Typically, people refer to potentially-deadly books in terms of their radical or controversial ideas, but in the case of one very scary book, the danger is very literal.
A Union surgeon during the American Civil War who later became a professor of chemistry, Robert M. Kedzie published Shadows from the Walls of Death: Facts and Inferences Prefacing a Book of Specimens of Arsenical Wall Papers in 1874. Eighty-six of its 100 pages are just samples of arsenic-pigmented wallpaper people used to decorate their homes at that time. Even though arsenic was a known toxin that could kill if ingested, no one imagined it could kill when used as an active ingredient in wallpaper colors. As a warning, Kedzie printed this book.
Dr. Kedzie knew before science proved it that wallpaper-decorated walls slowly release this poison over time. Approximately 65 percent of American wallpaper contained arsenic at the end of the 19th century. It made people sick and sometimes killed them when their food, air, and hands were contaminated with arsenic.
The Book Literally Killed People
Kedzie had obtained dozens of arsenic-infused wallpaper samples from merchants for Shadows from the Walls of Death, a book that warned anyone who looked at it. The poison had contaminated the pages, so doing so was potentially deadly. Most libraries that had received copies of Kedize’s theories were forced to destroy them after proving them correct.
Only four copies of this amazing book remain from the original 100. Two remained in Michigan, Dr. Kedzie’s home state (one at Michigan State University and the other at the University of Michigan), one ended up at Harvard University Medical School, and the fourth was scanned and made available online by the National Library of Medicine.
There is great difficulty in handling and even storing Shadows from the Walls of Death. The copy at MSU in 1998 could only be handled by people wearing special gloves before being encapsulated in plastic film. Many restrictions applied to how long it could be left outside, and people couldn’t touch anything else while wearing the gloves, much less lick their fingers…
Despite one lady who examined Dr. Kedzie’s book being poisoned, the campaign raised awareness about the dangers of living in a house with toxic wallpaper.
How Does Arsenic Kill?
According to the CDC, arsenic is natural from the earth’s crust. The pure form of arsenic is a steel-gray, brittle solid typically found in nature with other elements such as oxygen, chlorine, sulfur, carbon, and hydrogen, resulting in white or colorless powders that have no smell or taste. The presence of arsenic in food, water, or air is usually impossible to detect.
As you know, wallpaper and that book contained arsenic without anyone knowing, and it was historically in other areas that no one would know about. However, some powerful figures knew about its deadly properties and would use it to kill by slipping arsenic into someone’s food or drink.
Death caused by arsenic today is not common, as most of the time, it is accidental, but sometimes it can be deliberate.
According to the CDC, people are most likely exposed to arsenic from drinking water in areas where dissolved minerals are naturally high in arsenic. Other sources of accidental arsenic exposure include soil or dust contaminated with arsenic compounds, wood preserved with arsenic compounds, and certain foods, like rice and some fruit juices.
The FDA states that rice absorbs more unusual amounts of arsenic from the soil than other crops. Because of naturally high levels of arsenic in soil and water, past use of arsenic-based pesticides in the United States, and current use of such pesticides in other countries, arsenic may find its way into apple juice and other juices.)
The reason that arsenic is so deadly is that it can block a lot of essential chemical pathways, which will cause your body to shut down. Small amounts of arsenic will not necessarily kill you, but it can make you sick with nausea, diarrhea, and skin disorders and increases the chances of diabetes. It can also increase the chances of certain cancers. However, deadly arsenic build-up or arsenic doses can cause shock, multiple organ failure, abnormal heart rhythm, and death.