When arsenic peppermints poisoned nearly 200 people in a single night

Back in Victorian England, they knew how to inflict macabre, terrible death. Case in point: a single mishap led to the death of 25 people and the poisoning of nearly 200 individuals in one night, after they all consumed arsenic-laced peppermint treats.

How did lethal levels of arsenic enter a homemade recipe for candy?

Top image via vortistic/Flickr.

When arsenic peppermints poisoned nearly 200 people in a single night

Selling tasty treats filled with arsenic
On an October night in 1858, a sweet seller by the name of "Humbug Willie" sold peppermint-flavored hard candies to passerby from a market stand on Bradford, England. Humbug Willie sold close to 1000 individual pieces of candy that night.

Within days 25 people died, while at least 90 adults and 50 children became extremely ill. Counted among the stricken was Humbug Willie himself, who became sick from handling his own candies.

Results of a criminal investigation determined that each peppermint treat contained two times the lethal dose of arsenic (about half a gram).

A bad trip to the cellar

Adulterating food with edible fillers is an old practice that still occurs today. Sugar is expensive — so Joseph Neal, the distributor of the candies, sought to cut his costs, by inserting several kilograms of "daft" as a substitute for sugar. "Daft" was a substance that ranged in composition from calcium sulphate to pulverized lime to gypsum — none of these are tasty, but they're all perfectly safe.

When arsenic peppermints poisoned nearly 200 people in a single night

When Joseph Neal sent an assistant to purchase some daft from a local pharmacist, a series of errors occurred. Charles Hodgson, the pharmacist who owned the establishment left his recently appointed apprentice, William Goddard, in charge of the store.

Goddard initially sent Neal's assistant away as he did not know the precise location of the daft, but Neal's assistant persisted, leading Goddard to contact his sick boss. A poor set of directions sent scurrying Goddard to the backroom, where he found a barrel of unlabeled white powder. After expending considerable effort in prying the barrel lid off, Neal's assistant left with twelve pounds of the white substance.

This trip to the cellar marks a one of several the grievous errors committed in the Bradford poison scandal. The white powder Goddard sold, arsenic trioxide, did not carry with it a proper label and sat amidst a number of other barrels containing white powders. Additionally, The Sales of Arsenic Act required a color additive to be mixed in with arsenic nitrate to help identify this deadly poison — and that was the only artificial additive left out in this tragic story.

Conjuring deadly candy

The powder next entered the able hands of James Appleton, a local sweet-maker employed by Neal. Appleton combined forty pounds of sugar, twelve pounds of arsenic trioxide, four pounds of gum, and peppermint oil, to create at least forty pounds of peppermint lozenges.

James Appleton worked for six hours to create the batch, with this prolonged contact with arsenic trioxide leaving him ill for several days with vomiting and pains in his appendages. Appleton never considered that the "daft" could be the source of his illness.

When arsenic peppermints poisoned nearly 200 people in a single night

Making the sale and placing blame
Although Appleton became ill and the resulting sweets were a very different color than expected, Joseph Neal still sold the lozenges to Humbug Willie, albeit at a slight discount. Humbug Willie tasted the sweets over the course of the October night as he sold them and became one of the hundreds of people who suffered from arsenic poisoning.

The brunt of the blame for the poisonings fell on William Goddard, the poor pharmacist's apprentice who unknowingly obtained the arsenic trioxide from the cellar. UK magistrates charged Goddard, Neal, and Hodgson with manslaughter, but dropped the charges against Neal and Hodgson. Goddard faced trial, but did not receive a guilty verdict.

Chemical regulations

The Bradford poison scandal led to an increase in regulations regarding the handling of chemicals by druggists via the UK Pharmacy Act of 1868. The Pharmacy Act in addition to the 1860 Adulteration of Food and Drink bill changed the manner by which ingredients could be used and combined, aiming to ensure the health of consumers. A restriction on the sale of arsenic already existed in England in 1858, but the restriction only required the signature of the person buying the arsenic. Unfortunately, this regulation could not save anyone's life in the Bradford poisonings.

Arsenic trioxide is in use today, albeit in smaller doses, as a form of chemotherapy when other methods have failed.

Newspaper image is from the November 8, 1858 edition of the Glasgow Herald. Image of powdered arsenic trioxide from Walkerma/PD.