Morning Dress, Opera Dress, Murder Dress — Fashions and Poisons from the Late 1820s

So, you’re writing along on your next historical fiction masterpiece and you come to that place in your story where a character has to die by a “sedative and narcotic poison.” The first thing you think is: what does the murderess wear?

I’ll give you another scenario. You’re writing your next bestselling emotionally-charged romance novel. It’s the last chapter and the hero is dying from a “mineral corrosive poison” that the villain made him ingest. What does your heroine wear when pumping her hero’s stomach to save his life?

These are tough questions! And now we have the answers, thanks to The British Almanac, Containing Astronomical, Official and Other Information Relating to the British Isles, the Dominions Oversea and Foreign Countries by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (I adore that title) published in 1828 and R. Ackermann’s Repository of Fashions, published in 1829.

Note: to read descriptions of these dresses, please locate the appropriate fashion plate in R. Ackermann’s Repository of Fashions

POISONS as excerpted from The British Almanac referenced above.

In introducing this important subject into the Companion to the Almanac, it is not our intention to teach people either to attempt to cure themselves or others, or to neglect obtaining the best professional assistance in their power, as soon as possible, when any poison has been, either accidentally or intentionally, administered. On the contrary, we believe that nothing produces greater mischief then the endeavor to communicate to the public a smattering of medical knowledge, and that no books have contributed so effectually to supply patients for the profession of medicine and subjects for the grave, as these pseudo-medical works, which are well known under the titles of Domestic Medicine, Medical Guides, Popular Treatises on Indigestion and Bilious Complaints, Family Physician, and other similar compilations.

If those who have studied the profession of medicine most efficiently, and who have, by long observation and frequent opportunities, become acquainted with the influence of diseases on the animal economy, often experience the greatest difficulty in recognizing disease, and behold with regret every effort to remove it prove futile, how criminal is the temerity of persons, who, without such aids, presume to treat maladies, of the nature of which they are perfectly ignorant, and to prescribe remedies, which in the hands of the uninstructed, are as likely to destroy life as to restore health! Nothing in the history of society is, indeed, so inexplicable as the proneness to believe in quackery; and it is a curious, but a well known fact, that quacks, who from scruples of conscience have, after being successful, studied the science of medicine, have lost all their business the moment they became instructed! But although we disavow everything like quackery, yet it cannot be denied that, in cases of poison, many valuable lives have been lost for want of knowing what can be done to arrest the symptoms, until proper professional assistance can be obtained. It is this species of information which we are desirous to communicate; and beyond it we do not presume to extend our instructions.

It is not easy to define what is strictly to be considered as a poison; for, in a general acceptation of the term, whatever destroys or injures life, is poisonous; but in this point of view both food and medicine, taken in improper quantities, and under certain circumstances, may be said to operate as poisons, and, therefore, we confine the term to those substances which, when taken into the stomach in small doses, or applied in any other manner to a living body, destroy health or extinguish life. Poisons are productions of the animal, the vegetable, and the mineral kingdoms; and from the effects which they cause upon the living body, may be arranged under five distinct classes.


These destroy the texture of the organ or part to which they are applied, and when this organ performs functions necessary for the preservation of the entire animal machine, or is a vital organ, death generally ensues. When a person who is in good health is suddenly seized with violent pain, and the sensation of heat in the stomach and bowels, with a drawing together, or constriction of the mouth and throat; vomitings, particularly of blood, hiccough, fæter of the breath, convulsions, and either intense heat or a cold clammy moisture of the skin; if no other cause of these symptoms can be assigned, it may be suspected that a poison of this class has been swallowed. In such a case, the nature of the poison being unknown, the most beneficial step to be taken, until professional aid can be procured, is either to empty the stomach, by means of the stomach-pump, if it can be procured, or to solicit the evacuation of the poison from the stomach by tepid water or milk, containing in solution white of egg, sugar, and magnesia. Whichsoever of these mixtures are employed, it should be drunk in large quantities: but, when the poison is known, the means to be pursued vary according to its nature, as detailed in the following notices.

Animal corrosive poisons.

The Blistering Fly, Cantharis, is the only animal poison of this class. When it is known that it has been swallowed, which may happen by mistake, as a medicine, or by design, milk, solutions of gum or of starch, and similar demulcent fluids, should be drunk freely; the tepid bath used, and clysters of starch with camphor administered. Oil would naturally be suggested to the mind as a proper substance for sheathing the stomach in this case; but nothing can be more improper, because oil dissolves the active principle of the Blistering fly, and consequently extends its influence.

B. There is no vegetable substance belonging to the class of corrosive poisons.

C. Mineral corrosive poisons.

These are very numerous: but, for our purpose, it is necessary to mention those only, which are more likely to be taken, either accidentally or by design. For the facility of reference these are alphabetically arranged.

1. Ammonia, or Volatile Alkali. Many instances have occurred in which liniments, intended for external application, containing large quantities of volatile alkali, have been swallowed by mistake. Vinegar, lemon juice, or solution of citric acid, should be immediately given, and afterwards milk, mucilages, and other demulcent fluids.

2. Arsenic. Solicit the evacuation of the stomach, by administering large draughts of tepid water, mixed with milk and sugar, or chalk and water, or lime water.

3. Corrosive Sublimate. Give large quantities of white of egg, diluted in water. The white of egg decomposes this salt, and reduces it to the state of Calomel, which acting on the bowels, aided by the liquid, is carried off by purging.

4. Lime. Cases of poisoning by this substance must be treated in the same manner as those by ammonia.

5. Muriatic Acid; Spirit of Salt. That this acid has been employed as a poison may be readily detected by holding an uncorked bottle of hartshorn over the mouth of the phial or cup in which the poison was contained, whether it was in a pure state, or mixed with other substances. If the phial or cup contained muriatic acid, copious, dense, white fumes will be immediately perceptible. Administer directly calcined Magnesia, mixed in any bland fluid.

6. Muriate of Antimony; Butter of Antimony. This substance is employed by farriers as a horse medicine, and has, therefore, sometimes been used by suicides. Administer large draughts of a strong decoction of the yellow Peruvian Bark, and, until this can be procured, diluents in quantities sufficient to excite vomiting and to wash out the stomach should be given.

7. Nitrate of Silver; Lunar Caustic. This has been swallowed by mistake by children. Force into the stomach a strong solution of common salt, which forms an insoluble, and consequently innocuous substance, by uniting with the nitrate in the stomach. After this, empty the stomach by an emetic or by the stomach-pump.

8. Subnitrate of Bismuth ; Flake White. This substance is employed as a white pigment by artists, and therefore may be taken into the stomach by mistake. Exhibit large draughts of milk, which is instantaneously curdled by the subnitrate, and involves the poison; thus affording: time until professional aid can be obtained.

9. Nitric Acid; Aquafortis. Give a strong solution of Soap, or a mixture of calcined Magnesia in water.

10. Oxalic Acid. Many persons have been poisoned by taking this acid in mistake for Epsom salts: but this could never happen if medicine were tasted before the draught of it be swallowed; the taste of Epsom salts being bitter, and that of oxalic acid sour. As soon as possible after the poison has been taken, administer a mixture of chalk and water, which forms an insoluble and innocent compound with this acid ; and afterwards evacuate the oxalate thus formed, by an emetic, aided with copious dilution, and by irritating the inside of the throat with the finger or with a feather.

11. Solution of Potass. This solution is colourless, and might be swallowed in mistake for water, by a child or an ignorant person. Vinegar or lemon juice should be immediately administered.

12. Sulphuric Acid; Oil of Vitriol. This, one of the strongest of the corrosive poisons, has not infrequently been taken by the suicide. Give immediately calcined magnesia in milk or water; or a solution of Soap or of any of the fixed Alkalies.

13. Tartaric Acid. Administer chalk and water.

14. Tartar Emetic. As this medicine, when in powder, resembles magnesia, it has been taken by mistake, in dangerous doses, instead of that remedy. Dilute largely with decoction of yellow Peruvian Bark, which decomposes and renders the tartar emetic inert; or, if this cannot be had, evacuate the poison quickly by encouraging the vomiting it induces with warm water, and afterwards allay the vomiting with a grain or two of solid Opium.

15. Verdigris. It ought to be generally known that pickles, vegetable and fermentable substances, cooked in copper pans, if allowed to stand in the pan after it is taken from the fire, produce a ring of verdigris, by the action of the acid, aided by the air, on the copper with which it is in immediate contact: but if copper vessels be kept clean, and the food cooked in them be not allowed to remain in them after they are taken from the fire, no danger can result from their use. When poisoning by this means occurs, administer large doses of syrup, or of sugar and water, until the vomiting is produced by the bulk of the liquid; and afterwards give sugar or syrup in more moderate doses.

16. White Vitriol. Administer milk freely: it not only assists in sheathing the stomach against the corrosive quality of the poison, but partially decomposes it and renders it nearly inert.


These are substances which have a more or less caustic taste, and which, on being applied to the skin, excite inflammation, terminating sometimes in vesication, and at other times in suppuration and the destruction of the cuticle. When taken into the stomach, they operate nearly in the same manner as the corrosive poisons. The substances arranged in this class belong chiefly to the vegetable kingdom; and this is an important fact; for, knowing that none of the corrosive poisons are vegetables, when the symptoms of poisoning similar to those caused by the corrosive poisons occur, and it is found that these have been excited by a vegetable substance, if may be immediately concluded that it belongs to this class of poisons. If the poison be unknown, first empty the stomach by copious draughts of mucilaginous diluents, or by the stomach-pump; after which, vinegar or lemon juice, or any other weak acid, must be freely administered until professional aid can be procured.

A. There are no Animal Acrid Poisons

B. Vegetable Acrid Poisons.

These are very numerous, but we will notice those only which are more or less likely to be taken into the stomach either by design or by mistake.

Bryony Root. This is a large, fleshy, yellowish-white, spindle-shaped root, with a sweetish, but at the same time acrid and bitter taste. When it is known that Bryony root has been swallowed as a poison, excite vomiting by irritating the throat with the finger or a feather, and by administering large draughts of tepid water; after which, give milk, with from a grain to two grains of opium, once in two hours, until the violent colic pains are abated.

2. Coloquintida ; Bitter Apple. Much danger has been often incurred by overdoses of this substance being ordered by empirics and pretenders to specifics; but it has seldom caused death. First evacuate the stomach, in the manner already described, and then administer milk and oil.

3. Gamboge. This vegetable production, being used as a pigment in water-colour drawings, has often been swallowed in dangerous doses by children, and has produced fatal effects from the violence of the vomiting and purging which it causes. Administer milk and other demulcent diluents, with a grain of opium at short intervals.

4. White Hellebore Root. This root excites violent vomiting and purgings, with bloody evacuations which soon prove fatal, if proper measures to counteract its influence be not immediately taken. Evacuate the stomach with copious draughts of demulcent fluids, and sheathe the bowels with clysters of starch and other emollients; then administer freely acidulous drinks, coffee, and camphor in doses of from six to ten grains. Professional aid cannot be too early procured when this poison has been taken.

5. Black and Fetid Hellebore. The symptoms resemble those caused by Bryony-root, and require to be treated in the same manner.

6. Sow Bread; Cyclamen. The root of this plant, which is a flattened, circular tuber, produces effects similar to those of white Hellebore when it is swallowed; and, consequently, cases of poisoning by it require to be treated in the same manner as those by white Hellebore.

7. Spurge. The seed-vessels of this family of plants are what is termed tricoccous, that is, composed of three capsules or distinct cells united back to back on a common footstalk. Those of the species indigenous in Great Britain bear a distant resemblance to capers, and have been occasionally eaten by the ignorant and children, in quantities which have proved fatal. The symptoms are great heat in the stomach, vomiting, violent purging with bloody stools. When poisoning from these seed-vessels, or from the Euphorbia of the shops, occurs, first evacuate the stomach by large draughts of tepid water; and then give repeatedly olive oil and milk, sheathing the lower bowels with starch clysters.

In the same manner are to be treated cases of poisoning by Arum, or Cuckoo pint, the beautiful red berries of which, as they appear in autumn, sometimes allure children to eat the root; Croton Oil, when overdosed; the Meadow Anemone; the Meadow Narcissus; the different species of Ranunculus or Buttercups; and Aconite, or Wolfsbane: but in all these cases, we must again repeat it, the best professional assistance should be procured as soon as possible.

C. Mineral Acrid Poisons.

These are few when compared with those belonging to the class of corrosive poisons. We shall notice only one.

1. Nitre; Saltpetre. This excellent medicine has occasionally been taken, by mistake, instead of Glauber salts, in doses of an ounce or more. It produces vomiting, purging with bloody stools, excruciating gripings, cold sweats; and if it do not terminate in death, the future life of the patient is likely to be rendered wretched, and he dies paralytic. The instances of poisoning by Nitre demonstrate the propriety, or rather necessity, of tasting inedicines before swallowing them, as it would be very unlikely, under such precautions, to mistake Nitre for Glauber salts ; the taste of the former being cool, bitterish and penetrating that of the latter strongly saline and nauseous.

When Nitre has been taken in such large doses, dilute freely with milk and bland diluents.


The substances comprehended in this class of poisons, when taken into the stomach, or applied to the body in such a manner as to be rapidly absorbed, cause drowsiness, stupor, paralysis or apoplexy, convulsions, and death when the dose is sufficiently large. They belong, almost exclusively, to the vegetable kingdom.

A. Vegetable Sedative and Narcotic Poisons.

1. Camphor. This excellent medicine has occasionally been swallowed in doses so large as to cause very violent excitement of the brain and nervous system; such as vertigo, difficult breathing, fainting, cold sweats, convulsions, and, in some instances, death. When it is known or suspected that these symptoms have resulted from the administration of Camphor, give wine in moderate quantities, with ten or fifteen drops of laudanum, at short intervals, until professional aid be procured or the symptoms abate.

2. Hemlock; Conium maculatum. When this poison has been swallowed, either in the recent state or in the form of extract or of tincture, so as to produce high delirium or frenzy, or stupor, dilatation of the pupils, and convulsions, which frequently terminate in death, the stomach should be first evacuated by the stomach pump, if it be at hand, or by a scruple of white Vitriol, and acidulous fluids afterwards freely administered.

3. Henbane. Poisoning by this plant, either in its recent state or prepared for medicinal use, must be counteracted in the same manner as a case of poisoning by Hemlock.

4. Laurel Water. This acts as a direct sedative, and destroys life without convulsions or any of the other symptoms which those substances which are regarded as simple narcotics, produce. It is distinguished by the strong odour of bitter almonds; and, in cases of poisoning by it, whatever steps are taken must be prompt. Brandy, containing in each glass from fifteen to thirty drops of solution of Ammonia, or a teaspoonful or two of Hartshorn, should be administered, at short intervals, until the habit is roused, and the influence of the poison is overcome.

5. Opium. As this medicine, in all its forms of preparation, is the poison most commonly had recourse to by the suicide, there is reason for suspecting that it has been swallowed when the following symptoms occur: drowsiness, followed by delirium, pallidness of countenance, sighing, deep and snorting breathing, cold sweats, and apoplexy. The first object in the treatment of such a case is to dislodge the poison still remaining in the stomach, either by means of the stomach-pump, if that valuable instrument can be procured, or by the administration of an emetic consisting of a scruple of white vitriol, or from five to eight grains of blue vitriol; and by irritating the upper part of the gullet and the throat by the finger introduced into the mouth, or with a feather. If no professional aid can be procured, even after the stomach is emptied, then give freely acidulous fluids, with strong coffee and cordials. The subsequent drowsiness should be averted by rousing continually the attention of the patient; by obliging him to walk about; and, when it can be done, by immersing him in a tepid bath.

6. Prussic Acid. When this poison is taken in a large dose, death almost instantaneously follows; but when the quantity is more moderate, it produces the same sedative effects as laurel water, and is to be counteracted by the same means.

7. Stramonium, or Thorn Apple, acts nearly in the same manner as Opium; and, consequently, cases of poisoning by this agent are to be treated in the same manner as those by Opium.

8. Strong Scented Lettuce produces the same effects as Opium; and persons poisoned by it are, therefore, to be treated in the same manner as those by opium.

9. Tobacco. The symptoms which lead to the suspicion of poisoning by this substance are severe nausea, vomiting, and other sensations of drunkenness, great sinking of the strength, cold sweats and convulsions. If little time has elapsed from the swallowing the poison, clear the stomach by two or three grains of Tartar-emetic ; but, if some time has passed, administer purgatives, and afterwards acidulous drinks, with brandy, camphor, and other cordials.

B. Mineral Sedative and Narcotic Poisons.

1. Carbonic Acid Gas. The utmost danger often arises from this gas being extricated by burning charcoal in close rooms; and from the gas accumulating in cellars and other places, which have been long kept closed, and into which individuals imprudently enter immediately after they are opened. No person ought to enter a cellar, pit, well, or other place in which this gas can accumulate, without carrying with them a lighted candle, the going out of which should be the signal for instant retreat.

When suspended animation occurs from this gas, remove the body into the open air; and, while friction is applied over the chest, let the lungs be inflated by means of a pair of bellows, closing and opening the nostrils and mouth alternately, and pressing on the chest after each inflation, so as to imitate, as nearly as possible, the action of breathing. The influence of hydrogen gas on the body is to be counteracted in the same manner.


These are substances that inflame, to a certain degree, the surfaces to which they are applied, and, at the same time, produce the stupifying and sedative effects of the narcotic poisons. They are almost all vegetable productions.

A. Vegetable Acro-narcotic Poisons.

1. Cocculus Indicus. The symptoms produced by this poison dosely resemble those of intoxication. Vomit and purge freely.

2. Deadly Nightshade; Belladonna. The beautiful appearance and sweet taste of the berries of the deadly nightshade often allure children to eat them. The symptoms resemble those of intoxication, with high delirium, accompanied with laughter; an effect which is beautifully alluded to by our immortal dramatist in the following lines :

“Or have we eaten of the insane root, That takes the reason prisoner.” — Macbeth.

It also causes such a state of paralysis of the stomach, that vomiting can scarcely be excited by the most powerful emetics. Administer vinegar and acidulous drinks, which often enable the emetics to operate; and continue the use of the acids until all the symptoms disappear.

3. Elaterium. This is not likely to be used as a poison; but it may be overdosed in the hands of the ignorant. The chief symptoms are violent purging of watery stools, followed by sudden sinkings and excessive debility. Support the strength by cordials and opium in doses of a grain, repeated at short intervals; and exhibit clysters of starch, with from forty to sixty drops of laudanum in each clyster.

4. Foxglove; Digitalis. An overdose of this medicine, in any form of preparation, produces sickness, vomiting, vertigo, indistinct vision, cold sweats, delirium, and fainting; and may cause death. To counteract these effects, administer brandy and cordials.

5. Fool’s Parsley: Ǽthusa Cynapium. This plant is readily distinguished from real Parsley by three, long, linear leaflets, which are pendent on one side of the base of each umbellule, or umbrella-like expansion of the footstalks of the flowers, and which are not present in Parsley. When eaten, Fools-Parsley produces heat of throat, thirst, vomiting, a small frequent pulse, headache, vertigo, and delirium. It must be evacuated from the stomach by large draughts of demulcent fluids, until professional aid be procured.

6. Funguses and Poisonous Mushrooms. The general result of these funguses on the animal economy is pain of the stomach, nausea and vomiting, colic and purging, cramp of the lower extremities, with vertigo, delirium, and convulsions. Evacuate the stomach by emetics and purgatives, or by a combination of the two; as for example, a scruple of powder of ipecacuanha, and two ounces of Glauber salts; after which give acidulous drinks with brandy, or a teaspoonful of Ǽther at short intervals; and lastly Peruvian Bark. Ammonia and Hartshorn are hurtful.

It would be impossible within our limits to give a detailed account of every poisonous Fungus or Mushroom; but, as a general guide, we offer the following rules for indicating those of a suspicious character. All Funguses which grow in damp, shady places, which have a porous, moist, dirty surface, a disagreeable aspect, a foetid odour, a gaudy colour, have soft, open, and bulbous stalks, and which grow very rapidly, and corrupt as quickly, are to be suspected.

7. Meadow Saffron; Colchicum. Overdoses of the remedy and its preparation produce violent purgings, often with bloody stools, sinking of the pulse, and cold sweats. Evacuate the stomach by copious draughts of demulcent fluids; then give from six to ten grains of Ammonia, or a tea-spoonful, or two tea-spoonfuls of Hartshorn in a glass of brandy at short intervals.

8. Nux Vomica; Ratsbane. The symptoms of poisoning by Ratsbane are those of inebriety, vertigo, rigidity of the extremities, extreme difficulty of breathing, and suffocation. Evacuate the stomach and bowels; and afterwards dilute freely with acidulous fluids.

B. Mineral Acro-narcotic poisons.

1. White Lead; Carbonate of lead. The effects of this poison are felt chiefly by painters and workers in white lead, who do not wash their hands before eating their meals. It causes obstinate costiveness and violent colic, with tremors and palsy of the legs and arms. The same symptoms are produced by cider, wine, and other liquors, into which Sugar of Lead and Litharge have been introduced to remove acidity. Until professional aid can be obtained, administer an ounce of castor oil, with forty drops of Laudanum; and let the patient be put into a warm bath.


This class of poisons comprehends those substances which, on being taken into the stomach, or introduced by any means into the system, produce general debility, faintings, and a breaking down or putrescent state of the animal fluids and solids, without much effect on the intellectual faculties. They are almost all of an animal nature.

1. Venom of Serpents, such as the Viper, the Rattlesnake and Cobra de Capello. The symptoms resulting from the bite of all venomous snakes are nearly the same: pain in the bitten part, extending towards the heart; stupor, cold sweats, pallor and lividity of countenance, and gangrene of the bitten part, are indications of such venomous bites. Put a ligature upon the limb which has been bitten, between the wound and the trunk of the body, and apply a wine-glass, exhausted by burning a little spirit within it, as a cupping-glass over the part, or let the wound be sucked by a person whose lips and tongue are not chapped, until professional aid can be procured. Animal poisons of this description are innocuous when taken into the stomach, although their action is so powerful, and often fatal, when they are introduced into the habit by a wound, or any other method of innoculation. If the lips or the tongue of a person who sucks a poisoned wound be chapped, the system is innoculated in the same manner as if it were inserted by a lancet, or by a bite, under the skin.

2. Stings of Bees, Wasps, and other Insects. These are seldom fatal; but the pain which they excite is almost insupportable in some habits. Let the affected parts be bathed with tepid spirit of Mindererus.

3. Fish Poison. In this country poisoning from this cause seldom occurs, except when the Mussel or the Oyster is in an unhealthy state, or beginning to putrefy. The symptoms are a sensation of weight at the stomach, nausea, thirst, vertigo, itching over the skin, hiccough and faintings, with cold, clammy perspirations. Evacuate the stomach by a powerful emetic and the bowels by a purge; after which, administer copious draughts of acidulated fluids, with from twenty to forty drops of Ǽther at short intervals.

4. Bite of a Mad Dog. Tie a ligature above the wound, and apply a wine-glass or a cupping-glass over it, until a surgeon can be procured to cut out the bitten part. As everything depends on the complete extirpation of the part, a good surgeon must be employed. When the disease appears, if the medical attendant has not previously seen a case of the disease, which may happen to the most skilful practitioners, request him to cup the patient over the course of the spine, and immediately administer Prussic acid.

In concluding these brief instructions, we conceive it to be imperative upon us to caution persons from hastily taking up the idea that an individual is suffering under the influence of poison, without consulting a physician or a surgeon if practicable. The symptoms of cholera morbus, diarrhea, malignant fever, and several other diseases, may be mistaken by the ignorant and inexperienced for those of poison; and, thence, the necessity of immediately procuring that assistance, without which, in either case, not only is future health endangered, but life itself placed in the utmost peril.

To put things into perspective, I’ve excerpted the crime statistics found in the same volume of The British Almanac

One Reply to “Morning Dress, Opera Dress, Murder Dress — Fashions and Poisons from the Late 1820s”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.