Arsenic: it’s been called the “king of poisons” and the “poison of kings.” And for good reason – it has a lengthy, storied history, one full of mysterious poisoners and sometimes less-than-sympathetic victims. It's been a tool for thousands of years, used to kill countless people by shutting down their cells; a pea-sized amount of the stuff is enough to cause excruciating death.
The ancient Romans used arsenic against their political enemies, and for centuries it was the go-to poison for women who hated their husbands. It's odorless and tasteless, so it could easily be sprinkled into someone’s yogurt (a Chinese emperor died that way) or mixed into wine (that’s how the Borgias killed their enemies). Before it could be detected with tests, arsenic poisoning was the perfect crime – just ask Giulia Tofana, the Renaissance poisoner who helped 600 women murder their spouses.
When it wasn't killing people, arsenic was being used in everyday life as a rat poison, a healer, and even makeup. Just like radium was used as a medicine, an arsenic compound successfully treated syphilis before the discovery of penicillin. Regardless of how many lives it saved, however, arsenic remains one of the deadliest substances in human history.
Arsenic poisoning was popular because it left very little trace. The symptoms of arsenic poisoning – vomiting and diarrhea – were easily mistaken for other common diseases, such as food poisoning or cholera. Arsenic could both be used to kill quickly – a pea-sized amount was all it took – and slowly, using minuscule amounts of arsenic over a period of months until it built up in the victim’s system and shut down their organs. It was also odorless and tasteless, so it was easy to conceal in food or wine.
As a London newspaper reported in 1855, “If you feel a deadly sensation within and grow gradually weaker, how do you know you are not poisoned?” Arsenic was a silent killer, and it was usually used by people very close to the victim: a wife, a disgruntled servant, or a son eager to acquire his inheritance, for example.
Arsenic wasn't just known as a poison – it was also marketed as a way for women to beautify themselves. In the 19th century, women used arsenic powder to whiten their skin. It literally destroyed their red blood vessels, giving women the coveted pale, almost-dead look popularized in Victorian times. It could cause capillary damage in the skin, as well, which gave some a desirable "rosy-cheeked look."
According to an 1896 ad for Dr. Cambell's Safe Arsenic Complexion Wafers (pictured above), rubbing arsenic on your face would transform you into a "lovely creature" and an "object of worship." The wafers purported to remove pimples, freckles, and tans, and give skin radiant health. That is, if you survived the side effects.
Giulia Tofana invented a mysterious poison in 17th century Italy called Aqua Tofana – also known as the inheritance poison. The concoction was disguised as a bottle of makeup, and women bought the arsenic-laced potion to help them escape bad marriages. In those years, death was sometimes the only way to escape an abusive husband.
Just a few drops of the poison could kill without leaving a trace – and as many as 600 people died as a result of Tofana’s potion. In 1659, one of Tofana's customers was caught, and the investigation ultimately led back to Tofana. She was executed along with her daughter and several accomplices.
The Borgias are famous for many reasons: Alexander VI, the Borgia Pope, was a ruthless man who propelled his children to power (he wasn't a pope who was big on celibacy). He married off his daughter Lucretia multiple times, while pushing his son Cesare to build the family’s wealth and legacy. In addition to having a pope as the patriarch, the Borgias are also known for poisoning people – which became known as “the gift of the Borgias.”
The Borgias's favorite delivery method was arsenic in wine. When their victims died, church law dictated the ownership of their property reverted to the church, which, of course, was run by the Borgias. But when Alexander VI accidentally drank poisoned wine and died, the family’s fortunes quickly fell.