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What I learned last week, pheasants, foxhunting, digitalis and dropsy

I had to kill someone last week (fictionally) and it had to look accidental.  And it had to be Victorian.  As a writer, I do this a lot, and it requires research.  Of course, it also often requires brainstorming with other writers.  One good writer suggested a Pheasant and/or Quail hunt.  Cool!  A hunting accident would definitely work.  Except. . . I discovered that Pheasant weren’t introduced to the U.S. until 1880 or so.  Apparently there were some attempts before then to bring the Pheasant to the U.S. but not with great success.  Bummer.  I could do Quail, but they appear to be mostly in the south and marshy areas. 

Next up–a fox hunt.  Oh yeah!   These are aristocratic Philadelphia-types, so they would go on fox hunts, right?  And I have always wanted to write one of those.  Upon first check, fox hunts were absolutely part of the Victorian period.  So far so good!  And then. . .well it turns out no one actually carries a rifle on a fox hunt.  If they do, it’s not to shoot the fox.  What a fox hunt appears to be is a group of people on horseback chasing after dogs chasing after a fox.  And what those dogs do to that poor fox?  Well lets just say I’ve given up the fox hunt.

Next up, poison.  Poison is always good, but I’ve already used the Victorian Poison of Choice, arsenic, in the book.  But wait. . .maybe that’s useful.   Once a poisoner-always-a-poisoner, right (yes, you can quote me on that)?   I can definitely use poison.   Which one, though?  It has to look like an accident. . . what about the age-old heart attack?  That’s it, foxglove!  I’ve heard foxglove is highly poisonous.  And what is more, come to find out what I had suspected, digitalis is made from foxglove AND used in the Victorian period!  No, not for heart disease (that would come later) but for something called dropsy.  I have heard of dropsy, but no clue as to what it is.  More googling. . .

Apparently dropsy was an accumulation of fluid in the body, and quite often killed people.  Yikes, what a lousy way to die.  Basically it’s edema, and today is often a complication of congestive heart failure, which would explain why digitalis was so useful in curing it.  Of course they didn’t know that at the time, so I’ll have to use dropsy somewhere in the book.  I’ll need more info, lots more, before I’m comfortable using it.  Of course, as a historical writer, that’s half the fun.

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7 Comments

  1. Isabel Roman says:

    I love your research of killing people! Fictional characters, of course, but still. Very entertaining.

  2. Very funny, Dee, I love it!

  3. Great post showing a writer’s process, Denise. One of my ancestors, who was diabetic, died from dropsy because the doctor “bled” her feet and applied leeches. Needless to say, the slits on her feet became gangrenous and caused her death at age 39. .

  4. Denise Eagan says:

    I aim to amuse 🙂 And to inform. . .

    What a horrible, miserable way to die, Caroline!

  5. How horrible, Caroline! Although I love reading and writing stories about the past, this makes me really glad I didn’t live there, unless it was in a former life.

    Researching history does uncover a lot of things we take for granted are dead wrong, Dee. Who’d of thought the dogs actually hunted the fox, not the hunters. Kind of weird, if you ask me.

    Good luck finding the cause of death for your character.

  6. Shelley says:

    Just reading Whose Body, so enjoyed this.

  7. Denise Eagan says:

    You know, Shelley, I’ve never read Dorothy Sayers. I wonder why I never did? She looks fantastic. Just got a kindle, I think I’ll buy it.

    Glad you were entertained by my “how to murder the brother” process!

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