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1858 Bradford sweets poisoning
A skeleton is dressed as a sweetmaker, surrounded by tubs and boxes labelled "plaster of Paris", "arsenic", etc
Cartoon in Punch, November 1858
Date30 October 1858 (1858-10-30)
LocationBradford, England
CauseArsenic poisoning
Casualties
200+
Deaths20 or 21[a]

In 1858 a batch of sweets in Bradford, England, was accidentally adulterated with highly poisonous arsenic trioxide. About five pounds (two kilograms) of sweets were sold to the public, leading to around 20 deaths and over 200 people suffering the effects of arsenic poisoning.

The adulteration of food had been practised in the UK since before the middle ages, but from 1800, with increasing urbanisation and the rise in shop-purchased food, adulterants became a growing problem. With the cost of sugar high, replacing it with substitutes was common. For the sweets produced in Bradford, powdered gypsum was supposed to be purchased, but a mistake at the wholesale chemist meant arsenic was purchased instead.

Three men were arrested—the chemist who sold the arsenic, the sweet maker and the market seller who sold the sweets—but all three were acquitted after the judge decided as it was all accidental, there was no case for any of them to answer. The deaths led to the Food Adulteration Act 1860, although the legislation was criticised for being too ambiguous and the penalties for breaching it too low to act as a deterrent. The deaths were also a factor in the passage of the Pharmacy Act 1868.

Background

The adulteration of food had been practised in the UK since before the middle ages, but from 1800, with increasing urbanisation and the rise in shop-purchased food, adulterants became a growing problem.[1] The adulteration fell into three categories: harmless additions, such as chicory, adding flour to mustard and watering down milk; the addition of indigestible ingredients, including introducing alum, gypsum or chalk into white bread or tree or shrub leaves into tea leaves; and toxic additions, such as salts of copper and red lead glaze used as colourants, cheese with mercury salts, and the use of arsenic, sulfuric acid and nitric acid.[2]

The chemist Arthur Hill Hassall was prominent in the field of food analysis and the first person to systematically study food through a microscope to establish the level of adulteration. Between 1850 and 1856 he examined 3,000 samples of food and found 65 per cent of them contained adulterants.[3] Those adulterating foodstuff used nicknames to hide the practice. These included "daff", "duck", "duff", "derby", "multum", "flash" and "stuff".[4][5] One local name used in Bradford—an industrial town in the West Riding of Yorkshire—was "daft".[5] Cost was the reason adulterants were used. Sugar, for example, cost 6½ d per pound; the adulterant cost ½ d per pound.[6][b]

A pile of small white crystals
In crystallised form
The molecular form of arsenic trioxide
As a molecule   As   O

In the Victorian era, arsenic was an ingredient in several household products, including medicines (for external and internal use), candles, wallpaper, soft furnishings and colourants for foods.[8] It was also used as a poison for murder. The extent of the arsenic-related deaths was such that legislation in the form of the Arsenic Act 1851 was introduced. It was the first piece of UK legislation to attempt to control the sale of a poisonous substance.[9] It stated that arsenic should only be sold to adults, the sale recorded in a book—signed by both seller and buyer—and that there should be a witness to the sale if the buyer was unknown to the seller. Any arsenic not to be used for medicinal purposes was to be coloured with soot or indigo to differentiate it from other white powders on sale.[5][10] There was no restriction on who could sell arsenic; no licence was required and any trader was able to sell it as long as they kept a record of the sale.[5]

Although the Act controlled the method of sale, it did not bring an end to arsenic-related problems or the widespread use of arsenic in household goods. In 1860 an article in The Lancet asked:

How to convict of arsenical poisoning when ladies use arsenical cosmetics; when confectioners sell arsenical sweetmeats; when paperhangers clothe our walls with arsenical hangings, and impregnate all the air with fine arsenical dust; above all, when chemists sell arsenic for a toothpowder and label it mercury?[11]

Map of Bradford, showing the proximity of two locations
Map of part of Bradford, 1863, showing the locations of Stone Street and Greenmarket.[c]

Arsenic trioxide—also known as white arsenic—is an industrially produced inorganic compound with the formula As
2
O
3
. It is white or colourless and is commonly found in either powdered or crystal form—the latter resembling sugar or sand. It is used as a wood preservative and a pesticide.[14][15]

William Hardaker, known to locals as "Humbug Billy", sold sweets from a stall in the Greenmarket in central Bradford. Hardaker purchased his confectionary from Joseph Neal, who made the sweets on Stone Street a few hundred yards to the north.[16][17] The confectionary in question were peppermint lozenges, made by mixing peppermint oil into a base of sugar, water and gum, which was made into a paste, then dried on boards before being cut into lozenge shapes. As the sugar was relatively expensive, Neal would substitute some of the sugar with powdered gypsum; he later justified his actions by saying "where I use a pound of it, there are people who will use a ton of it".[18]

Outbreak

In the week before the regular Saturday market, Neal was due to make a batch of lozenges for Hardaker but had run out of "daft". Neal asked his lodger, James Archer, to visit a druggist in the town of Shipley five miles (eight kilometres) away to purchase the gypsum.[5][19] The druggist, Charles Hodgson, was ill in bed; his assistant, William Goddard, was on duty and had been told the daft was in a barrel in the attic.[20] Goddard had only been working for Hodgson for a few weeks, hoping for an apprenticeship.[21] When Archer asked for the daft, Goddard went to the attic and took twelve pounds (five kilograms) of powder from a cask. What Goddard did not realise was that there were two identical barrels and he had taken powder from a barrel of arsenic trioxide; the barrel was only labelled as such on the base.[22]

Neal employed James Appleton—an experienced sweetmaker—to manufacture the lozenges. Both men thought the new batch of sweets were different from normal: Appleton thought the mixture was more free-flowing and smoother than normal, and both considered the end product was a darker shade than they were used to. Appleton, working closely with the arsenic, fell ill and suffered from fits of vomiting; Neal, who occasionally tasted the lozenges to check the quality, also began vomiting. Neither man connected their sickness to the lozenges.[5][13]

When Hardaker collected the sweets from Neal on 30 October 1858 he also noted the different colour from the normal batches. He negotiated the lower price of 7½ d per pound for forty pounds (eighteen kilograms), a discount of ½ d per pound on his usual price.[4][23][d] Hardaker sold the sweets that Saturday for two ounces (fifty-seven grams) for 1½ d.[6][e] He ate some of the sweets and by 5:30 pm he became ill; he went home and left his assistant to look after the stall until it closed at 11:30 pm, by which point about a thousand sweets had been sold.[24][25]

Investigation, arrests and court case

On the Sunday morning the local police were informed of the deaths of a man named Elijah Wright and two boys, aged 9 and 14, the sons of John Scott; it was thought that the cause of the deaths was cholera.[26][27][28] When more deaths were reported during the course of Sunday, Police Constable Campbell, was sent to investigate; he made the connection between the sweets and the deaths, and visited Hardaker, seizing the remaining stock, which was just under thirty-six pounds (sixteen kilograms). Campbell then went to Neal's premises and seized six ounces (one hundred and seventy grams) of fragments of the sweets. A detective, William Burniston, went to Shipley with Neal to visit Hodgson, the druggist. When Neal indicated the cask from which the powder had been dispensed, Hodgson immediately identified it as containing arsenic. Burniston arrested Goddard, the assistant.[29]

Bell, sitting in three-quarter pose
John Henry Bell, one of the local doctors who treated those poisoned

The chief constable, William Leveratt, had been kept abreast of developments, and deployed men to local inns and alehouses to spread warnings about the lozenges. He sent out bellmen to announce the warnings across the town and, at 11 pm, he had warning notices printed up and posted over night for people to see them in the morning.[30] A local doctor, John Henry Bell, hypothesised the poisonings of his patients were caused by arsenic; he gave the lozenges from one patient to an analytical chemist, who confirmed his theory. Bell treated sixty patients for the poisoning.[31][32]

By midday on the Monday—1 November—the number of dead had risen to twelve, with seventy-eight people seriously ill.[24] Police visited Neal for a second time and searched his premises more thoroughly, finding hundreds of fragments still on the drying boards used when preparing the lozenges. Neal's wife also admitted that she had found other fragments and thrown them on to the fire; she had also been to their own sweetshop and brought back some bags of mixed sweets that contained lozenges or lozenge fragments. While the police were there, Neal ran off and was pursued; he was found sitting in his kitchen at home.[33] Goddard was brought in front of the magistrates on the Monday; he was remanded in custody. An inquest was opened the following day. The magistrates also met and decided that Hodgson should also be arrested and remanded.[34][35]

On Wednesday the magistrates also decided that Neal should also be arrested, although he was released on bail. They heard from an analytical chemist, Felix Rimmington, who estimated that each sweet contained nine grains (580 mg) of arsenic per sweet; he added that four and a half grains were sufficient to kill an adult male. Rimmington later made an analysis of the lozenges which showed each contained between eleven and sixteen grains (710 and 1,040 mg).[35][36] By the end of Wednesday, fifteen people has been reported dead, eleven of whom were children; thirteen more were listed as "dangerously ill", and another hundred and fifty were ill but not in danger.[37]

The magistrates met again on the Friday and determined that the three men in custody should be sent to the next York assizes for trial on a charge of manslaughter by negligence. Bail for Hodgson and Neal was set at £200; that for Goddard was set at £100. The number of dead had risen to seventeen, with 196 people ill.[38][f] Eventually up to twenty-one people died and over two hundred were sick.[a]

The assizes opened on 9 December 1858; the judge was Mr Baron Warren. In his opening remarks he said that there was no case for Neal to answer as he was he was not present when the arsenic was purchased or when the lozenges were made, and dismissed the case against him. Goddard, Warren said, was only following the instructions of his master and so also had no case to answer; his case was also dismissed. Warren said the case against Hodgson should stand and he that he would be tried later in the month.[40][41] Hodgson's trial opened on 21 December 1858 for the manslaughter of Elizabeth Mary Midgley, a seven year old girl. If he was found guilty of the charge, others would follow. After hearing some of the evidence, the judge stopped the proceedings and said there was no case for Hodgson to answer; he instructed the jury to record a verdict of not guilty, which they did.[40][42]

Legacy

The deaths led to calls for legislation to stop similar events occurring, and the Food Adulteration Act 1860 was passed into law, "on a wave of public revulsion" against the event at Bradford, according to the microbiologist John Postgate.[43][44] According to the legal scholar Jillian London, "Although the Bradford incident was far from solely responsible for the passage of the 1860 Act, it was instrumental in heightening public awareness of and outrage towards adulteration".[43] The medical historian James C Whorton considers the Act "was next to useless" as its provisions were too ambiguous and the penalties for breaching it—at £5—were too low to act as a deterrent,[g] and in 1862 three children died at Christmas after eating sweets containing arsenic.[45]

The events at Bradford were still felt ten years later when the Pharmacy Act 1868 was passed. Legislation on pharmacies was considered from 1859 onwards, although the Royal Pharmaceutical Society opposed a Poison Bill in 1859.[45][46]

See also

1900 English beer poisoning

Notes and references

Notes

  1. ^ a b Figures on the number of deaths vary, with either twenty[5] or twenty one people dead.[39]
  2. ^ 6½ d in 1858 is approximately equivalent to £8.26; ½ d in 1858 is approximately equivalent to £0.64 in 2023, according to calculations based on the Consumer Price Index measure of inflation.[7]
  3. ^ "Greenmarket" is given in some sources as "Greenmarket"[12] and as "Green Market" in others.[13]
  4. ^ 7½ d in 1858 is approximately equivalent to £10 in 2023, according to calculations based on the Consumer Price Index measure of inflation.[7]
  5. ^ 1½ d in 1858 is approximately equivalent to £1.91 in 2023, according to calculations based on the Consumer Price Index measure of inflation.[7]
  6. ^ £200 in 1858 is approximately equivalent to £25,400; £100 in 1858 is approximately equivalent to £12,700 in 2023, according to calculations based on the Consumer Price Index measure of inflation.[7]
  7. ^ £5 in 1860 is approximately equivalent to £590 in 2023, according to calculations based on the Consumer Price Index measure of inflation.[7]

References

  1. ^ Otter 2020, p. 103; Whorton 2010, p. 141.
  2. ^ Otter 2020, p. 103; Whorton 2010, pp. 142–143; Wilson 2008, p. 164; Monier-Williams 1951, pp. 363–364.
  3. ^ Monier-Williams 1951, p. 363.
  4. ^ a b Whorton 2010, p. 161.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Jones 2000.
  6. ^ a b Emsley 2005, p. 100.
  7. ^ a b c d e Clark 2023.
  8. ^ Bartrip 1994, p. 895.
  9. ^ Foxcroft 2007, p. 103.
  10. ^ Holloway 1995, p. 94.
  11. ^ "Arsenic for the Million". The Lancet, p. 592.
  12. ^ Cunningham 2016, pp. 46–47.
  13. ^ a b Sheeran 1992, p. 14.
  14. ^ Cooper 1996, p. 177.
  15. ^ Tiekink 2010, p. 295.
  16. ^ Cunningham 2016, pp. 7, 46.
  17. ^ Davis 2009, 487.
  18. ^ Sheeran 1992, p. 13.
  19. ^ Cunningham 2016, p. 47.
  20. ^ Sheeran 1992, pp. 13–14.
  21. ^ Holloway 1991, p. 227.
  22. ^ Whorton 2010, p. 140.
  23. ^ London 2014, p. 326.
  24. ^ a b Whorton 2010, p. 162.
  25. ^ Sheeran 1992, p. 16.
  26. ^ Sheeran 1992, pp. 16–18.
  27. ^ Emsley 2005, p. 101.
  28. ^ "Wholesale Poisoning at Bradford". The Times. 2 November 1858.
  29. ^ Sheeran 1992, pp. 18–19, 23.
  30. ^ Sheeran 1992, p. 19.
  31. ^ Sheeran 1992, p. 17.
  32. ^ "John Henry Bell, MD, MRCS". British Medical Journal.
  33. ^ Sheeran 1992, pp. 19–20.
  34. ^ Sheeran 1992, p. 23.
  35. ^ a b "Wholesale Poisoning by Arsenic at Bradford". The Pharmaceutical Journal.
  36. ^ "Awful Calamity At Bradford". The Times. 4 November 1858.
  37. ^ "The Wholesale Poisoning At Bradford". The Times. 5 November 1858.
  38. ^ "The Poisonings by Arsenic at Bradford". The Times. 6 November 1858.
  39. ^ Whorton 2010, p. 163.
  40. ^ a b Sheeran 1992, p. 25.
  41. ^ "County Assizes". The Sheffield Daily Telegraph. 10 December 1858.
  42. ^ "The Bradford Poisonings". The Daily Telegraph. 23 December 1858.
  43. ^ a b London 2014, p. 327.
  44. ^ Postgate 2001, p. 46.
  45. ^ a b Whorton 2010, p. 166.
  46. ^ Berridge 1999, pp. 113–114.

Sources

Books

Journals and magazines

  • "Arsenic for the Million". The Lancet. 76 (1946): 592. December 1860. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(02)57363-3.
  • Bartrip, P. W. J. (1994). "How Green Was My Valance?: Environmental Arsenic Poisoning and the Victorian Domestic Ideal". The English Historical Review. 109 (433): 891–913. ISSN 0013-8266. JSTOR 574537.
  • Cunningham, Harry (May 2016). "The Bradford Sweets Poisoning". History Today. 66 (5): 46–47.
  • "John Henry Bell, MD, MRCS". British Medical Journal. 2 (2386): 735–236. 22 September 1906. doi:10.1136/bmj.2.2386.735.
  • Jones, Ian F. (December 2000). "Arsenic and the Bradford Poisonings of 1858". The Pharmaceutical Journal. 265 (7128): 938–939. Archived from the original on 2 December 2020.
  • London, Jillian (2014). "Tragedy, Transformation, and Triumph: Comparing the Factors and Forces That Led to the Adoption of the 1860 Adulteration Act in England and the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act in the United States". Food and Drug Law Journal. 69 (2): 315–342.
  • Monier-Williams, G. W. (December 1951). "Historical Aspects of the Pure Food Laws". British Journal of Nutrition. 5 (3): 363–367. doi:10.1079/BJN19510049.
  • "Wholesale Poisoning by Arsenic at Bradford". The Pharmaceutical Journal. 18 (6): 340–342. 1 December 1858.

News

  • "Awful Calamity At Bradford". The Times. 4 November 1858. p. 5.
  • "County Assizes". The Sheffield Daily Telegraph. 10 December 1858. p. 3.
  • "The Bradford Poisonings". The Daily Telegraph. 23 December 1858. p. 3.
  • "The Poisonings by Arsenic at Bradford". The Times. 6 November 1858. p. 12.
  • "The Wholesale Poisoning At Bradford". The Times. 5 November 1858. p. 4.
  • "Wholesale Poisoning at Bradford". The Times. 2 November 1858. p. 5.

Websites

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