Prefiguring the Arsenic Wars

Lafage arsenic trial

Francois-Vincent Raspail and Mateu Orfila during the Lafarge trial.

In late winter 1828 in the small town of Northumberland, Pennsylvania, William Logan fell ill and died. The local gossip that ensued raised suspicions about his wife’s virtue, the nature of her relationship with a neighboring gentleman, and her purchase of rat poison. Mrs. William Logan was arrested for poisoning her late husband and sent to prison on the basis of a report by four physicians. They conducted chemical examinations of the deceased’s stomach and its contents that seemed to confirm the presence of arsenic.

Ten days before Logan’s death he went out on a very cold day and returned home drunk. He soon came down with a fever and pain in his head, neck, and limbs. Later he developed a cold and cough, and his family physician, Samuel Jackson, was called to the house. Jackson treated him by bleeding, provided firewood to warm the house, and administered small doses of emetic tartar (a commonly used expectorant). A vein in one of Logan’s arms became inflamed, however, and Logan soon became delirious, fainted, and died.

Shortly thereafter Jackson’s colleague M. Aristide Rodrigue arrived to help Jackson examine Logan’s body to determine the cause of death. While Jackson comforted the widow, Rodrigue dissected out the inflamed vein. Jackson later wrote that Rodrigue’s dissection revealed “the most perfect specimen of intense inflammation we had ever seen.” In the doctors’ view, Logan had died of natural causes.

A few days after Logan’s burial, according to Jackson’s account, “popular clamour” intervened—suspicions arose because Logan’s wife had recently bought arsenic at an apothecary, ostensibly to keep rats and mice from her butter. The coroner deposed individuals whose testimony, in Jackson’s opinion, included hasty assumptions and “trifling or irrelevant” information that “when properly understood went rather to clear than to convict the woman.” Logan himself had talked about poisoning rats; moreover, Jackson saw no motive “for so hideous a crime.” He wrote: “There was no hope . . . of her being bettered by his death.” Nevertheless, Logan’s body was disinterred and examined by a board of four physicians. Despite Jackson’s age, experience, and relationship with Logan, he was excluded from the board’s examination. After only two days, the board reported that Logan had died of arsenic poisoning.

The Risk of Hubris

Jackson (1788–1869) was one of the first physicians in Northumberland, a town famous as the American home of British theologian and natural philosopher Joseph Priestley from 1794 to 1804. Jackson had arrived in 1813, a year after graduating from the Medical Department at the University of Pennsylvania, 160 miles away in Philadelphia. When the appointed board of physicians issued their report with the findings that led to Mrs. Logan’s arrest, Jackson reanalyzed the circumstances. His inquiry suggested that the community’s moral prejudgment of the accused had probably influenced the initial court-appointed scientific investigation.

Jackson’s work eventually led to Mrs. Logan’s acquittal, and shortly thereafter, in 1829, Jackson published his findings in an article entitled “Case of Supposed Poisoning with Arsenic” in the American Journal of Medical Science. The article cataloged the numerous errors and weaknesses in the board of physicians’ report as well as the dangers of overconfidence and carelessness on the part of scientists involved in criminal proceedings. Such accusations of hubris in criminal investigations were to become a hallmark of scientific debate during this period.

After the board collected its findings, Jackson reviewed the minutes of the proceedings. The physicians described an inflamed stomach, a common indicator of arsenic poisoning. But Jackson immediately saw contradictions among the physicians’ respective descriptions. He later wrote: “As to the supposed inflammation, it appears to be a mere matter of opinion whether any existed.” Jackson thought the condition of Logan’s stomach could be accounted for by his drinking “country whiskey for many years.” This explanation was “more reasonable than to suppose an acute inflammation by arsenic, without puking or any mode of distress.” Jackson supported his argument by quoting British surgeon John Shaw, author of the influential Manual of Anatomy (1822). Shaw had written: “I have come to the conclusion that the appearance of the stomach . . . alone, in a question of poison, is not to be depended on.” Adding an ethical component to his critique, Jackson also quoted Shaw’s hope that “this degree of uncertainty will prevent the anatomist from being called on to decide a question which may involve the life of a fellow creature.”