Deadly Books, Manuscripts & Other Printed Matter

EnolaGaia

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#1
I'm starting this new thread because I couldn't find an existing one that recommended itself for this story ...

Books That Kill: 3 Poisonous Renaissance Manuscripts Discovered in School Library

... Odd as it may sound, works on paper can actually be toxic — even deadly — if they're colored with the wrong pigments. A team of researchers at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU) recently rediscovered this peculiar bane of bibliophiles when they pulled three Renaissance-era manuscripts from the school library's rare-book collection, put them under an X-ray microscope and found themselves face-to-face with glowing green arsenic.

"We took these three rare books to the X-ray lab because the library had previously discovered that medieval manuscript fragments, such as copies of Roman law and canonical law, were used to make their covers, Jakob Povl Holck, a research librarian at SDU, and Kaare Lund Rasmussen, an associate professor in physics, chemistry and pharmacy, wrote in The Conversation. "It is well documented that European bookbinders in the 16th and 17th centuries used to recycle older parchments." ...

The problem was, all three book covers were caked in an "extensive layer" of green paint that made reading the underlying text impossible with the naked eye. So, Holck and Rasmussen used a technique called micro X-ray fluorescence to shine a pinhole-thin beam of light onto the manuscripts, hoping to highlight specific elements (like calcium or iron) baked into the underlying ink. Instead, they found arsenic.

... "This chemical element is among the most toxic substances in the world and exposure may lead to various symptoms of poisoning, the development of cancer and even death," Holck and Rasmussen wrote. "The toxicity of arsenic does not diminish with time."

Arsenic poisoning occurs primarily through ingestion (say, by licking one's finger and turning the page of a contaminated book) but some of the poison can also seep in through touch and inhalation. Because it's both tasteless and odorless, arsenic has been used as a poison for thousands of years, the researchers wrote. Despite its deadly reputation, arsenic was briefly considered safe to use as a pigment and dye during parts of the 19th century, so long as it wasn't ingested. This attitude resulted in the unwitting production of poisonous wallpaper, postage stamps, formal dresses and paint pigments that literally made art drop-dead gorgeous.

According to Holck and Rasmussen, the green arsenic-loaded pigment on the three rare book covers is likely a popular, mass-produced Victorian pigment called Paris Green. ...
FULL STORY: https://www.livescience.com/63025-poisonous-books-coated-in-arsenic.html
 

JamesWhitehead

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#3
I saw some of these poisonous pigments on some glorious old manuscripts in an exhibition earlier this year at the John Rylands Library. They were safely under glass! :cooll:
 

EnolaGaia

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#4
Here's another example of arsenic-laden biblio-riskiness - a book about, and containing, examples of 19th century wallpapers containing arsenic ...

How a Library Handles a Rare and Deadly Book of Wallpaper Samples

SHADOWS FROM THE WALLS OF DEATH,
printed in 1874 and measuring about 22 by 30 inches, is a noteworthy book for two reasons: its rarity, and the fact that, if you touch it, it might kill you. It contains just under a hundred wallpaper samples, each of which is saturated with potentially dangerous levels of arsenic.

The book is the work of Dr. Robert M. Kedzie, a Union surgeon during the American Civil War and later professor of chemistry at Michigan State Agricultural college (now MSU). When he came to serve on the state’s Board of Health in the 1870s, he set out to raise awareness about the dangers of arsenic-pigmented wallpaper. Though a lethal toxin, arsenic can be mixed with copper and made into beautiful paints and pigments, most commonly Scheele’s Green or Paris Green. This was no fringe phenomenon: near the end of the 19th century, the American Medical Association estimated that as much as 65 percent of all wallpaper in the United States contained arsenic.

The Victorians knew that arsenic was poisonous when eaten, of course—it had gained a reputation as an “inheritance powder” that could be used, for example, to bump off elderly aunts with large fortunes—but most saw little risk in plastering their homes with the stuff. Kedzie argued (correctly, we now know) that arsenical wallpapers shed microscopic dust particles that can be inhaled or ingested. In the preface to Shadows, he warns that arsenic can kill not only by “sudden and violent destruction of life” but by slow, chronic poisoning, a mysterious and lingering illness that might baffle sufferer and physician alike. He wrote of women taking ill and withdrawing into their wallpapered bedrooms to recover, not knowing that all the while they were inhaling “an air loaded with the breath of death.” ...
image.jpg

SOURCE: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/shadows-from-the-walls-of-death-book
 

GNC

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#5
Isn't there a story about Napoleon Bonaparte being killed by exposure to arsenic in his bedroom wallpaper? Doesn't explain why nobody else guarding him suffered the same effects, mind you.
 

EnolaGaia

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#6
Isn't there a story about Napoleon Bonaparte being killed by exposure to arsenic in his bedroom wallpaper? Doesn't explain why nobody else guarding him suffered the same effects, mind you.
Yes, there was arsenic in his lodgings' wallpaper, and the environmental conditions would have fostered exposure to airborne arsenic diffusing off that wallpaper.

However ...

Within the last decade it's been demonstrated that a notably high (by today's standards ...) level of arsenic had been present in Napoleon's body throughout his life - not solely during his final exile.

IMHO the most reasonable conclusion is that the arsenic and other toxic substances ingested didn't help matters in general, but the demonstrable stomach cancer was the proximate cause of death.

For example, see:

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/01/070117-napoleon.html
https://www.amnh.org/explore/news-blogs/on-exhibit-posts/poison-what-killed-napoleon/
https://www.livescience.com/2292-napoleon-death-arsenic-poisoning-ruled.html
 

GNC

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#7
With that in mind, I wonder if there were any figures collated on death by wallpaper? Could it actually happen?
 

EnolaGaia

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#8
With that in mind, I wonder if there were any figures collated on death by wallpaper? Could it actually happen?
As far as I know - no, there's no summary compilation of such figures ...

One big reason is that the risk of arsenic poisoning was practically epidemic in the Victorian era, when arsenic was found in clothing, cosmetic items, and other household goods besides wallpapers and printed matter.

There are isolated anecdotal reports of specific poisoning incidents (e.g., baby deaths from having been closely held by attendants / nannies wearing arsenic-dye-nifested clothing).but I haven't found any overarching summaries or analyses.

There's a recent book on Victorian domestic arsenic poisoning, which has received good reviews:

Bitten by Witch Fever
Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Nineteenth-Century Home

Lucinda Hawksley
Thames & Hudson

http://www.lucindahawksley.com/bitten-by-witch-fever/
https://www.thamesandhudsonusa.com/...enic-in-the-nineteenth-century-home-hardcover
http://bookshop.nationalarchives.gov.uk/9780500518380/Bitten-By-Witchfever/

Here's an overview of the subject and an interview with the author:

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/10/the-era-when-poison-was-everywhere/503654/

Finally, here's an item from the (UK) National Archives describing what was discovered when they checked their archived wallpaper sample books for arsenic:

https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/x-rays-wallpapers-hunt-arsenic/
 

escargot

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#9
Yes, there was arsenic in his lodgings' wallpaper, and the environmental conditions would have fostered exposure to airborne arsenic diffusing off that wallpaper.

However ...

Within the last decade it's been demonstrated that a notably high (by today's standards ...) level of arsenic had been present in Napoleon's body throughout his life - not solely during his final exile.

IMHO the most reasonable conclusion is that the arsenic and other toxic substances ingested didn't help matters in general, but the demonstrable stomach cancer was the proximate cause of death.

For example, see:

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/01/070117-napoleon.html
https://www.amnh.org/explore/news-blogs/on-exhibit-posts/poison-what-killed-napoleon/
https://www.livescience.com/2292-napoleon-death-arsenic-poisoning-ruled.html
People at high risk of assassination by aresenic poisoning have traditionally taken small regular doses of it to build up resistance.

Also, tiny amounts of arsenic used to be present in some cosmetics as it was believed to boost the appearance of the eyes and complexion.

Dunno if Napoleon did this or not.
 

JamesWhitehead

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#10
Also, tiny amounts of arsenic used to be present in some cosmetics as it was believed to boost the appearance of the eyes and complexion.
Yes, it was central to the Florence Maybrick case, which is now most often mentioned because of its supposed connection with Jack-the-Ripper. Florence had bought arsenic for cosmetic reasons but her doomed husband is said to have been taking it as a stimulant! It was everywhere - in one household, at least! :nurse:
 

escargot

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#11
Yes, it was central to the Florence Maybrick case, which is now most often mentioned because of its supposed connection with Jack-the-Ripper. Florence had bought arsenic for cosmetic reasons but her doomed husband is said to have been taking it as a stimulant! It was everywhere - in one household, at least! :nurse:
James, you worry me sometimes. :eek:
 

uair01

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#13
And another article:
https://daily.jstor.org/some-books-...keting&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=twitter

The Smithsonian’s Cullman Library holds a gorgeous 1602 edition of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s De animalibus insectis, a pioneering book on insects illustrated with detailed woodcuts. This volume, however, has a deadly secret. Its cover, a collage of recycled medieval vellum and pigskin, is painted green. And that green paint was made with arsenic.



The noxious nature of these greens was not unknown, as arsenic had long been employed as poison. Indeed, it was purposefully used in some goods in order to ward off infestation. In 1873, Scientific American bravely opened “numerous letters” from readers who included samples of fabrics and wallpapers. Many were revealed to include arsenic, and the publication advised: “Toy books with green covers are always to be suspected, and in fact the only absolutely safe thing to do is to avoid green colors altogether.”
 
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