1852: Death By Acid

In the “Canada Medical Journal” Volume 1, No.3, May 1852, the reader is introduced to an article written by James Sewell, M.D that discusses the “Fatal case of poisoning by Sulphuric acids with observations.”[i] Through descriptions of the events that occurred on the day of the incident, Dr. Sewell gives insight to how woman’s mental health was handles in 1852. The article was also written with the intent of getting Dr. Sewell’s name out to his peers and to the public as he explained in grave details the effects of Sulphuric acid when ingested in large quantity. An incident that would be highly unusual, even by today’s standards.


The article opens with the statement, “a sad case, possessing more than usual interest, both from the poison selected and the quantity swallowed, having recently occurred in my practice.”[ii] Right away the reader is informed that the person writing the article is a doctor, has a practice and is sad about the case of poisoning he is about to describe. Yet, he feels it is his “duty to submit its history to the profession”[iii] reinforcing the importance of the information he is about to give.


Dr. Sewell then begins to give the backstory to “Mrs. E, aged 23, the mother of two children”[iv] who had “suffered a miscarriage, which left her feeble and nervous.”[v] He also talks about the fact the woman was deeply affected by a sermon she had listened too because she was “easily acted upon by depressing causes”[vi] and as a result she had convinced herself that she was “without the pale of salvation – {her} soul was condemned and lost.”[vii] Dr. Sewell even went so far as to say that the woman had “became insane with this predominant idea”[viii] and made sure to inform her husband, as Mrs. E was told to go home, that his wife was suicidal and needed to be watched. [ix]


It is interesting to me that even though Mrs. E had come across as insane and was labeled as nervous and depressed, Dr. Sewell still sent her home. I feel this is a prime example of the attitude towards mental health in 1852. Dr. Sewell even goes so far as to suggest there is coloration between the miscarriage and Mrs. E going “insane” and yet there was no mention of how they helped her.[x] It appears they just warned the husband that she might try and kill herself and then just sent her home.[xi] This leads me to believe that in 1852 there was little to no help for individuals suffering from mental illness.


Before Sewell gets into the details of what happened to Mrs. E when she ingested the poison, he goes into great detail as to how she got her hands on the acid and the role of the husband as the purchaser of the acid. He explains that the ”husbands business led him to the employment of Tincture of Bromine, Iodine and other poisonous materials”[xii] that he had to hide so his wife would not consume them.[xiii] However, the poor husband never suspected that his wife was ill enough to take Sulphuric acid so he did not take the same precautions with it.[xiv] Setting up the article in such a way adds believability to what Sewell is saying. Being as ingesting sulphuirc acid would be an extremely painful way to die there needs to be a backstory. Had he cut out the reasons behind Mrs. E ingesting the poison and just talked about the effects of the acid on Mrs. E it would have been questionable. Who would believe that such an even would occur? Establishing that Mrs. E was not of right mind and that she had access to the acid is key.


The main purpose of this document is to inform the reader on what could happen if you swallow a mass quantity of Sulphric acid. Something the article does quite well given the fact it was written in 1852 and long before x-rays and other technological advancements. Sewell explains that the stomach-pump had been used imperfectly the first time on Mrs. E so he had to pump her stomach again. He also states that when he first came upon Mrs. E, 40 minutes had already passed since she had swallowed the acid.[xv] He explains how she was “pale and perfectly collapsed, cold skin, no pulse at the wrists and the action of the heart feeble and indistinct.”[xvi] He explains how they injected milk and oil into her stomach and quickly sucked it back out, in an attempt to see what was going on in her stomach.[xvii] They were met with a “dark grumous-looking blood mixed with a shred like filamentous substance.”[xviii] They did not know how to save her so they tried all the tricks of the time. “Oil, chalk and carbonate of magnesia were freely used, with a view to neutralize the acid of blunt its action.”[xix] But none of is helped as there was too much damage done and the poor woman was heard “wondering what made her do it”[xx] and stating, “she was burning alive”.[xxi]


By creating such a gruesome picture of what was happening to Mrs. E, Sewell was able to make this medical account theatrical and interesting. This is a story written with the intention of not being forgotten. While it has medical terminology spread through out, it is written in such away that anyone could read it and get an idea of what took place. The story is memorable allowing for Sewell to, in my opinion, be remembered for the incident. Even if one does not specifically remember Sewell’s name, the story is one that will stick with you and be told time and time again.


Once Mrs. E had passed Dr. Sewell did an autopsy and discovered that her stomach had been destroyed, and that the acid had burned through damaging her intestines, omentum and colon.[xxii] He also notes the time that lapsed from ingestion to death was three and the inside of her “mouth and lips were of a dead white, as if burned by a hot iron”. [xxiii]


Overall the main purpose of this article written by James Sewell, MD in May 1852, is to educate his fellow peers on an extraordinary case of severe Sulphuric Acid poisoning. Through his descriptions of the events leading up to the ingestion, Sewell gives a memorable account of the events occurring on that faithful day and small glimpse of how depression and mental illness was handled in that time.

Works Cited

[i] James Sewell M.D, “On Poisoning By Sulphuric Acid.” Canada Medical Journal and Monthly Record Of Medical and Surgical Science 1, No.3 (May, 1852) 131 accessed October 14,2016. 131. http://eco.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.8_04196_3/5?r=0&s=1

[ii] James Sewell M.D, “On Poisoning By Sulphuric Acid.” Canada Medical Journal and Monthly Record Of Medical and Surgical Science 1, No.3 (May, 1852) 131 accessed October 14,2016. 131. http://eco.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.8_04196_3/5?r=0&s=1

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Ibid

[v] Ibid

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Ibid

[ix] Ibid

[x] Ibid

[xi] Ibid

[xii] Ibid

[xiii] Ibid

[xiv] Ibid

[xv] Ibid

[xvi] Ibid 132

[xvii] Ibid

[xviii] Ibid

[xix] Ibid

[xx] Ibid

[xxi] Ibid

[xxii] Ibid

[xxiii] Ibid











Sewell, James M.D. “On Poisoning By Sulphuric Acid.” Canada Medical Journal and Monthly Record Of Medical and Surgical Science 1, No.3 (May, 1852) accessed October 14,2016. 131-133. http://eco.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.8_04196_3/5?r=0&s=1