Poisoned Peppermints of the 19th Century

peppermintsAll right, so this is totally a mini spoiler for my forthcoming novella, Seeks For Her, but bear with me. At the beginning of the story, several children in Cold Springs are ill, including two of the heroine, Rebecca Turner’s children. But they’re not sick with a disease. I needed it to be something else. So I plunged into research to look for a historical incident that could provide inspiration for my book.

Of course, my first inspiration was an episode of Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman. Do you remember the one where Matthew is working on the railroad with a pair of Chinese laborers who become dangerously ill? And it turns out that their affliction is contaminated biscuits that were mass produced at a factory with old equipment that was grinding lead into the flour? Well, I knew I wanted something like that, but I’ve never really cared much for the way that episode resolved itself.

However, it seemed pretty likely to me that in the early days of mass-producing and packaging food for distribution across a large territory, some sort of contamination might happen. These were the early days, before the FDA and other regulating bodies came into existence. (The FDA was formed in 1906) Before that, a lot of shady activity could go on in the manufacture of foodstuffs, and of course it did.

I didn’t have to look too far to find a real incident from history that fit perfectly with what I was looking for to explain the afflictions in my story. A little digging turned up the Bradford Sweets Poisonings of 1858.

Back in the mid-19th century in cities throughout England, including Bradford, enterprising men and women made a good living selling wares of all kinds from booths and carts in the streets. This practice actually goes all the way back to medieval times, and probably further. These people couldn’t afford a store, and a lot of the time their clientele couldn’t exactly afford to shop in a store. Cheap goods could be sold for cheap prices.

That was exactly the problem. Candies were cheap and easy to make, particularly if you fudged the ingredients a little. It was common practice in the mid-19th century to doctor the mix that was added to sugar and flavoring to make candy. Sugar was expensive, after all, but plaster, sulfate of lime, and limestone were not. This mix of sugar and junk was known as “daft” and was far more common than I want to think about! Stuff for the daft could be purchased from pharmacies and druggists, among other sources.

A candy factory of the 1890s.

A candy factory of the 1890s.

Well, in 1858, someone made a tragic mistake. When sent into a storeroom to get a cask of daft, a sweet-maker named Joseph Neal accidentally picked up a cask of arsenic. You guessed, it, he made an entire batch of peppermint candies with a heft amount of arsenic. No one detected the mistake until it was too late because the peppermint oil was so strong that it overpowered any lingering taste of arsenic.

Neal supplied his candy to a local barker nick-named “Humbug Billy”. Unfortunately, Billy did a bang-up business. He sold five pounds of the candies in one night. People immediately began to fall ill and die, particularly children, but at first the deaths were attributed to cholera. It took 20 deaths and over 200 people becoming severely ill for days before the source of the contamination was discovered. It could have been worse, though. When investigators finally gathered the entire tainted batch and tested it, they discovered that enough of the peppermints had been manufactured with enough poison to kill over 2,000 people!

There was a trial, of course, but Neal and the druggist who he had purchased the arsenic from were acquitted. The whole event was deemed an accident. It also led to a lobby to outlaw the practice of making sweets with daft. The Pharmacy Act of 1868 was passed to hold chemists and druggists more accountable.

The whole incident makes you think about how far we’ve come in terms of food safety. It also makes me wonder how much of our food supply is contaminated by government sanction, but that’s a whole other story. As horrifying as the 1858 incident was, it makes for fantastic inspiration. I hope that when you read Seeks For Her next month you’ll see that the peppermint storyline isn’t as far-fetched as you may have believed. Without regulation, anything could have happened!

4 thoughts on “Poisoned Peppermints of the 19th Century

  1. Interesting – I had never heard of this peppermint fiasco, or the practice of using “daft.”

    I did, however, giggle slightly when I read: “Before that, a lot of shady activity could go on in the manufacture of foodstuffs, and of course it did.” Have you read Michael Moss’ Salt, Sugar, Fat? It’s a great book, and makes it very evident that the manufacture of food is still full of shady activity, if you’re interested in more recent crazy stories.

    • I’m not surprised that this kind of thing is still going on today. ugh! Thanks for the recommendation though. I’ll have to add it to my TBR pile. … But I have a feeling I won’t read it when I’m about to eat! 😛

  2. This was a really interesting post. I was especially intrigued by how you went about searching for something that actually happened for your storyline.

    And I agree with writingmom2013. With more and more deregulation and cutbacks, our food supply is definitely endangered even in these modern times.

    • The thing with history – and the reason why I majored in it in school – is that it is packed full of exciting, interesting, heartbreaking, and wonderful stories. You really don’t have to make much up if you just take the time to scratch the surface of all of the zillions of things that actually happened. I love it! =D

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