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The Poison Was Taken Intentionally

Last week I detailed how the arsenic-laced pesticide, Paris Green, came into general use more than a century ago, mainly to combat the Colorado potato beetle. I was led to this topic by a fascinating paper presented to the Western History Association by Professor Lynn Ellen Bennett, of Utah Valley University. I determined that here in North Dakota, sale of Paris Green was handled, under state regulation, by drugstores.

I intimated, too, there would be more to say about the deadly effects of this toxic product. So now I think I better give a trigger warning: this essay deals frankly with cases of suicide in our prairie past.

General use of Paris Green in gardens and fields placed an arsenic compound on shelves in barns and sheds across the country. Suicide among rural people is a topic untouched by most prairie historians, but one readily accessed on account of press coverage. With only rudimentary research I have discovered many cases of rural suicide, using Paris Green, during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In 1897 Charles Eck, a farmhand in Richland County, attempted suicide by taking Paris Green. The press did not record his eventual fate.

In 1909 a well-known farmer in the same county, Syvert O. Flas, took his own life by swallowing Paris Green, succumbing despite the ministrations of a physician. “He admitted to the doctor that the poison was taken intentionally, fully realizing the result,” reported the Bismarck Daily Tribune.

In 1911 a farmer named William Hope, of Dickey County, took Paris Green but survived. Brought into Ellendale, he was first placed in the county jail, then sent to the state hospital in Jamestown.

In 1921 there was a Paris Green suicide in Dore, and in 1922 at attempt in Gackle. Such rural cases were given frank, but reserved press coverage. The case of farmer Anton Schneider of Emmons County, who died from a dose of Paris Green in 1924, just two days before he was scheduled to be married, received somewhat more coverage because he was buried out of the same church where he was to have been married.

Paris Green suicides in cities got more attention, particularly the unfortunate case of sixteen-year-old Clara Zuellsdorf, a domestic worker in Fargo. She had been keeping company with a man variously known as McDermott and Fisher. After seeing him one night in 1903, she swallowed nearly a pound of Paris Green. It was reported the man that night had refused to marry Ms. Zuellsdorf--probably because, as it turned out, he already was married.

An aged Grand Forks woman, after thoughtfully saying goodby to her son, took the poison and died in 1906. “The cause of the rash act is thought to have been despondency over financial troubles,” the press reported.

One Lillian Thomas attempted suicide with Paris Green in Minot in the same year. A victim of “a wronged life,” as the press put it, she was taken home to Missouri with family.

The largest headlines were reserved for the case of Fargo businessman John H. Reddy, in 1911. “No reason can be assigned to the cause of the deed,” a reporter said. It seems that suicides by farmers, working girls, and old ladies were a matter of course, but that of a successful man--this was inexplicable.

Here, as I see it, is the greatest irony. On account of its arsenic content, North Dakota chose to regulate the sale of Paris Green and have it sold by pharmacists. That very statute made the substance available to the general public in urban outlets--leading to the most notorious suicide cases of the era.

~Tom Isern

Prairie Public Broadcasting provides quality radio, television, and public media services that educate, involve, and inspire the people of the prairie region.
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