The pages of “Shadows from the Walls of Death” should not be touched without gloves. SHADOWS FROM THE WALLS OF DEATH, printed in 1874 and measuring about 22 by 30 inches, is a noteworthy book for two reasons: its rarity, and the fact that, if you touch it, it might kill you. It contains just under a hundred wallpaper samples, each of which is saturated with potentially dangerous levels of arsenic.
The book is the work of Dr. Robert M. Kedzie, a Union surgeon during the American Civil War and later professor of chemistry at Michigan State Agricultural College (now MSU). When he came to serve on the state’s Board of Health in the 1870s, he set out to raise awareness about the dangers of arsenic-pigmented wallpaper.
Though a lethal toxin, arsenic can be mixed with copper and made into beautiful paints and pigments, most commonly Scheele’s Green or Paris Green. This was no fringe phenomenon: near the end of the 19th century, the American Medical Association estimated that as much as 65 percent of all wallpaper in the United States contained arsenic.
The Victorians knew that arsenic was poisonous when eaten, of course—it had gained a reputation as an “inheritance powder” that could be used, for example, to bump off elderly aunts with large fortunes—but most saw little risk in plastering their homes with the stuff. Kedzie argued (correctly, we now know) that arsenical wallpapers shed microscopic dust particles that can be inhaled or ingested.
In the preface to Shadows, he warns that arsenic can kill not only by “sudden and violent destruction of life” but by slow, chronic poisoning, a mysterious and lingering illness that might baffle sufferer and physician alike. He wrote of women taking ill and withdrawing into their wallpapered bedrooms to recover, not knowing that all the while they were inhaling “an air loaded with the breath of death.”
Do you live in an old, wallpapered house?