Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The Paris Archives: Poisonous shoes

At the beginning of the twentieth century there were many potential dangers in the city for unsuspecting residents. However, few people suspected that they would be imperilled by their own shoes - despite repeated warnings from the press!

Le Petit Parisien, September 15th, 1902
Jean (H)Elias, a nineteen-year-old shopworker, had recently given a worn pair of yellow shoes to his local cobbler for a clean up and to have them tinted black. Unbeknownst to him, the cobbler had used a substance called aniline for the job - a 'poison dangereux' writes Le Petit Parisien, whilst also noting that it has pointed out this fact 'à maintes reprises' (many times).

After arriving back home on the Saturday evening (the 13th), and having worn the freshly polished shoes all day long, the young man was struck suddenly by a strange sensation. Thinking it would be best if he tried to sleep it off, he was instead quickly and violently ill. Living alone, Elias had to call his neighbour and ask him to find a doctor.

The doctor immediately recognised the signs of aniline poisoning, and rushed him off to the Hôtel-Dieu hospital, where he was said to be in a very serious state at time of publication. The guilty party - his shoes - were seized by the local police commissioner and sent off to the municipal laboratory for tests.

This story was also picked up by Le Petit Journal and Le Figaro. Although the articles were shorter in these two publications, they did at least seem to spell the name Elias correctly. In both articles, it is once again noted that this is just the latest example of a relatively common phenomenon. 

Le Petit Journal, September 15th, 1902

Le Figaro, September 15th, 1902

Indeed, the previous year, the Journal des Insitituteurs had already highlighted this potential danger to its schoolteacher audience, suggesting that it might be something to look out for in the classroom. The case they highlight occurred in Marseille, with a 14-year-old boy falling into a coma after wearing a pair of shoes that had been tinted by his mother. Once again, it was the colouring of a pair of yellow shoes with a black dye that seems to have been the cause of the malaise.

Journal des Instituteurs, September 22nd, 1901
Did Jean Elias recover from this poisoning? I have no reason to suspect otherwise. No follow up article was published in any of the newspapers in the following days, and no death certificate was issued for a Jean Elias in Paris in 1902.

As these articles in the press imply, the use of this potentially toxic substance was relatively common at the time - and in fact it still is today. According to this Canadian report, it is still frequently used in the United States in the fabrication of shoe polish, and can even be found in apples and educolorants. The report however does conclude that aniline - at the small doses at which it is generally encountered - is not a danger in Canada to human life or health.


Although being poisoned by your shoes seems somewhat incredible today, aniline poisoning is something that still occurs, even if it is very rare. As the American Agency for Toxic Substances points out, this is perhaps because it has "a characteristic aromatic or fishy odor which provides adequate warning of acute exposure". Beware then if you come across a pair of fishy-smelling shoes!

3 comments:

Tim said...

Don't know whether it was coincidental, but there are definite parallels between your poisonous shoes tale and the storm currently brewing about toxic replica football shirts!...

Anne said...

Fascinating...reminds me of the great epidemiological detective stories by Berton Roueche that used to run in The New Yorker.

Peter Olson said...

I will have a close look on the ingredients in my shoe polish! :-)

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