Arsenic Eaters of Styria

Spring 2006 Group 11

 

               The consumption of arsenic in itsŐ various forms was quite common in the 1800s. It is known to have been prescribed across Europe for a myriad of diseases, as a beauty product, and as an aphrodisiac(1).  The Arsenic Eaters of Styria were rumored to have eaten several times the lethal dose (300-400mg) of the metal, in the form of arsenic trioxide (2).  A tolerance was built over time starting at around 30-40mg every couple days and ending up at 400mg.  Accounts from the arsenic eaters themselves give several beneficial reasons for consuming the poisonous metal including an increase in the ability to breathe easily, a spike in courage, a boost in sexual potency, and as a prophylactic against infections diseases(1).  It was also reported that the Styrians gave the same chemical to their horses to increase their stamina(1).

               Many scientists were quick to dismiss these claims, saying that there was no way to prove what these people ate was actually arsenic trioxide, or that they ate as much as was claimed(2).   In 1860 an analysis was done to prove that the chemical eaten by the peasants was actually arsenic trioxide.  Professor Roscoe showed two peasants who ate 300mg and 400mg respectively of arsenic trioxide to an audience and tested their urine for the presence of the chemical via the Marsh Test(1).   This essentially proves the capability of humans to build up a tolerance to lethal doses of arsenic, and provides a biological basis for the existence of the arsenic eaters of Styria. However, though this evidence supports the theory of Arsenic eaters, there is no hard evidence proving their existence.

 

Napoleon's Death

               In the ranking of famous and mysterious deaths, Napoleon's is among those at the top of the list.  The majority of articles and documents written on the subject of his death agree with one another, but there can be no absolute conclusion.  It seems very likely that Napoleon was suffering from a stomach ulcer and gastric cancer, among many things(4).  It is also possible he suffered arsenic poisoning, although it is impossible to know for certain what sources contributed, and how much.  The house where Napoleon stayed on Saint Helena, had wallpaper with a coloring pigment, Scheele's Green, containing copper arsenate.  This wallpaper, when damp and moldy, would release a vapor form of arsenic, and caused several cases of arsenic poisoning. Others on Saint Helena with Napoleon became ill as well.(5)  Napoleon took medicine containing arsenic, although the exact amount is unknown.  He also had a hobby as a winemaker, whose casks and barrels were dried with arsenic.(6)  It is also possible that Napoleon was poisoned with arsenic, either by the British or by Count de Montholon.  Historians have speculated that the Count committed the murder since he was known to have strong ties to Napoleon's opposition and was the prime beneficiary of Napoleon's estate.(7)  The theory of arsenic poisoning was backed by evidence when in 1961 the FBI Laboratory analyzed hair from Napoleon and found high levels of arsenic, constituent with arsenic poisoning.  While the normal amount of arsenic is 0.08 ppm, the hair had 2.8 ppm to 51.2 ppm, up to 640 times the normal amount (Although there is a chance the hair was not Napoleon's).(8) Though the truth about NapoleonŐs arsenic poisoning still remains a mystery further research in the future may lead to more conclusive findings.

 

 

Sources:

 

1.Przygoda, G.: Feldmann, J: Cullen, W. R.: The Arsenic Eaters of Styria: a Different Picture of People Who Were Chronically Exposed to Arsenic. Appl. Organomet. Chem. 2001, 15, 457-462.

 

2. Bently, R; Chasteen, T.:  Arsenic Curiosa and Humainty. The Chemical Educator 2002

Vol. 7 No. 2.    http://chemeducator.org/sbibs/s0007002/spapers/720051rb.htm

 

3.Lykknes, A.; Kvittingen, L.:  Arsenic: Not So Evil After All? Journal of Chemical Education 2003      , 80  497-500.  http://ChemEd.chem.wisc.edu

              

4Dr. Jones, David: The Strange Story of Napoleon's Wallpaper.

http://www.grand-illusions.com/napoleon/napol1.htm

 

5Ball, Hendrik: Arsenic Poisoning and Napoleon's Death. http://www.victorianweb.org/history/arsenic.html 2002

 

6Krajewska, Barbara: Arsenic and the Emperor. http://www.napoleon.org/en/reading_room/articles/files/arsenic_emperor.asp

 

7Aiuto, Russell:  The Death of Napoleon. http://www.crimelibrary.com/terrorists_spies/assassins/napoleon_bonaparte/6.html 2005

 

8Weider CM, Ben, PhD: The Assassination of Napoleon.  http://members.tripod.com/amik78/Assassination-eng.htm