What if opening a book could end your life?
For “Shadows From the Walls of Death,” that’s not just a thought experiment.
The 1874 book, compiled and written by Michigan physician Robert C. Kedzie, is filled with samples of wallpaper that are filled with poison.
Kedzie intended the book as a warning to those tempted to purchase the wallpaper, which was more richly and subtly pigmented than earlier designs.
At the time, it wasn’t unusual for consumer products, especially ones colored green, to contain arsenic. During the Victorian era, scientists experimented with ways to lend more color to items such as cards, candles and clothing. Inorganic compounds such as copper arsenite, also called Scheele’s green, lent a coveted hue to some wallpapers and paints.
Kedzie wanted to spread the word about their danger, so he collected 84 samples, put them in a book with case studies of poisoning and a warning from the Michigan State Board of Health, and distributed them to libraries around the state.
It was a well-intended public-health campaign, but the book was its own threat. Eating arsenic isn’t the only way to get arsenic poisoning: It can also be inhaled and absorbed through the skin.
Because of that risk, copies of the book were largely destroyed, and only four are known to remain. But now the National Institutes of Health has digitized the book so you can read it without fear.
In a three-part blog series, an archivist details the painstaking and perilous process of preserving the book in digital form.
So what’s inside the book of death? Check it out online for dire warnings and aesthetically pleasing designs made intriguing by the threat they once presented.