Thursday, 10 May 2012

Arsenic Poisoning

I recieved the following enquiry recently and though it would be worth sharing such an interesting story.

Robert Pratt's butchers shop on Market Street c1870.  Not the butcher who
manufactured the poisonous sausages!

Is it true that a butcher in St Andrews once poisoned University students by putting arsenic in his sausages?

In a word, yes.   On Friday January 15th 1943, a batch of poisonous sausages killed two people and a dog in St Andrews with a further 115 cases of illness. The victims’ names were Claude Arthur Cuthbert, an officer in the Royal Observer Corps, and Susan Garland Ryan.  Up to 115 residents of St Andrews were affected by the sausages – a large batch of them went to St Salvator’s halls of residence!  The sausages were traced back to J. Martin and Sons, Butchers at 2 South Street St Andrews.  

Further inspection of the sausages and of samples from the deceased showed that the original batch of sausage meat contained roughly 100 grams of arsenic per lb.,  Remnants from this batch were apparently mixed with fresh sausage meat to make a second batch of sausages with considerably less arsenic, and this was then mixed again to make a third batch.    It was sausages from the second and third batches that were supposedly consumed by students and staff at St Salvator’s Hall. –Apparently they ate them in toad in the hole.   Approximately 90 men fell ill, some quite seriously.   Reports state that the first batch of sausages contained up to 600mg of arsenic each, it is remarkable that only two deaths occurred as as little as 200mg of arsenic can prove fatal.

An investigation followed and no source of arsenic could be found on the butcher’s premises and no explanation could be given by employees as to how it got into the meat.  No chemist shop carried the amount of arsenic required for the quantities found in the sausages, and no laboratory or store had reported a theft.   Restrictions under the Arsenic Act 1851 meant that all sales of arsenic had to be recorded, but even this could not give a clue to the origins of the poison.   The case was never solved.    Many have speculated over the years on dark motives for the crime, a common one involving the serving RAF officers that were enrolled as students at the university at the time.   But, it is much more likely that the poisoning was accidental, and no one was ever prosecutated of the incedent.   A follow up study of survivors in 1978 showed no long term chronic problems that could be attributed to the incident.

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