Ian Burney, Poison, Detection and the Victorian Imagination

Ian Burney, Poison, Detection and the Victorian Imagination (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006). 224pp. £35 hb. ISBN 0719073766.

The middle decades of the nineteenth century are well-known to be a period where popular culture was fascinated with deviant behaviours. These were the decades that saw the height of popularity of sensation novels and sensation drama, genres rife with concealed cases of insanity, secretly bigamous marriages, and murders carried out through a variety of creative means, including poisoning. These transgressive plots were not only a fascination for the popular imagination; they also played a crucial role in the formation of a number of medical and scientific disciplines. The same decades are equally well-known to be a period of particularly fierce disputes over the professional territory of chemists, surgeons and physicians, as well as over the legitimacy of newly developing fields such as psychology, mesmerism and toxicology. These scientists regularly drew on some of the same topics broached by sensation writers, in attempts to establish the legitimacy of these fields as disciplines and professional practices. Chemists, surgeons and physicians fought particularly fiercely for the right to treat the sickened body of the opium addict, featured more than once in Dickens’s work, for example, while psychologists and mesmerists waged a war over the hysterical female body, which was capable of murder and bigamy according to sensation novelists.

Ian Burney’s Poison, Detection and the Victorian Imagination brings one of these fascinations of mid nineteenth-century popular culture—murder by secret poisoning—into dialogue with the formation and development of the newly forming field of toxicology. Burney’s book is impressively researched and elegantly written. The overall narrative structure is framed and shaped by the story of one of the most significant poisoning trials of the period, that of William Palmer, a surgeon with a gambling habit that led him (supposedly) to murder several people in elaborate insurance schemes intended to clear his debts. In early chapters, Burney contextualizes this story through an analysis of poison’s representation in a variety of different forms of writing. He establishes that there was an ongoing tension between a historical notion of the poisoner as a cunning Borgia and an idea of the poisoner as a distinctly modern figure, equipped with the most recent scientific knowledge and expertise in maintaining a moral, middle class appearance. This tension is illustrated through reference to a range of sources that transcends canon and discipline. We are exposed to the prominent voices of nineteenth-century social commentators such as De Quincey, Carlyle and J.S. Mill, as well as the little studied authors Edward Bulwer Lytton and G. W. M. Reynolds. Burney traces the rise of Robert Christison and Alfred Swaine Taylor, two of the most important medical authorities on poisoning. Along the way, we learn of the gruesome details analysed by poison detectors of the past and the scientific tests employed by their modern counterparts. We also learn of the efforts of toxicologists to dislodge poison from its historical identity and to present toxicology as a modern, specialized form of scientific practice.

Burney’s account of the relationship between the rise of toxicology and shifting legal practices is particularly adept. Since the eighteenth century, circumstantial evidence had frequently come to outweigh direct evidence in legal trials. As Burney shows, this played a significant part in the growing reliance on toxicological evidence in poisoning cases. Secret poisoning had remained an especially problematic crime, since evidence was often entirely circumstantial. “Toxicological ‘materialism,’” writes Burney, “offered refuge from lingering concerns about the shortcomings of circumstantial evidence” (82). But toxicology did not always offer direct evidence. As Burney shows, toxicological evidence could often be assembled according to legal practice’s own strategies for dealing with circumstantial evidence. The identifications of colour in tests for certain poisons remained subjective. Traces of metals associated with poisons found in the body could remain inconclusive since they may have been introduced in a variety of ways other than through poison. The narrative structure of this book culminates in a detailed analysis of the Palmer trial, which eloquently presents all of the many details of this case in a way that captures the suspense the Victorians must have experienced in watching these events unfold. Burney documents the macabre, such as Palmer’s last desperate attempt to tamper with the toxicological evidence by spilling the contents of the stomach of his final supposed victim, as well as the culturally significant, such as the focus the case brought to the problem of placing a “market value” on human lives through insurance schemes and their earlier counterpart, burial clubs (127).

The final chapter of this book explores the reconfiguration of toxicology as a field of study as well as its use in legal trials as a result of the Palmer case. It is in this chapter that Burney introduces his most literary readings of texts. The material Burney explores here is fascinating, including a whimsical article published in All the Year Round and Wilkie Collins’s novel Armadale. Given the abundance of interest in bodies, senses and the minutia that stimulate them in literary criticism of recent years, the All the Year Round article, “The Modern Alchemist,” especially captures some of the aspects of this material that might be of most interest to the literary critic. In this article, toxicological experiments are carried out in a fairy tale setting by a fantastical cast of characters. The results of the experiments, captured by “the good fairy hydrogen” and a “potash imp,” are communicated through the exhibition of tell-tale colours in vibrant displays that seize the eye’s attention, emphasizing the importance of the sense of vision in toxicological experiment (176). Burney discusses this article as an attempt to legitimate toxicology, but there is more to explore here. The use of the senses of vision, taste and smell in toxicological experiment and the question of the reliability of the senses as vehicles to legal evidence or testimony are repeatedly mentioned elsewhere in this book. There is obviously a complex relationship between living and dead bodies, scientific objectivity and subjective senses in Victorian toxicology, but a full discussion of these issues is tantalizingly absent.

Also absent is a substantial discussion of issues of performance, especially in terms of the delivery of live courtroom testimony, an issue that Burney also often returns to in this book. Furthermore, the literary works Burney discusses, as well as poisoning plots in general, were popular fodder for the many successful London and provincial theatres of the period. Thus an examination of issues of performance in delivering courtroom testimony seems crucial to a study of poisoning in Victorian culture in this period, and this examination could be successfully enhanced through a look at the way in which stage productions dealt with these issues. In general, Burneys’s most interdisciplinary—in this case historical and literary—readings are largely confined to the last few pages of the book. I would have liked to have seen more attention to some of the complex interdisciplinary issues at work in the primary material, but this is not to say that the lack of discussion of bodies and senses or live testimony and stage performance necessarily represent weaknesses in Burney’s work. One of the challenges of interdisciplinary scholarship is to integrate techniques and approaches, but a balance must be struck between integration and invasion. There is a limit to the quantity of technique and material one can take on before the book one sets out to write transforms into something entirely different, and this is the case here. Poison, Detection and the Victorian Imagination is an impressive piece of scholarship and a pleasurable read. Burney’s research into this topic should pave the way for further work in this little-studied, complex conglomeration of scientific, literary and performance cultures.

Laurie Garrison, University of Lincoln