The Inheritor’s Powder: A Cautionary Tale of Poison, Betrayal and Greed

Written by Sandra Hempel
Review by Bethany Latham

In 1833, in the village of Plumstead, elderly George Bodle, along with all those in his household, falls ill immediately after breakfast. While others slowly recover, Bodle, despite the attentions of the local doctor, dies. Poison is suspected, and a number of suspects emerge, all of whom thought to inherit the prosperous landowner’s substantial estate.

Through clear prose, this work weaves together multiple threads to make an informative and gripping tapestry of a read. In the early to mid-19th century, arsenic was ubiquitous, used in various household items as well as cosmetics and medicines, and available to anyone at any druggist for the poisoning of “vermin.” It was also difficult to reliably detect once employed. The result was a wave of arsenic murders which caused borderline panic in England and Europe. Hempel takes one case as example of this 19th-century epidemic, and it serves as a platform for exploration of the history of forensics and medical science in this area. The trial of the suspected malefactor, with all its conflicting testimony, adds courtroom drama. The nascent study of forensics and the incongruous roles it spawned (village doctor as detective and CSI tech, government munitions chemists developing tests for the detection of poisons) only serve to highlight the small and incompetent role played by police. Murder mystery and medical and forensic science tied up with a satisfying ending make for an appealing package well worth reading. Recommended.