Journal Article

Poisoning crimes and forensic toxicology since the eighteenth century


The easy availability of deadly poisons in nineteenth-century Britain, western Europe and the United States led to widespread public anxiety about the prevalence of murder by poison, resulting in what might be termed a ‘poison panic’. The fear was fed by well-publicised reports of trials and executions which, though not especially numerous, seemed indicative of the dangerous incidence of a unique type of homicide, one that was particularly difficult to prevent or detect. As a result, poisoning crimes stimulated the development of the earliest medico-legal specialism, forensic toxicology, and consequently the careers of some of the best-known expert witnesses of the Victorian era, including Mathieu Orfila, Alfred Swaine Taylor, Thomas Stevenson and Theodore Wormley. This article traces the history of poisoning crimes and the related medico-scientific discipline of forensic toxicology, using textbooks, key trials and crime statistics to examine and evaluate their contribution to the historical development of forensic expertise and practice.

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Watson, Katherine D.

Oxford Brookes departments

Department of History, Philosophy and Culture


Year of publication: 2020
Date of RADAR deposit: 2020-02-12

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