Senryu : arsenic


such a pretty green
candies, wallpaper and paint
too bad it kills you

senryu by M. Nakazato LaFreniere

Arsenic is everywhere: in the air, in the soil, in water and food.  You have arsenic in your body.  It’s a fact of life.  However, arsenic in certain forms and above a certain quantity kills.  So arsenic giving a brilliant emerald hue in a wallpaper won’t kill.  But mix that wallpaper

The sick child by Edward Munch, 1907 (used Paris Green pigment, aka emerald green aka Schweinfurter Grün). Munch painted this after it was known that the green wallpaper contained arsenic which had killed children in the late 1880s.

with a damp British climate and add the ensuing growth of fungus, this combination results in the arsenic  expelled as a poisonous arsine gas killing the inhabits or if the inhabitants survived, inducing or contributing to cancer and other diseases.

Napoleon, in exile, demanded the house be papered in his favorite color, green.  Later he died of stomach cancer.  Recently arsenic was found increase the risk of gastic carcinoma.  Coupled withe findings that Napoleon’s hair had significant amounts of arsenic, historians now widely believed his wallpaper contributed to his death.

Head of a skeleton with a burning cigarette by Van Gogh, 1886 (note: probably no Paris Green — I just thought it was cool and fit the poison theme. Plus it was one I hadn’t seen by Van Gogh)

Arsenic imparts such a pretty emerald hue to paints that painters loved it.  First the pigment Scheele’s Green became popular and then later Paris Green because it lasted longer. Among many others, Van Gogh, Monet, Gauguin, Renoir, Cezanne and Picasso used Paris Green pigment also known as Emerald Green, Veronese green, Schweinfurt green, Mitis green, Vienna green, and Imperial green. Paris Green may have caused or contributed to Monet’s blindness and Cezanne’s diabetes.   It was so common that even today if you buy odd lots of oil paints at ebay and estate sales, you might find used green paint tubes containing arsenic.

self-portrait, 1856, William Morris (1834-1896), British painter, designer, architect and writer

Decorators, craftsmen, manufacturers and wallpaperers refused to believe in the “Arsenic Scare”. Some would  even lick the wallpaper to prove to their patrons it was perfectly safe.  William Morris, who designed a wallpaper using Scheele’s Green, complained, “it is hardly possible to imagine….a greater folly…than the arsenic scare.”

Arsenic was thought so safe that white arsenic powder, chalk and vinegar mixed together were drank by Victorian women hoping to whiten their complexions.  Women also rubbed the arsenic into their face.  Arsenic was even used to dye dresses green.  No wonder so many women were prone to fainting at the drop of a hat.

Chestnut Trees at Jas de Bouffan, Cezanne, 1880/1891 (used Paris Green pigment, aka emerald green aka vert Véronèse)

But the times, they were achanging.  In 1858, there was a huge scandal in Bradford, England, when a man selling sweets accidentally poisoned more than 200 people.   Back in the day, sugar was expensive so they would cut the sugar in candy with other powders like powdered gypsum.  William Hardaker bought his candies from Joseph Neal who manufactured the sweets and saved money by cutting the sugar.  Joseph Neal, in turn, bought his gypsum aka “daff” from a pharmacist Charles Hodgson.  Unfortunately one day Hodson was sick and his assistant William Goddard told Neal the daff was in the attic but Neal fetched the wrong cask.  The assistant didn’t catch the error and sold him arsenic trioxide.

Yep, Van Gogh’s Starry Starry Green had some Paris Green aka Emerald Green

Neal’s hired sweetmaker James Appleton fell ill after making the sweets with the arsenic but did not associate it with the candies.  Appleton did notice the sweets looked different than usual.  Hardaker also noticed the sweets looked different when he picked his order up and received a subsequent discount. He sold 5 pounds of the sweet from his stall that night but due to sampling his own merchandise, he fell ill.  Within a day, 21 were day and more than 200 were ill.

William Goddard, Charles Hodgson, Joseph Neal and William Hardaker were all tried for manslaughter.  Goodard was found guilty, then acquitted. The charges against the others were withdrawn.  However, the scandal resulted in the Pharmacy Act of 1868. To this day, the chemist and druggist is responsible for obtaining the signature of the purchaser for nonmedicinal poisons.

Summer day, Berthe Morisot, 1879, used Paris Green

In the 1960’s many countries banned the manufacture of Paris Green.


Poetics with poisonous plants
dVerse ~ Poets Pub

Poison Walls

A Brief History of Color in Art
By Sarah Gottesman,, May 20, 2016

Emerald Green (identified the pigments used in paintings so I could find some paintings using Paris Green)



1858 Bradford sweets poisoning

Paris Green

Scheele’s Green



32 thoughts on “Senryu : arsenic”

    1. oh wow, I didn’t know that. I know they used mercury in thermometers but didn’t know they had used it for clothes. Did it effect the people wearing hats too or was it rinsed off in the process of making the hat? Just curious
      Thanks for the cool comment and popping by.


  1. Again, kudos to you for so much research. I just finished an interesting book on pigments, dyes and paints. The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St.Clair.


  2. Interesting post! We had several interior decorators in our family back in the late 1800’s in London and at least one of them died as a possible result of the arsenic in the paint and wall paper.


    1. Wow! If you have any pics and stuff on them, you should definitely do a post. I’d be interested in reading how they got into interior decorating and seeing any houses that they did — but photography was still pretty rare back then so probably not a lot of pics. did they do sketches back then?


    1. Facepalms! I completely forgot that it needed to come from a specific plant. I went to look up what plant arsenic came from since I remembered it featured prominently in a few mysteries. I got lost in the research and forgot the poison needed to come from a specific plant. While it’s in plants, it’s only because plants get it from the soil and water which it’s kinda weird to think it’s in a lot of stuff we eat & drink — just generally not enough of it to harm us unless the water or soil has extremely high levels–usually more of a drinkable water problem. But I forgot all that when I read of arsenic in wallpapers, paints and Victorian women dancing in arsenic-laced dresses. No wonder no one else picked arsenic. I didn’t realize Scheele was Swedish. I assumed German from the name (Sch I think of as German in origin generally). (Just now did a quick lookup in Wiki) He was pretty amazing and discovered a bunch of things. He must have really been into the research side of chemistry. Looks like mercury killed him though.


    1. I don’t know. I did a quick check on wiki and it is used as an ingredient in food including in tofu, in baking and in the making of mead so very probably.


    1. if it’s a newer paint, it’s probably safer not to do fingerpainting with green but most countries made it illegal to use arsenic in paints. still you never know what turns out to be poisonous because they find out after a bunch of people keel over — oh that new chemical is poisonous! or cancerous! i’d like to hear when they find out — oh that’s going to make you live 5 years longer or accidentally cure us of something


  3. Fascinating. This makes me think twice about shaping my paint brushes with my mouth after cleaning them. I knew some yellows had cow urine in them but…arsenic. Don’t think so. I did know about the mercury, though. As a young nurse I broke so many mercury thermometers that I was sure I was going to go mad. Maybe that explains a few things.


  4. Thanks for all the research and interesting information! This challenge has been a real learning experience!


    1. I agree! I’m surprised at what has poison in it — like maddhatter’s poem brought up apple seeds! And I used to swallow them all the time.


  5. I wanted to write on arsenic as its my choice of poison. colourless, odourless, perfect crime executed. I have a book gifted to me by someone who knew of my passion its called Arsenic Century. have you read it? reading all your research here warms me to believe you are as passionate as me. I wish there was an arsenic producing plant though. the senryu was very delicate, like a whiff of sweetness on the wind.


    1. I havne’t read Arsenic Century. Arsenic certainly had an illustrious history, much much more than the small bit I related. I’ll check to see if the library has the book. Yeah, I screwed up on the plant — I went to look up what plant it came from but got distracted by the history and forgot. A lot of plants do have arsenic in them but not enough to poison people. Plants can imbibe arsenic up from the soil through their roots. Rice absorbs 10x more arsenic than other grains but not enough to kill you right away — most likely it’ll give you cancer, developmental problems, cardiovascular disease, skin lesions and diabetes. Rinsing your rice thoroughly before cooking helps to remove some of the arsenic — I didn’t know that but I always rinsed well because that’s what my mom did. So maybe I could have made a case for arsenic rice poisoning? but only if I wrote a murder mystery of a very patient killer willing to wait decades for their victim to die. a character mystery story maybe as I don’t see how a detective could figure it out and even if they did, how they could bring it to trial. The you-didn’t-wash-the-rice-well enough accusation wouldn’t fly in court. The potent quick-killing arsenic poison is made by manufacturing. I am glad you enjoyed the senryu. Thanks for your lovely compliment!


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