Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Frances Creighton & Everett Appelgate

Rough on Rats

Arsenic is an abundant element. It has been in use since ancient times and can be found almost everywhere, including in the human body. In small amounts, it is not fatal and can even be advantageous in some ways. The famous "arsenic eaters" of southern Austria are an example of its beneficial aspects. People in that area have consumed quantities of arsenic for long periods of time and have built up a strong tolerance to its deadly effects. They ingest daily an amount that would surely kill an ordinary person. Arsenic is a highly toxic substance and people have died simply from inhaling its fumes or from long-term exposure during industrial uses.

Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte

During the 19th century, arsenic was used as a coloring agent in wallpaper. In periods of humid weather, a chemical reaction would cause the wallpaper, especially green or gray paper, to release arsenic fumes, called arsine gas. A person in such a room would breathe in these toxic gases and soon become ill. Exposure to arsine gas produces a constricted feeling in the throat, burning sensation on the tongue and acute abdominal pain. There are known incidents in which people have died in rooms decorated with arsenic wallpaper.

Once used as a cure for syphilis, arsenic was sometimes called "inheritance powder" because of its popularity among family members as a murder weapon. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte may have been such a victim. He died on May 5, 1821 and the cause of death was listed officially as cancer. But some historians claim that he was actually poisoned by someone close to him, perhaps a family member or his English captors. Samples of Napoleon's hair, which still exist today, were tested for toxins in 1962. Trace residue of arsenic was discovered. Though the poison was in very small amounts, it was enough to launch a new conspiracy theory.

But there are several practical problems associated with the use of arsenic as a murder tool. To police investigators, these problems are so evident that it seems almost foolish for anyone to use the drug to kill a victim. First and foremost, arsenic is easily detectable in the human body after death, even in miniscule amounts. Unlike other chemical agents, arsenic will not deteriorate over time. This fact makes it doubly threatening to the killer, for if evidence is developed after the burial, an exhumation can be done and a post mortem will reveal incriminating evidence. Many poison cases involving the use of arsenic follow a similar historical pattern: death, burial, suspicion and exhumation.

Box cover: Rough on Rats
Box cover: Rough on Rats

Secondly, the murderer is compelled to administer small amounts of arsenic over a period of time. This could be dangerous to the suspect because it can never be known exactly how much of the poison to feed to the victim. Too much arsenic can cause instant death. Too little may have no effect. Also, long term unexplained illness in the victim might arouse suspicion and place the suspect in jeopardy.

Since arsenic has an objectionable, metallic-like taste, it must be in powder form so it can be mixed with food or diluted in some sort of liquid. It has to be carefully disguised so the victim will swallow the entire dose. For Frances, this problem was already solved. She knew that there was a type of arsenic, sold over the counter in drug stores, whose taste was not easily discerned. It was already mixed in with another chemical designed to poison rodents.

It was called Rough on Rats and in 1935, it cost all of twenty-three cents.

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