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.