Unfortunately, it is very likely that the story that appeared in the Boston Daily Globe1 was not entirely truthful. At no point was the severity of Lena’s condition in doubt. The poison she had taken, mercury bichloride, was well known and highly toxic.
Mercury bichloride, also known as corrosive sublimate, is an extremely poisonous mercury salt with the chemical formula HgCl2. Currently, it is a highly restricted substance, utilized in the manufacture of PVC and as a depolarizer in batteries.2
However, during Lena’s lifetime, it was frequently used in households across the country. Agricultural columns in newspapers recommended using a dilute solution to disinfect tools after removing diseased portions of trees affected by blight, in order to avoid spreading contagion to healthy limbs.3 A few tablets of bichloride of mercury dissolved in a bottle of alcohol created a remedy for bedbugs.4 For cleaning a sick room or disposing of the “bodily discharges” of an ill person, a solution containing one teaspoon of corrosive sublimate and one teaspoon of permanganate of potash per gallon of fresh water was advised. Diluted by half, this fluid could be used to cleanse the hands.5
Given all these legitimate uses, it was not difficult for the average Joe to obtain mercury bichloride tablets. All he had to do was walk in to his local drugstore and request them.
And purchase them, he did. Following a highly publicized case of accidental poisoning in 1913, there was a significant upswing in the number of suicides in which corrosive sublimate was the method used.
In an issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, a peer-reviewed medical journal, published in November 1915, two New York doctors examined the frequency of these cases. According to their article, 155 suicides by mercuric chloride had been recorded in the previous 25 years. Nearly one-half of those incidents (73) had occurred during the two years since the notorious Walker case.6
Perhaps more realistic coverage of his gruesome death would have deterred copycats. Instead, newspaper articles glorified his drawn-out passing:
BANKER CHEERFUL IN FACE OF DEATH
Poisoned Macon Man Sinks Into Unconsciousness.
TRIES TO COMFORT WIFE.
Sensation of Dying Not as Unpleasant as Pictured, He Tells Her Ere Stupor Comes.
Macon, Ga., May 22. — B. Sanders Walker, the young Macon banker, whose remarkable fight against death from bichloride of mercury poisoning has puzzled physicians, lapsed into unconsciousness.
His physicians believe he will probably die in this condition. He had been conscious since taking the poison by mistake a week ago.
“If this be dying, then none need fear its terrors.”
Walker had made this characteristically cheerful reflection earlier as he vainly begged his nurse to tell him exactly what had been said at a conference of physicians in a corner of his bedchamber.
Walker had begged his physicians to allow him to talk with him family and friends. He said he had no fear of ill consequences. To his wife, struggling bravely to bear up, Walker constantly offered words of encouragement.
“The sensation of dying is not as unpleasant as it is generally pictured,” he told her.
Tuesday night Walker’s physicians believed the end was near. The patient, however, steadily assured them he was determined to live. After an all-night fight with death Walker rallied slightly.
Although warned from the first that death undoubtedly awaited him. Walker consistently maintained buoyant spirits. He had rallied again Wednesday and was the least perturbed of any in his room then.
While conscious and suffering little or no discomfort, he has been unable to grasp the situation which physicians said confronted him. The slow work of the deadly poison had failed to shake Walker’s belief that he would recover. His high spirits, it is believed, had much to do with his resisting the effects of the drug.
While unable to fully account for Walker’s remarkable vitality, some of the physicians partly attributed his successful resistance to the poison to the fact that he emitted a portion of the bichloride of mercury tablet soon after it was swallowed.
It was this which alarmed the banker and caused him to call a physician, who rushed to the Walker home and pumped out the contents of the banker’s stomach. The physician’s arrival, however, was not before the poison had taken sufficient effect to paralyze the kidneys.
All of the members of Walker’s immediate family are gathered at his home. Every precaution is being taken to prevent the patient from becoming unduly excited. Only his wife, the attending physician and nurses are permitted to enter his room.
Telegrams containing suggestions for treatment still are being received at the Walker home from every section of the country.7
Reading this article, one would think that after taking mercury bichloride, you might float painlessly off to a peaceful oblivion, lingering just long enough for loved ones to fawn over you, regretting any moment they might have caused you pain. As Lena would discover, this notion could not be further from the truth.
1 “Lena Smith, Discouraged, Takes Poison Tablets”, Boston Daily Globe, 21 Sep 1917, p 4 col 2.
2 “Mercury(II) chloride,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mercury(II)_chloride&oldid=802982285> (accessed 8 Oct 2017).
3 “Fire Blight,” Las Cruces Rio Grande Republican, 20 Jul 1915, p 3 col 4.
4 “How to Get Rid of House Pests,” Altoona Mirror (Altoona, PA), 22 Jul 1915, p 3 col 3.
5 “How to Disinfect a Room After Contagious Diseases,” Danville Republican (Danville, IL), 25 Jan 1917, p 4 col 3.
6 Southern Medical Journal, Vol. 9 Issues 1-6. Southern Medical Association: 1916. Treatment of Poisoning by Mercuric Chlorid, p 279. <https://books.google.com/books?id=ZlA9AQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
7 “Banker Cheerful in Face of Death,” Gettysburg Times, 22 May 1913, p 2 col 6.