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The Inheritor's Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science

The Inheritor's Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science

by Sandra Hempel

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“Fascinating . . . one of history’s most important poisons—and most important murders.”—Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook

In the first half of the nineteenth century, an epidemic swept Europe: arsenic poisoning. Available at any corner shop for a few pence, arsenic was so frequently used by potential


“Fascinating . . . one of history’s most important poisons—and most important murders.”—Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook

In the first half of the nineteenth century, an epidemic swept Europe: arsenic poisoning. Available at any corner shop for a few pence, arsenic was so frequently used by potential beneficiaries of wills that it was nicknamed “the inheritor’s powder.” But it was difficult to prove that a victim had been poisoned, let alone to identify the contaminated food or drink since arsenic was tasteless.

Then came a riveting case. On the morning of Saturday, November 2, 1833, the Bodle household sat down to their morning breakfast. That evening, the local doctor John Butler received an urgent summons: the family and their servants had collapsed and were seriously ill. Three days later, after lingering in agony, wealthy George Bodle died in his bed at his farmhouse in Plumstead, leaving behind several heirs, including a son and grandson—both of whom were not on the best of terms with the family patriarch.

The investigation, which gained international attention, brought together a colorful cast of characters: bickering relatives; a drunken, bumbling policeman; and James Marsh, an unknown but brilliant chemist who, assigned the Bodle case, attempted to create a test that could accurately pinpoint the presence of arsenic. In doing so, however, he would cause as many problems as he solved. Were innocent men and women now going to the gallows? And would George Bodle’s killer be found?

Incisive and wryly entertaining, science writer Sandra Hempel brings to life a gripping story of domestic infighting, wayward police behavior, a slice of Victorian history, stories of poisonings, and an unforgettable foray into the origins of forensic science.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 08/19/2013
Hempel’s fascinating look at how the science of poison detection developed is certain to draw in readers with its masterful combination of telling details, engrossing prose, and drama—the same combination that marked the author’s The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump (about the 1831 cholera epidemic that ravaged London). This time, Hempel focuses on a different dilemma for the Victorian medical profession: how to successfully determine when poison is the cause of death. “The paranoia of early Victorian Britain... saw poisoners lurking in kitchens and behind bed curtains throughout the land, their little bags of white powder at the ready.” In 1833 the strange death of farmer George Bodle and the investigation of his family members, with whom he lived, frames the history of scientists’ struggles to develop foolproof tests for the presence, in the victims’ digestive tracts, of arsenic—the most commonly used poison used at the time. The Bodle case reads like something out of Dickens, and those fascinated by modern shows like CSI will delight in learning about the field’s early days. (Oct.)
Hugh Aldersey-Williams
“Hempel skillfully weaves whodunit and courtroom drama to take us back to the beginnings of the controversial science of forensic toxicology.”
Deborah Blum
“Sandra Hempel’s fascinating book is a story of one of history’s most important poisons—and most important murders. And the latter is true because this murder and the resulting trial—beautifully explained here—changed the course of criminal detection. It’s essential reading for anyone interested in the history of forensic science—and in the way we catch our killers.”
Harold Schechter
“Readers of Sandra Hempel’s un-put-downable true crime narrative will not only find themselves caught up in a grippingly suspenseful murder mystery; they will be treated to a string of brilliantly delivered lessons on everything from the origins of toxicological science to pre-Victorian medical practices to the beginnings of modern forensic detection. I can’t think of another recent work that so thrillingly fulfills the two major aims of literary art: to delight and instruct.”
John Emsley
“Sandra Hempel has brilliantly researched a famous arsenic poisoning of 1833. The Inheritor’s Powder not only tells the story of Bodle’s murder and the trial of his grandson, with its surprise ending, but it does so in a way that sets it in the context of a time when society was undergoing profound changes, not least in dealing with the type of crime that for centuries had been virtually impossible to prove. This fascinating book could well be the next The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.”
Holly Tucker
“Hempel weaves a diabolical tale of fractured families, their poisonous deeds, and the early scientists who found new ways to expose history’s oldest crime. Told with verve and a keen eye for suspense, The Inheritor’s Powder is a great detective story all the way to the very last page.”
Library Journal
Medical journalist Hempel (The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump) offers this carefully researched account of a scientifically groundbreaking murder investigation in early 19th-century England. In 1833, George Bodle, a wealthy landowner, died under mysterious circumstances. Authorities suspected arsenic poisoning. Death by arsenic had become increasingly common, as the substance was essentially undetectable at the time, with physicians mistaking the symptoms of arsenic poisoning for those of cholera, malaria, and dysentery. Investigators assigned the Bodle case to James Marsh—an obscure chemist and assistant to Michael Faraday at the Royal Military Academy—who designed a test to detect the presence of arsenic in deceased persons. Though Marsh's test was sometimes problematic, it also attracted widespread interest and, therefore, inspired new efforts in forensic science. Hempel recounts the Bodle investigation in detail, bringing to life the various servants, policemen, coroners, and chemists involved in the case. VERDICT This book will appeal to readers interested in the origins of forensic science as well as to readers of popular histories of science. Though nonfiction, it will likely appeal to mystery readers as well, with its vivid details, cast of potential poisoners, and curious twists in plot.—Talea Anderson, College Place, WA
Kirkus Reviews
A suspicious death in a quaint English village sets the stage for a real-life scientific thriller. Medical journalist Hempel (The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump: John Snow and the Mystery of Cholera, 2007) examines a headline-grabbing murder case from 1833. The eccentric cast of characters includes an elderly farmer who had amassed a sizable fortune, his contentious heirs, local law enforcement, medical professionals and scientific experts. When George Bodle died from a violent stomach disorder, which also afflicted other members of the household to a lesser degree, arsenic poisoning was immediately suspected. As a white powder, it was "tasteless, odourless…easily dissolved…fatal in tiny doses" and readily available as a pest killer and for skin ailments. Textbooks on toxicology were available to medical and legal professionals, but they had a difficult time distinguishing death by arsenic poisoning from death by natural causes. Moreover, food poisoning was rampant. The symptoms were similar, and chemical tests for the presence of arsenic were primitive. Evidence gathering was left to parish constables who were notorious for drunken incompetence. In this instance, circumstantial evidence suggested that arsenic had been mixed into Bodle's coffee. This case became a landmark in medical jurisprudence when the doctor in the case, believing the death to be suspicious, had the victim's vomit collected for analysis. Police were also on the lookout for packets of arsenic, which were ultimately discovered in the possession of Bodle's grandson, John, who was arrested and subsequently tried. An inquest was held after a post-mortem examination of the body. James Marsh, an assistant to Michael Faraday, was called in as an expert witness, and he testified to the probable presence of arsenic in the remains. The author calls the test for arsenic that he developed "the first major advance in modern chemical toxicology." An unexpected verdict and its aftermath make this a satisfying murder mystery in the grand tradition.

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Meet the Author

Sandra Hempel is a medical journalist whose work has appeared in the Times, the Sunday Times, and the Guardian. The author of The Inheritor's Powder and the award-winning The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump, she lives in London.

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