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Book and Media Reviews
February 6, 2008

Poison, Detection, and the Victorian Imagination

JAMA. 2008;299(5):582-583. doi:10.1001/jama.299.5.582

In the Victorian imagination, murder by stealth through the administration of lethal poisons was associated with the dark intrigues of the Borgias. However, the famous social commentators and historians of mid 19th-century England, Thomas Carlyle and Thomas Babington Macaulay, suggested that the 16th-century Italian way of homicide had become an English epidemic that marked the decline of British civilization. Ian Burney's gripping volume analyses why homicide by poisoning assumed a significant role in Victorian England's popular and learned cultures and investigates the attempts by scientific, medical, and legal reformers to apply new systematic methods of detection and proof to reduce the crime wave. In the process, Burney manages to transform a subject that promises to be limitlessly dull, ie, the history of toxicology, into a fascinating story that offers highly original insight into Victorian society's cultural doubt about its own stability.