two penny worth of arsenic

Coronial inquest by Mr Richard CAINES, coroner of Somerset – 30 June 1830

At Trent, near Yeovil, on Mary SYMES, aged 47.

The deceased had latterly been an occasional servant at the public house in that parish, but had left about three weeks, not being able to perform her work; having got better, she applied to be again employed, but was told she was not wanted; since which time she had done but little, and had received some parochial relief.

On Friday last she went to offer service at Yeovil, and on her return showed a paper containing some powder, which it appeared she took, and died in about two hours afterwards.

George Edwards WELLINGTON and his brother, sons of Mr WELLINGTON of Yeovil, druggist, proved that on Friday last she bought at their shop two penny worth of arsenic, saying that it was to kill rats, and that it was for Mr WHITTLE.

It was proved that the deceased was of weak mind, and in great poverty, and the Jury returned a verdict of Lunacy.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Yes, you guessed it – my ancestors sold the arsenic to the unfortunate Mary SYMES.

Arsenic was used in the manufacture of practically everything in Georgian and Victorian England. It was used as a green dye in cloth and wallpaper manufacture, in food, beer, cosmetics as well as rat poison. As evidenced in the inquest above, you could buy arsenic over the counter at your local chemist shop for “a penny worth an ounce.” In minute doses it’s a slow and silent killer that can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin and just one hundredth of an ounce is enough to kill. The “two penny worth of arsenic” poor Mary SYMES bought and consumed was enough to kill 50 people and all the rats in Trent and Yeovil combined.


For an interesting read on arsenic and the history of poisons in the Victorian era you might like to view Jen Newby’s blog post Arsenic Century. Jen writes about women’s history because, as she says “our great-grandmothers weren’t all chained to the kitchen sink“.

[Sources: Somerset Inquests and Murders 1825-1830; The Arsenic Century by James C Whorton]


6 thoughts on “two penny worth of arsenic

  1. Pingback: oxalic acid poisoning – 1835 | branches of our family

  2. Pingback: susanah’s journal – wild beast show | branches of our family

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