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Lauren Padgett, ‘A Fatal Mistake’: The Bradford Lozenge Poisoning, 1858

2015 November 1
by lucinda matthews-jones

As children this Halloween fill their plastic pumpkins and goody bags full of sweets, they should be thankful that although today sweets are bad your health, they are no longer deadly like they were around Halloween in Bradford, 1858.

The first two deaths, two boys aged nine and eleven, had been reported on the morning on Sunday 31st of October, 1858. Other deaths followed, along with hundreds of people suffering from a ‘sudden and violent illness’. The only thing connecting the deaths and illnesses were peppermint lozenge sweets. The police were quick to react picking up on this connection immediately. They managed to trace the lozenges back to a sweet stall at Bradford’s Green Market (now Kirkgate Market) belonging to Mr William Hardacre (or Hardaker in some reports), known locally as ‘Humbug Billy’. Hardacre himself was ill from sampling his own tainted sweetmeats. Hardacre had his remaining 35lbs of lozenges confiscated, but the police were shocked to discover that 5lbs, or approximately 1000 lozenges, had already been sold on the Saturday.

By midnight on Sunday, police stood on the streets of Bradford, ringing bells to draw attention, bellowing warnings about the peppermint lozenges. Warning notices and lists of those dead and ill (mostly children and young adults) were printed in newspapers and on posters that went up in public places. While the police quickly tried to trace and confiscate the sold lozenges, it was decided that they must be examined to determine exactly what was in them. And luckily for the police, there was an analytical chemist in Bradford.

Felix Marsh Rimmington had served his apprenticeship with a Huddersfield-based chemist before becoming the assistant of Mr Peter Squire of Oxford Street, London. Mr Squire was chemist to the Royal Household and Princess/Queen Victoria. Rimmington had later set up his own chemist shop in Bradford around 1842. He was a talented man who not only succeeded in community pharmacy but also analytical chemistry, examining chemical compounds to determine the chemical elements within them. On the Sunday, Rimmington was given initial samples of the lozenges followed by an assortment of them over the next few days for analysis. He later determined that most of the lozenges contained nine grains of arsenic, half of which is considered a lethal amount. One he examined contained as much as sixteen grains of arsenic.

The rapid investigation on the Sunday and following day brought the cause of the tragedy to light. A young lad called James Archer, who worked for a local confectioner, Mr Neal, had been sent to a druggist store to purchase a mixture called daff. Daff, also known as terra alba (white earth), a form of plaster of Paris, was used as a sugar substitute in sweets. When Archer arrived at the druggist store, the owner, Mr Hodgson, was too unwell to serve Archer but his new (untrained) assistant, William Goddard, took it upon himself to retrieve the daff. Goddard had unknowingly gone to the barrel of arsenic and collected 12lbs of it for Archer. Police later found that in the druggist’s storage area (the garret), casks, barrels and bags were open and unlabelled, hence the confusion and misidentification. Archer returned to the confectioner’s with the ‘daff’ and another employee, James Appleton, began to make the lozenges. As he mixed together the gum, sugar, peppermint and daff, Appleton became unwell himself (in hindsight suffering from exposure to the arsenic) but the manufacturing of the lozenges continued. When they were made, Neal sold them to the market trader ‘Humbug Billy’ Hardacre who noticed that the lozenges were an odd colour than usual. Neal, rather than investigate the colour discrepancy, simply sold them at a discounted rate. Hardacre subsequently sold those arsenic lozenges to hundreds of Bradfordians. The lozenges went far afield as Leeds and Bolton, and with them sickness and death.

The Great Lozenge-Maker

This illustration, ‘The Great Lozenge-Maker’, that appeared in Punch, 20 November 1858, used the Bradford lozenge poisoning to warn “paterfamilias” (parents) of the dangers of intentional and unintentional adulterated sweets for children. Here, Death is making lozenges with a barrel of arsenic at one side and plaster of Paris (daff) at the other.

The young druggist assistant, Goddard, was arrested on the Monday and the case went to court where the details of the tragedy were heard over the next few days. The judge ordered that Mr Hodgson should be placed in the dock alongside Goddard; both faced the charge of manslaughter. It came to light that Mr Neal, despite knowing that the lozenges were toxic since Sunday, had retained some of the scraps left over from making them and had attempted to make ‘Scotch mixture’ from them rather than dispose of the poisonous scraps. The judge, upon hearing this, ordered Neal into the dock with Goddard and Hodgson. Rimmington was called to give evidence regarding the chemical compounds of the lozenges; as well as arsenic, Rimmington also detected traces of chromate of lead in them.

Despite acknowledging that warning signs were missed (an untrained assistant selling poisons unsupervised, Appleton’s sickness when making them and the colour discrepancy), those involved were acquitted of manslaughter by gross negligence as the judge determined that it was unfortunate series of events. The community rallied round to support the families of those who had lost loved ones and those recovering from the poisoning. A committee was set up to distribute financial aid to desperate families. In some instances, several members of the same family were dead or ill.

Although there was no initial justice, this case (with others similar around the country) prompted the public, authorities and those in the druggist and chemist profession to re-examine the storing and selling of drugs and poisons, as well as the adulteration practices of food and drugs. This prompted The Pharmacy Act of 1868 which, in theory, limited the sale of poisons and dangerous drugs to qualified druggists and pharmacists only, and later the Sale of Food and Drugs Act (1875) which prevented the unadvertised adulteration of food, drink and drugs.

Rimmington later became Borough Analyst in 1874 for Bradford; one of a handful of chemists working with the authorities to provide chemical and drug expertise and analysis. He was key in enforcing the Sale of Food and Drugs Act locally as he worked with authorities to analyse suspected tampered food and drugs. One sample of ‘butter’ he analysed he found to worryingly contain 0% of butter! It wasn’t just poisonous sweets and dubious butter Rimmington had to contend with. In 1862, he wrote to The Bradford Observer warning ladies of poisonous dresses. Rimmington had recently examined a lady’s evening dress and discovered that the fabric was not dyed, but a “colouring matter [was] merely laid on the surface of the fibre, and only very slightly adherent to it”. He warned that “when rubbed or torn, a cloud of dust was the result”. The colouring matter used was “Scheele’s green, or as it is also called parrot green, a compound of arsenic and cooper – a substance far too dangerous to be loosely carried about the person, and diffused through the atmosphere of our rooms, to the detriment more or less of the health of all present”.

He advised that “If a pleasing green dye cannot be found other than this, and used in this mode, let it be discontinued . . .”. Scheele’s green was used commercially in the 18th and 19th century to dye anything and everything. Research has revealed the extent and wide use of poisons in the Victorian period, for example in everyday medicines and food to paints, curtains and wallpaper. The BBC’s documentary Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home in 2014 flagged up some of these dangers; it would appear the many Victorian things were (quite literally) to die for.

This illustration called ‘The Arsenic Waltz’, from Punch, 8 February 1862, illustrates the deadly nature of the evening dresses coloured with the arsenic-based green dye. It might have been this illustration that prompted Rimmington’s examination of the lady’s evening dress and prompted his warning letter in The Bradford Observer a few days later.

Sources

‘A Fatal Mistake’, The Bradford Observer, Thursday 4 November 1858, Issue 1294, p. 4.

‘Dreadful Fatality From Poisoning’, The Bradford Observer, Thursday 4 November 1858, Issue 1294, p. 5.

‘The Inquest’, The Bradford Observer, Thursday 4 November 1858, Issue 1294, p. 8.

‘Dreadful Fatality From Poisoning’, The Bradford Observer, Saturday 6 November 1858, p. 2.

‘The Recent Poisonings, The Bradford Observer, Thursday 18 November, Issue 1296, p. 5.

F. M. Rimmington, ‘Poisonous Dresses’, The Bradford Observer, Thursday 13 February 1862, Issue 1464, p. 7.

Image Credits

‘The Great Lozenge-Maker’, Punch, 20 November 1858, online at: http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/comic-cartoon-about-food-adulteration-1858-from-punch (British Library, accessed 23 September 2015) (© Punch Ltd, used in accordance with copyright permissions)

‘The Arsenic Waltz’, Punch, 8 February 1862; Credit: V0042226 Wellcome Library London; Collection: Iconographic Collections; Title: Two skeletons dresses as lady and gentleman. Etching, 1862; Library Reference No: ICV No. 42815 (used in accordance with copyright permissions)

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