The Inheritor's Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science
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An infamous murder investigation that changed forever the way poisoners were brought to justice.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, an epidemic swept Europe: arsenic poisoning. Available at any corner shop for a few pence, arsenic was so frequently used by potential beneficiaries of wills that it was nicknamed “the inheritor’s powder.” But it was difficult to prove that a victim had been poisoned, let alone to identify the contaminated food or drink since arsenic was tasteless.
Then came a riveting case. On the morning of Saturday, November 2, 1833, the Bodle household sat down to their morning breakfast. That evening, the local doctor John Butler received an urgent summons: the family and their servants had collapsed and were seriously ill. Three days later, after lingering in agony, wealthy George Bodle died in his bed at his farmhouse in Plumstead, leaving behind several heirs, including a son and grandson—both of whom were not on the best of terms with the family patriarch.
The investigation, which gained international attention, brought together a colorful cast of characters: bickering relatives; a drunken, bumbling policeman; and James Marsh, an unknown but brilliant chemist who, assigned the Bodle case, attempted to create a test that could accurately pinpoint the presence of arsenic. In doing so, however, he would cause as many problems as he solved. Were innocent men and women now going to the gallows? And would George Bodle’s killer be found?
Incisive and wryly entertaining, science writer Sandra Hempel brings to life a gripping story of domestic infighting, wayward police behavior, a slice of Victorian history, stories of poisonings, and an unforgettable foray into the origins of forensic science.
surgeon George Burroughs examined the body and told the court that the victim had had a head wound. ‘On your opinion, as a man of science in the profession, it was indicted by a gun shot?’ he was asked. ‘It was,’ Burroughs replied. ‘I don’t know whether you washed the wound or saw it washed in your presence?’ ‘I did not. I directed it to be done; it was not done in my presence.’ ‘You did not extract anything from the wound?’ ‘I did not.’ ‘When you say it was your opinion, did you form that
complete, John Butler took the old man’s stomach contents in a large clean jar, sealed it firmly and, in accordance with Swaine Taylor’s guidance, delivered it personally to the chemist James Marsh at the Woolwich Arsenal. On 8 November, the day after the post-mortem on George Bodle, the Morning Post published a story not carried by any of the other newspapers. The person suspected of the ‘fiendlike deed’ was the victim’s own grandson, ‘whose character in the neighbourhood stands in very bad
captured the fugitive near Smithfield’. The accused had made several purchases of arsenic ‘from divers chemists in the vicinity’. What could have inspired such a piece, so full of errors, all highly prejudicial to Young John? One possible clue lay in the last paragraph: ‘His father, in speaking of the lamentable occurrence, has been heard to declare his opinion that it was the intention of the prisoner to make him the next victim.’ While waiting for the inquest to resume, Middle John appeared to
oil shops around), was accused of accidentally killing his wife with 2 ounces of potassium sulphate. While the News of the World’s poorer classes of society, and many of the richer classes too, were enjoying a shudder over such cases, some of the more thoughtful or nervous citizens were worrying that the papers were becoming, like Lucretia, instruction manuals on murder. The budding criminal could study the mistakes that had put the accused in the dock – and avoid them. When the News of the
Chronicle, the Morning Post, the Standard. John Bull, 30 December 1833, p411. The Spectator, January 1834. Kentish Gazette, 24 December 1833. Plumstead parish poor rates and accounts, 1833, Greenwich Heritage Centre. Chelmsford Chronicle, 27 December 1833. Kentish Gazette, 21 January 1834. Plumstead parish poor rates and accounts, 1834–36, Greenwich Heritage Centre. Vincent, W. T., The Records of the Woolwich District, Woolwich: J. R. Jackson, 1888–90. Parliamentary Papers 1835. Reports