Most people do their best to avoid arsenic. If they end up ingesting it, it’s because somebody poisoned them. Or maybe because their well is contaminated with it. But in the 19th century, a group of people known as the toxophagi who intentionally ate arsenic became a sort of sensation in the medical community.
In 1854, the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (the predecessor of the New England Journal of Medicine) translated an account of the arsenic eaters, written by a Mr. de Tschudi. The practice of arsenic eating was apparently introduced in Styria (now a part of Austria) in the 12th century. According to Tschudi, peasants called it hedri and took it for a fresh and healthy appearance. In particular, young people would secretly take arsenic to attract the opposite sex–a lovelorn, gangly teenager could become pleasantly plump, with rosy cheeks, and finally get the attention of the town heartthrob. The drawback, of course, is that sometimes someone would become overly enthusiastic about this beauty aid and accidentally poison themselves.
People also thought that arsenic could help them ascend steep hills by making it easier to breathe. If you have ever seen the Sound of Music, you can imagine this would come in helpful in Austria. On a long mountain hike, someone might bring along a little piece of arsenic to chew or mix into their coffee as a pick-me-up.
A newbie would take just a little at a time. They might start with a lentil sized piece several mornings a week, then work up to as much as eight times that (more than enough to kill most people). Many users reported linking their arsenic intake to lunar cycles, taking less as the moon waned. Once someone was accustomed to this sort of regimen, they reported feeling ill if they tried to go without arsenic. In fact, if the dose wasn’t decreased gradually, the toxophagi said that severe illness or even death could result. What’s more, arsenic eaters could live to a ripe old age, something that could confound the would-be poisoner. Tschudi recounted the story of a servant who disliked his boss. He started to poison her with arsenic, starting with a little at a time to make her illness appear gradual, so it wouldn’t attract suspicion. Instead of getting sick, he was dismayed to see the woman become increasingly healthy. Apparently, the practice of eating arsenic complicated other cases of poisoning too. When a client was accused of poisoning someone with arsenic, their lawyer would raise the “Styrian defense.” They would maintain that the victim was an arsenic eater, and that they poisoned themselves. In some cases, this defense worked, and the accused was acquitted!
Many U.S. and British scientists were pretty skeptical of these reports of arsenic eating, so they started doing research of their own. At one conference, a doctor actually presented two habitual arsenic eaters, each of whom ate 300-400 mg of arsenic in front of the audience. And in case that didn’t convince the assembled scientists, he also presented a chemical analysis of their urine afterwards, demonstrating that it was full of arsenic. Apparently, scientific conferences back then were more exciting than meetings are today.
All of these glowing reports from Styria ended up changing the perception of arsenic here in the U.S., at least for a while. The stories of the Styrian arsenic eaters helped lend credence to the wild claims made by quacks who peddled arsenic-containing tonics. I found this old advertisement for arsenic “beauty wafers.” Don’t you wonder how many women used them?
The arsenic eaters remind me of Wesley, in the Princess Bride, who slowly developed a tolerance to the deadly poison iocane. Only arsenic, unlike iocane powder, is real–and some of these toxophagi really could have pulled off Wesley’s put-the-poison-in-both-cups trick !