From radioactive condoms to poisonous top hats, it’s strange the things you end up researching when you’re writing a novel. Despite Driven being firmly rooted in the present, I found myself compiling a list of peculiar Victorian ways to die. It certainly gives me lots of great ideas for a historical murder mystery!
Here are some of my favourites.
- Poisoned by your own green clothing: Green (also know as Arsenical green) was a popular colour for clothing. No prizes for guessing what it was coloured with: yes, the very toxic arsenic.
- Mercury (again very poisonous) was used in the making of top hats which leeched into the wearer when worn. This practice continued for nearly 200 years until it was finally banned. Mercury could also induce madness, hence the term: mad as a hatter…
- Asbestos was a new wonder material used in lots of things: it was cheap, clean and non-flammable. Oh, and of course if the fibres were inhaled it would kill you.
- Think of those beautiful big hooped crinoline skirts. Now think of them suddenly going up in flames along with the wearer because they were extremely flammable.
- False teeth were made from teeth pulled from corpses. While this was probably just macabre for the most part, I’m sure it passed on a few nasty illnesses too.
- Cocaine was used to treat toothache, even in children (addictive and poisonous if too much was taken).
- White face powder contained lead (v poisonous).
- Having your corset laced too tightly could kill you by suffocation, and it wasn’t easy to get yourself out of a corset quickly in an emergency. This lead to numerous deaths.
- As well as the fashion for green dresses, green wallpaper was also very fashionable, and was coloured with copper arsenide: a highly toxic chemical which was known to kill entire families after prolonged exposure in rooms decorated with this wallpaper.
- Toilets were pretty new-fangled and exciting (perhaps too exciting in some cases) in Victorian times and were known to sometime explode due to the build up of explosive gasses in the sewer pipes below.
- Water pipes were made from lead piping, which meant the water supply was contaminated with toxic lead and poisoning whole families.
- Old milk was made to taste and smell better with Boracic acid, which gave it a longer shelf life but which also caused vomiting and diarrhea, which in some cases were bad enough to kill especially in children.
- Gas lighting was another new innovation of the Victorian age, which could unfortunately cause carbon monoxide poisoning along and sometimes cause explosions.
- Staircases (especially servants staircases) were often built extremely steep and narrow to save time, money and space. This was literally a death-trap for heavily-laden servants in their long dresses who would regularly take nasty tumbles down the stairs, sometimes fatally.
- Celluloid, an early plastic, was flammable and even know to spontaneously combust or ignite on impact, which was unfortunate as it was used in everything from jewellery to billiard balls.
- Radium: a fashionable radioactive chemical which was used in everything from cosmetics to condoms which undesirable consequences (like radiation poisoning).
Which is your favourite? And which would you use if you were writing a Victorian murder mystery…?