The Inheritor’s Powder

What a fantastic cover design!

What a fantastic cover design!

The Inheritor’s Powder: a tale of arsenic murder and new forensic science by Sandra Hempel

I’ve been burning to read this book since I first learned about James Marsh, a chemist employed by the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich (outside of London), and his discovery of a test for arsenic.  Marsh was an associate of my subject’s father and I was hoping the book would give me few leads as to the scientific environment and people at the Royal Arsenal. Unfortunately it didn’t, but despite that The Inheritor’s Powder is a fascinating read!

The book traces the court case of John Bodle – the grandson of wealthy farmer George Bodle who suddenly fell desperately ill on the morning of November 2, 1833. Three days later he died in agony – presumably from arsenic. The resulting investigation riveted the nation and attracted world-wide notoriety for the characters involved.

Arsenic was used in practically everything in the 19th century – in wallpaper, clothing dyes, hat ornaments, candles, candy and even beer and wine as well as rat poison. Accidental and of course, purposeful arsenic poisonings were routine but difficult for authorities to prove. It wasn’t until James Marsh discovered a method for testing that provided a visual proof (versus an iffy “garlic smell”) that prosecution of arsenic crimes could proceed with any certainty.

The Inheritor’s Powder is a gripping read, particularly if you enjoy forensic science and historical whodunits.


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