Arsenic is a metalloid element mined the world over for use in batteries, electronic components, and pesticides. In fact, its toxicity makes it a useful poison and wood preservative, and people have known for hundreds of years that even low doses can be fatal.
But from the 13th century up until at least the 1950s, residents of Styria—a state in southern Austria—were voluntarily eating arsenic for its supposed medicinal properties. This fad eventually died out as modernity crept in, and today few residents are even willing talk about. But having grown up in Styria, photographer and ad-hoc historian Simon Brugner decided to research and archive the tradition.
The result is an upcoming photo book, the Arsenic Eaters, which documents Styria's strange fixation with poisoning itself.
VICE: Hi Simon, can we start with who was eating this and why?
Simon Brugner: It was rural folk. One hundred years ago Styria was a fairly remote and self-supporting region. They couldn’t get their hands on much. But they could get their hands on this very powerful, potent mineral from their mines. And they said it made them stronger. They said it made them less tired and less hungry. They could work harder, they could lift whole trees, and they didn't get sick. They thought it was a magical cure for everything.
But eating a known poison just seems so insane. How much proof do we have that arsenic eating was actually a thing?
There are a lot of medical papers from the 19th century, mainly from people treating horses with arsenic and describing the results. Apparently they had shiny coats and so on. Then there were also English and Scottish medical professionals traveling through and witnessing people taking it, and then collecting their urine for analisis. And there are so many things written about the tradition and so I have little doubt it existed.
How was it consumed?
They used to mine it from the mountains, but that wasn't the finished product. The raw mineral was first roasted, and then residue from the smoke was collected from chimneys. At that point it was a white powder and some people mixed it with schnapps. Others put it on bread with butter or ham. The most common example was mixing it with some kind of food. It was usually eaten with some kind of fatty food, like butter or bacon.
While working on this project did it ever cross your mind to try a piece?
If I did it, I'd need a doctor. The lethal dose is between 0.1 and 0.3 grams, and I think you don't get the full effect from just using it once. There’s no instant experience from the first time. You need to take it several times to build up enough in your system. So no I didn't.
Is there much evidence of people dying from eating arsenic?
Yes, there are plenty of stories about people who took too much. Like young girls who wanted to get rosy cheeks and skinny young girls who wanted to be prettier. But these girls took too much and died.
Did the government ever intervene? It just sounds so dangerous.
Yeah, there was a lot of intervention. It was illegal from the very early times. You don’t find any stories written from people who actually ate arsenic, but what you do find is either documents from courts and other bureaucratic stuff about how and when it was traded. There is a lot of information on how it was regulated and how it was allowed to be sold in special shops and pharmacies. But it was hard, harder than now to control the stuff and remove it from the rural areas. You only need really tiny amounts [to get high] so it was hard to control. For glassmaking they produced tonnes of arsenic in this region but they tried from the very beginning to clamp down on people eating it. Also, religiously it was frowned upon because it was connected to the idea of witchcraft.
As a photographer, what made you interested in Austria's history of arsenic eating?
I’d never properly heard about eating arsenic until I was 30 or so. Then I found out that all the old people knew about it, and it just sounded like such a surreal story. It sounded like a parallel universe, but it was happening right where I'd grown up. And that’s what I find interesting. How can something that’s so popular be removed from collective memory so fast? If you start doing some research and looking at some stuff, it’s there. But it's almost been a process of Austrian culture trying to forget about it.
What did you want to achieve artistically with you book, the Arsenic Eaters?
I wanted to find out what reality looks like in a place where eating arsenic makes sense. What was their reality like in a place where eating arsenic seemed logical? I read a lot of literature and I tried to get an image of their reality they were living in. I then photographed things that were connected to their world, to show the physical landscape they lived in. I tried to mix the sources up to make one world. I want this piece to link the present to the past.