Bitten by Witch Fever–Art and greed clash in true account of the poisoning of a century of generations via home décor

Review by C.J. Bunce

Arsenic and Old Lace?  Truth is often stranger, darker, and more insidious than fiction.  Where the classic horror comedy dramaticized the historic use of arsenic as poison via elderberry wine, a routine use of the substance killed an incalculable number of people, probably at least in the tens of thousands, over the course of a little more than a century.  Imagine everything around you right now that is printed in the color green is printed with an ink which, if you brush against it, inhale it, touch it, or ingest even a minute amount of it, would kill you violently?  A recent scholarly account weaves together a tale of 18th-19th century science and psychology, beauty, style, and design, products liability and corporate greed, political cartoonists and iconic leaders of art history, and a scholarly account of an artform and staple of the arts and crafts movement in the most unlikely of collisions with day-to-day life.  Lucinda Dickens Hawksley’s Bitten By Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home is a book about wallpaper.  And it could be the most surprising and intriguing book you read this year.

At one level Bitten by Witch Fever could be a useful tool–included in its pages are facsimiles, and thankfully only facsimiles, of 275 color wallpapers from the 19th century.  It’s almost unprecedented and an ideal sourcebook for the period, for local or commercial set decorators, or for any artists and designers attempting to recreate in any medium the average household of the day or the most opulent business setting.  Yet each of the papers represented was tested by current scientists to include arsenic.  Predominantly tied to greens of a century of wallpaper style and taste, ultimately arsenic would be worked by designers into a broad spectrum of the color palette.  But mankind has known the harm of arsenic going back to ancient times, right?  It’s the complexity of the “Why?” that art and social historian (and Charles Dickens’ great-great-great granddaughter) Hawksley wrestles with in revisiting the use of arsenic in all its forms: as domestic poison, as health tonic, as pigment enhancer, and as murder weapon, and its rise in production with the rise of fashion of decorative wallpaper.  But why “witch fever”?  That reference in the title was from a comment by apologist William Morris–the arts and crafts movement innovator artiste–who also inherited from his father one of the few mines that produced arsenic.  To brush off arsenic safety scaremongers, he had responded, “As to the arsenic scare a greater folly it is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever.”  In part, the realities were fuzzy: many people lived with wallpaper with no ill effects, and yet others sleeping in a closed room with wall-to-wall arsenic coated papers would become violently ill.  Hawksley identifies cases of alleged crimes, court cases, alleged murders, and attempts to halt arsenic use.  Throughout the 19th century political cartoonists drew cartoons mocking the public’s continuing use of the poison in daily life.  Many of these cartoons are also included in the book.

The horrors were real:  young siblings die after pulling wallpaper off their walls and licking off the strange flavor.  From an ancient Greek physician using arsenic as an antiseptic to Nero using arsenic to murder Britannicus, to Napoleon rumored to have died in exile from arsenic poisoning, to the death of a Swedish king and the Borgias, the history of the substance crosses borders and social strata.  A few countries were quick to ban its commercial use, while factories where it was used were slow to address safety issues for workers.  In 1775 chemist Carl Scheele’s new green was so vibrant that the real fever was very much public fascination with new, beautiful colors.  It was used on walls, but also in flypaper, flocked papers, rodent and insect poison, asthma and eczema cream, as a Victorian aphrodisiac, face creams and soaps, artificial decorative fruits and vegetables, dress fabrics, mail labels, playing cards, all sorts of product packaging, and (gulp) cake icing coloring, candy, and lickable postage stamps.

Bitten by Witch Fever is an engaging read.  A product of the British National Archives, it delves into all sides of the use of arsenic, and serves as a historical document preserving a pervasive art form in its own right.  The varieties of wallpaper presented are marvels in design.  They will have you eye details in historical photographs of the era like never before.  Working assisting a museum director of a 19th century house years ago, I would have loved to have had access to this volume as we worked to replicate wallpaper of the era for the home’s library and parlor.  But this isn’t the first book to document these papers.  While this book sources papers from the UK, in Michigan in 1874 chemist Robert Kedzie created a more frightening version of a contemporary book to warn of the dangers of wallpaper, including several examples of actual arsenic-imprinted wallpaper.  Kedzie made 100 copies of Shadows from the Walls of Death, then distributed them to Michigan libraries (all but two copies are believed to have ultimately been destroyed, but not before reproducing the volume, available as a reprint here at Amazon).  The replication of the hues and texture and very wallpaper-like page stock in Bitten by Witch Fever, evokes its own tactile experience in the horror sense–a level of unexpected, and disconcerting, creepiness as the reader contemplates the damage that could have been done to someone merely handling a single page were it not a mere reproduction.

Here is an excerpt of the book:

Art history, legal history, art design chronicle, a history of workers’ rights, a history of regulation, an intriguing area of science and technology, featuring a unique use of political cartoons, a look at society, Victorian home décor, and culture, with 350 illustrations and 275 color wallpaper plates–Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home slices through science, art, politics, and society and produces a surprising segment of life from our past.  Note: the hardcover, wallpaper-fabric covered book itself is gorgeous and uniquely designed, featuring half-page narratives throughout interspersed with the wallpaper plates and easily identifiable descriptions showing the relative extent of arsenic exposure in each piece, and a poison bottle inset with gold foil lettering on the cover.

Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home by Lucinda Hawksley from Thames and Hudson USA is available now here at Amazon.

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