A second-floor shelf of University of Michigan’s Buhr book storage facility contains Michigan’s single most dangerous book.
It is one of only two known copies to exist in the state. If not for its historical importance, even the most fervent bibliophile might agree: the fewer copies in the world the better.
“Shadows from the Walls of Death” is dangerous not in the sense of a book containing radical ideas. Nor is it dangerous in the way a bomb-building manual might be. In fact, after the title page and preface, the following 86 pages, each one measuring about 22 by 30 inches, contain no printed words at all.
Michigan State University holds the other copy of “Shadows” in its Special Collections library division. The volume is sealed in a protective container, and each page is individually encapsulated.
Prospective “readers” of “Shadows” at the Buhr building must wear blue plastic protective gloves. During a visit to the Buhr some days ago, the book was wheeled out slowly on its individual cart. The marbled pattern on the cover showed through a protective thick-gauge plastic bag.
I held my breath as I gingerly eased open the cover, and while “reading” the pages I was careful to avoid any skin contact. “Shadows” is saturated with a deadly amount of arsenic.
UM alum Robert Kedzie created “Shadows from the Walls of Death.” After receiving his degree with the medical school’s first graduating class, in 1851, Kedzie established a medical practice in Kalamazoo and later Eaton County’s Vermontville. He left his practice, along with his wife and three sons, to serve as a Civil War surgeon with Michigan’s 12th Regiment. Kedzie was captured and imprisoned at Shiloh, but paroled.
In 1863 he returned to Michigan to chair Michigan Agricultural College’s (MSU’s) chemistry department. Some three decades later, Kedzie imported 1,700 pounds of beet seeds from Europe in a campaign to assess the suitability of Michigan soil for sugar beet production. The seed was sent to 400 Lower Peninsula farmers. Of those, 228 responded and mailed beets back to Lansing for analysis. They were found to contain 14% sugar. Michigan’s beet sugar industry was born.
Before donning the mantle of “Father of the Michigan Beet Sugar Industry,” Kedzie was elected to serve with the state’s board of health when it formed in 1873. He chaired the committee on “Poisons, Special Sources of Danger to Life and Health, &c.” Kedzie wasted no time in reporting his chief concern in an essay, “Poisonous Papers,” included in the Board of Health’s inaugural 1874 report.
He called attention to a problem raised by Massachusetts’ board of health in 1872 – the widespread use of wallpaper colored with arsenical pigment.
The story of Napoleon poisoned by arsenical wallpaper while imprisoned on the island of St. Helena in 1815 is a familiar rumor. Largely forgotten, however, is that arsenical wallpaper was common and widely used in Michigan, Massachusetts, and elsewhere in the 19th-century United States. In 1887, the American Medical Association estimated that between 1879 and 1883, 54–65% of all wallpaper sold in the United States contained arsenic, a third of which at dangerous levels. Over time, the poisonous pigment could flake or be brushed off the wallpaper and float in the air as inhalable dust or settle on furniture in the home.
Kedzie cited several cases of wallpaper poisoning in his essay, including one from a family in Manchester in Washtenaw County.
The walls of one bed-room were covered with a paper the ground work of which was stone color with bands of bright green ornamented with gilt. The daughter, Emma, aged 9, occupied this room for several months. Soon after occupying the room her health began to fail, and she exhibited the following symptoms: Lameness, resembling rheumatism, darting pains in various portions of the body; languor in the morning, feverishness, pains in the head and about the frontal sinuses, sores in various parts of the body, faint spells, turning white about the mouth, and great loss of flesh. The best medical advice that could be procured was obtained, but no essential improvement followed. Whenever she left home for a few weeks her health improved; but she relapsed into her former condition on returning home.
Kedzie tested the paper and found it contained a high level of arsenic. Emma was removed from the room and regained her health.
An Economical Dye
Originally a byproduct of the European mining industry, arsenic offered mining companies a means of profiting from a waste product, and offered manufacturers a means of obtaining a cheap dye. Thousands of tons were annually imported to the United States. The substance produced lovely hues ranging from deep emerald to pale sea-green. Arsenic could also be mixed into other colors, giving them a soft, appealing pastel appearance.
The first application of arsenic as a pigment was as a paint dye. The pale green shade caught on as a “refined” color. American manufacturers began using arsenic to color a range of consumer goods. Children’s toys were painted with arsenical paint. Arsenic-dyed paper was used in greeting cards, stationery, candy boxes, concert tickets, posters, food container labels, mailing labels, pamphlets, playing cards, book-bindings, and envelopes –envelopes the sender had to lick.
“A professor at the Agricultural College,” wrote Kedzie in “Poisonous Papers,” “brought home a package of lead pencils around which was a broad band of beautiful green paper. His little children, attracted by the beautiful color of this paper, wanted it to play with, but he handed it to me for analysis, and I found it contained enough arsenic to poison all of them.” Kedzie went on to cite cases involving a baby’s toy box decorated with green paper, a U.S. Express Co. package with a green mailing label, and green store price tags, all of which tested positive for arsenic.
In 19th-century Michigan, arsenic served as a home rat poison and insecticide – even childrens’ stuffed animals were dusted with it by manufacturers to prevent infestation. Arsenic appeared in green lampshades, cosmetics, and copper cookware. It was used to color candy and glaze fudge. Cheesemakers sometimes threw a pinch or two into the cheesemaking vat in the hope of killing ptomaine.
Arsenic was an ingredient in many patent medicines. As late as 1921 the American Medical Association was still finding arsenic in patent medicines that included Blue Bell Kidney Tablets, Botanic Blood Balm, Wildroot Dandruff Remedy, Dander-Off, Dr. Miles’ Restorative Nervine, La Franco Vitalizer No. 200, and others. Arsenic was also used in mainstream medicine as a treatment for syphilis.
Arsenic was extensively used in 19th-century Michigan agriculture as the ubiquitous insecticide “Paris Green.” It was dusted on tomatoes, potato foliage, cabbage, cucumbers, grapes, melons, and sprayed on fruit trees.
Arsenic-dyed cloth led to an 1860s fad for emerald-green tarlatan-fabric ball gowns. Luckily the trend was short-lived. The 1884 annual report from Massachusetts’ State Board of Health, Lunacy, and Charity said, “Attention has very frequently been called to the presence of large amounts of arsenic in green tarlatan, which has given rise so many times to dangerous symptoms of poisoning when made into dresses and worn, so that it is very rare now to see a green tarlatan dress.” The report continued:
This fabric is still used, however, to a very dangerous extent, chiefly for the purposes of ornamentation, and may often be seen embellishing the walls and tables at church and society fairs, and in confectionery, toy and dry-goods stores. The writer has repeatedly seen this poisonous fabric used at church fairs and picnics as a covering for confectionery and food, to protect the latter from flies. As is well known, the arsenical pigment is so loosely applied to the cloth that a portion of it easily separates upon the slightest motion. Prof. Hoffmann after examining a large number of specimens estimated that twenty or thirty grains of the pigment would separate from a dress per hour, when worn in a ball-room.
Two to three grains (130-195 milligrams) could prove fatal if ingested.
Arsenic was also used to dye stockings, underwear, curtains, millinery decorations, artificial flowers, and cloth linings for bassinettes and cribs in a variety of colors. Green flannel boot linings impregnated with arsenic allegedly killed several California gravel miners in 1875. Arsenic poisoning is still a concern for modern-day reenactors who wish to wear authentic Victorian-era clothing.
Skin ulcerations are one symptom of arsenic poisoning. Others include headache, abdominal pain, diarrhea, patches of skin discoloration, hair loss, coughing, convulsions, and neuropathy in the hands and feet.
In 19th-century Michigan, those symptoms pertained to a range of diseases. Arsenic poisoning was often diagnosed as conditions that included “general debility,” neuralgia, consumption (tuberculosis), cholera, rheumatism, gastritis, dysentery, or paralysis – all of which commonly appear as causes of death on old Michigan death certificates.
Sometimes the symptoms were not produced by a chronic condition caused by long-term exposure, but by acute conditions deliberately and maliciously created. Over the years, UM served as the state’s resource for toxicological examinations in arsenic poisoning cases.
In the summer of 1846, the Oakland Gazette reported suspicion surrounding the death of one Harriet Russell. Her remains were disinterred and her stomach and intestines sent to Ann Arbor for testing. Silas Douglas of the chemistry department tested the samples and found arsenic. Russell’s husband was taken into custody.
In the summer of 1861, the Grand Traverse Herald reported another suspicious death. Douglas analyzed the stomach contents of one Nicholas Frankinburger of Traverse City, finding a large quantity of arsenic. Douglas’ skills were employed again in 1865 in the notorious Battle Creek Haviland murder case in which Sarah Haviland was accused of poisoning three children. His findings led to her conviction.
In addition to Douglas, other UM toxicologists and pathologists served as analysts and expert witnesses in arsenic poisoning cases. As arsenic was a late 19th-century ingredient in embalming fluid, post-mortem embalming could hide ante-mortem poisoning attempts. In the spring of 1892 the wife of Matthew Millard, a leading businessman of Ionia County, took ill and died. Her husband, a onetime undertaker, embalmed her with injections of arsenic in her mouth and rectum and had her buried.
Due to suspicions of poisoning, Mrs. Millard was exhumed 105 days later and several tissue samples were analyzed. Mrs. Millard was re-buried, then re-exhumed again so that more samples could be taken. Arsenic was found in her internal organs.
The case went to court. The leading toxicological textbook of the day taught that arsenic could not spread to internal organs after death; therefore, said the prosecution, Mrs. Millard’s husband must have poisoned her. Robert Kedzie and UM toxicologist Victor Vaughn testified for the defense, saying that arsenic could indeed spread throughout the body after death; the presence of the poison in the internal organs did not necessarily indicate ante-mortem poisoning. To prove it, Vaughn duplicated the arsenic injection procedure on a corpse and buried it. When exhumed, it was found that the arsenic had spread to the internal organs. Millard was ultimately acquitted.
In the celebrated 1895 New York case of Mary Alice Fleming’s alleged matricide by clam chowder, Vaughn testified for the prosecution. “Dr. Vaughn is the discoverer of tyrotoxicon, the ptomaine poison found in stale milk, and enjoys a world-wide celebrity for original research in toxicology and physiological chemistry,” wrote the June 11, 1896 New York Times. The story went on to say that Vaughn testified about the types and classifications of poisons and described in detail the symptoms of arsenic poisoning. He agreed that it appeared that Mary Alice’s mother had apparently died of arsenic poisoning. Though the prosecution’s case was strong, popular sentiment of the time ran against the death penalty for a woman, and Mary Alice was acquitted.
Vaughn, along with UM pathologist Alfred Warthin also provided analyses in the 1909-1911 Sparling family poisonings in Ubly, near Bad Axe in Michigan’s Thumb area. The father, John Sparling and three of his four sons, Peter, Albert, and Scyrel, died from arsenic and strychnine poisoning in a case that involved alleged improprieties between the mother and a local doctor, Robert Macgregor. Macgregor encouraged her to take out life insurance policies on her family members. Vaughn and Warthin found evidence of arsenic poisoning, and Macgregor went to Jackson State Prison with a life sentence, though he was later pardoned by Governor Ferris.
Nearly four decades earlier, Robert Kedzie had delivered his own verdict: arsenical wallpapers must be eliminated from the state. In 1874 he collected numerous wallpaper samples from Detroit, Lansing, and Jackson stores, cut them into pages, and had them bound into 100 books which he distributed to libraries around Michigan.
The dainty and artistic wallpaper samples stand in contrast to a dire Biblical quotation on the title page of “Shadows of the Walls of Death”:
And behold, if the plague be in the walls of the house, with hollow strakes, greenish or reddish, … Then the priest shall go out of the house to the door of the house, and shut up the house seven days. … And he shall cause the house to be scraped within round about, and they shall pour out the dust that they scrape off without the city into an unclean place.
Kedzie’s public health campaign was reported to have poisoned one lady who examined the book, but it otherwise effectively publicized the dangers of living in a house papered in arsenic. Scraps of arsenical wallpaper may still be found here and there in historical homes, now merely an antique curiosity to be removed for safety’s sake. It is no longer a silent everyday threat disguised as beautiful patterns on the walls.
Last month, Jim Rees and Poohbah correctly guessed that the object was a blowtorch (honorable mention goes to Irene Hieber for guessing that it was an acetylene torch – you were right about the torch part).
This artifact is a recent acquisition to the author’s collection (translation: scavenged from a curbside pile of junk while walking the dogs) and I can’t wait to try it out!
On second thought, I think I can wait.
This month’s Mystery Artifact dates from an era of more leisurely communication. This tiny cylinder had a specific function, but what was it?
Where in the house could you find it?
What did it do?
Take your best guess and good luck!
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