Because I write an historical murder mystery series as well as two contemporary ones, I got to thinking about the ways killing someone in 1888 might be the same or different from now.
Certainly, pushing a victim over a cliff or beating them to death with a large blunt object hasn’t changed in the last 130 years. There were stabbings and shootings then, just as we hear about now. But did unique murder methods exist in the era of my Quaker Midwife Mysteries that wouldn’t or couldn’t be used today?
Death by hatpin comes to mind. When bonnets gave way to hats in the late 1800s, Wikipedia says, the use of hatpins soared. And a couple of decades later, the same article states, “Laws were passed in 1908 in America that limited the length of hatpins, as there was a concern they might be used by suffragettes as weapons.” Hatpins were about eight inches long and had a decorative head to hang onto. Sounds like a good weapon to me, and an article at Smithsonian.com backs me up.
And then there were the readily available poisons. You could buy aresenic-containing rat poison at any hardware store, which I used in my Agatha-nominated short story, “A Questionable Death.” Cyanide and strychnine were also widely used. Today all these are highly regulated and unlikely to be a contemporary murder weapon.
Opium is another good one. When dissolved in alcohol, it was called laudanum. In Rose Carroll’s day, it was sold without a prescription and used to relieve pain, including that of menstrual cramps, induce sleep, and calm the nerves. But because it’s a depressant, taken in excess it can induce coma and death, according to Kathryn Harkup’s excellent book, A is for Arsenic: the Poisons of Agatha Christie. Sadly, we hear about too many heroin deaths even today.
One modern poison likely not used in 1888 is liquid nicotine. With the rise of vaping, tiny vials of liquid nicotine can be bought anywhere. According to Luci Zahray, the Poison Lady, two cartridges will kill an adult. Tylenol didn’t exist back then, either, so it couldn’t be combined with alcohol to destory someone’s liver (see my short story, “An Idea for Murder“).
Readers: Do you have a favorite Victorian murder weapon?