‘Wholesale poisoning by hot cross-buns’ and bizarre murders of medical men

This post is contributed by Professor Sally Shuttleworth (University of Oxford).

As you bite into your delicious hot cross-bun this Easter, spare a thought for the inhabitants of Inverness in 1882, who were subjected to ‘whole-sale poisoning by hot cross-buns’, with over 140 worthy citizens and children affected.[1]   The Glasgow Herald reported on Easter Saturday that,

‘Good Friday of 1882 is not likely to be forgotten in Inverness….In the forenoon whole families were suddenly seized with a severe and serious illness, and the town doctors were soon in great demand.  The illness manifested itself at first as a rule with giddiness and pain in the neck and limbs.  The giddiness was in every case followed by severe illness and vomiting….Families here and there were prostrate, and school children were suddenly seized with sickness and were dropping in a helpless condition on the ground.[2]

A subsequent medical enquiry pointed the finger at the spice in the buns as the agent of poison.[3]   I picked up this item of news from the Lancet, April 22, in 1822, amidst a larger item on the insanitary conditions of bread-making in London, including one establishment where bread tins were placed over an open sewer to cool.   Not to be recommended!

hot cross buns

“Hot Cross-Buns!” from Illustrated London News, 1861.

One of the delights of reading nineteenth-century periodicals is that of sheer serendipity – you never know what you will encounter next.  This item on hot-cross buns came from a section in the Lancet called  ‘Annotations’ which gives a round-up of medically-related news and is a wonderful way of exploring the goings-on and concerns of the time.  For the Diseases of Modern Life team, this particular day is a treasure trove capturing many of the issues we are exploring, from public and occupational health through to education, and the problems of drink and drug taking.    The latter figures largely, with items on ‘The Curse of Chloral’, on Dante Rossetti’s death from this new drug; ‘Another Warning against the Use of Narcotics’ on an over-worked doctor who died from an accidental overdose of morphia which he took to get to sleep; and ‘Grocers’ Licences and Secret Drinking’, which highlighted an issue Jennifer Wallis has explored, on anxieties about alcohol licenses for grocers’ premises unleashing a wave of secret female drinking:  ‘To no other members of the body politic is it so well known as to the members of our profession how the secret evils to health and morality springing from the license increase the mischievous and dangerous results from alcoholic indulgence, especially amongst the female section of the community’.   The prospect that the respectable activity of grocery shopping could become a cover for illicit female drinking was clearly alarming.

Occupational health was covered by an item on demonstrations by shop assistants for shorter hours:  the journal supported the general aim, but disapproved of ‘mixed gatherings in Trafalgar–square’ – women breaking decorum again, and disturbing public peace.   The item on education addressed the issue of the day, ‘Cramming and Forcing School Children’, expressing yet again the journal’s opposition to the excessive cramming and examining of the young: ‘It is perfectly well known to everybody who has taken the trouble to study the system of teaching and training for results – the inevitable consequence of the competition and examination mania – that education is a misnomer for the method of tuition too generally employed’.   I would recommend this section to our current Secretary of State for Education as some Easter reading, while munching a hot-cross bun.

By far the most bizarre item in these ‘Annotations’ comes in under the bland title, ‘A Strange Story’.   It recounts ‘an extraordinary plot to murder a number of medical men in Berlin’.   The plot was discovered when two accomplices went to the police.   The idea was to hire rooms in various parts of town, and summon a doctor under the pretence of illness ‘and then to murder him by means of a strangling instrument’.   The instrument, which the perpetrator had spent two years devising, based on ‘an old-fashioned instrument of torture preserved in one of the museums of the city’ is described in gruesome detail.   Even more bizarrely, the police allowed the plot to go ahead, hiding in an adjoining room and dressing up one of their number as the intended victim, Dr Lehrs.  They only intervened when the ‘half-strangled man’ knocked on the floor to summon aid.   If it were not for the fact that this tale pre-dates the Sherlock Holmes stories by eleven years, I would have been tempted to think that the police had been consuming too much detective fiction.  I had always assumed that the elaborate dramas of enticement, so beloved of crime writers, largely belonged to the fictional domain.  Now I am not so sure.

Happy Easter everyone, but beware of over-indulgence, whether of hot-cross buns, alcohol (or other stimulants), or television crime dramas!

 

 

[1]  ‘Annotations’, Lancet April 22, 1882, 657-664, p. 661.   See also ‘The Poisoning by Hot Cross Buns’, Morning Post, Monday, April 10, 1882, p. 6.

[2]   ‘Alarming Occurrence in Inverness’, Glasgow Herald, Saturday April 8, 1882; also ‘The Poisoning Case in Inverness’, Glasgow Herald, Monday April 10, 1882, where the original estimate of 100 cases goes up to 140.

[3]   ‘Poisonous Hot-Cross Buns’, August 12, 1882, p. 284.

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