“Agatha apparently has an idea that blotting paper is only sold in small quantities to persons of known reputation, who may be trusted not to put it to dangerous or improper uses.”
I’ve been enjoying the series of Victorian urban legends posted by Dr Beachcombing and venture to weigh in with what may or may not be another one.
The story comes from Cooper Hospital in Camden, New Jersey and the lack of names and the somewhat dubious device of poisoning via perfume on a blotter would suggest something born from the chloroform panics beloved of Victorian journalists and anti-White Slavers pamphleteers.
GIRL POISONED BY BLOTTER
Remarkable Story Which Comes From Philadelphia
REVIVED BY HOSPITAL DOCTORS
Received the Blotter in a Book, with Instructions to Smell of the Blotter
She Did So, and Immediately After Became Unconscious.
The Philadelphia Times on Monday printed the following remarkable story as a matter of news.
Shortly after nightfall yesterday a phaeton with curtains lowered was driven hastily up the driveway to the Cooper Hospital, Camden, stopping at the side entrance of the building. An elderly man, who from his dress and general deportment, appeared to be well up in the social scale, jumped from the vehicle, allowing the lines to hang over the dashboard, and burst into the hospital. Charles Hall, the night orderly, had heard the phaeton approaching and was on the point of going out to meet it when the door was thrown violently open and the elderly man ran square into his arms with a force that threw the astonished orderly onto a neighboring bench.
Without stopping to apologize, the visitor exclaimed, “Quick, for God’s sake! Help me carry my daughter in here and call a physician!”
Experience in many emergency cases had taught Hall the value of prompt action and he darted after the frantic man, who had already disappeared through the door. Lying unconscious in a corner of the conveyance was a girl apparently about 22 years old. Even in that uncertain light it could be seen that she was beautiful, and there was a glitter of diamonds on the small white hand which lay limp and motionless on the foxskin robe. The orderly saw all these things at a glance and decided at once that this was no ordinary dispensary case. The two men gently lifted the girl from the seat and carried her into a small room opposite the receiving ward.
The resident physician was called and with such meagre knowledge of the case as he could get form the father, set about to restore the patient to consciousness.
Nature came to his aid and in the course of twenty minutes or half an hour the young woman opened her eyes and stared about her in amazement, unable to comprehend the situation. Her father explained that he had found her in a dead faint on the floor of the library.
“This book was lying open beside you,” he said, producing a volume of Browning, “and the peculiar odor which emanated from it, together with the fact that the wrapper in which it came lay beside it, as though just torn off, led me to believe that it might have had something to do with your sudden illness, and so I put it in my pocket.”
The physician opened the book and found a piece of ordinary white blotting paper, somewhat discoloured, lying between the leaves. On one page was the poem, “May and Death,” and on the other, “Life in a Love.” The latter selection was marked with ink and above the verses was written in a bold, clear hand:
“A perfume distilled from the rarest drug in India.
“Read first, then smell.”
The poem runs:
Contact with the atmosphere had worn away the perfume to the merest trace, but even that caused the doctor to turn pale. Upon being plied with questions the girl said that she had received the book in the mail Saturday afternoon, but did not open it until last evening, owing to the fact that it had been temporarily driven from her mind by a letter from an old school friend, which arrived by the same post. With a woman’s curiosity she had smelled the blotter before reading the poem. She took only a dainty sniff, however, being suspicious that it was a joke. She said that she felt no pain and had no premonition whatever of fainting. The only person she knew who might have sent her the book was a German chemist with whom she had had an innocent Summer flirtation at Eaglesmere, and who has since written her many passionate letters, all of which have remained unanswered.
Further particulars were cut short by her father, who said that the physician could have no possible interest in her personal affairs.
He drew from his pocket a large roll of bills and asked the doctor to name a liberal fee and keep his own counsel. No money was accepted and the man escorted his daughter, who was by this time sufficiently recovered to walk, to the phaeton. He refused to give his name and drove away as rapidly as he had come.
In the excitement the book of poems was left behind and the physicians ware endeavouring to find out what insidious poison it contained. The stains on the blotter show traces of drugs, but the mysterious odor that was harboured in the harmless looking blotter will undergo chemical analysis.
The doctor who had charge of the case said last night.
“There is no doubt that the young lady’s illness was due to inhalation of the fumes of some exceedingly powerful drug. What that drug was I have not the least idea.”
New Haven [CT] Register 29 March 1899: p. 8
A phaeton, a fox-skin robe, a mysterious drug, a German chemist, and a volume of Browning. It all adds up to – well, a thrilling premise for a penny dreadful. Perhaps our noses should be twitching at the father, unsickened by the scent from the book in his pocket.
Here is the salient Browning poem apparently sent by the chemist stalker:
LIFE IN A LOVE
While I am I, and you are you,
So long as the world contains us both,
Me the loving and you the loth,
While the one eludes, must the other pursue.
My life is a fault at last, I fear:
It seems too much like a fate, indeed!
Though I do my best I shall scarce succeed.
But what if I fail of my purpose here?
It is but to keep the nerves at strain,
To dry one’s eyes and laugh at a fall,
And baffled, get up and begin again,
So the chase takes up one’s life, that’s all.
While, look but once from your farthest bound
At me so deep in the dust and dark,
No sooner the old hope goes to ground
Than a new one, straight to the selfsame mark,
I shape me—
As usual, I checked what “facts” I could; Cooper Hospital was a facility for lower-income and indigent patients. Charles Hall was a “man of all work” about the place. But unless there is a database somewhere for phaeton-owning men with nubile daughters who have innocently encouraged German obsessives, that is as far as we can get with this story.
There had been a certain amount of panic toward the middle of the nineteenth century about “whether chloroform, which had then been only recently introduced, could be used to facilitate robbery.” There were some reports of chloroformed persons robbed in railway carriages and the gas being pumped into sleeping chambers so burglars could loot the place unmolested. Whether these were any more than urban legends, it is difficult to say.
“In 1851 Lord Campbell introduced into his “Prevention of Offences Bill” a clause making ” the unlawful administration or application of chloroform and other stupefying agents felonious,” and argued vigorously in favour of its enactment. But Lord Campbell abandoned the idea that chloroform had been or could be used to facilitate robbery, without the knowledge of the person taking it, and thus gave a severe blow to the chloroform scare.”
The Scots Law Times, Volume 2: 29 December 1894: p. 384-5
In this he was backed by a majority of medical professionals and the chloroform scare evaporated temporarily. Whether it was true or not, though, the idea continued to waft through the ventilators of society in England and abroad.
A Chloroform Panic.
A cruel hoax, which might have led to serious consequences, was perpetrated a few days ago in a second class carriage on the Waterford and Limerick Railway. As the train was proceeding between Tipperary and Cahir, it was suddenly brought to a standstill by the screams of two young girls, who were found frantically trying to make their escape by the window of the carriage. From a very unconnected tale, it appeared that a young man, “respectably dressed,” and one of four male passengers who occupied seats in the carriage in which the girls were, had taken from his pocket, suddenly, a bottle and had thrown its contents in their faces. Although thickly veiled, the fluid fell on their cheeks, which began to smart, and almost instantaneously they felt “a numbed sensation” and a feeling as if of unconsciousness creeping over them. The windows of the carriage had previously been closed by the man who had acted in so rude and mysterious a manner. After much persuasion, the girls re-entered the carriage, and on arriving at Cahir their assailant was handed over to the police. On the following day he was brought before the magistrates. An examination having been made of the remaining fluid in the bottle, it was found to be eau-de-Cologne.
The Medical Times and Gazette 15 November 1862: p. 535
While the Philadelphia pheromone case may be an urban legend, it was reported that scent on blotters was a potential source of mischief.
A young man who works in one of the downtown offices was the victim a few days ago of some one who evidently has a very poor idea of a joke.
While standing in a drug store he was approached by one of the clerks, who dexterously slipped into his pocket a blotter soaked in “hydrogen sulphide,” which has an odor similar to that of Limburger cheese.
Leaving the drug store, he proceeded to an undertaking establishment to transact some business for his firm. Arriving there, a peculiar odor assailed his nostrils. Without waiting to see the manager, he walked out, muttering something about the health officials looking after the morgues.
After walking a few blocks he met a young woman acquaintance who chatted a moment with him, when she suddenly remembered that she had an important engagement to fill and abruptly left him, pressing her perfumed handkerchief to her nostrils. The odor still clung to him, however, so he searched his pockets and found the blotter, which accounted for the mysterious odor in the undertaking parlors and the abruptness of the young woman in leaving him.
Next morning the young man appeared at the office attired in a new suit. He is secretly vowing vengeance on the perpetrator of what he thinks is a very poor joke.
Duluth [MN] News-Tribune 3 May 1908: p. 6
Certainly not as dangerous as a knock-out scent, but it still stinks. That said, we’re sniffing around another narrative with no names or personal details, so perhaps this is just an early twentieth-century version of the shrimp-in-the-curtain-rods-scorned-wife’s-revenge.
An (half-serious) thought: Could this sort of thing be the origin of the term “blotto?” Any other scent-sational crimes? We can take the Mattoon Gasser and other later twentieth-century phantom anesthetists as read. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.