In honor of Halloween, I thought I’d talk about something rather grisly: embalming. Although it wasn’t popular in the Regency, the rich did tend to do it, especially since it enabled them to have open caskets for public funerals. So Olivia has a legitimate concern when she worries that if Grey’s father was embalmed, she might not be able to tell if he was poisoned. Every undertaker had different embalming methods at this time. How do I know? Because I stumbled across a very interesting source—Civil War era undertakers who shared their “recipes” for embalming fluid in The Era formulary: 5000 Formulas for Druggists! Most of the embalming ones contain arsenic in the form of arsenious acid. Eventually, formaldehyde replaced arsenic in embalming fluid, but that happened after the Civil War. You can find the entire formulary here.
Beyond taking chemistry in college, I know very little about it, so I did a great deal of research for this particular book. I spent FAR too much time watching videos of experiments, but at least I got a direct sense of how certain chemicals reacted to each other. And I found some funny stories about early chemists. There was Christian Friedrich Schönbein (inventor of the fuel cell and guncotton and discoverer of ozone) who, in 1845, despite having promised his wife not to experiment in their kitchen, was doing so while she was away and used her apron to sop up a combo of nitric acid and sulfuric acid. Then he hung the apron over the stove to dry and it ignited and burned to ash so quickly that it seemed to vanish! I sure hope it wasn’t his wife’s favorite, although I can totally see Olivia doing something like that (accidentally, of course) to her husband’s nightshirt. Ooh, that could lead to some sexy times, couldn’t it?
The heroine in my upcoming book, Who Wants to Marry a Duke, is a chemist. I based her on an actual female chemist from the period, the Scottish Mrs. Fulhame. Most people have never heard of her and we know little about her beyond the book she wrote detailing her experiments. Yet she published that critical work on her findings about catalysis long before any male chemist was credited with it, and she was lauded by a number of prominent chemists at the time, both in America and England. She even acknowledged that she expected some criticism from men over her work: “But censure is perhaps inevitable: for some are so ignorant, that they grow sullen and silent, and are chilled with horror at the sight of anything that nears the semblance of learning, in whatever shape it may appear; and should be the spectre appear in the shape of a woman, the pangs which they suffer are truly dismal.” Kudos to Mrs. Fulhame! We may not know the exact date of her birth, but she left her work behind to advance scientific discovery anyway. For that we can only be grateful. Go here to read more about her.