Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Letter H: The Choose Your Poison #AtoZChallenge

Punch cartoon
     In the 1850s, adulteration of foodstuffs was more common than not.  The term daft was used to describe cheap (and often dangerous) ingredients used to stretch or outright replace more costly items. Common examples included plaster of Paris, powdered lime, clay, chalk and sawdust.
     One of the most notorious incidents of poisoning by the use of daft was unknowingly perpetrated in 1858 by a sweetshop owner in Bradford, England by the name of William Hardaker, known as Humbug Billy.  Humbugs were peppermint lozenges made of peppermint oil, sugar, and gum.  Hardaker purchased his supply of them from Joseph Neal. Neal, in turn, purchased supplies of daft from a druggist named Hodgson. (Sugar was prohibitively expensive in those days, and often cut with white powders from various sources.)
     In October 1858 Neal sent someone to collect his supply of daft from the druggist. By mistake, the pharmacy sold the man 12 pounds of arsenic trioxide. Neal's sweetmaker concocted forty pounds of lozenges with the arsenic and sold them to Hardaker, who in turn began to sell the candy the same evening.
     The first two juvenile deaths were chalked up to cholera, also a common occurrence during that time period. But as deaths and illness began to pile up, the cause was eventually traced to the peppermints sold by Hardaker.  In all, approximately 20 people died and over 200 were sickened.
     Everyone involved were charged with manslaughter; the charges against Goddard the sweetmaker and Neal were withdrawn, and Hardaker was later acquitted.
     The scandal (known as the Bradford Sweet Poisoning) was instrumental in drafting and passing the 1860 Adulteration of Food and Drink Bill dictating how, and which, ingredients could be used, mixed and combined.  The UK Pharmacy Act of 1868 introduced tighter regulations regarding the handling and selling of certain poisons and medicines by druggists.

*This post is an example of something I call "shoehorning".  I've already used arsenic in the A post. And I'd done something for B (this would have fit there under Bradford). D was done as well (daft). But I really wanted to share this story. So I ditched the original idea of H is for Hemlock and substituted H is for Hardaker and "humbug" instead.


  1. Very interesting and makes me want to always read the ingredients. What nerve to charge you for the real ingredients and then substitute the cheaper items. I think they should have been charged for carelessness and especially the drugstore who sold them the wrong item.

  2. Wow, now that's a big mistake! Arsenic is not s sugar substitute.

  3. horrifying but such things keep happening

  4. I'd never heard of this, that's awful!

  5. I really like your stories. Very interesting and entertaining. Your writing must take a lot of research. So then the word daft, in our present usage, must come from the poisons that are added to food, that make one crazy? Perhaps you explained this in previous posts that I missed. I'll go back and read those posts....... my kind of stories. lol

  6. Should I be getting worried about your interest in poison! I have to say I'm finding this series fascinating - keep up the good work!

  7. Interesting! I knew they used to do that but I didnt know the name. Daft. Filing it in my word list of historic words.

  8. What a lot of misery arsenic has caused. isn't there some connection with green wallpaper in Victorian homes? Really enjoying your posts, anne stenhouse, Novels Now.

  9. This is so fascinating what a tragic thing to have happened though!

  10. D.G.Hudson - one of the reasons for adulteration was the sky-high sugar tax during the mid 1800s.

    Alex - a horrible mistake, but it wouldn't have happened if they hadn't been cheating in the first place.

    I.B. Arora - true. There have been several recent instances of criminal negligence and/or industrial poisoning, like the one in Bhopal.

    Laura - I wasn't familiar with this particular case either.

    Manzanita - excellent question! the origin of the word daft is Middle English gedaefte and meant gentle, meek, simple, or foolish. The word "deft" has the same root word but came to mean subtle, skillful, clever. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that "daft" as an adulterant stems from the latter version "deft". I have not been able to find a clear answer anywhere as to how "daft" as adulterant slang word came into being.

  11. Deniz - thank you!

    Keith - I know, my search history is pretty scary right now. It might make you even more uncomfortable to know that I have enough material for another full A to Z series on famous poisoning cases. ;)

    Alison - thank you!

    Djinnia - it's amazing the cool words you come across while doing research. Someone asked about the origin (see above comments) so I had to hit the books and try to find an answer. I ended up having to make an eductaed guess about the use of "daft" as slang for "adulterant".

    Anne - Yes! My first blog post was A for Arsenic and was about the color scheele's green and its arsenic content. I believe that Napoleon was supposedly poisoned by green wallpaper.

    Hannah - I know! Grim yet fascinating.

    Anne -