‘Wholesale poisoning by hot cross-buns’ and bizarre murders of medical men

This post is contributed by Professor Sally Shuttleworth (University of Oxford).

As you bite into your delicious hot cross-bun this Easter, spare a thought for the inhabitants of Inverness in 1882, who were subjected to ‘whole-sale poisoning by hot cross-buns’, with over 140 worthy citizens and children affected.[1]   The Glasgow Herald reported on Easter Saturday that,

‘Good Friday of 1882 is not likely to be forgotten in Inverness….In the forenoon whole families were suddenly seized with a severe and serious illness, and the town doctors were soon in great demand.  The illness manifested itself at first as a rule with giddiness and pain in the neck and limbs.  The giddiness was in every case followed by severe illness and vomiting….Families here and there were prostrate, and school children were suddenly seized with sickness and were dropping in a helpless condition on the ground.[2]

A subsequent medical enquiry pointed the finger at the spice in the buns as the agent of poison.[3]   I picked up this item of news from the Lancet, April 22, in 1822, amidst a larger item on the insanitary conditions of bread-making in London, including one establishment where bread tins were placed over an open sewer to cool.   Not to be recommended!

hot cross buns

“Hot Cross-Buns!” from Illustrated London News, 1861.

One of the delights of reading nineteenth-century periodicals is that of sheer serendipity – you never know what you will encounter next.  This item on hot-cross buns came from a section in the Lancet called  ‘Annotations’ which gives a round-up of medically-related news and is a wonderful way of exploring the goings-on and concerns of the time.  For the Diseases of Modern Life team, this particular day is a treasure trove capturing many of the issues we are exploring, from public and occupational health through to education, and the problems of drink and drug taking.    The latter figures largely, with items on ‘The Curse of Chloral’, on Dante Rossetti’s death from this new drug; ‘Another Warning against the Use of Narcotics’ on an over-worked doctor who died from an accidental overdose of morphia which he took to get to sleep; and ‘Grocers’ Licences and Secret Drinking’, which highlighted an issue Jennifer Wallis has explored, on anxieties about alcohol licenses for grocers’ premises unleashing a wave of secret female drinking:  ‘To no other members of the body politic is it so well known as to the members of our profession how the secret evils to health and morality springing from the license increase the mischievous and dangerous results from alcoholic indulgence, especially amongst the female section of the community’.   The prospect that the respectable activity of grocery shopping could become a cover for illicit female drinking was clearly alarming.

Occupational health was covered by an item on demonstrations by shop assistants for shorter hours:  the journal supported the general aim, but disapproved of ‘mixed gatherings in Trafalgar–square’ – women breaking decorum again, and disturbing public peace.   The item on education addressed the issue of the day, ‘Cramming and Forcing School Children’, expressing yet again the journal’s opposition to the excessive cramming and examining of the young: ‘It is perfectly well known to everybody who has taken the trouble to study the system of teaching and training for results – the inevitable consequence of the competition and examination mania – that education is a misnomer for the method of tuition too generally employed’.   I would recommend this section to our current Secretary of State for Education as some Easter reading, while munching a hot-cross bun.

By far the most bizarre item in these ‘Annotations’ comes in under the bland title, ‘A Strange Story’.   It recounts ‘an extraordinary plot to murder a number of medical men in Berlin’.   The plot was discovered when two accomplices went to the police.   The idea was to hire rooms in various parts of town, and summon a doctor under the pretence of illness ‘and then to murder him by means of a strangling instrument’.   The instrument, which the perpetrator had spent two years devising, based on ‘an old-fashioned instrument of torture preserved in one of the museums of the city’ is described in gruesome detail.   Even more bizarrely, the police allowed the plot to go ahead, hiding in an adjoining room and dressing up one of their number as the intended victim, Dr Lehrs.  They only intervened when the ‘half-strangled man’ knocked on the floor to summon aid.   If it were not for the fact that this tale pre-dates the Sherlock Holmes stories by eleven years, I would have been tempted to think that the police had been consuming too much detective fiction.  I had always assumed that the elaborate dramas of enticement, so beloved of crime writers, largely belonged to the fictional domain.  Now I am not so sure.

Happy Easter everyone, but beware of over-indulgence, whether of hot-cross buns, alcohol (or other stimulants), or television crime dramas!



[1]  ‘Annotations’, Lancet April 22, 1882, 657-664, p. 661.   See also ‘The Poisoning by Hot Cross Buns’, Morning Post, Monday, April 10, 1882, p. 6.

[2]   ‘Alarming Occurrence in Inverness’, Glasgow Herald, Saturday April 8, 1882; also ‘The Poisoning Case in Inverness’, Glasgow Herald, Monday April 10, 1882, where the original estimate of 100 cases goes up to 140.

[3]   ‘Poisonous Hot-Cross Buns’, August 12, 1882, p. 284.

Conference – Mind Reading: The Role of Narrative in Mental Health

Mind Reading 2017 - 260 x 323

18th-19th June 2018, University of Birmingham

Key note speakers:

Professor Brendan Drumm (UCD)

Professor Femi Oyebode (University of Birmingham)

Professor Chris Fitzpatrick (UCD)

Professor Dame Sue Bailey, and

Professor Sally Shuttleworth (University of Oxford)

Do clinicians and patients speak the same language? How might we bridge the evident gaps in communication? How can we use narrative to foster clinical relationships? Or to care for the carers?

This two-day programme of talks and workshops is a collaboration between the University of Birmingham, UCD Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Diseases of Modern Life and Constructing Scientific Communities Projects at St Anne’s College, Oxford. Together we seek to explore productive interactions between narrative and mental health both historically and in the present day. Bringing together psychologists, psychiatrists, GPs, service users, and historians of literature and medicine, we will investigate the patient experience through the prism of literature and personal narrative to inform patient-centred care and practice, and focus on ways in which literature might be beneficial in cases of burnout and sympathy fatigue.

A DRAFT PROGRAMME IS AVAILABLE HERE: https://literatureandmentalhealth.files.wordpress.com/2018/03/mind-reading-programme1.pdf

REGISTRATION IS NOW OPEN AND PLACES CAN BE BOOKED: https://shop.bham.ac.uk/conferences-and-events/college-of-arts-law/school-of-english-drama-american-canadian-studies/mind-reading-literature-and-mental-health-conference


Confusing Times: Communicating, 24/7


Confusing Times

Source: Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Kladderadatsch, 22 Feb. 1857, p. 36 – CC-BY-SA 3.0

In the age of smartphones, broadband internet access, and cheap(ish) air travel, the vision of the ‘global village’, appears to have become a reality. Networks of communication and transportation ensure that work and social life can remain uninterrupted, as those of us privileged enough to benefit from new technologies become—potentially—contactable anytime, anywhere. In the virtual world, video conferences and phone calls take place around the clock, maintaining business relations and friendships across the globe. In the physical world, distance remains an obstacle, but meetings are scheduled at increasingly short notice, as an ever growing number of flights carry passengers from one end of the world to the other, at all times of the day and night.

The roots of this global 24/7 society can arguably be traced back to the introduction of telegraphy during the nineteenth century. Only from the late 1840s and 1850s did networks of communication begin to extend across entire states, continents and, eventually, the globe, allowing a steadily expanding group of users to exchange messages over considerable distances, and instantaneously—at least, in theory. In practice, the cost of inter-continental telegrams long remained prohibitive, and technological limitations often meant that communication was interrupted or delayed. But the idea that diplomacy, business, news reporting, and even social interactions could be conducted across the globe in ‘real time’ both fuelled and confused the contemporary imagination.

Already in 1857, the German economist Karl Knies sketched out the implications of instant messaging for people’s understanding of time. Considering ‘a telegraphic dispatch which is sent eastwards and arrives “in the blink of an eye”’, he wrote, ‘the further it travels, the later it arrives—compared with the time at the sending office; and one which is sent westwards must arrive increasingly “earlier” than when it is sent’. Anticipating the imminent establishment of a telegraphic connection between Europe and North America, he explained that if ‘a message in Washington, New York or Philadelphia arrives five hours “earlier” than it is sent from London, Amsterdam or Paris, it overtakes the “course of the sun”, and puts into question a number of practical matters of everyday life”. For the first time, Knies explained, ordinary individuals would have to be attentive to the date in different places across the world: ‘next to the “today” in our Europe there is a “yesterday” in Asia, and a “tomorrow” in America’.[1]

A year later, the first trans-Atlantic cable was laid between Ireland and Newfoundland, sparking a fascination for the ‘contemporaneity’ of different days and times. The German satirical newspaper, Kladderadatsch, immediately seized on the opportunity to play with the temporal disorder which the telegraph appeared to cause. An article entitled ‘The Wonderful Effects of the Transatlantic Telegraph’ presented a sequence of imaginary exchanges, which began with a telegram received in Quebec, on 10th June 1860, at 5 am, announcing that a fire had broken out in the Tower of London at 10 am that day. The message was immediately transmitted to Nikolayevsk-on-Amur, in Eastern Russia, where it arrived on 9th June at 10pm, local time, and from there was sent to Moscow.

Upon receiving the news of the fire, the article continues, the police chief in Moscow promptly telegraphed the Lord Mayor of London, at 4pm on 9th June (local time),  describing the alarming message ‘which we have just received from America, sent tomorrow morning from London’. ‘Thanks to the wonderful head-start which the telegraph provides’, the police chief added, ‘I hope you will be in a position to prevent the imminent danger’. The Lord Mayor of London finally replied, at 1 pm on 9th June: ‘Thanks, a thousand thanks! Your zeal will save us. The fire services have been alerted, the fire engines are being driven past the site and tested, such that we can hope to extinguish the fire tomorrow morning as soon as it breaks out’.[2]

One hundred and sixty years on, this early fascination with the impact of a now defunct technology may seem almost endearing. Yet the temporal confusion which accompanied the early experience of telegraphic communication has by no means disappeared in the face of increasing global integration. How many of us ask ourselves, as we board a long-haul flight, ‘At what time do I land? And what time will that be in my mind?’, as we plan a strategy to adapt our body clock to local time upon arrival. How many urgent emails are put on hold or lie unanswered because our partners across the pond ‘aren’t awake yet’? Many are the long-distance calls, conferences and interviews, which are planned in advance to suit the habits of individuals in different time zones—heaven forbid one of them should switch to Daylight Saving Time in the interim—only to then begin with the question: ‘so what time is it where you are then?’

Whilst the telegraph lay the foundations of the perpetually connected world in which many of us live, it also first demonstrated the social and biological limits to global synchronisation. As a cartoon published in Kladderadatsch illustrated, the laying of the trans-Atlantic cable in 1858 heralded the age of instantaneous communication—it augured a world kept awake by the pulse of the network. But it also highlighted the many social rhythms and diurnal cycles that co-existed across the globe—frameworks of activity with which the tempo of communication would have to compete. The scene depicted is reminiscent of many a present-day Skype conversation, scheduled at the fringes of two individuals’ days, confronting the bleary-eyed bed-goer with the fresh alertness of the early bird: ‘Good Night, dear Jonathan. How do you do?’, the Englishman asks his American friend. ‘Good morning, dear John! Very well!’[3]

Transatlantic telegraph

Source: Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Kladderadatsch, 22 Aug. 1858, p. 156 – CC-BY-SA 3.0


[1] Karl Knies, Der Telegraph als Verkehrsmittel (Tübingen, 1857), pp. 190-1.

[2] Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Kladderadatsch, 29 Aug. 1858, p. 158.

[3] Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Kladderadatsch, 22 Aug. 1858, p. 156.