'The ratsbane (arsenic) eaters belong mostly to the lower classes, wood cleavers, stable grooms, charcoal burners, and wood warts. They fall into that habit at the early age of fifteen, and continue it until the ages of seventy and seventy-six. Although the female sex is not averse to it, the majority belongs to the male sex. They are generally strong and healthy persons, courageous, pugnacious, and of strong sexual dispositions. The reason of this habit is very probably atiributable to the fact of its apparent favorable action upon horses.'
Reality is not stable as Simon says, and the way that he looked both at that old arsenic-eating world and the present-day world was a reflection of that perspective.
The lesson of the arsenic eaters is not that they are something old and alien, but that they should help us reflect on who the contemporary arsenic eaters are. And they are all around us. We are all arsenic eaters.
Simon is now planning to publish a book which will be released next year. You can pre-order a copy of the book and see more work, and more on the history of the arsenic eaters, here.
Why did people eat arsenic?
People ingested arsenic in order to overcome physical limitations: to be strong and healthy, to look rosy, to boost their sexual potency. It made them more competitive. This makes sense if you look at the broader context: eating arsenic was common until the early 20th century among the rural population in the eastern parts of the Alps. Living off the mountains meant to be subjected to physical hardship. People were self-supporters, they did not have much. But they could get their hands on arsenic, one of the strongest mineral poisons.
When did you find out about arsenic eaters?
In the region I grew up, there is a myth of a special substance people used to take in order to become strong and ruthless. I started to investigate in it and quickly found out that this substance was arsenic. My grandmother told me that it was still around when she was a kid. And she called me crazy for wanting to investigate the matter. Eating arsenic was a taboo.
Do people still eat arsenic?
Not as I am aware of. It lost its market in a way. We live in a capitalistic world where people can get their hands on a lot of other things to improve themselves: all kinds of legal and illegal drugs. Eating arsenic does not make sense anymore.
When did you decide to make a story on arsenic eaters?
When I started researching the topic I kept on finding material connected to the use of arsenic: on historic mining, on superstition, on medicine and on pre 20th-century rural life in general. And I visited the remote, still accessible arsenic mines dating back all the way to the 14th century. I was fascinated by how this almost surreal story was literally still accessible. And by how much effort was made to dig those mines in order to get hands on arsenic.
I wanted to find out how this story is connected to our present existence. I wanted to find out in what kind of reality eating arsenic made sense.
Have you ever tried arsenic? Are you tempted?
I managed to get my hands on the actual historical product. Its lethal dose is said to be very small: 0.1–0.3 grams (it is said that you start with the dose the size of a wheat grain). And I think that the arsenics full effect comes from its chronic use. It’s an experiment I did not dare to undertake yet.
Why did you decide to make a book on arsenic eaters?
I am a photographer and work on a multi-layered story. I think a book is just the most natural form for that.
What is the contemporary relevance of arsenic eating?
Eating arsenic is not relevant anymore. But the fact that it even existed – and it existed until the 1950ies – is. What once was common is now unthinkable. Reality is not a stable concept.