111: The Devil’s Mark
What was ailing poor Arthur Duncan, who always seemed so uncomfortable?
Claire and Geillis are unceremoniously dropped into the thieves’ hole where they have a bit of time to bond as they await their fate. Claire confronts Geillis about Arthur’s death and Geilis admits that she did poison him with cyanide but only after trying for months to kill him with arsenic!
Indeed, Arthur appears ill every time we see him, suffering from various stomach ailments and discomfort. Even Claire was stumped as to what may have been causing his trouble.
The symptoms were rather puzzling; not like ulcer, I thought, nor cancer- not with that much flesh still on his bones- perhaps just chronic gastritis, as Geilie insisted.
From Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 24
But now it is all so clear. Arthur has been suffering the effects of chronic arsenic poisoning all these months.
Arsenic is ubiquitous in the environment, found in ground water most commonly, and also a byproduct of mining and smelting metals. It has been used medicinally for over 2400 years in traditional Chinese medicine and also used to treat syphilis in the western world before the development of penicillin. In the Elizabethan era, women used a mixture of vinegar, chalk and arsenic which they applied to their faces in hopes of preventing aging and creasing of the skin. Arsenic is an ingredient in green pigments used to color most anything – wall paper, textiles, paint.
Arsenic has been a favored poison throughout history. Tasteless and odorless, it was an easy choice. It is particularly known to have been used by the Borgias in Italy and is also thought to have been responsible for the death of Napoleon Bonaparte. In the 19th century, arsenic was dubbed “inheritance powder” because it was suspected that many impatient heirs ensured or accelerated their inheritance by means of poisoning with arsenic.
The most toxic form, white arsenic, or arsenic trioxide, is of course what Geillis chose.
Arsenic poisoning is due to ingestion most often, but also occurs via absorption through the skin and by inhalation. Arsenic is readily taken up by the red blood cells and distributed throughout the body, and is particularly toxic to the gastrointestinal system, kidneys, bone marrow, skin and nervous system.
White arsenic binds to and interferes with numerous enzymes in the cells of the body, wrecking havoc on normal cell function.
Symptoms after acute poisoning develop in minutes to hours and generally begin in the gastrointestinal system causing nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and severe watery diarrhea. It can cause a garlic odor on the breath and in the stool. Severe poisoning leads to abnormal heart rhythm, shock, acute respiratory distress and death.
What Arthur suffered, however, is chronic toxicity – long term exposure of lower levels of arsenic. The symptoms come on more slowly but still have significant consequences. Chronic exposure leads to abdominal pain, nausea and diarrhea as well, but also skin lesions, peripheral neuropathy (numbness and tingling, then intense burning pain to the hands and feet), cancer of the skin, bladder, lungs and liver, type 2 diabetes, and respiratory problems.
We’ve witnessed Arthur suffering with abdominal distress just about every time we’ve seen him. He’s been treated with peppermint by Geillis and fennel from Claire for his discomfort. These provide temporary relief but won’t cure him.
But alas, when that doesn’t do poor Arthur in, Geillis employs another technique and Arthur meets his end by cyanide poisoning.
Ah, Geillis, we wanted so much to like you, what with the fabulous red shoes and talk of BBQs…