The Woman With the Ounce of Arsenic: 1894

Victorian Poison Bottle

Victorian Poison Bottle


A Drug-store stood at the Fourth Avenue corner of the street in which I boarded. One evening of that winter of 1870 I entered to buy some soda-mint tablets. The only clerk in the place appeared pre-occupied until I mentioned the word ‘soda,’ when he started from his reverie and ran to a shelf at the back of the shop. Then he wrung his hands and became hysterical. In a piteous voice, he stammered that an hour before a woman had bought an ounce of baking-soda.

‘I weighed out the proper quantity, and gave it to her,’ he continued frantically. ‘But, O my God! I took it from the wrong bottle! We’ve been taking stock and the bottles aren’t in their usual places. I’m not myself to-day—had a quarrel with my sweetheart last night—she’s refused to see me again! We’ve been engaged.’

‘That doesn’t interest me,’ I broke in. ‘What have you done?’

‘Done? Oh, yes. Great heavens! When a man’s in love he ought to give up business. Why?’

‘True enough,’ I shouted at the half-crazed chap, scenting a news story of some kind; ‘but what blunder have you committed?’

‘I’ve given the woman an ounce of arsenic, instead of soda!’

‘Good Lord! Report the accident to the police at once. Shut the shop and come with me to the stationhouse,’ I commanded.

As we ran along the avenue, I scanned the face of every woman we met. As we dashed into the Thirtieth Street station-house, the six o’clock relief was going on post. We told our story to the lieutenant, adding that the woman, if a cook, probably intended to have hot biscuits for dinner and that many deaths were likely to follow the meal. The lieutenant recalled the platoon and gave them special instructions to cover the case.

‘Leave no means untried to find that woman before she opens the package,’ were his orders. ‘Throw a scare into the whole neighborhood, so that nobody will eat fresh bread to-night. Enter every tenement and knock at every door. Ring the bell of every private house in this precinct and give warning. Insist on seeing a responsible member of each and every family. Be as emphatic as you can. A general alarm will go out from Headquarters.’

I took a cab to Police Headquarters, promising the driver an extra dollar if he did not spare his horse.

As I entered the superintendent’s office without ceremony, Chief Jordan, to whom I had become well known while working on the Nathan murder case during the previous summer, was lighting an after-dinner cigar. I told him what had occurred at the Fourth Avenue pharmacy. Within an hour, every patrolman from Fourteenth Street to Thirty-fourth was conducting a house-to-house canvass for ‘The Woman with the Ounce of Arsenic’

Before midnight, the entire city was in commotion. The disquieting announcement was made in every theatre and many playgoers hastened to their homes. Hundreds of people brought medicines to pharmacies for examination, not understanding the form in which the poison had been sold. Countless packages of baking-powders, soda, borax and other harmless salts were consigned to sewers. Many hysterical women were attacked with imaginary pains and passed the night in sleepless dread: several feeble-minded men were thrown completely off their mental balance. The morning newspapers gave much space to the threatened calamity. The city editor of my journal offered $500 reward for the delivery of the unopened package.

Meanwhile, the efforts of the distressed pharmacist’s clerk were unremitting. His employer stood by him nobly. A thousand posters were placed upon fences and bill-boards during the night. ‘Your Life In Danger!’ in red letters a foot high stared from blank walls, acquainting citizens that death in an unusual form was stalking about town. The New Haven railway station, at Twenty-sixth Street and Fourth Avenue, set apart two prominent spaces for warnings. Many drug-stores displayed alarm circulars in their windows, generally with the added words: ‘Such carelessness could not have occurred at our pharmacy.’ (That is human nature!) The entire community was living in nearness to an impending calamity. At the end of the third day, city ambulances were kept busy taking to the hospitals men and women who thought themselves poisoned. Physicians were much overworked.

When Sunday arrived, every preacher on Manhattan Island referred to the impending horror. During the second week of anxiety, repetition of the details had increased the quantity of poison to one pound.

Such was the suspense in newspaper offices that one city editor went crazy and shot himself because he and forty reporters could not locate ‘The Woman with the Ounce of Arsenic.’

I called at the pharmacy on Fourth Avenue several times daily and the distress of the clerk was pitiful to see. He had wasted to a shadow of his former self, for he neither slept nor ate. He actually forgot Emily until she came to the shop to see him. She was pleased with the notoriety into which her affinity had sprung. Paul was absent when she called a second time; but she spoke of him with sympathetic kindness and left a message of hope. But the young man’s nervousness increased. He finally took to his bed in his room back of the pharmacy, where he became delirious. The girl had him moved to her mother’s home, where she faithfully nursed him. When reason returned, he would sob and berate himself.

I had called to see him one afternoon during the third week of suspense and was seated at his bedside, doing what I could to comfort him, when the small boy at the pharmacy, breathless and hatless, burst into the room. Between gasps, he shouted: ‘I’ve found ‘er!’

‘Where?’ I exclaimed, clutching him by the arm.

‘On de top floor,’ the boy managed to say.

‘What top floor?’ shrieked the sick man.

‘Dr. Palmer’s—our boss’s.’

‘Who is she?’ I asked, making for the door.

‘Wife of de janitor.’

I took a long breath. This woman belonged to a class of toilers never seen upon the streets in daylight —who emerge from their haunts only after dark.

‘Over the drug-store?’ I asked, half-incredulous.

‘Cert!’ from the lad.

Paul was out of bed and dressing furiously. I went ahead to the street and was fortunate in catching a cab returning empty to the Harlem railway station. In a few moments, Paul and the boy joined me. We drove to the pharmacy. Forgetting his weakness, Paul shot ahead of me up the stairway in the side hall, two steps at a jump for four flights. He did not wait to knock, but pushing open the door to the janitor’s apartments, was confronted by the woman whose vague image he had carried in his mind for twenty-odd days. He was so greatly relieved that he collapsed. He was speechless. He could only take the woman in his arms and cling to her.

When I reached the top of the last flight of stairs, out of breath, I was barely able to ask the mystified creature for the small package of soda the clerk had sold her. With Paul still clinging to her, she stepped to a closet and took it down from a shelf. It was unopened.

‘I found a box of bakin’ powder,’ she explained, ‘an’ didn’t use this.’

When I called to see Paul Dorwin, ten years later, he took me into the poison-room, pointed to a shrouded figure, and said:

‘I own this shop and skeleton. It’s the only skeleton in our family, I tell Emily.’

News Hunting on Three Continents, Julius Chambers, 1921 [Originally published in 1894, when it appeared over Chambers’ byline, as told first-person by the pharmacist.]

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  A happy ending for a story more often concluded in real life with a call for the undertaker’s man.  While druggists sometimes stored deadly poisons in bottles with rough sides or even studded with points to alert them to the deadly contents, errors at the chemist’s and in the home were all too common. Mrs Daffodil’s own father died after he mistakenly stirred some Rough on Rats into his afternoon tea. As I told the coroner, I had pleaded with him not to keep the rat poison in the old sugar sifter, no matter how convenient it was for the application in corners.


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