The elements of murder: a history of poison

The elements of murder: a history of poison 
John Emsley 
Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press | 2005 | 208pp | ?19.95 (HB) | ISBN 0192805991 
Reviewed by David Stewart

In The elements of murder  John Emsley has written a readable anecdotal history of killing with five elements - mercury, arsenic, antimony, lead and thalium.

Before scientific advances in forensic analysis made identification of specific poisons possible, these elements were popular murder methods since they could produce symptoms commonly present in natural illnesses. 

Emsley examines two notorious cases at some length: the murder by mercury of the 17th-century poet Sir Thomas Overbury, and the case of Florence Maybrick who, in 1889, was found guilty of murdering her husband, James, with arsenic. She was condemned to death but reprieved two weeks later and her sentence commuted to life imprisonment. 

Other victims of poisoning described in the book include Pope Clement II, Isaac Newton, Mozart, George III and the Earl of Leicester. Of course the perennial question - was Napoleon poisoned? - receives detailed discussion. One of my favourites is Madeline Smith who lived in the Victorian ’golden age of arsenic murders’. In 1857 she was charged with the murder of her French lover Emile L’Angelier with arsenic in his cocoa but was given a ’not proven’ verdict - equivalent to ’we know you did it, but we can’t prove it’.  

Emsley deals with accidental as well as with intentional poisoning. In the 19th century hatters were at risk of madness because of mercury poisoning, women working in factories that manufactured wallpaper were poisoned by arsenic-based green pigments used in floral designs (eg Morris wallpapers), and thousands suffered from lead poisoning before the dangers were realised. 

This book will be enjoyed by those who like good detective stories, intriguing snippets of history, popular science and murder most foul.