessible so anyone looking for more in-depth chemistry will not find it in this book but as a romp through the social historical impact of arsenic across all walks of life, The Arsenic Century is perfect.

The Arsenic Century by James C. Whorton                                                                                                                        Published by Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford, 2010.                        

ISBN: 978-0-19-957470-4




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