Saturday, July 3, 2010

Some common abuses of arsenic were a good deal grimmer even than real and fictional characters doing away with their unwanted spouses (at least as often for financial convenience, surely, than as Orwell suggests, passion). Many infants and children died from intestinal infections, an unknown number of which were actually deliberate arsenic poisoning. In 1849, Rebecca Smith was executed for killing eight of her babies after birth, having claimed in her defence that her husband was an alcoholic and that she feared her children ‘might come to want’ and die of starvation anyway. According to Whorton the poisoning of children ‘underwent a growth spurt’ when for a halfpenny a week ‘burial clubs’, an offshoot of the friendly societies, paid out for funeral expenses so that the children of the poor could avoid a pauper’s grave or being carved up by anatomists after death. ‘Manchester clubs, for example, paid out £3 as a rule, but some paid £4, or even £5; a basic funeral for a child could be financed for only £1 or £2. There was a saying among women in the Manchester tenements: “Aye, aye, that child will not live, it is in the burial club!”’ Membership rolls were known as ‘catalogues of the doomed’.

Jenny Diski at the LRB, Toxic Lozenges

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