FATAL REACTION - MISADVENTURES WITH EPSOM SALTS


Poisoning

As you will know, Epsom salts received their name from the town and a history of their origins appears on this website in the article on Epsom Spa, with a separate detailed section on the salts. They have been used as a purgative, amongst other things, for over 300 years. They were so commonly taken for internal ailments in the past that there were many mistakes and accidents, causing illness and fatalities, some of which are shown below.

Hereford Times 13 September 1862

'In London, a man named Farrell has been poisoned by taking oxalic acid in mistake for Epsom salts. The package was marked "poison" but neither he nor his wife could read.'
Note: This seems to have been a common mistake over the years. There had been many instances of it even by 1823 when the Morning Post advised a simple home test.
'Take a little ink in a clean writing pen and drop into it one or two of the crystals of the suspected salts. If they be Epsom salts, the ink will remain unchanged in colour; if they be oxalic acid, the ink will become pale or a light reddish, so as no longer to appear ink.'
Tip: Don't use red ink.

Poisoning 1

London Standard 29 September 1864

'...the deceased, being ill, got some medicine from Dr Bletchley. After taking it he got into a state of great suffering, his stomach swelling enormously. He exclaimed, "I am poisoned; the doctor's medicine has poisoned me." He died soon afterwards.'
'Deceased called out, "See how I am swelling." His stomach swelled and rose above the bed.'
'Mr F J Gant, pathological anatomist to the Royal Free Hospital, said that the deceased died from inflammation of the small intestines, caused by an excessive quantity of Epsom salts. He had actually taken a quarter of a pound of Epsom salts before he sent to Dr Bletchley for medicine, and the enormous quantity had poisoned him. It generated a gas in the stomach, which caused the swelling which was attributed to the doctor's medicine.
Deceased's wife was recalled and she admitted that he had taken a quarter of a pound of salts after a drinking bout; but she said she knew that the quantity could have done him no harm, for he had often before taken thirty-two doses at one draught, and he was a man that could stand a great deal.'
The coroner was satisfied that death was due to the overdose of Epsom salts and found no fault with Dr Bletchley's medicine.

Carlisle Patriot 8 October 1886

'A young man named M'Farlane, belonging to Langloan, died late on Saturday night through having swallowed a quantity of salts of sorrel* instead of Epsom salts. The poison had been got to remove cloth stains and the Epsom salts were laid beside it, the result being that the latter were taken by mistake.'
*potassium hydrogenoxalate - one of its specific uses is to remove ink stains, which may have occurred when you carried out the 1823 test for oxalic acid.

Aberdeen Evening Express 28 October 1887


Poisoning 2

Sarah Jane Smith, a 20 year old domestic servant, had expressed suicidal intentions but her death, although apparently due to Epsom salts, was not thought to be a suicide. The doctor who gave evidence thought that she had drunk an ounce of the salts on an empty stomach, which had caused her intense pain, resulting in heart failure and death.

Worcestershire Chronicle 10 October 1891

'Remarkable evidence was given at an inquest at Westminster yesterday on the body of Jennie D'Acher, a young woman of 22. D'Acher had died from the effects of strychnine, said to have been contained in Epsom salts purchased at a shop in Wardour Street, and it was said that about two months ago a man died after taking Epsom salts bought at the same shop. The jury found there was nothing to show how the poison came into the salts.'
Poisoning 3

No problem then! The earlier death occurred in July of that same year and the Coroner urged the police to investigate how such a thing could happen. They obviously did a great job. There were quite a few reported cases where chemists sold Epsom salts adulterated with deadly poisons.

The Post 8 May 1921

'Considerable alarm was occasioned at Cowdenbeath at what was thought to be an attempt to poison soup supplied at one of the centres of the communal kitchens.
One of the assistants, suspicious of the smell, before serving the soup partook of some, and became so ill that the sanitary inspector was called, who condemned the soup and sent some for analysis.
The report of the analyst is to the effect that the soup contained a large proportion of Epsom salts. Entry was made into the building by means of a window, and the salts placed in the water prepared for the cooking of the soup.
It is fortunate that the malicious act was discovered in time, before the children were supplied.'

Western Morning News 30 June 1943

'It seemed probable that deceased took by mistake a dose of zinc sulphate, which closely resembled in appearance ordinary Epsom salts.'
One common use for zinc sulphate is moss removal.

Postscript

Finally, here is a recipe you can make up using Epsom salts (probably best not to try this at home but, if you must have a go, please make sure that you read the labels on the packets nicely!)

Horse Powder

'HORSES - GRIPES OR COLIC. In the absence of a veterinary surgeon in this dangerous complaint, the following is the best remedy for a horse: - 1½ pint of linseed oil, 1½ oz. of laudanum, given in a little warm gruel. Some persons assist the operation of the above with a glister, composed of ½lb of Epsom salts, ½lb of treacle, dissolved in three quarts of warm water'.
This sounds like an instance of 'if the complaint doesn't kill you, the medicine certainly will.'

Linda Jackson
July 2013

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