Saturday, April 18, 2015

Letter P: The Choose Your Poison #AtoZChallenge

    As we find prosperity displayed in the most beauteous and pleasing manner, so do we often find the engines of that affluence grinding away savagely in parts of the city now relegated to the masses required to operate those engines. Among those belching factories, within the human warrens of dank alleys and reeking cobblestones, one finds a brew of every human element, from the destitute and despairing to the drunkenly ebullient, from the optimistic family man to the insouciant youth.
    On the evening in question, two gentlemen dipped their elegant, yet obviously sporting toes, into the quagmire of one of these industrial sinks. Having imbibed a quantity of spirits, they had set out on their journey not unlike their fathers pursuing strange game in the heart of the Dark Continent.
     Burgess, the elder of the two, was having some difficulty walking; not because of the detritis underfoot, as one might surmise, but rather in an effort to avoid contact with the hordes of begrimed and odoriferous workers now streaming from the factories as their 14 hour day came to an end. Harold, the younger, was also exhibiting a handicap; as a budding artist, he wished to stop, examine and eventually paint the faces of the working class. Yet it was proving difficult, as most of the passersby moved at a rapid pace and had their faces shielded by caps, or wrapped in collars and mufflers to keep out the chilly, dank breeze which swept down the blackened brick canyons.
     "I shan't be able to get any sketches done at this rate," Harold grumbled to his brother.
     Burgess had already regretted yielding to Harold's absurd request, and was about to suggest curtailing the evening's enterprise when he spotted a slim figure, one loose copper curl bouncing invitingly, as she darted into an alley.
     "Quick. A neat little thing just turned the corner. A shilling ought to buy you a pose."
     The two young men forged ahead and ducked down the aforementioned passage, then nearly fell over the object of their pursuit. She was bending down to examine a long tear in the hem of her dress. Equally startled, she backed away, pulling a woolen scarf tighter about her face.  Large hazel eyes framed by thick lashes reminded Harold of a young doe he'd shot just last week. He was instantly smitten.
     "Oh, that I could capture your look just now! I wish to draw you, if you will only stand just so a minute!"
     Harold was already fumbling in his pocket but the woman - not much more than a child, really - was shaking her head furiously.
     "Come now. Here's something for you." Burgess fished out a coin and held it out upon his pale, fleshy palm.  The toe of his boot tap-tap-tapped on the cobblestone. "He only wants to draw you, goose. Surely you don't think we'd want anything else from the likes of you."
     Still she cowered, back to the sooty wall, barely visible in the dying evening's light.
     "Never mind. I won't be able to see properly to draw in a few minutes. We'll hail a cab and I'll stand you to a pint at the Ten Bells. Likely there will be a visage or two in there worth depicting."
     But Burgess, maddened by the girl's seeming contrariety and lack of approbation, reached out and wrenched away the cloth which stood between her countenance and his brother's gaze.
     "Heh  da eh," she said defiantly. Her answer "then draw me", however perfectly framed in her mind, ceased to be recognizable upon reaching her mouth; for that particular part of her had not existed in its original state for quite some time. Half of her lower jaw, in fact, was either seething with pus from abscesses or had been eaten away entirely. The mishapen remains glowed greenish-white in the calignosity of the city's dusk.
     Harold fainted.
     Burgess, for the first time in his life, was quite unsure what to do.
     The match girl took her time adjusting the cloth which hid her wreckage, held her hand out for the promised payment, then delicately stepped over the dandy splayed upon the ground and joined the tide of humanity flowing through the streets toward their individual refuges for the night.

Photo source here
Today's poison is white/yellow phosphorus, used by the match industry during the 19th century. Exposure to white (seems to be used interchangeably with yellow) phosphorus caused a condition which came to be known as "phossy (fossy) jaw". It began with toothaches, swelling/bleeding of the gums, and jaw pain; then progressed to abscesses, necrosis, brain damage and death. The only treatment was surgical removal of the affected tissue and bone. "Phossy jaw" among workers contributed to the London Match Girl Strike of 1888, along with long hours and terrible working conditions, but because using a safer alternate to white phosphorus was more expensive, manufacturers continued to use it until it was prohibited in 1906.


  1. This is the weekend before the last full week of A to Z. You’re amazing for staying with us this long. Thanks for your commitment. You’re almost there. This event only happens once a year, so get ready for the home stretch!

    Stephen Tremp
    A to Z Cohost
    P is for Paranormal Vs. Supernatural

    1. Thanks Stephen. I'm way behind in visiting and commenting, but I think that's the case with many of us by now. Home stretch, yahooooo!!

  2. This post really jelled with me as only last night I was watching old episodes of Ripper Street and one of them included the Match Girls and what phosphorus had done to them.

    1. Really awful. I ran across a mention of it in a novel many years ago - "The Dress Lodger" perhaps.
      On a side note, we had a watch factory in my home town. During WW2 they made instrument dials for planes as well. To make the numerals luminescent, they used paint with radium in it; and to get a fine point on their brushes, they licked them. Several women ended up with malformations/cancer of the mouth and jaw from the radium.
      So many people have been poisoned by industry, either through ignorance or negligence.

  3. I don't even know what to say. Your post gave me chills today. I knew nothing about this one. Now I have something to research.

  4. Grim. That's really awful, and somehow I hadn't ever heard about it.

  5. Well done. Have enjoyed you other posts about poison. Agatha Christie would be proud.