Saturday, October 27, 2007


The Mutual Poisoning Society

I'm in this week's New Scientist with "The Mutual Poisoning Society," a piece about Frederick Accum -- that would be the dashing young chemistry lecturer above -- who was the David Horowitz and Ralph Nader combined of 1820. His Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons was a pioneering and bestselling book that became popularly known as "Death in the Pot":

"The man who robs a fellow subject of a few shillings on the high-way, is sentenced to death," Accum charged in his preface, "while he who distributes a slow poison to the community escapes unpunished."

The fraudsters’ motives were generally to disguise spoilt or watered-down goods, or to save money by substituting cheap ingredients for expensive ones. "There are instances on record, of bakers having used gypsum, chalk, and pipe clay, in the manufacture of bread," he noted. Gypsum also turned up in wine, to clarify cloudy casks — as did, more alarmingly, dollops of molten lead. Crooked vintners aged cheap new red wines by tossing in sawdust and staining new corks to look old. Switching to tea was no healthier. Accum found bogus blends of whitethorn, elder and ash leaves, and sheep-dung. "Green tea" was created by adding poisonous copper carbonate. If you fancied lemonade instead, vendors saved themselves the trouble of procuring lemons by flavouring the stuff with sulphuric acid...

Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine observed that Britain had been revealed as a sort of Mutual Poisoning Society: "The apothecary, who sells poisonous ingredients to the brewer, chuckles over his roguery and swallows his own drugs in his daily copious exhibitions of brown stout. The brewer, in his turn, is poisoned by the baker, the wine-merchant, and the grocer. And, whenever the baker’s stomach fails him, he meets his coup de grace in the adulterated drugs of his friend the apothecary, whose health he has been gradually contributing to undermine, by feeding him every morning on chalk and alum, in the shape of hot rolls."

The book is available as a Gutenberg e-text, and it's fascinating reading. If you were unfortunate enough to be one of his original readers, it'd certainly put you off of your powdered bark, roasted horse-liver, and burnt-parsnip "coffee."

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