William Hardaker ran a sweet shop in Green Market in Bradford, England. His most popular confectionary was the humbug, a hard boiled sweet made from sugar and gum and flavored with peppermint. The humbug was a favorite among his customers, who took to calling him “Humbug Billy.” Of course, Hardaker didn’t make the sweets himself; he merely sold them. His supplier was Joseph Neal, who made the lozenges on Stone Street a few hundred yards to the north.
Wood engraving by J. Leech, 1858. Published in “Punch” 20 November 1858.
Humbugs are usually made from a mixture of sugar and glycerin (sometimes gum replaces glycerin) and a flavouring agent, such as peppermint oil, which is then heated in a pan until the sugar melts and becomes sticky. The mixture is then poured out, and stretched and folded many times. A little colour is added to the mixture, and during the folding process the coloured parts separate out in layers. The mixture is finally rolled into a long, thin cylinder and sliced, and the lozenges take on a stripped appearance.
Joseph Neal probably followed a recipe similar to the one described above, except for one notable difference—he didn’t use pure, unadulterated sugar. Back in the 19th century, when this story takes place, sugar was an expensive commodity, so it was not uncommon for confectioners to replace some of the sugar with ‘daff’—powdered limestone and plaster of Paris—to keep the cost of production low. Daff didn’t add to the sweetness of the finished product, but it kept the bulk intact enabling sweet sellers to keep their prices high.
On 30 October 1858, Joseph Neal sent one his employee, James Archer, to collect daff from his druggist Charles Hodgson, whose pharmacy was 3 miles away at Baildon Bridge in Shipley. On arriving, Neal’s assistant discovered that Hodgson was ill in bed. The shop was instead staffed by an inexperienced apprentice named William Goddard.
On receiving Archer’s request for daff, Goddard nipped out back to check with Hodgson, and was told that the daff was “in a cask in a corner of the attic.” Goddard found the cask and dutifully scooped out 12 pounds of the white powder and handed it to Archer. Unfortunately, there was more than one cask in the corner, and one of them contained arsenic trioxide, a toxic chemical used to treat cancer, psoriasis and syphilis. Goddard chose the wrong cask, and since both daff and arsenic trioxide looked somewhat alike, neither Goddard nor Archer was aware of the deadly sale they just made.
James Archer handed the lethal package to James Appleton, another one of Neal’s employee, who actually made the sweets. Appleton mixed all twelve pounds of arsenic trioxide with sugar and gum to create at least forty pounds of peppermint humbugs. Exposure to the poison caused Appleton to fall sick with vomiting and pain in his hands and arms for several days after. At the time, he merely presumed he had caught a stomach bug.
However, Appleton did notice that the humbugs looked different, an observation that Hardaker shared when the finished product was brought to him. Hardaker popped one into his mouth, probably to see whether they tasted different, and promptly fell ill. Surprisingly, like Appleton, Hardaker put the blame for his sudden illness to something else that he had eaten.
That night, Hardaker sold five pounds of the sweets. By the next morning, two local children, aged eight and 11, were dead.
Initially, the deaths were attributed to cholera, a disease that was rampant in Europe. But when more and more people began to take ill, a police investigation began. Suspicion eventually fell upon Hardaker’s humbugs. A chemical analysis of the sweets revealed each contained enough poison to kill two grown men.
Potentially lethal dose of arsenic trioxide next to a 1 cent coin. Photo: Reddit
Officers and bell ringers spent the next day and night rushing around the district trying to warn as many people as possible about the danger. The alert likely saved countless lives. However, by then already seven adults and 13 children were dead and at least two hundred others were seriously ill. The youngest child to die was just 17 months old.
Charges were brought against Goddard, Neal and Hodgson, but all three were acquitted of manslaughter because the prosecution were unable to prove if any law had been broken. Hardaker returned to the confectionery business after recovering from his own illness.
The tragedy of the episode and the resulting public outrage prompted the passing of the landmark Pharmacy Act of 1868, which recognized that only registered chemist and druggist could sell named poisons. Certain poisons could only be sold if the purchaser was known to the seller or to an intermediary known to both. The act also required that all drugs to be sold in special containers with the seller’s name and address clearly written.
The passing of the Pharmacy Act saw an immediate drop in deaths, mostly from opium overdose. Among children the improvement in mortality rates were staggering. Between 1863 and 1867, deaths among children under five was at 20.5 per million population. This dropped to 12.7 per million in 1871, which further declined to between 6 and 7 per million in the 1880s.
Despite stricter regulation, consumer products containing toxins continued to be available over the counter. Many Victorian era cosmetics and makeup products contained arsenic. Green-dyed wallpapers that adorned the bedrooms of many Victorian homes contained copper arsenite. In the US, arsenic-laced wafers were sold to gullible women promising them of blemish-free skin. The fact that they contained arsenic was no secret—it was right on the label, which read “Arsenic Complexion Wafers.”
Arsenic is still used industrially in the production of car batteries, pesticides, treated wood products, herbicides, and insecticides.
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