Poisonings in the 19th century
Marcus Carrier during his lecture about poisonings in the 19th century. Picture: Thomas Abel
With fingerprints and DNA traces criminologists try to find the suspects in crimes of violences. These methods are known as forensics. The origins of the forensic methods are in the 19th century – and got described by the BGHS doctoral researcher Marcus Carrier in his lecture Chemistry in Court – Poisoning in the 19th century, in frame of the lecture series Linie 4.
His focus was on the rising influence of science experts at court and how they helped enlighting cases of suspected poisoning by using new scientific methods. The best-known poison of the 19th century was arsenic. “It was the one big seller”, is Carrier’s description, because it is used everywhere in the household: As poison against rats, home remedies or as medicine, got by prescription from a doctor. Accordingly, it was easy to get.
The Marsh Test
The doctoral researcher describes different deaths, where arsenic might have played a role. In the enlightment of the cases, the work of the chemist James Marsh was crucial: After a lawsuit about poisoning, he developed a method to prove the existence of arsenic in taken samples. The method was very successful and got established as standard test for proving arsenic, known as “the Marsh test”.
The importance of using the Marsh test in lawsuits was explained by Marcus Carrier with his second example of a m from 1840. The suspect in the suit was the Frenchwoman Marie Lafarge. She was accused of poisoning her husband after recognizing, that he is not the rich industrialist she got promised, but a small-scale merchant close to bankruptcy.
„Madame Lafarge wasn’t impressed, as you can imagine“, Carrier sums up his descriptions. The marriage took place in August 1839. In December, Monsieur Lafarge got surprisingly ill. Carrier: “But his wife cares for him solicitously, cooking for him.” In January 1840, Monsieur Lafarge died and his wife is accused of poisoning him. The following lawsuit is framed by the debate, that nothing but a correct Marsh Test can be used a proof for arsenic.
Marcus Carrier finished his lecture with the statement, that the Marsh Test is a good example how science can answer questions from the society.
After the lecture, the audience had the opportunity to ask questions. Picture: Thomas Abel
After the lecture, the audience had the chance to discuss with the lecture. The discussion focused on the relation between science and society, next to the question who usually uses poison as weapon. The myth is, that poison is a women’s weapon. According to Carrier, the myth is somehow correct: “Most of murderer are and were men, independent of the weapon. But for poisoning it is 50 / 50 women and men – at least in England in the 19th century.”
Nazis behind barbed wire
On the next appointment of the lecture series Linie 4, on 19 December, the historian Kerstin Schulte will speak about “Camp stories from the Senne: Nazis behind barbed wire”.
For further information about the open lecture series and the programme please see:
uni.aktuell (in German)
Interview with Theresa Hornischer at campus radio station Hertz 87.9(in German)
Interview with Marcus Carrier at campus radio station Hertz 87.9 (in German)
#Campusminute with Theresa Hornischer (in German)
Text: Andreas Hermwille & Kerstin Schulte