Poison has long been a weapon in the arsenal of assassins and murderers the world over to exact their crimes on unsuspecting victims. Locusta is perhaps the most infamous poisoner in history, with her brazen crimes sanctioned by the emperors of Rome, she was able to ply her trade with impunity. She even opened a school to teach fellow would-be assassins the fine art of poisoning.
But not all poisonings in history were deliberate. One tragic case from 19th century England saw 20 children killed and more than 200 people injured when a batch of peppermint candies was accidentally tainted with arsenic. The incident, which led to changes in laws governing food preparation in England, came to be known as the Bradford Sweets Poisoning of 1858.
William Hardacre (sometimes spelled “Hardaker”), known to locals as Humbug Willie, sold peppermint candies from a stall in Green Market. His supplier was a spice dealer named Joseph Neal, who bought his supply of gypsum from a druggist by the name of Charles Hodgson.
Why would a candy maker need gypsum? An understanding of the economics of the day is needed to answer this question. Today you can easily go down to your local supermarket and buy a bag of sugar, but in the 19th century sugar was a rare commodity in England. Great Britain’s climate could not support sugar cane, which only grows in tropical regions, so the country’s sugar supply had to be imported from her overseas colonies. Further more, the sugar had to be refined once it reached England.
The laborious process of making sugar combined with its relative scarcity conspired to drive the price sky high. People made their fortunes on sugar, leading it to be nicknamed “white gold.” These high prices are at the heart of the tragedy in 1858, because to make sugar affordable to the masses, sellers cut it with substances called “daft,” which could be anything from limestone to gypsum.
Joseph Neal sent one of his assistants, John Archer, to Hodgson’s store to acquire the gypsum needed to produce a batch of peppermint candies on October 18. Two days later, James Appleton mixed the sweets. He soon fell ill for several days, believing he had a cold. Neal sold the candies to Humbug Willie the following Saturday.
Only a day later, police were summoned to the home of Mark Burran, who had given his sons Orlando and John a sweet apiece from Humbug Willie’s stall. The boys were seriously ill, and the no doubt distraught father must have believed the candies had something to do with it. A surgeon named John Bell attended the boys, but he was unable to save them. Both died by that evening. Bell suspected poisoning. Suspicions rose as police were flooded with reports of people falling ill all over Bradford, including several deaths. The victims had one thing in common–all had bought peppermint candies from Humbug Willie.
Investigators paid the sweet seller a visit, only to find he was ill as well. They sent a sample of the candies off to be tested. They also questioned Joseph Neal, who speculated that the daft used in the batch of candy may be to blame. Police then paid a visit to Hodgson, the druggist, and made a shocking discovery–the harmless daft normally used had been mistaken for a cask of arsenic. trioxide, which is also a white, powdery substance. The 40 lb batch of candy contained 12 lbs of arsenic, meaning that up to a third of each candy was made up of the deadly poison. Such a dose was enough to kill two people.
While police rounded up the remaining tainted treats, Neal and the druggist were taken to court for their role in the tragedy. They were charged with manslaughter, but these charges were dropped to accidental negligence as the trial wore on. Finally, the indictments were dropped altogether.
The outcry over this incident did lead to positive changes in how food products were handled and prepared. Parliament passed the 1860 Adulteration of Food and Drink Bill, changing regulations on food ingredients and how they were combined. The UK Pharmacy Act of 1868 came ten years after the tragedy, imposing stricter regulations on how druggists and pharmacists handled poisons and medicines.
But the change that did the most to end the practice of mixing sugar with daft came in 1874, when the sugar tax was abolished. Prices dropped in the wake of the decision, and it was no longer necessary to cut the sweet stuff with other, potentially deadly, substances to make it affordable.
Clayton, Emma. “Sweet sales’ sour conclusion.” thetelegraphandargus.co.uk. December 4, 2008. The Telegraph and Argus. May 2, 2015. http://www.thetelegraphandargus.co.uk/news/news_behind/3948679.Sweet_sales__sour_conclusion/
“Dying for a Humbug, the Bradford Sweets Poisoning 1858.” Historic UK. http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/Dying-for-Humbug-the-Bradford-Sweets-Poisoning-1858/