• Mary A. Dempsey

A Killer Book

As Banned Books Week comes to a close, I think about a book that can kill you. Literally.

Ironically, Shadows from the Walls of Death, published in 1874, was created to save lives. Dr. Robert C. Kedzie, a physician, chemistry professor and the Ralph Nader of his time, compiled the two-volume book of arsenic-laced wallpaper samples as a primer on what home décor to avoid.

This summer, two friends and I spent the good part of an afternoon at the Michigan State University Library’s Special Collections flipping through page after page of the wallpaper. It was easy to see what made it popular: brilliant yellow, intense blue and, especially, the bright green—known as Paris Green—used in the Victorian designs.

“Honey, I’ve found the perfect wallpaper for the nursery!”

Most people by then knew that it was deadly to eat arsenic. Kedzie wondered if it might also be deadly to breathe arsenic dust. If so, it could explain a spate of mysterious illnesses that seemed to appear in tandem with the growing popularity of vividly-colored, mass-produced wallpaper. People across Michigan, where Kedzie lived, and elsewhere would become sick, recover when they were sent to medical spas, then become sick again when they returned to their homes.

Kedzie (and other doctors) correctly identified the culprit. Since there were no consumer protection agencies at that time, he decided wallpaper books could be used to alert homeowners about the poisonous pigments.

“…among a free people, the surest, if not the quickest way, to remove any great evil is to clearly point out the evil itself, its extent and its effects,” Kedzie later told the State Board of Health in Michigan.

Kedzie got his hands on 80 rolls of wallpaper, which was then cut, bound into books and placed in 100 libraries across Michigan. Some years went by before it was discovered that arsenic is also absorbed through the skin by touch. All but four copies of the book were destroyed.

The original we perused had its oversized

pages sheathed in plastic, and the librarians assured us it was safe. Still, we made a beeline toward soap and water after we closed the last page.

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