Monday, November 20, 2017

William Toon, Annie Cook, and the painters of Syston (part four)

Blue ridged glass bottle for arsenic, Europe, 1701-1935 Wellcome L0057809

If you haven't read the other parts of this story, begin here at Part One and continue here at Part Two and Part Three.

William Toon, painter and decorator, died on 27th January, 1900, aged thirty-nine.

The story goes: he died of arsenic poisoning.

My inner, precocious eight-year-old, and probably yours too, goes all Agatha Christie. After all, together with cyanide, arsenic was her favourite method of killing people; more so than belladonna, strychnine, ricin or any of the many other poisons that the pharmacy-assistant-turned-author used. There's even a book all about Agatha Christie's use of poisons and a good review of it here. Think Miss Marple and 4.50 from Paddington. Think mystery and suspense and in the library by Colonel Mustard with a blue bottle of poison. Think murder!!! But... whoever would have wanted to murder my great-grandad William, father of ten growing children, in the village of Syston, Leicestershire, in 1900? And why?

It turns out, it's a lot more mundane than an Agatha Christie story. It's very much more likely that he was poisoned by the tools of his trade.

Arsenic was definitely a risk to a painter and decorator. In Victorian times, arsenic was used both in paint, and in wallpaper, to make vivid, beautiful emerald green. Green wallpaper contained it, though by 1900 it was pretty clear that this wasn't a very good idea. It's rumoured to have killed babies, children and Napoleon, so without doubt a risk to someone who worked with paint and with wallpaper every day of the week. (Today you can buy a paint called Arsenic Green, but I don't think the "lively, mint green" matches the original, and it doesn't contain the poison. This colour green feels more like it.)

Arsenic wasn't the only danger: another risk to a painter was lead. Banned in paint in France, Belgium and Austria by 1909, banned by the League of Nations in 1922, and phased out of household paint in the UK by 1960, I still remember my dad emphatically telling me to keep right away from the pink primer that he used on raw wood, because he worried that it still contained traces of lead. Everyone, everyone!!! knew that lead in paint was dangerous. Everyone. So imagine my horror when purchasing my first home in California, to discover that any "old" house was at risk of having lead in its paintwork. ("Old" meaning as recent as 1978. 1978!!!!!) Really. I still find that ridiculous... but then again, the USA is the country that in 2017 doesn't believe in global warming, either, so that explains a lot.

Great-grandad William Toon wasn't poisoned by anyone. He was just poisoned.

Death certificate, William Toon, Syston
I have his death certificate. It says that the cause of death of William Toon, Master Painter, was chronic plumbism, (chronic lead poisoning), uramia (indication of kidney failure), and convulsions (could indicate either lead poisoning, or arsenic poisoning, or both). I can find no record of an inquest, which would have been held very soon after a sudden death, and most likely would have been held in a local public house, as happened in the story of the Butchers of Syston. But a search of the newspapers, and the death certificate give no sign of an investigation. William's poisoning was chronic, not acute: it happened over a very long time. Annie Toon nee Cook may have been caring for a very sick husband well before the day that he died. Maybe she had more on her plate than we ever imagined.

Arsenic poisoning? It's much more likely that great-grandad William Toon, founder of the Toon painters and decorators business in Syston, was poisoned, over time, by lead and by lead alone. But as far as I'm concerned, arsenic isn't ruled out, and it still makes for a good, family, Agatha Christie mystery.

No comments:

Post a Comment