The Lady of the Green Kirtle: Deadly Dyes

Previous parts of this series:  Part I, Part II,  Part III, Part IV


A dress dyed with Scheele’s green, which contains arsenic. Conservators must handle it with gloves.

It was not only the green hue of absinthe that broadcast the deadly nature of the Lady of the Green Kirtle. It was the color itself, which received a such a bad rep in the 19th century it became synonymous with disease and death.

I’m talking about Scheele’s Green, a pigment I researched for this Worldbuilding Wednesday post.

The pigment was invented in 1775 by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a German chemist. Its formula is CuHAsO3 which means it contains both copper and arsenic, the latter a deadly poison.  Scheele’s green replaced copper carbonate, a bluer shade of green compared to the new color’s rich lime shade. Previous green pigments were derived from plants, which meant they faded over time, or the mineral malachite which turned black. In that context, the bright, almost shocking, hue of Scheele’s green was a godsend. It proved very popular and in the first decades of the 19th century it was widely used for paints and dyes, which included interior paint for houses, fabrics for clothing and household furnishings, paper, kitchen implements, children’s toys, candle wax, even dyes for foods.

But… containing arsenic, it was also extremely deadly. Stories began to circulate of women becoming sick from the toxic fumes coming from their green gowns and children wasting away in green nurseries, not to mention chewing it off their toys. Wallpaper containing Scheele’s green was particularly deadly because of its tendency to flake and mold, allowing small particles of arsenic to be inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Napoleon Bonaparte was even rumored to have died of arsenic poisoning from the wallpaper in his house. The pigment also had the tendency to fade when it was exposed to sulfides and other industrial pollutants, which, considering it was the dawn of the industrial revolution, were rapidly covering the cities of Europe. It was this, not the health concerns, that led to its fall from favor.

By the 1860s, a more durable green known variously as Paris green, Emerald green, or Vienna Green began to be used and Scheele’s green was, at last, outlawed. Paris green wasn’t as reactive as Scheele’s green had been but it was just as deadly, being arsenic-based like its forebearer… so deadly, it was also used as a pesticide! Many of the masterpieces of the Impressionist Age were painted with Paris green and some art scholars credit the pigment with contributing to the artists’ deaths, not to mention the slow poisonings of those involved in its manufacturing.

Water Lily Pond, by Claude Monet. The green pigment used for the lily pads contained arsenic and may have contributed to his blindness.

A book was even written of the dangers: Shadows of the Walls of Death, by Dr. Robert C. Kedzie. Published in 1874, it contained wallpaper samples containing the offending pigment, and was so poisonous in itself that only five copies remain, the rest having been destroyed for their toxicity.

The deadly reputation of both pigments lingered on into the Edwardian Age and the early 20th century, and thus I’m sure Lewis was aware of it.

Because the symptoms of arsenic poisoning resemble so many other maladies, it often goes undetected, even now. Victims who receive a low dose feel confused and drowsy, often with headaches and diarrhea. At higher doses they would vomit, sometimes with blood, and dispel blood in their urine. Their skin reddens and develops lesions. Muscle cramps, hair loss, stomach pain and convulsions were other symptoms. Arsenic could kill over hours, days, or years, depending on the dose and how often that dosage was ingested; thus the typical “wasting away” that was a catch-all for serious illnesses in centuries past. Arsenic victims could also experience liver and kidney failure, eyesight problems, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and cancer if the poison didn’t kill them outright.

Though both pigments are long in the past, the current crop of greens aren’t exactly safe either. Green is a notoriously hard color to synthesize, and current shades use deadly chlorine, bromides, cobalt, titanium, zinc oxide, and nickel to depict the hue. But as long as there’s a demand for green, science will answer.

Arsenic poisoning also leads us to another example of Green = Evil, the phrase Green with envy.

Though it seems modern, it isn’t. Jealousy and envy are not interchangeable (jealousy is the fear you will lose something you value, whereas envy is the desire to have what another has) but they are very similar and work together in that the jealous person is fearful of the envy aroused in others, while the envious person seeks ways to poison the fortune of the successful, who may or not be jealous. Ah! There’s that word: poison.

The first documented use of the phrase in the English language goes back to William Shakespeare, who used the phrase “green-eyed jealousy” in his play The Merchant of Venice (1596) and in Othello (1604) where it became “the green-eyed monster.” Later, in Antony and Cleopatra it’s called “the green sickness.”

Desdemona proclaims her innocence in response to Othello’s jealousy, which has been stoked by the envy of Iago.

Both are powerful emotions, that’s for sure. Envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and jealousy part of the quartet that includes Love, Indifference, and Sadness.

Jalousie, one of the Four Emotions serigraph series by Russian artist and stylist Erte. Note how the lady is transforming into a green serpent.

As with all emotions, too much of them can make you sick, as in lovesick or sick with anger, and the sickness is not entirely metaphorical. Someone caught in the throes of unrequited love can slowly waste away from lack or sleep or eating. What else causes such deterioration? A slow poisoning by heavy metals — mercury, cadmium, lead, arsenic.

It’s doubtful Shakespeare knew of arsenic’s dangers. In his time, such substances were still respected members of an alchemist’s toolkit and often used by quack doctors, who still took the Four Humours approach to human disease: Blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Yellowish skin and eyes meant not liver failure (as could be caused by poisoning) but an excess of yellow bile, which had to be corrected by ministrations that built up the body’s supply of blood, its opposite. Such treatments often caused more harm if they didn’t kill the patient.

But the point is, jaundice was still a serious symptom for serious disease, and on the pale complexions of Northern Europeans that yellowish tint often gave them a subtle greenish hue. To turn green meant you were deathly sick, not just a little sick. Thus, Shakespeare was alluding to the power of jealousy — and envy — as emotions.

It’s hard to see the green tint in this screen grab, but he was very green, perhaps to make him pop out against that pink headboard.

A wonderful example of the poison/envy connection is seen in the 1984 movie Amadeus starring Tom Hulce as Mozart and F. Murray Abraham as Salieri, his musical rival at Court. In the movie Salieri is beside himself with envy of Mozart’s talent which dwarfs his own, so he decides to poison him. Near the end of the movie, as Mozart lays in his deathbed with his skin a pale, sweaty, greenish color, he innocently dictates his final musical masterpiece to Salieri, who then claims it as his own. It’s a wonderful depiction of envy in action and how poisonous that envy is. Of course, the joke’s on Salieri, who later goes insane and is put in a madhouse.

In real life — as opposed to fiction — there was never any proof Mozart was poisoned, though rumors of the deed swirled around enough that Salieri did, in fact, have a nervous breakdown over it and attempted suicide in his 70s. Ironically, it was the movie that revived interest in his music, which had been long forgotten, and in the present he is enjoying a renaissance.

The power of envy is also shown in this powerful painting by Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse.

Known as Circe Invidiosa, it depicts Circe, the sorceress of Greek myth, pouring poison into the pool where the nymph Scylla is soon to bathe. Scylla is the unrealizing crush of Glaucus, the human man Circe covets and cannot have, so she pours out her anger and envy in the form of green poison that will transform Scylla into a monster. The electric citrine may allude to the Scheele’s green and Paris green scandals of the past, as well as containing, in the green oil paint, poison of its own.

Though not stated outright by Lewis the Green Witch was jealous of her captive prince. Always she endeavored to keep him under her control, and he was never let “outside” except in a suit of black armor that hid his body and face, a sort of male burqa. And one could argue that envy sparked her murder of Rilian’s mother because of her great beauty and celestial purity, as opposed to the Green Witch’s earthbound, slimy nature. Yes, I know snakes are not slimy, but when she was killed, she certainly spouted a lot of foul ichor.

Absinthe, envy, and poisoned green dye: What a combination! What other color would Lewis have chosen for his formidable witch?

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