"Drink It Up Dear; It Will Do You Good": Crime, Toxicology, and the Trail of the Serpent

By Mangham, Andrew | DQR Studies in Literature, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

"Drink It Up Dear; It Will Do You Good": Crime, Toxicology, and the Trail of the Serpent


Mangham, Andrew, DQR Studies in Literature


The Trail of the Serpent (1861), Braddon's first and formative novel, has had a surge of interest in recent years. Academics, in particular, are beginning to notice the text's importance in laying down the longstanding literary interests of its author. In 2003, for instance, Sarah Waters wrote that "The Trail of the Serpent occupies a fascinating place in relation both to Braddon's sensational oeuvre and to the criticism that greeted it".1 Despite being a "lurid, improbable story", she adds, the text "retain[s its] power to unsettle and impress".2 In this essay I agree with Waters' claim that The Trail of the Serpent is an important book. Rather than concentrating on its place within the literary career of its author, or sensation fiction more broadly, however, I aim to show how the text is very useful in studying a Victorian change in attitude regarding crime and its links with science. More specifically, the mid-nineteenth century witnessed a cultural panic over the criminal use of poison. At the time there appeared to be a dramatic increase in murders committed with deadly chemicals. Scientists responded with new ways of detecting and treating the effects of poison and the new science of toxicology became a discipline that Braddon's text, which itself features a number of criminal poisonings, could draw on in telling and fascinating ways.3

Poisoning in fiction was nothing new - since the Ancients (and most notably in Shakespeare and new-wave Gothic texts), poison had been a staple part of fictional narratives. As I intend to make clear, what marked the Victorian text out among these was a new attention to detail. In older genres, for instance, poisons were frequently identified simply as "poison" and descriptions of their effects have more to do with melodrama than actual fact. In the panic-stricken climate of the nineteenth century, however, such slights of hand were not longer acceptable. Popular fictional texts worked within a complicated, interdisciplinary web of discourses that identified and discussed a number of deadly poisons. Such discourses emanated from, and entered into, a cultural unease relating to the possibility of being killed by poison.

Toxicology and the cult of "secret poisoning"

The most important toxicological textbook of the nineteenth century, entitled A General System of Toxicology, was written by M.P. Orfila in 1815 and was quickly followed by more, most notably Robert Christison's Treatise on Poisons in 1829 and Alfred Swaine Taylor's On Poisons in 1848. Both these textbooks underwent a number of reprints and revisions throughout the century and became the foundations upon which modern forensic science was built. As already noted, toxicology proper emerged during the mid- Victorian era because of a perceived rise in criminal poisonings. In 1 848, Alfred Taylor, a man who became renowned for his expertise in chemistry and medico-legal analysis, commented:

The crime of poisoning has been of late so fearfully on the increase, that it seems essential for the proper administration of justice and for the security of society, to collect and arrange in a convenient form for reference, those important medical facts in relation to death from poison, which, while they constitute a safe guide to the barrister and medical practitioner, may prevent the condemnation of the innocent, and insure the conviction of the guilty.4

Taylor thus intended his book to be a guide for the detection of the major symptoms of poisoning. This, he hoped, would help counteract the "fearful" increase of such crimes.

In 1857, the German chemist Dr Otto claimed in his Manual of the Detection of Poison that "the famous trial of Madame Lafarge", in particular, "has given occasion to a careful revision, within the last few years, of all the various methods for the detection of arsenic".5 In 1840, Marie Lafarge was indicted for murdering her husband.; it was alleged by the prosecution that she had poisoned him by baking arsenic into a cake. …

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