When it comes to cases of food not being fit for the purpose for which it was intended, 19th century England had plenty of stomach-churning cases that make you mightily relieved to be living in an age in which what we consume is, to an extent, reasonably well regulated.
Combing the newspapers of the Victorian period, you find yourself confronted by a veritable smorgasbord of stories concerning fatalities that resulted from people eating things like poisoned ice cream, or scare stories such as the Thames Mud Butter “scandal.”
But, in 1858, a story broke that really does demonstrate the dangers of an unregulated food chain.
THE BRADFORD POISONED LOZENGES CASE
In October, 1858, a Bradford confectioner by the name of Neal, who had wanted to make up a batch of peppermint lozenges, sent to the local druggist, Mr Charles Hodgson, for some plaster of Paris – which was also known as ‘daft’ – with which to bulk up his product.
The ‘daft’ was duly delivered to Neal who then produced 50lbs of peppermint lozenges, of which a large percentage were purchased by a man named Hardaker, a retailer of sweets in the public market.
On the last Saturday in October customers at the market couldn’t get enough of the lozenges, and Hardaker duly did a roaring trade.
ILLNESS OF AN ALARMING CHARACTER
But, the next day, many of those who had bought the sweets were suddenly seized with what one newspaper described as “illness of the most alarming character.”
Medical men were sent for to treat the sick, and they quickly established that some sort of poison was at work.
The one thing that the patients shared in common was that they had all purchased peppermint lozenges from Hardaker’s stall the previous day. So the police proceeded to his house, where they found him also suffering with the same symptoms.
Samples of the lozenges were sent for chemical examination, and it was discovered that each one contained nine grains of arsenic, a sufficient amount to poison two people.
The police next paid a visit to Mr Neal’s premises where they seized a large quantity of mixed sweets, most of them coloured. On handling them the police officers themselves were seriously affected in their faces, eyes, and nostrils, and even in their hands.
Eventually it was discovered that the druggist, George Hodgson kept the cask of plaster of Paris next to a cask of arsenic, both of them unlabelled, and his assistant, who had only been working for him for three weeks, had taken the required ingredient from the wrong tub, which the unsuspecting confectioner had then mixed into his lozenge mix with tragic consequences.
Twenty people died as a result of eating the poisonous lozenges and over one hundred became severely ill from what the Bolton Chronicle fumed, “was the horrible practice of adulteration in which the horrible danger originated,” adding that “If Mr Neal had honestly compounded his lozenges, the paper continued, no poisoning would have occurred.”
CHARLES HODGSON CHARGED
In December, 1858, the druggist, Charles Hodgson was charged with the manslaughter of several of the victims, and he duly appeared in court.
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reported on the case and its outcome in its edition of Sunday, 26th December, 1858:-
“Charles Hodgson, thirty six, was charged at York with the manslaughter of Elizabeth Mary Midgley, at Bradford, on the 3rd of November last.
Mr. Price, in stating the case, said that the prisoner was charged with manslaughter, in consequence of having caused the death of the deceased, Elizabeth Mary Midgley, by gross negligence.
The circumstances of this case arose from the fact that persons had been poisoned at Bradford by taking confectionary, and much excitement prevailed in consequence.
The deceased was a little girl living at Bradford, and her grandmother bought some lozenges for her of a sweetmeat seller at Bradford fair, in October last. Some of these lozenges were taken by the child, who became ill, and died a few days afterwards, under all the symptoms of poison, and on the lozenges being analysed, they were found to contain arsenic.
APPLIED TO FOR DAFT
The prisoner is a chemist and druggist at a place called Shipley, three miles from Bradford, and in October last he was applied to by a person named Archer, on behalf of Mr. Neal, a confectioner, for a quantity of daft or terra alba, a substance not at all poisonous, in order to use it in the manufacture of lozenges.
The prisoner was ill at the time, and he had an objection to let Archer have any daft, but he being pressing for it, a young man named Goddard, who was assisting in the shop, was directed by the prisoner to get the quantity of daft required.
The prisoner directed Goddard to go up stairs into the garret and in a tub in a corner of the room he would find the daft.
THE FATAL MISTAKE
Goddard went into the garret, in which there were two tubs, one containing the terra alba, and the other a quantity of arsenic.
Unfortunately the young man Goddard went to the wrong tub, and instead of procuring daft, he took twelve pounds weight of arsenic, under the impression that it was terra alba, and delivered it to Archer, who took it to Mr. Neal, and he used it in making lozenges for sale at the Bradford fair.
Some of these lozenges were taken by the deceased, and caused her death.
These were the simple facts of the case, and it would be for the jury to say whether the prisoner had been guilty of gross negligence in allowing Goddard to enter the garret for the purpose stated.
THE CHARGE COULD NOT BE SUSTAINED
After a witness or two had been called, his lordship said that he considered that the charge against the prisoner could not be sustained, as he thought he had not been guilty of culpable or criminal negligence.
It seemed that he told Goddard to go to a particular place in the garret for the daft, but the young man in mistake had gone to another place, for which mistake the prisoner could not be made responsible.
HE WAS ACQUITTED
The prosecution consequently abandoned the case, and the prisoner was “Acquitted.”
There were several other charges of manslaughter against the prisoner, to which he pleaded not guilty, and the prosecution offered no evidence, he was also acquitted on these charges.”