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  • Tonya Mitchell

Author Spotlight: K.K. Cathers

I did a lot of research on poisons for my upcoming book, The Arsenic Eater's Wife, especially about arsenic! To that end, I interviewed Kerry (K.K.) Cathers, author of A Writer’s Guide to Nineteenth-Century Murder by Arsenic. Kerry runs the website, A Curiosity of Crime, a research resource for writers of historical detective fiction. If you want to know anything about poison, she’s your go-to.

Here's a Q&A between Kerry and I, where I ask about her book and arsenic - the poison so popular among Victorians for doing away with unwanted relatives, it was deemed the "inheritor's powder."

There are seemingly many books about arsenic in print. Why did you write this book?

I wrote it to fill a void. Yes, there are many books on arsenic, but they’re history books. Their pages are filled with detailed discussions and descriptions of the famous cases, the development of toxicology, arsenic in industry and in the home. All very interesting, but, for an author, the vast majority of it is of no use. I wanted to create a reference which contained only the information authors need to write an intriguing and accurate murder by arsenic mystery. So, everything an author needs is in one location.

Explain the difference in how Murder by Arsenic is organized.

I organized it in the order the crime would unfold. The first section discusses procuring the arsenic. Where would the murderer get the arsenic? What restrictions/difficulties might they encounter? The second section deals with the murder itself. What methods can your villain employ and what happens after the poison is taken and before your victim dies? It ends with the final section which is catching your murderer. How would the investigation start? What would the evidence be? What would happen in court?

You say “Victorians had a complicated relationship with poison, arsenic in particular. It was seen as both healer and destroyer.” Why was that? What were some of its medicinal uses in the 19th century?

It’s impossible for us to comprehend how lackadaisical they were about arsenic. Often it was stored in the kitchen cupboard alongside the sugar, salt, and baking soda. Often in containers that were identical to those holding the baking products and without a label saying caution or danger or “if you put this in the pudding everyone will die.”

They had no fear of it; and yet, they were terrified, almost to the point of panic, of being poisoned by it. When poisoning was whispered, their minds went to arsenic. There’s a reason it was referred to as the inheritor’s powder.

At the heart of this contradiction is arsenic as medicine. They saw it as a medicine as much, if not more so, than they saw it as a method of murder. It was used to cure all kinds of ailments. To prevent and treat malaria, psoriasis, lymphoma, rheumatism, and toothaches (you rubbed it onto the gum). They also used it to treat bouts of hysteria, acne, and as “pick me ups” and as an aphrodisiac. You name it, they probably tried treating it with arsenic.

Why was arsenic so prevalent in households innocuously? Where might you find it in the 19th home?

In the eighteenth century, pharmaceutical chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele created a dye in a vibrant shade of green. It was richer, longer-lasting, and was better than anything else in existence. It found its way into almost everything—paint, paper, material (dresses, curtains, upholstery) wallpaper, candles, decorative leaves and fruit, food coloring. The key ingredient in Scheele’s green was arsenic. So, wherever you saw green, there was arsenic.

Men and women used arsenic for different reasons. Can you give us a few examples?

For men, the primary use came in industry or in agriculture. Arsenic was used in paper production, paint, and other manufacturing processes. In agriculture it was used for treating wool to kill insects that might damage the hides. They might smear some on their acne.

Far and above anything else, women used arsenic for cosmetic reasons. They put flypaper in elderflower water to extract the arsenic, then soaked small cloths in the mixture before laying them over their faces or using them as washcloths. The purpose was to clear up acne and other imperfections on the skin, and, for Caucasians, to turn it pale which was a mark of status. Complexion wafers, face creams, and soaps were sold which promised to make skin free of blotches, blemishes, roughness, redness, freckles, and pimples. These practices continued into the 1930s. Catherine Bennett, considered the most beautiful woman in St. Louis in 1859 was believed to have died as a result of her extensive use of arsenic-based make-up.

I found your description of the misogynistic “poison maiden” fascinating. Can you describe who this was and how/why it came about?

The premise is that if a woman consumes small doses of poison, she will herself become a living, walking poison. She could then be used as a weapon and murder men with kisses or with sex. The myth dates as far back as Alexander the Great. The myth survived into Victorian times and raised concerns in some doctors. Arsenic was a beauty product and there were those who feared it would turn innocent young women into lethal poisons.

There were many bizarre treatments or remedies in an attempt to save the victim from arsenic poisoning. Can you describe some of the weirder ones? Were there any successful treatments or antidotes?

The weirdest, and cruelest, of the treatments was pouring boiling water over the feet. Much as I try, I cannot find even a kernel of justification for this one. Another, kinder, treatment was smearing mustard, leeches (12 to 15 to be exact), or the ashes from burnt leather over the area where there was pain.

Other treatments had a measure of logic to them (like) making the victim vomit. (It) was an excellent idea, and an effective one. To do this they used an emetic—a fancy way to say something that makes you vomit. Some were benign like egg whites, linseed oil, or large quantities of sugared water. Others were not. They included vitriol (sulphuric acid), iron oxide, or iron perchloride. One of the most popular emetics was antimony, itself a poison. If the arsenic didn’t get you, the antimony would. In terms of a cure, unfortunately throughout the period there was none.

The year 1836 was an important year regarding the detection of arsenic. Can you describe why that year was so significant and what it meant for the medical community, trials, juries, and those accused?

Everything changed in 1836 when James Marsh published a test that he developed which allowed doctors and chemists to detect arsenic in human tissue. Prior to that, toxicology could only test for what had not been absorbed in bodily fluids or in grains of it found in the stomach and upper intestines. If poisoning was chronic, or the arsenic had been dissolved in liquid, detection was pretty much impossible.

Marsh’s test changed all that. It tested for arsenic in tissue which freed toxicologists from the need to gather bodily fluids. Most importantly, it was reliable, could detect arsenic in very small quantities, and there was nothing subjective about the results. For the first time, scientists could sit in the witness box and declare unequivocally that the dose was lethal and arsenic was the cause of death.

What are you working on now?

I am writing the next book in the A Curiosity of Crime series: A Writers’ Guide to Murder by Poison, 1800-1940. It will be published in early 2024. It includes the old familiars of cyanide, strychnine, belladonna, and hemlock, but also a few lesser-known ones such as curare, quinine, aconite, and antimony. After that, it is on to the complete reference book for nineteenth-century forensics. Everything from boot prints to dust to blood evidence.

More about A Writer's Guide to Nineteenth-Century Murder by Arsenic.

Want to shorten your research time? Do you want to be saved from the aggravation of searching through pages of irrelevant information to get that gem that will add authenticity? There's a easier way.

Imagine having a single book which contains everything you need to write a compelling, historically accurate murder mystery. One which not only provides you with the necessary research, but puts it in social context and explains how each facet can be shaped to fit your plotline.

Want the police involved early? There's a scenario for that. Don't want the police involved at all? There's a scenario for that as well.

A Writer's Guide to Nineteenth-Century Murder by Arsenic is a comprehensively researched resource which brings together modern academic and nineteenth-century scholarship.

It provides you with everything you need to know and nothing you don't.

Get more information and stories about nineteenth-century crime and law enforcement at Kerry's website (link below).

About the author:

K.K. Cathers runs the website, A Curiosity of Crime, a research resource for writers of historical detective fiction.

Her first reference book, A Writer’s Guide to Nineteenth-Century Murder by Arsenic, was published last year and a follow-up on poisons is coming early 2024.

She has given seminars for the History Novel Society North America’s conference, for various Sisters in Crime chapters, Mystery Writers of America, and Kiss of Death’s COFFIN series.

Find her here:

Twitter: @curiositycrime

Instagram: @acuriosityofcrime

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