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An Alphabet of Feminism #22: V is for Vitriol

2011 March 21


Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned,
Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.

William Congreve, The Mourning Bride (1697)

This Corrosion.

Vitriol is more properly known by its scientific name: sulphuric acid. Or additionally, ‘Any of various sulphates of metallic elements, especially ferrous sulphate.’ The only reason I get to do it for V is because the late c13th had a rather fanciful approach to science (no offence guys), and dubbed this chemical vitriol, from the Latin vitreus (= ‘of glass, glassy’). Cos, in certain states, sulphuric acid looks ‘glassy’. Geddit?? Ahem. Actually, there’s nothing whimsical about vitriol in its everyday life: it’s extremely corrosive (hi, GCSE Chemistry), and has an exothermic reaction with water, basically meaning it dehydrates anything it comes into contact with… but then liberates extra heat through the very process of reacting with water, causing more burns. Nasty.

A contemporary portrait of Catherine de Medici, depicting her dressed in black and carrying a fan.

Catherine de Medici, attributed to Francois Clouet, c.1555

Of course, like its sibling term acid, vitriol is also a lovely little example of a word whose literal and figurative meanings have almost equal prominence in modern English. Thus, around 1769, vitriol started meaning ‘Acrimonious, caustic or scathing speech, criticism or feeling’ and – naturally – this sense was in figurative relation to sulphuric acid’s ‘corrosive’ qualities. These are the same corrosive properties that made sulphuric acid every murderer’s friend throughout criminal history – every Wikipedia fan given to perverse procrastination knows about John George Haigh, the Acid Bath Murderer, who dissolved the bodies of his victims in a bath full of acid (but was eventually dobbed in by a couple of stray gallstones and part of a denture)… Shudder.

My pain, your thrill.

Anyway, vitriol has apparently been around since ancient times, but came into prominence during the late c19th, owing to its use as a cleaning product. Of course, since it was suddenly considered fine for trying at home, it was easily purchased at your local chemist by every housewife on her weekly shop.

In this context, I’ve always thought of vitriol as a pendant to arsenic, a household poison used for pest-control, cosmetics and suicide (if you’re French, bourgeois and in a Flaubert novel). Particularly suggestible Victorian women would mix this one with chalk and vinegar to improve their complexion, with occasionally fatal consequences for their hapless spouses. History is correspondingly full of tales of malevolent arsenic-armed females, including the eighteenth-century Mary Blandy, who put it in her father’s tea so she could marry her lover. (In a little pendant of my own: she continued to take tea herself in prison – and to receive visitors for tea – apparently unencumbered by squeamishness, or the leg-irons she had to wear as a murderess on death row).

A turn-of-the century depiction of vitriol-throwing on the cover of Le Petit Journal. A woman throws acid at a man who has just got married.

Vitriol throwing in Le Petit Journal - image from

These cases are part of a long tradition of female poisoners going back to Catherine de Medici and the Emperor Augustus’ wife Livia, both politically powerful women who were the subject of (probably apocryphal) rumours of poisonous ingenuity. Livia supposedly killed Augustus by poisoning figs that were still on the tree (the last in a line of such crimes, if you like a bit of I, Claudius. As everyone should.) and that old gossip-monger Alexandre Dumas describes how Catherine de Medici used to poison casual household objects – ranging from books and gloves to lipsticks – to relieve herself of Inconveniences who just happened to be breathing.

The logic behind this tradition seems clear enough: unaccustomed to the brutalities of war and macho posturing, the female murderer is nonetheless skilled in the arts of household management, food preparation and cosmetics. Her arsenal is correspondingly domestic, and widespread reporting of female poisoners presumably relates to a kind of fear of the unknowably deadly potential of the home (and all it represents), not to mention the oft-observed ‘fact’ that the female of the species will tend towards silent attack, backstabbing and general wiliness when settling her battles. The bitch! Thus, like vitriol, poison too has a transferred sense: to be poisonous is to be ‘deeply malicious, malevolent’ – ‘sly’ – in a way which is almost antonymic to simple ‘brutality’.

Don’t look back in anger.

But in the late 1800s something changed, and there was an apparent epidemic of vitriol throwing in addition to arsenic poisoning  so much so, that it got its own verb: to vitriolize was to ‘throw sulphuric acid at a person with intent to injure’. Thankfully, this verb is now ‘rare’ (although on this, see more below), but its usage was overwhelmingly nineteenth-century. Moreover, a cursory look at newspaper records reveals these were overwhelmingly perceived to be female crimes against an erstwhile lover or a rival. A ‘crime of passion’, in fact, in a way that poisoning (slow and subtle) is not. My pal Stewart has recently started resurrecting the Parisian Grand Guignol, a Parisian theatre of horror whose depiction of acid-throwing was only one of many acts of mutilation presented onstage between 1897-1962, and I’m quoting him quoting Anne-Louise Shapiro:

In the 1880s, vitriol began to acquire the symbolic associations traditionally linked to poison; l’empoisonneuse was joined by a new rhetorical (and actual) figure, the vitrioleuse. […] Women who were dangerous through their very domesticity – who transformed the ordinary and the womanly into the menacing – underscored not only female duplicity but male dependency.

Anne-Louise Shapiro, Breaking the Codes: Female Criminality in fin-de-siecle Paris

The Grand Guignol play La Baisir dans la Nuit hinges around a disfigured acid victim exercising (literal) eye-for-an-eye revenge on the lover responsible for his wretched state. This sort of thing is perhaps to be expected in a ‘theatre of horror’, but vitriol throwing also appears in the broadly passion-free Sherlock Holmes stories, most fully in the Adventure of the Illustrious Client (1924) where the crime in question is perpetrated by a Fallen Woman on her Base Seducer – over ten years after the frequency of cases had prompted calls to make the purchase of vitriol more difficult.

Anyway, this ‘Kitty Winter’ is full of vitriol of both kinds: as Watson puts it, ‘there was an intensity of hatred in her white, set face and her blazing eyes such as woman seldom and man never can attain’, and her hysterical ranting and raving against the ‘instrument of her demise’ is – throughout the story – placed in opposition to the calm and aristocratic air of her Don Juan’s next victim. Throughout the story it is made clear that vitriol throwing is the sort of thing possible only for a woman full of a special kind of fury – and, as Watson makes clear, that fury is something ‘man never can attain’. The lambs.

The interesting thing here, of course, is the transition from silent, wily domestic poisons to public acid attacks that hinge around the old adage that ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ (a misquote from Congreve that endures to this day). This, of course, is a woman armed with vitriol of one kind or another, and the idea was clearly much-repeated, because by the mid-century we also had the word vitriolic, meaning… well… ‘like vitriol’. That said, it is frequently unclear whether this is vitriol in a literal or figurative sense: in 1919 the Sarah Palin of the nineteenth century, Mary Kilbreth (President of the American National Association to Oppose Woman Suffrage), questioned Emmeline Pankhurst’s patriotism on the grounds that Pankhurst and the Suffragettes had led a ‘reign of terror’ that involved ‘bombs, kerosene and vitriol throwing‘, but whether she meant words or household cleaner remains tantalisingly unclear.

Unfortunately, for many around the world today vitriol is all too literal. This article has been interested in exploring the criminal female in history but – in the UK and abroad – acid attacks are still common, particularly (but not exclusively) as part of a culture of ‘honour violence’ directed against women. While it would be disingenuous to suggest exclusivity on either side, it does seem that these are increasingly male-on-female attacks in contrast to the apparent gender-split in the nineteenth century. This article has a rather good summary of the current situation, and recommends places you can find out more, including the Acid Survivors Trust.
A green V is corroded away by vitriol, surrounded by glass bottles.

NEXT WEEK: W is for Widow

22 Responses leave one →
  1. Stephen B permalink
    March 21, 2011

    Vitriol is also used as an acronym in alchemy: “Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem”, which means “Visit the interior of the Earth, (where) by rectification you will find the Hidden Stone”.

    Rectification is repeated distillation, and Vitriol (the acid and also the iron sulphates which got a green glassy appearance when you applied it to them) turns up quite a lot in alchemy :) It’s the “Green lion which eats the sun” (possibly mixed with nitric acid as well, if I remember right?)

    The phrase is also used in Crowley’s Thoth deck on the Temperance (Art) card, and in general esoteric work in a *positive* way to denote transformation through breaking down and purifying.

  2. Russell permalink
    March 21, 2011

    This was definitely the most disturbing alphabet post so far, including the picture. Kudos for bringing up the modern-day instances of acid attacks, which are deeply disturbing and upsetting.

  3. March 21, 2011

    My favourite female poisoner (If one can have such a thing) is Mary Ann Cotton, who offed a variety of husbands and children by way of a spot of arsenic, trotting around the country marrying at will in a black-widdowish sort of way.

    She inspired a nurery rhyme, which is popular in the North East but not particularly well known elsewhere. It’s an odd way to remember someone who killed 21 people.

    • Hodge permalink
      March 22, 2011

      I shall add her to my perverse procrastination list :)

  4. Russell permalink
    March 21, 2011

    I also just wanted to say how the acid attacks really throw everything into perspective for me personally. It’s difficult to argue that equality has been achieved, the struggle is over and irrelevant, etc, when there are still men who think it’s acceptable to throw acid in women’s faces. When you think about it, it really isn’t that hard to draw a line from violence like that through to unequal pay and see how dehumanising and awful it all is.

    • Hodge permalink
      March 22, 2011

      Yes. Although at the same time, I never wanted to suggest that this is an exclusively male-on-female thing. There are plenty of men who have been attacked, mostly for sexual stuff ranging from refusing another man’s advances to cheating on their girlfriends. In fact, the only true constant in acid cases nowadays seems to be that sexual element. The fact that this has *tended towards* the female as the victim probably says more about how female sexuality is perceived than about how human women are considered – and that is something that really does span the board into quite mundane stuff. Although, naturally, humanity and sexuality are closely intertwined.

      • Russell permalink
        March 22, 2011

        When I said “dehumanising” I was referring to mysogyny in general rather than just the acid attacks. I do think however that the idea of permanently disfiguring someone for a perceived wrong is dehumanising in itself – it says that by their actions, this person is something other and less, and everyone should know that.

        Regarding those, however, it’s strange to think that something can be so horrific, and yet so culturally ingrained as to even have given us one of the best Batman villains (though I’m not sure why or how exactly half his face turned purple) – there’s an example of fictional male-on-male violence of that kind.

  5. Pet Jeffery permalink
    March 21, 2011

    The verb vitriolise reminded me of the verbs “to glass” or “to bottle” meaning to use a broken glass or bottle on someone’s face. My feeling (without any evidence) is that glassing and bottling are crimes generally inflicted on one man by another.

  6. Pet Jeffery permalink
    March 22, 2011

    I have a recollection of reading, last week, under the Uterus picture:

    “Next week: V is for Virgin”

    Now, I’m wondering whether I was dreaming, or misread it. (Today, it says Vitriol, I’ve checked.) I don’t see how I could have misread “Virgin” as “Vitriol”: the words don’t have the same shape. Is it possible that Hodge changed her mind. If so, is there an unused Virgin post and picture?

    This week, I see, there doesn’t seem any mention of the prospective W word. Does that have anything to do with the Virgin I saw (or imagined that I saw) becoming Vitriolic?

    • Russell permalink
      March 22, 2011

      I too remember “V is for virgin”, now that you mention it – wha’ppen?

      • Miranda permalink*
        March 22, 2011

        A change of mind happened. Nowt against Virgin, but the less-obvious choice of Vitriol caught our attention, and the best blogposts do, I think, come from enthused, attention-caught writers … :)

        I’m impressed at the attentiveness of our readers, though. Twelve points to Gryffindor. ;)

    • Miranda permalink*
      March 22, 2011

      Yeah, Vitriol intrigued us and allowed us to cover some themes we’d not looked at before, so in the end we decided to go with it – like “crinoline” it’s one of our more leftfield word choices, but that’s an aspect of the Alphabet I rather like. Perhaps the Virgin research (for some did of course take place) will return in another form at some point in the future (the Alphabet is certainly developing a few cutting room offcuts!)

      W was undecided for a short while, with a few contenders – we’ve settled on a word now though so I’ll edit it into the bottom of the picture soon…

      • Russell permalink
        March 22, 2011

        Wait – me and Pet Jeffery are Griffindor? I’m ginger so that makes me Ron! OI!

    • Hodge permalink
      March 22, 2011

      Well, I had been sitting on Vitriol for a while, but wondered if it would be too dark for the alphabet. Wasn’t getting on with Virgin so I decided to give it a go.

      Besides, it is only fitting that it should be the Virgin who is never dyed with blogpost gore. To make an in-joke.

      And yes, there is a picture. There are, in fact, many Alphabet pictures (and embryo posts) that have never yet seen the light of day, particularly for those letters I had trouble with, or couldn’t see my way to illustrating. So as we approach the final stretch of our twenty-six week romp, I’m wondering what to do with the B-sides and rarities.

      Something will probably happen with some of them, though, so watch this space.

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        March 23, 2011

        I look forward to the B-sides and rarities.

        • Pet Jeffery permalink
          March 25, 2011

          As to Gryffindor, I don’t mind as long as I’m allowed to be Hermione Granger.

          Actually, we had team points at my school. Our class teacher was supposed to count them up at the end of the week. One teacher, who couldn’t be bothered, used to ask us how many points we had. I couldn’t be bothered to check, and just made up a plausible number. Most teachers, I now assume, invented plausible numbers for themselves (without input from the children). Perhaps all of this excludes me from Gryffindor.

  7. Pet Jeffery permalink
    March 23, 2011

    An additional (and very curious) link between female and vitriol has occurred to me. The only planet in the Solar System named after a goddess is Venus where (so I believe) it rains sulphuric acid. So strong is the female/Venus association that the familiar circle and cross symbol does double duty for the planet Venus and female.

    What makes this link so curious (to my mind) is that the traditional associations of the planet Venus were formed by people who can have had no idea that it rains sulphuric acid there.

    Actually, the circle and cross symbol does at least triple duty, it is also used to represent copper. Copper is the metal on to which acid is applied to in order to create the printing plates for etchings. (As in “come up and see my etchings”… said by the Rake to the Virgin.) I think that the acid used for etching plates is nitric, rather than sulphuric, but it’s another connection between acid (in general) and the circle and cross symbol. I wonder whether Hodge had this in mind when painting the picture. The V looks a bit like acid-eaten copper.

    While the cross and circle represents female, Venus and copper, the arrow and circle represents male, Mars and iron. Goddess of love/god of war. Copper/iron. Hmmmmm… Some interesting associations, there, I think.

    The association between Venus and copper may be connected with the fact that (in ancient times, I don’t know about now) Cyprus (birthplace of Venus’ Hellenic counterpart Aphrodite) was a rich source of copper. But I don’t know whether Cyprus was associated with Aphrodite because of the copper, or copper associated with Venus because of the Cyprus connection. I suspect the former, because ancient Egyptian copper miners in the Sinai worshiped Hat-hor.

    It has been suggested that the Egyptian copper and turquoise mines in the Sinai were the place where the alphabet first developed. There are inscriptions using rather crudely drawn Egyptian hieroglyphs that (to judge from the small number of different characters) must have been used alphabetically.

    The second from bottom character in the line drawing is the ox head thought to be aleph/alpha/A (see my recent comment on the Amazon alphabet entry).

    • Pet Jeffery permalink
      March 24, 2011

      The origins of an association of copper with Venus, and iron with Mars, may be a little different from the way one might suppose. The linkage between goddesses and copper mines goes back to the bronze age. Copper is the principle ingredient in making bronze (90-95% copper to 5-10% tin) and bronze was then the metal from which tools, weapons and armour was made. So this feminine connection should not necessarily to be thought as focusing on a soft metal. The iron/Mars association is presumably more recent.

  8. Pet Jeffery permalink
    March 23, 2011

    I have the idea that, in Britain, acid attacks are mercifully rare. (Although it would be more merciful if there were none at all, of course.) My reason for thinking this is that I worked for Victim Support over quite a long period. I worked with victims of serious crimes (including rape, and the families of murder victims) but never with a victim of an acid attack. For several years, part of my job was to accept the police referrals for a London borough with a very diverse population (both in terms of ethnicity and income) and never once knew of a referral for an acid attack.

    If I’m right in thinking that it is a rare crime in modern Britain, this may be because sulphuric acid is less readily available than other weapons. In fact, I’ve no idea how, if I wished to buy some, I’d go about purchasing sulphuric acid.

    The difficulty in buying the stuff, to my mind, adds extra horror to acid attacks. The crimes must be premeditated, rather than spontaneous outbursts of anger. When sulphuric acid was used as a cleaning fluid, the element of premeditation may often have been missing. It is dreadful for people to lose control of themselves sufficiently to throw acid in moments of anger. But deciding to make an acid attack, and then taking trouble to buy the acid, represents the lower depths of which our species is capable.

  9. Pet Jeffery permalink
    March 23, 2011

    On a lighter note (although it might not have been) I had some childhood experience of sulphuric acid. I was schooled in the 1950s, before (seemingly) health and safety had been invented. My class was instructed to perform the experiment of adding water to dilute sulphuric acid to see what the reaction was. I made the mistake of adding water to concentrated sulphuric acid. It’s fair to say that adding water produced a very violent reaction. I don’t suppose that the bench I was using ever fully recovered, but I was unaffected. I think that I must have leapt back instantly — fortunately, my instincts selected flight rather than freeze. How concentrated sulphuric acid came to be placed in the hands of a child, even in those days, is an open question. In spite of damaging school property, I didn’t land up in trouble over this — I assume that the teacher would have received more blame than me, and decided to keep as quiet as possible over the incident. I didn’t tell my parents.

  10. Pet Jeffery permalink
    May 14, 2011

    This news story:

    reminded me of this post.

    • Pet Jeffery permalink
      May 14, 2011

      An Iranian man is due to be blinded today as a punishment for throwing acid into the face of a woman who refused to marry him and blinding her.

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