The Walls (and Book) That Can Kill You

Pictured above are two people looking through a book of wallpaper samples. As activities go, this is probably among the most harmless there is; sure, there’s a slight risk of a paper cut if you decide to feel your way through the samples, as the people above are, but beyond that, there’s no enhanced risk of injury. Wallpaper may be expensive and it can often be rather ugly, but in no sense of the word is it dangerous.

Well, not anymore, at least. Go back far enough, and wallpaper could kill people — and, unfortunately, did so pretty often.

The culprit? The color green.

The problem began in the mid-1700s. A chemist named Carl Wilhelm Scheele discovered a copper derivative that was particularly vivid. As Victorian-era historian Lucinda Hawksley told the Atlantic, “if you think about the brilliance of copper and the way that a patina begins to color metal, it’s a beautiful color,” close to that of the Statue of Liberty (which, being plated in copper, was originally a dull bronze). Fast forward about a century and Scheele’s discovery — known as Scheele’s Green — was used as a pigment for all sorts of artistic works, particularly among the European elite. And, in particular, wallpaper with a green base or green accents typically used Scheele’s Green to achieve the hue desired by designers and customers alike.

Unfortunately, Scheele’s Green was soft on the eyes but not nearly as kind to the ears, nose, throat, and the rest of the human body. The pigment was made from copper arsenite, which is to say, it’s made of arsenic. And arsenic is a toxin — it can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and more. Continued exposure to arsenic can ultimately result in death. And at the time of arsenic-laden wallpaper,  there was only a limited understanding of the dangers of the element. Many people understood that you couldn’t safely eat it, but few understood that arsenic was also dangerous if inhaled. And that’s exactly what happened with the wallpaper. The Saint Louis Art Museum explains

Despite its vivid and eye-catching nature, doctors eventually discovered that arsenical wallpaper could kill. The ink often flaked off the paper only to be inhaled by those nearby, while moisture, abrasion, or heat caused the release of toxic vapors. Increasing reports of mysterious illnesses and deaths of small children or even entire families gained the attention of the general public in the mid-19th century. It was not until the late 1860s that doctors connected those maladies with the presence of luminous green paper on the walls. 

Today, you’ll not find arsenic in your wallpaper — but you may find it in a book of wallpaper samples if you know where to look. That’s because in the 1870s, in an effort to help raise awareness of the murderous wallpaper, a chemistry professor named Robert Clark Kedzie began a public health campaign against Scheele’s Green. His idea was simple: he created a book of wallpaper samples and titled it the ominous-sounding (for good reason) “Shadows From the Walls of Death.” Then, per Atlas Obscura, “Kedzie produced 100 copies of Shadows and sent them out to public libraries across Michigan. Each one is a slim volume, containing few words—just a title page, a short preface, and a note from the Board of Health explaining the purpose of the book and advising librarians not to let children handle it.” There’s a bible quote on the next page and then, per Atlas Obscura, Kedzie’s treatise contains nothing more than 86 pages “of wallpaper samples taken from common merchants.”

The only two remaining copies of Kedzie’s book are at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, and no, you can’t check the book out of the library in an effort to slowly poison your enemies (or even for less nefarious reasons). They’re both housed in restricted areas, perhaps near “Moste Potente Potions” or “Fifteenth-Century Fiends,” and for years could only be looked through if you donned rubber gloves first. Now, every page of the copy at Michigan State is encased in plastic, so if you really want to leaf through pages of old wallpaper that can potentially get you sick, it may be safe-ish to do so. 

Want a safer way? The National Library of Medicine has a digitized copy available on its website, here.


Bonus fact: It’s possible that Scheele’s Green also is responsible for killing Napoleon — and likely responsible for keeping his corpse from quickly decaying. Exiled to the small South Atlantic island of St. Helena, Napoleon was not denied some level of luxury — for example, he was fond of Scheele’s Green, and the walls of his home likely contained wallpaper or paint that contained the color. The American Museum of Natural History explains: “Chief among the theories for the exiled emperor’s death is arsenic poisoning—an idea reinforced by the remarkable condition of his body when it was exhumed in 1840 for reburial in Paris. Because it is also toxic to microorganisms, arsenic slows down the decomposition of human tissue, a phenomenon described as ‘arsenic mummification.’ Subsequent 20th-century tests of preserved locks of Napoleon’s hair tested positive for arsenic.

But even if arsenic was the cause of death—which has not been proven with certainty—Napoleon’s charge of foul play may not be justified. A less dramatic but nonetheless plausible alternative is that Napoleon could have been exposed to the poison through the toxic fumes given off by wallpaper at Longwood, his prison home.”

From the Archives: Green Potato Chips: It’s not arsenic, but it’s probably not good for you, and not solely because even non-green potato chips aren’t great for you.