Behind their sentimental image, the Victorians were brutally down to earth. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, irate husbands in Essex, the county with the highest murder rate in Britain, could be heard threatening to ‘whitechapel’ their spouses, who would reply with Banshee promises to ‘white powder’ them.
‘Whitechapel’ referred to the district in the East End of London recently devastated by Jack the Ripper, while ‘white powder’ summoned up arsenic, the poison that was being recognised, only belatedly, as a deadly killer, both in the home and wider environment.
A chemical by-product of mining, arsenic was used as a rat poison in the infested slums of early industrial Britain. However, its qualities as a cheap, seemingly innocuous powder, virtually without taste or odour, led to its becoming the homicidal agent of choice for the nation’s domestic villains.