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Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Poison in the Pot

Poison in the Pot 

The 19th Century Whistleblower and the Poison Squad 

C. A. Asbrey

Accum’s book “A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons”. A spider lurks in the middle of the web over its prey, and a skull crowns the entire collection with a caption: “There is death in the pot”

From the 2008 Chinese milk-tainting scandal, 2013’s “Horsegate” in the UK to salmonella powdered milk, the adulteration of food has been in the news a fair bit recently.  Back in the 19th century, a German scientist Friedrich Accum not only denounced the use of chemical additives as poison but named the companies that were doing it.

The modification of food is as old as the selling of it.  Fines for adulterating food appear in Sanskrit laws dating back to around 300 BC. Warnings about peddling risky foodstuffs filter into the Bible, including a very pointed passage in Leviticus about bad meat. Similar warnings occur in Chinese writings dating back to the second century BC, as well as in the literature of the ancient Greek and Romans. Pliny the Elder wrote sadly of wine purveyors who “I regret to say, employ noxious herbs” to color wine, creating both a more beautiful and more toxic drink. What changed is the 19th century was a drastic increase of additives used in the industrial preparation and packaging of foods.
Friedrich Accum

Friedrich Accum explained to his readers that there was a high lead content in Spanish olive oil, caused by the lead containers used to clear the oil, and recommended using oil from other countries such as France and Italy, where this was not practiced. He warned against bright green sweets sold by itinerant merchants in the streets of London as the color was produced with “sapgreen”, a colorant with high copper content. “Vinegar”, he explained to his readers, “was frequently mixed with sulphuric acid in order to increase its acidity.”
Accum paid particular attention to beer, introducing the subject with the comment: “Malt beverages, and especially port, the preferred drink of the inhabitants of London and other large cities, is among the items which is most frequently adulterated in the course of supply.” He claimed that English beer was occasionally mixed with molasses, honey, vitriol, pepper and even opium. Among the most shocking customs he pointed out was the practice of adding fishberries to port.

Accum was the first to point out the dangerous use of additives and the profiting thereof: "The man who robs a fellow subject of a few shillings on the high-way,is sentenced to death; while he who distributes a slow poison to a whole community, escapes punishment."

Only a year after publication Accum left England after an improbable lawsuit was brought against him.

Theft of paper :14 pence

A librarian called Sturt reported to his superiors at the Royal Institution that on November 5, 1820, a number of pages were removed from books in the reading room, books Accum had read. On the instructions of his superiors, Sturt cut a small hole in the wall of the reading room to watch Accum from an adjoining room. On the evening of December 20, Sturt claimed to see Accum tear out and walk off with a paper concerning the ingredients and uses of chocolate. The paper had been in an issue of Nicholson’s Journal. Accum’s premises on Old Compton Street were searched on the order of a magistrate for the City of London.  They identified what was probably waste-paper as pages from the books.

The Magistrate after hearing the whole of the Case observed that however valuable the books might be from which the leaves found in Mr Accum’s house had been taken, yet the leaves separated from them were only waste paper. If they had weighed a pound he would have committed him for the value of a pound of waste paper, but this not being the case he discharged him.

The Royal Institution committee that met on December 23, 1820 was not, however, satisfied with this judgment, and decided to issue a lawsuit against Accum for theft of paper valued at 14 pence.  Two of his friends were included in the indictment: the publisher Rudolph Ackermann and the architect John Papworth. These three appeared in court and paid altogether 400 pounds sterling as surety.  Accum, apparently frightened and depressed, did not make an appearance at the court session. He had fled England and returned to Germany.

It would take another forty years and the work of other equally outraged scientists—including the discovery that arsenic was rather lethally being used to color candy, resulting in poisoned children—before Britain passed its first law regulating food safety in 1860. But no such legislation existed in the United States, even into the first years of the twentieth century.

The Poison Squad

The following menu was for a rather unusual 1902 Christmas dinner party.

Apple Sauce.
Borax. Turkey. Borax.
Canned Stringed Beans.
Sweet Potatoes. White Potatoes.
Chipped Beef. Cream Gravy.
Cranberry Sauce. Celery. Pickles.
Rice Pudding.
Milk. Bread and Butter. Tea.
A Little Borax.

This particular menu was designed to test the toxicity of food additives. In these tests, groups of volunteers—popularly known as “Poison Squads”—agreed to dine dangerously in the interests of science, working their way through a laundry list of suspect compounds. Building on Accum’s work, Harvey Washington Wiley wanted to use the Poison Squad to persuade the U.S. government to step in and protect the nation’s food producers.Borax came first on the list, partly because it was so widely used by meat processors. It slowed decomposition and gave rotting meat a more shapely appearance. Wiley actually had a range of alarming compounds on his test list beyond borax, including formaldehyde (used to slow the souring of old milk) and copper sulfate (used to restore color to canned vegetables).
The poison squad bravely tucking into a meal

To avoid doing real harm, Wiley selected young men for his experiments. He thought they would be healthy enough to withstand a daily dose of poison.  However, once the borax trials got under way, the squad members began losing weight, some complaining of stomach pains and severe nausea. Two years later, when Wiley began testing benzoic acid on another group of twelve recruits, only three lasted until the end; the rest became so ill that they had to withdraw.

The Poison Squad was also memorialized in songs and advertisements . The most famous was probably “The Song of the Pizen (Poison) Squad,” by poet S.W. Gillilan, a poem that exaggerated the squad’s exploits::

For we are the Pizen Squad.
On Prussic acid we break our fast;
We lunch on a morphine stew;
We dine with a match-head consommé
drink carbolic acid brew

The human lab rats were “twelve young clerks, vigorous and voracious.” All were graduates of the civil service exam, all were screened for “high moral character,” and all had reputations for “sobriety and reliability.” One was a former Yale sprinter, another a captain in the local high school’s cadet regiment, and a third a scientist in his own right. All twelve took oaths, pledging one year of service, promising to only eat food that was prepared in the Poison Squad’s kitchen, and waiving their right to sue the government for damages — including death — that might result from their participation in the program.

Squad members needed a lot of patience. Before each meal, they had to weigh themselves, take their temperatures and check their pulse rates. Their stools, urine, hair and sweat were collected, and they had to submit to weekly physicals. When one member got a haircut without permission, he was allegedly sent back to the barber with orders to collect his shorn locks. Most of the squad members didn’t get extra pay for their hazardous duty: in return for their patience and obedience, they received three square meals a day — all of which were carefully poisoned.

There was one more rule: although many of the most prominent food crusaders were women, squad members had to be men. An outspoken misogynist, Dr. Wiley was prone to referring to women as “savages,” claiming that they lacked “the brain capacity” of men. His staff was similarly inclined: when the program replaced Chef Perry with a female cook, one worker griped that ladies were not fit for cooking — or poisoning. “A woman! Tut, tut. Why the very idea!,” he reportedly said, “A woman can potter around a domestic hearth, but when it comes to frying eggs in a scientific mode and putting formaldehyde in the soup — never.”

Harvey Washington Wiley 

Wiley had other quirks. A Civil War veteran and graduate of Indiana Medical College and Harvard, he was among the first professors hired at Purdue University. He was also one of the first fired, an unfortunate turn of events that occurred when he scandalized the University administration by playing baseball and buying a bicycle -– a mode of conveyance that, in the words of one of the University’s trustees, made him look “like a monkey … astride a cartwheel.”


At Purdue, Wiley experimented with food additives, testing each chemical by, in his words, “trying it on the dog.” Soon after getting hired by the Agriculture Department, he waded into the pure food fight, pushing for federal regulation of additives. In response, high-paid lobbyists from the packing and canning industries went on the offensive, shutting down each of Wiley’s proposed bills.

To show the physical costs of food additives, Wiley designed the table trials — and convinced Congress to give him $5,000 to fund them. Officially, the goal was to “investigate the character of food preservatives, coloring matters, and other substances added to foods, to determine their relation to digestion and to health, and to establish the principles which should guide their use.” Unofficially, Wiley hoped to use the table trials as a springboard to enact widespread food regulation.

Wiley’s first target was borax. One of the most common food preservatives in 1902, it tightened up animal proteins, giving the impression of freshness; consequently, packers often used it to doctor decomposing meat. From October 1902 to July 1903, Wiley’s squad ate it with every meal, as was demonstrated by a Christmas menu published by the Poison Squad’s kitchen: “Apple Sauce. Borax. Soup. Borax. Turkey. Borax. Borax. Canned Stringed Beans. Sweet Potatoes. White Potatoes. Turnips. Borax. Chipped Beef. Cream Gravy. Cranberry Sauce. Celery. Pickles. Rice Pudding. Milk. Bread and Butter. Tea. Coffee. A Little Borax.”

The Poison Squad soon became famous for its borax consumption, and Wiley became popularly known as “Old Borax.” Before long, the group determined that borax did, indeed, cause headaches, stomachaches, and other digestive pains…in addition to imparting an unpleasant flavor to food.

Borax defeated, the poison squad moved on to test other common additives, including sulfuric acid, saltpeter and formaldehyde. One of their targets, copper sulfate, was especially disturbing: used by food producers to turn canned peas a bright shade of green, it also caused a host of health woes, including nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, liver damage, kidney damage, brain damage, and jaundice. Today, it’s commonly used as a pesticide.

Even after Wiley’s squad managed to demonstrate the negative effects of several additives, he still had to fight against the powerful food lobby. In fact, the Secretary of Agriculture himself suppressed several of the Poison Squad’s reports; the one on benzoic acid only got out because a staffer misunderstood his orders and sent it out to print while the Secretary was on vacation.

But while lobbyists could suppress Wiley’s findings, they couldn’t control newspapers, which breathlessly reported on the group’s menus and members, its poisons and their effects. Afraid that the press might trivialize his efforts, Wiley tried to stem the tide, instituting a blackout and threatening to fire any member of the squad who leaked information. This didn’t keep stories from appearing in the papers: denied access to facts, reporters printed rumors and made up elaborate tales. Eventually, Wiley relented, and began to actively publicize the squad. As he later bragged, “My poison squad laboratory became the most highly advertised boarding-house in the world.”

Since that time, really dangerous food—the term food poisoning, even—has tended to refer to bacterial contamination issues rather than toxic chemical contamination.

Still, the public continues to worry about pesticide residues, preservatives, genetically modified food and food dyes.  But thanks to the work of Accum, Wiley, his valiant poison squads, and a host of other crusaders, we aren’t likely to be killed by arsenic-dyed candy or formaldehyde-improved milk.


In All Innocence

“Nat, take a look at this.” Jake held out a sketch pad.

The dark eyes scanned the parchment before they darted back to his partner. “The whole railway car?”

“Yup. When one of the butlers was sayin’ he was sketchin’ I thought I’d have a look to see if it was any use to us.” He smiled. “I think it is. We can see where people were just before the murder.”

“It sure is. Look at that. Everyone in their place. I guess the ones playing the game with blindfolds moved about, though.” The cheeks dimpled. “And we can see exactly where that was. This is a real good drawing. Who did it?” He scanned the cabin and smiled at the lean man whose receding chin disappeared into his starched collar. “Ah, yes. The one who spoke up.”

Jake held the pad out at arm’s length and turned the page to look at a few unfinished etchings. “He’s talented. He’s caught your lopsided face real well.”

Nat’s mouth firmed into a line. “My face isn’t lopsided.”

“Yeah, it is. It might look fine from your side, but you should see it from here.” 

Nat turned indignant eyes on the conductor. “Farrow, is my face lopsided?”

The man gave Nat a long, hard stare. “Not lopsided exactly, but one eye’s bigger than the other.” He pointed, staring at the right one. “Well, maybe not bigger. A different shape? It’s got more lines about it. Funny, I never noticed it until you pointed it out. It’s kinda different from one side to the other.”

“No, it’s not.” Nat stabbed a gloved forefinger at the drawing. “I’ve always been told my eyes are my best feature.”

Jake’s guffaw cut through the railway car. “Maybe for their variety?” He glanced between the sketch and his nephew.

“In the drawing, it might be. Not in real life,” said Nat. 

Jake snapped the pad shut and grinned. “I guess the problem ain’t so much that your eyes don’t match some romantic hero, it’s more that they don’t match each other. It don’t matter none. Abi loves you anyway, and the babe seems to take after her ma.”

The partners watched Farrow’s retreating back as he followed the driver and the fireman down the aisle toward the latrines.

“And you’re so perfect?” Nat demanded. “What about those curls? You look like that boy in the advertisement for tar soap; the one in frilly knickerbockers.”

One slim, fair brow arched in retort. “At least they picked him because he was sweet-lookin’. Not because he’s lopsided. That ain’t gonna sell soap.” Jake paused pensively. “Your face might sell some kinda cure, though.”

“I’m not lopsided.” Nat dropped his voice to a hiss. “My description in the wanted posters said I have even features.”

“Good point.” The blue eyes sparkled with humor. “I guess it was such a good description you were recognized everywhere you went, huh? That’s why you’re in jail right now.”

“I can’t talk to you when you’re like this. It’s like trying to order a cat around.”

“You should be more grateful, Nat. I just got you a picture of where everyone was just before the second murder. Whoever it was would have to try to get past Mrs. Hunter and Philpot in the back row.”

“Yup. I have one more thing to find out. Where did Farrow go?” Nat nodded toward the sketch pad in Jake’s hand. “And take those. We don’t want anyone to have pictures of us.”

“So you agree it looks like you?”

“Just take the pad, Jake.” Nat sighed at his uncle’s laughing eyes. “Tell him we need it for evidence.”



  1. You research and write such informative but fascinating subjects, Christine. And what brave men, Messrs Accumen and Wiley to bring this frightening practice to public notice, not to mention the courage or desperation of the Poison Squad to participate. I can't begin to imagine their agony. And the beat goes on still, doesn't it, with the population becoming sicker and more obese thanks to the sugar in everything and preservatives, all for the benefit of the shareholders' profits. Thanks for an excellent blog, Christine, and your excerpt was amusing,

    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Elizabeth. Yes, it must have been a seriously unpleasant pursuit, being a member of the poison squad. I wonder if they'd even be allowed to do this today!

  2. Nicely tense and wry excerpt, Christine! Enjoyed it very much.
    Never heard before of the Poison Squad - wow, they were brave!
    Fascinating as always

    1. Thanks so much, Lindsay. It seems crazy to us that they had to 'prove' borax was poisonous in food.

  3. You never cease to add to our knowledge and I for one am so grateful. Doris