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Lewis Lapham: Eager Heirs Used Arsenic to Speed Process

'The Inheritor's Powder'
"The Inheritor's Powder: A Tale of Arsenic Murder and the New Forensic Science," by Sandra Hempel. Source: WW Norton & Company via Bloomberg

On Nov. 2, 1833, Plumstead village landowner George Bodle had toast and coffee for breakfast. Soon after, he felt a horrible burning sensation from throat to stomach, along with cramps, projectile vomiting and massive diarrhea.

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Digestive upsets were common in those days, but it was odd that the entire household had gotten sick at the same time. When the doctor arrived, he suspected poison.

Arsenic trioxide is a colorless, tasteless white powder that disperses in hot food and drink. It was easily available over the counter as a pesticide. Lethal in small doses, it became known as the “inheritor’s powder,” the drug of choice for impatient heirs.

Plain-living Bodle had built up a fortune of 20,000 pounds, about $2 million in current terms. Everyone else recovered, but the old man died three days later. In a then-rare move, the doctor collected forensic samples at the house and took his suspicions to the magistrate.

When bags of arsenic were found in the possession of Bodle’s grandson, he was arrested and tried.

I spoke with Sandra Hempel, author of “The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic Murder and the New Forensic Science,” on the following topics:

1. Arsenic-Laced Coffee.

2. Circumstantial Evidence.

3. Toxicology Tests.

4. Poison Panic.

5. Culprit Confesses.

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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

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