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Folklaw | Arsenic and old lace

The Victorians’ attempt to stem the perceived rise in poisoning didn’t stop the few but determined murderers, says Andrew Lugger

16 November 2012

The murderous use of poison has traditionally been regarded as a woman’s weapon of choice. Poisoning crimes reached a peak during the 1840s (a time when life insurance companies were expanding and the economy was at its worst) but, in point of fact, the actual number of murders which had been perpetrated by female poisoners during the Victorian era was just over forty. Despite the sparse number, in the middle of the 19th century, the mysterious horror attached to poisoning and widespread fear of coniving women putting their unsuspecting husbands in mortal danger led to a statute for regulating the sale of arsenic.

On 30 April 1850, Mr Stanford MP rose to move for a select committee to inquire if any restrictions should be imposed by parliament on the sale of poisons. He observed that the number of murders perpetrated by poison (especially in districts where it was used for agricultural purposes) was so great that he wa...

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