Say the word Arsenic now and the association with poison and death is clear, but if you’d said Arsenic back in the 19th Century in Lower Austria to a bunch of folks called Styrians it would mean “it’s time for lunch.”
Before the world discovered the “deadly power” of Arsenic and before it got its role as the poison of choice and became favored method for murder in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it was broadly used for.. well, everything.
It has been used for over 2,400 years as a part of traditional Chinese medicine. In the western world, arsenic compounds, such as salvarsan, were used extensively to treat syphilis before penicillin was introduced.
In addition, during the Elizabethan era, some women used a mixture of vinegar, chalk, and arsenic applied topically to whiten their skin. This use of arsenic was intended to prevent aging and creasing of the skin, but some arsenic was inevitably absorbed into the blood stream.
However, nothing of this can top a particularly interesting group of folks dubbed toxicophagi or The Arsenic Eaters of Styria.
Styria, a picturesque, mountainous state in southern Austria, now widely known for its wine, castles and lush forests, was once a place where it was common and normal to consume Arsenic in ridiculously large amounts.
The reasons why they ate arsenic is not completely determined, but medical groups who observed these people, consider it was for acquiring a fresher complexion or to help them to facilitate respiration when working or walking on the hilly mountains.
Scientists and adventurous who visited this group of people mentioned that toxicophagi consumed Arsenic with their coffee. The toxhicophagi began by taking a small piece of Arsenic, that would be the size of a lentil, few times a week. They gradually increased the intake of Arsenic, as the smaller dose had no effect.
There is a specific case of a sixty years old man who had increased the intake of Arsenic to about four grains, that amount can easily kill a healthy human being in a minute.
Toxhicophagi were practically addicted to arsenic, they were hooked by it so much, that whenever they decreased the amount they felt ill. Common symptoms that followed the decreasing of the amount, were anxiety,loss of appetite, vomiting, constipation and spasmodic pain. (yeah, that is practically the definition of addiction).
A fascinating part of this bizarre “subculture” is the fact that the Styrian Arsenic eaters were kind of immune to the poisonous effect of Arsenic. Based on many observation, arsenic did not do any harm and they seemed genuinely healthy.
“They are generally strong and healthy persons, courageous, pugnacious, and of strong sexual dispositions. ”
The Styrian Arsenic eaters were in fact, the reason for the extensive use in the Western Countries in the mid-century.The pale ladies in Victorian Era overheard the benefits of arsenic so they mixed it with vinegar and chalk and ate it for improving their complexion.
However, after arsenic’s toxicity became widely known, fewer people were using it as a food or for better skin and yet more people start using it as a weapon for murder.