Arts & Leisure

Need a killer read? Check out these poison books

JODY SMITH AND Joseph Watson found four poisonous books in the Middlebury College Special Collections that contain arsenic as well as other elements. The books all are covered in these brilliant green covers, which were popular in the 19th century. The books have since been registered on the Arsenical Books Database. Independent photo/Steve James

They say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but in this case you might want to… In fact, that’s exactly how Joseph Watson, preservation manager and Special Collections associate at Middlebury College, found four books from the early 19th century that turned out to be poisonous. 

“They had just been sitting on the shelf,” Watson said in an interview last week. “It really only took a couple of hours to search the collection because I could look for the specific emerald green aesthetic of the binding. I used a bookmark tool to match the color and once I found one or two I could spot them pretty easily.”

Watson began the search after Kaitlin Buerge, a former coworker in special collections, pointed out Melissa Tedone’s efforts with The Poison Book Project. Tedone works as the lab head for book and library materials conservation at Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Delaware. She discovered the emerald green books’ “hidden hazard” while preparing one such Victorian-era book for exhibit at Winterthur back in the spring of 2019. 

“Aware of recent literature about Victorian wallpapers, apparel and other household goods colored with toxic emerald green pigment, a dubious concern grew in my mind: Could this same toxic pigment have been used to color 19th-century bookcloth?” reads Tedone’s article in The International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (spring 2020). 

Indeed when the books were analyzed they “identified the strong presence of arsenic and copper in the bookcloth.”

So how dangerous are these enchanting emerald reads?

“I like how Dr. Tedone put it,” said Watson paraphrasing. “She says that you should be aware that these books can kill you… but you’d have to eat it.

“We wear gloves when interacting with the books and keep them now in plastic bags… but the exposure is low if the book is in its undisturbed form.”

Still, it’s good to know.

“TEN NIGHTS IN a Bar-Room: And What I Saw There” by T.S. Arthur (1855), “The Oasis: or, Golden Leaves of Friendship” by N.L. Ferguson (1854), “The Oasis: or, Golden Leaves of Friendship” by M.J. Percival (1856), and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The History of a Christian Slave” by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1853) were the four poisonous books found in the Middlebury College Special Collections.

That’s why Tedone and the Winterthur research team had a goal to “provide accessible tools for identifying potentially arsenical bookcloth in collections along with the most thorough, science-based information possible to help institutions make those logistical decisions,” the 2020 report read. “To this end we have designed and printed color swatch bookmarks which can be used for visual identification of the remarkably consistent hue of emerald green bookcloth when considered in combination with other historical clues.”

With the help of this bookmark Watson obtained from the Winterthur Poison Book Project, he was able to select several books from Middlebury’s Special Collections that might be carrying arsenic. And then he took his samples to Jody Smith to find out if these titles were in fact hazards. 

Smith manages the technical operations in McCardell Bicentennial Hall and provides support and training for advanced analytical instruments and instrument systems. The Rutland native and University of Vermont grad holds her master’s in analytical chemistry. She’s the person to know if you want to find out what’s in a book cover.

“We used XRF (X-ray fluorescence), which here at Middlebury is typically used for rock samples to identify elemental compositions,” Smith said. “But it’s a great tool for art and history conservation. The reason it is very appropriate for something like a book or a painting is that XRF is non-destructive. We don’t have to sample any of the material to test it.”

So how does the XRF instrument work exactly?

“In the simplest terms, we shoot x-rays at a sample (in this case the book),” Smith explained. “When an atom is struck by those x-rays, an electron from that atom is ejected. The way atoms work is they want to be very stable. Atoms don’t like to have an empty vacancy in their inner orbital shell. So an electron from a higher energy orbital fills in and emits a fluorescent x-ray, which is detected by the instrument. The energy of that x-ray is equal to the specific difference in energy between two quantum states of the electron.”

THE BOOKS WERE tested using at Middlebury College using an X-ray fluorescence instrument.

Smith is then able to take the data and identify several elements. 

“It was very obvious,” said Smith, who with Watson’s assistance tested seven books over spring break. “We found arsenic, gold, copper and lead… There was arsenic in the first four samples we did, but not in the other three samples that were a much duller color green.”

Watson submitted the four books and test results to the Arsenical Books Database, where they are now listed. The books have also been placed in ziplock polyethylene bags and will be stored in special boxes with special handling instructions.

“Honestly, I was surprised that we didn’t have more than four,” Watson said. “But that is more than enough for us to use as an example of these ‘Poison Books’ for our educational purposes.”

“I was surprised to see that the gold leafing is actually gold,” Smith added. “It was different for me to handle a book from the 1800s… I’m not artsy, so for me tying arts and science together is cool.”

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