When Beer Was Poisoned

The poisoning of beer began in the first years of the nineteenth century, and continued for more than sixty years after the Regency had ended. Beer was not poisoned by those who brewed it, but by those who sold it to the public. Curiously enough, though this poison was added to many thousands of gallons of beer, it was not done with the intention of causing deaths. Rather, it was done to increase the profits from beer sales, with little thought at the time that it was dangerous. Remarkably, there were many beer drinkers who came to prefer this poisoned beer.

The dangers of beer drinking in the Regency …

The poison in question is strychnine. Its main source is the Strychnos nux-vomica tree which is native to Indonesia. There were some other plants native to south-east Asia from which strychnine could also be derived, including the Saint Ignatius tree. An alkaloid, strychnine had been known in ancient China for both its medicinal and poisonous properties. Knowledge of strychnine came to Europe by way of those returning from the Crusades in the Middle East. It was used intermittently, in a rather haphazard manner, in many countries across the Continent during the Middle Ages as a remedy for various illnesses, and in higher doses as a poison. Since the latter decades of the eighteenth century, a number of French physicians had been experimenting with strychnine in various forms to treat a wide array of ailments. However, the actual chemical compound of strychnine was not identified until the early nineteenth century, in France.

In March of 1811, Pierre-Éloi Fouquier, a French physician, delivered a paper to his colleagues at the Society of the Faculty of Medicine on his results in treating a number of his patients with strychnine. Remarkably, he had some success and several of his patients were cured of their illnesses. Dr. Fouquier continued to treat patients with strychnine for the next several years, as did a number of other French doctors. Due to the growing demand, strychnine was manufactured in France and was soon exported throughout Europe. During the time Napoleon held power in France, it was prohibited to export anything, including strychnine, to Britain. Which is not to say that strychnine did not make it to the British Isles. Just about anything could be had in Britain, with the right connections.

Beer is one of the oldest of fermented beverages. There are some scholars who believe it was the very first beverage ever fermented by humans, though quite possibly by accident. Beer was a means by which valuable foodstuffs, especially grain, could be converted into a form which could be stored for long periods of time. It had also been noted for centuries that those who drank water often became ill, but those who drank beer did not. Thus, beer was considered liquid bread, a source of much needed calories, as well as a safe and healthful drink. Over time, more and more varieties of beer were developed, employing a host of different ingredients which resulted in a growing assortment of distinct flavors.

One style of beer which had become very popular in England during the eighteenth century was known as pale ale. This group of beers was brewed using a pale malt, which resulted in a beer which was paler in color than the darker beers, such as porter and stout. Most pale ales were also brewed with a high volume of hops, which as a preservative, significantly increased the shelf life of these beers. Large quantities of hops also imparted a bitter flavor to the majority of these brews and for that reason, they were often called "bitters" by those who regularly consumed them.

All styles of beer had come to be considered quintessentially English by the turn of the nineteenth century, and one of the most popular to the common Englishman was bitters. It was sold in just about every tavern and public house across the British Isles in both town and country. However, there was great financial pressure on the common man’s favorite libation. Beer was already heavily taxed in order to help pay for the war against the French. Though the brewers paid some taxes on their products, they passed most if not all of those costs on to those who bought their products. Thus, even more of the burden fell on the tavern-keepers who were selling these beverages to the public. Many of these publicans and tavern-keepers were well aware that their customers would be unable or unwilling to pay even higher prices for their tankards of beer, so they could not afford to raise their prices, but they also could not afford to take the loss by absorbing the cost of the taxes themselves. Another solution had to be found.

The solution most publicans and tavern-keepers employed to help make ends meet required two ingredients, water, and strychnine. The majority of their beer sales were bitters, which, since it was already pale, could be much more easily watered than either porter or stout. But once the water was added, the resulting mixture was less bitter than were bitters straight from the brewery. Like all alkaloids, strychnine had a very bitter taste. It was discovered that the addition of strychnine could restore nearly the same bitter taste to the watered beer as it had when it came directly from the brewery. Strychnine had the added advantage that it would also maintain more of the beer’s foamy head. The majority of publicans bought their strychnine from local chemists, most of whom acquired it from free traders who ignored Napoleon’s blockade. Others made use of the "bitter bean," the seeds of the Saint Ignatius tree, which contained a less concentrated form of strychnine. These beans were imported into Britain from south-east Asia, primarily by the East India Company. Only a nominal import duty was levied on them, thus keeping their cost low. Laws had been passed against adding adulterants to food and drink in the late eighteenth century, but they were seldom enforced and, therefore, were mostly ignored for decades.

Records suggest that the use of strychnine in watered beer probably began in the first few years of the nineteenth century, almost certainly at the instigation of a chemist called Jackson, possibly in London. The use of strychnine became increasingly widespread as the war against Napoleon continued and the tax on beer steadily rose. Through the Regency, carts could be seen traversing the streets of many cities and towns, all brightly painted, bearing the inscription, "Brewers’ Druggist." These carts made their rounds, delivering strychnine to those tavern-keepers and publicans who had placed their orders. Deliveries were most common late in the week, since, during a Parliamentary investigation in the decade after the Regency, it was revealed that most publicans adulterated the bulk of their beer in preparation for Saturday sales, usually their busiest day.

The amounts of strychnine most publicans added to their watered bitters was not enough to kill, but there were unpleasant side effects. In small, but repeated doses, strychnine was a hallucinogen, often inducing confusion. After a few tankards of watered, strychnine-laced beer, a man often became somewhat disoriented and might very well see things that were not there. The more he drank, the worse the confusion and the hallucinations became. Unfortunately, these symptoms caused many men to become aggressive and even abusive. All too often, their wives and children suffered for all those tankards of adulterated beer. However, there was another punishment which was regularly visited on those men who had more than one or two beers laced with strychnine. They almost inevitably had to endure a severe case of diarrhea for several hours afterwards.

The upper and middle classes were seldom exposed to beer adulterated with strychnine since they did not often drink beer in taverns and public houses, and if they did, they were more likely to drink stout or porter, rather than bitters. Beer was not a popular drink among the beau monde, though there were a number of country gentleman who did enjoy a tankard with their meals, especially breakfast. Most of them brewed their own beers and ales and stored them in their own cellars. Those who did not brew their own bought their beer by the barrel directly from a brewery or a wine merchant, before it could be adulterated at a tavern or public house. It must also be noted that not all taverns sold adulterated beer. It seems to have been more common in the cities and towns than in rural areas. Strychnine-laced beer was almost solely consumed by common working men, the majority of them in taverns and public houses in the larger urban areas, especially on Saturday nights. It was not until the 1880s that this adulteration of beer was finally eradicated and bitters were once again bitter due only to the hops with which they were brewed.

The use of strychnine in watered beer began in the years before the Regency, and appears to have reached its height during the decade the Prince of Wales governed for his father. This form of adulteration was not done with the intent to kill, as no publican wanted to reduce the ranks of their customers. But the painful financial bite of taxes on beer drove many of them to water their beer and add strychnine just to make ends meet in hard times. Curiously, some beer drinkers did learn that at least some of the beer they drank was laced with strychnine, and some of them came to prefer it. They enjoyed the hallucinations it induced, apparently enough to endure its other side effects, and actually requested it at their local tavern, in preference to unadulterated beer. Some said that regular beer " … just went down and they felt nothing of it."

For those Regency authors who write murder mysteries and other stories of suspense set during that era, might a tankard or three of strychnine-laced bitters have a part to play in one of those tales? Even in a more general Regency, perhaps a young gentleman enjoys a tankard or two of bitters laced with strychnine in a tavern in a working-class area of town while out slumming with friends. His system is particularly sensitive and he is subject to a series of intense hallucinations. What might happen to him while in the throes of the drug? Perhaps the young man is the brother of the heroine and is saved by the hero, thus putting her in the hero’s debt. Or, a villain might get his hands on the strychnine he needs to poison another character by stealing it from a public house, or even from one of the Brewers’ Druggist carts that plied the streets of the larger cities, delivering their poisonous payload to local public houses.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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21 Responses to When Beer Was Poisoned

  1. Now that’s food for thought indeed! there’s also the poisoning by free traders of someone they believe to be a spy or traitor using their cargo, a John Company man becoming a provider of poisons [that actually might fit in peripherally with a plot I have mapped out] or someone providing the beans accidentally OR with malicious intent to be cooked in a haricot of beans…. or more likely, considering their appearance, in a dish of nuts…

    A little research tells me the St Ignatious tree had also anti-conceptive properties, but that’s suggesting wholesale accidental poisoning of a brothel full of girls. I can’t confirm that single affirmation of the effect however, there’s precious little about it online.
    It’s supposed to be used to treat depression and melancholy and to stimulate urine and expel wind. One source also has it as an aphrodisiac. mmm, well, belief in properties of some drug can make people take it….

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Strychnine has a long and fascinating history. I also found references to its use as an anti-conceptive, though it seems it was more often used as a kind of morning-after pill or to induce a miscarriage in the early stages of pregnancy.

      Probably the best single book I have found on the subject is Bitter Nemesis: The Intimate History of Strychnine by John Buckingham. I was amazed at how many ways strychnine has been used over the years and the different ways in which people viewed its properties. It came as quite a shock to me to discover that so many who drank beer laced with strychnine preferred it to unadulterated beer after they had been drinking it for awhile.

      As to those John Company men, in most cases the ship’s captain and officers were allowed a certain amount of space in their ship’s hold each way. From what I understand, their areas in the hold were not checked, so it is entirely possible for one or more of them to have a nicely profitable business in poisons or any other contraband. Another plot bunny hops to life! 😉



  2. chasbaz says:

    Yet another fascinating insight. I knew that wholesale adulteration of food went on but not about the strychnine. Being very partial to beer I’m glad i wasn’t living at that time! They could have used less harmful substances like aloes or cinchona to add bitterness so one wonders why they didn’t. Maybe it is because the customers preferred the extra buzz which they weren’t getting from the (reduced) alcohol.
    Watering still goes on in some pubs I know. Years ago a certain brewery also had a device called The Economiser, which was a container suspended in the cellar. All of the spillage was piped into it and it ended up back in the barrels. No doubt some water went into this container as well sometimes.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I wondered about the choice of strychnine myself, until I came across a couple of references to the chemist, Jackson. If he instigated the use of strychnine, which some scholars seem to think he did, he may have had some ulterior motive, probably to sell more of a drug in which he regularly traded.

      Apparently, strychnine best mimicked the bitter taste of the hops, and it helped to keep the head of the beer foamy, which may have been why so many publicans chose to use it. There is also the fact that most humans will just go with what works. So, if it had been demonstrated that strychnine would give the desired results at a reasonable price, it is unlikely that most publicans would cast about for something else. They would just go with a proven additive.

      I am not much of a beer drinker, but I do wonder if strychnine was used outside of Britain for another reason. My grandfather was a teamster in the days when teamsters still drove teams of horses. He worked for a brewery just outside Chicago, and he told me that it was the practice to give every horse a bucketful of beer each morning, before they began their rounds. They all loved it! One morning, the guy who brought the beer for the horses was late, and some of the teamsters thought they would leave without it. They did not count on their teams, none of whom would budge until they got their beer. I would hate to think of those horses drinking beer laced with strychnine!



  3. chasbaz says:

    I remember brewer’s drays in London. Some are still pulled by horses and they would certainly get some of the product. I saw an newspaper article in 1892 in Sydney, Australia were a bar-owner was prosecuted for adding strychnine, so it probably carried on longer than that even if it was banned. Also in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1929 there is a case where a customer became ill through carrying an uncorked bottle of strychnine into a pub in his pocket and ‘carelessly allowing some to fall into his glass’. [Ironical laughter]. So it seems that there were always those who preferred their beer laced.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      WOW!!! Thanks for the info! I did not find any of those references and had no idea that strychnine had managed to circulate around the Empire. I love the story about the guy with the bottle in his pocket. Good Grief!!! But it does remind me of my grandfather again. During Prohibition, he told me how he poured wood alcohol through loaves of bread, which supposedly filtered out the toxic elements. The things people will do for a drink!!!


  4. chasbaz says:

    By the was, my great uncle Tom was a teamster in Canada who delivered Coca-Cola. He would give each horse a bottle now and again and it pepped them up!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I have known a lot of horses with a sweet tooth, but I would never have thought they would drink Coke. Between the sugar and the caffeine, I can imagine it would have given them a lift!


  5. SD Writer says:

    Great post – a nice bit of detail I hadn’t known.

    • Kathryn Kane says:


      I only recently ran across it, and did a lot of cross-checking when I did since I had a hard time actually believing it. But there is enough evidence to show it was done. It really makes one appreciate modern laws against food adulterants!



  6. elfahearn says:

    Fascinating entry, Kat, as usual. And it’s timely, since the hero in my WIP has a bit of a drinking problem. I read that some of London’s lesser bake shops added chalk to the bread to make it whiter. Oh, the hazzards of being poor in a big city in England.
    Of course, we scoff at anyone putting such toxic chemicals in our food nowadays, but who knows what Monsanto has us eating. I think we’d be equally shocked if we knew.
    P.S. Love the horses having their beer in the morning! LOL

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you liked the post. I hope you will not give your hero beer with strychnine. Sounds like he has enough problems already. 😉

      Actually, on the bread front, I am sorry to say that most bakers across Britain added alum to their bread dough. It was not limited to the lesser bakeries, quite a lot of them did it, upscale as well as downscale. Alum was cheap, readily available, it helped to whiten the bread, and it was slightly sweet. But most importantly for the bakers, it also expanded the volume of each batch. They could produce more loaves at a lesser cost for ingredients, thus significantly increasing their profits.

      I think you are right about what may be in our food today, and I try not to think about it. I read a book sometime ago in which the author advised not eating anything which our grandmothers would not have recognized as food. I try to follow that advise, in the hope I can at least keep down the amount of additives I consume.



  7. elfahearn says:

    Michael Pollen advised shopping only at the perimeters of the grocery store — in other words, buy produce. Except for occasional forays down the pasta isle, I’ve followed his instructions. It’s astounding how much garbage masquerading as food occupys shelf space.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You have hit that nail squarely on the head! I try to do the same, though with visits to the cat food aisle, in addition to the pasta. But now that the winter is over, I also have the luxury of a farmer’s market which sets up in Copley Square, here in Boston. It is just across the street from where I work, every Tuesday and Friday. Until the fall, I will be able to get my produce from them, most of it picked earlier that same day. Right now, I am waiting for strawberry season to arrive. There is nothing like fresh strawberries, straight from the field. Major YUM!!!!!

      Years ago, I worked with a team of archaeologists and they were all convinced that the archaeologists who came after them would find human remains in much better shape in the future, since we all eat so many preservatives. One of the team was addicted to cheese doodles and he figured he would be mostly orange if anyone ever dug him up! 😉


      • elfahearn says:

        Kat, you worked with archaeologists? My father was an archaeologist! What was your field of study? His was the dawn of civilization, when man first settled into villages.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I am afraid your dad would find my period quite modern. I did my graduate work in Material Culture of the period 1750 to 1850, with minors in history and art history. I am interested in early civilizations, but I have not studied them formally. One of my cousins did study archaeology formally, and her focus is the Neanderthals. She even learned flint knapping and can make quite a sharp stone knife.

          I also got a Museum Studies diploma and when I graduated, I went to work as curator for a historic house. While I was there, we had an archaeological team come in to excavate an area in the garden where some construction was planned. The site had been occupied since c. 1650 by English settlers, and they found a number of interesting items at those lower levels. But the most amusing was the section which included an old privy. At one level, which they dated to about 1750, they found several broken wine bottles, a few bent forks and literally hundreds of empty oyster shells. Oysters were cheap fast food in those days, so we figure someone had a wild party and dumped the remains into the privy afterwards, maybe to hide the evidence.

          Some archaeologists who specialize in pre-history call work in modern periods “trash archaeology” since that is where the bulk of the digs end up being carried out. But any of those digs with which I have been involved have yielded a lot of information of the period, so I don’t care what anyone calls it. I find it fascinating!



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