Who was Mathieu Orfila?
In 1840, Mathieu Orfila, was summoned to the Lafarge murder trial in Paris. The Marsh test had proven inconclusive due to improper handling, and prosecution sought an expert. What made Orfila different? His methods. Piece by piece, he put the case together, eliminating all other possibilities. Orfila is also credited as one of the first to use a microscope to assess stains of blood and bodily fluids. His work refined forensics as a science.
Patient and meticulous, Orfila worked to make chemical analysis part of forensic medicine. He also made careful studies of asphyxiation, the decomposition of...
Arsenic and its Discontents
Despite its poisonous nature, arsenic was very easy to get a hold on in the 19th century. It could be found in many household products. Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele mixed copper, arsenic, hydrogen, and oxygen to produce a brilliant green pigment. These pigments were used in everything from children’s toys to soap, wallpaper, fabric, and even sweets! The fabric of a lady’s green ball gown might contain 100 grains of arsenic--and it takes only 4.5 grains to kill an adult! Just as problematic were accidental uses. In 1858, 20 people died in Bradford, England,...
In the early part of the 19th century, a fine, white powder was all the rage among murderers (and some would-be beneficiaries). It was easy to acquire and easy to administer, too. Tasteless and colorless, it might be added to food or water and ingested. It was even called the "inheritor's powder" because it aided in the rapid passing of the rich and elderly.
What was arsenic doing on shelves to be purchased, you might ask? In the 19th century, arsenic was used in wallpaper, beer, wine, sweets, painted toys, insecticides, clothing, hat ornaments, coal, and candles (A further list...