Deadly White

A woman without paint is like food without salt.



Poisons that led to tooth decay. Hair loss. Blindness. Madness. Addiction. Early death.

It sounds like the plot of a thriller.

But for centuries women have applied cosmetics full of toxins directly to their faces.


Women strove for the appearance of youth and innocence. Women in the Middle Ages bled themselves to achieve this. In Georgian times women used white powder that contained mercury, sometimes known at Venetian Ceruse. The powder hid age spots, freckles, or other blemishes. They had to be careful not to show too much emotion, or their faces might “crack.”


But prolonged use of mercury can lead to addiction. Women lost their teeth and hair. Their skin even blackened.


Another side effect to whitening one’s skin was the inability to blush. But it was desirable for women to blush, to show modesty. So women began applying vermillion to their cheeks and lips. Unfortunately, the vermillion also contained mercury, which made the tooth decay even worse.


The wide eyed, dewy look was also desirable. Women began dropping belladonna into their eyes in Renaissance Italy to dilate their eyes. Though it was called Belladonna for beautiful lady, it is also known as deadly nightshade and is a known poison. But prolonged use could lead to visual disturbances and eventually blindness. Some women even went mad.


To this day, belladonna is considered a top murder weapon for its effectiveness and its availability. It is easily hidden in the victims’ food or drink.


When the leaders of fashion began to lose their hair and teeth, it was suddenly considered beautiful to have high foreheads and gray locks.


For some women, the appearance of youth and loveliness was worth dying for. One renowned beauty died at age 27, poisoned by the cosmetics she used, but unable to stop using them.


As I wrote this I thought how lucky we are to be past these fashion expectations. But in the future will people look back on what we did for beauty, and be amazed at what we were willing to do?


It sounds like the plot of a good story.


Ghost Stories


“Mad from life’s history,
Swift to death’s mystery;
Glad to be hurled,
Anywhere, anywhere, out of this world.”

— Thomas Hood, quoted by Violet Whaley, in her suicide note (1885)

I love to write about ghosts. I love the idea of them. I love the idea not having to say good bye, forever. I love the idea of unfinished business, tasks so important they have to be carried over into death. It’s the perfect plot.

I recently took a trip with my family to San Diego. I’d heard of several haunted buildings, in Old Town, in particular. In one restaurant, the staff doesn’t bother laying out spoons, because the spoons clatter to the floor, on their own. Supposedly the presence that haunts that building doesn’t care for spoons. But why wouldn’t it? Do the spoons remind it of ice cream eaten with a duplicitous lover, just before it died? Is it envious as they watch those who still get to sip warm, savory soup from a spoon?

Ghosts make such good stories.

I also wanted to visit the Whaley House, called the most haunted building in the US. I imagined wandering through the house, hearing the footfalls of Yankee Jim, who was hanged on the property a century ago. Or catching sight of Violet Whaley, who’d committed suicide after a heartbreaking marriage. But when I arrived I found out that I would need to pay for a tour that left off from a gift shop full of touristy knick knacks. Somehow it all seemed less mysterious. I decided against the tour.


The Whaley Family

Chatting with my sister in law later, I mentioned that I regretted not visiting the Whaley House. She is a practical person, so I thought she’d agree that the tour would have been a waste, that ghosts don’t exist. Instead she told me about how she was absolutely convinced that the house in which she and her family lived in Mobile, Alabama was haunted. Each time someone in the house took a shower, the name Amanda appeared in the steam in the mirror as if someone had traced it with their finger. It appeared in a different place each time. She and her husband both felt an unfriendly presence during the three years they lived there. My sister in law asked around and found out that a woman had died while living in the house, and that she’d always wished she had a daughter named Amanda.

Perhaps that spirit had a desire so strong that she needed to return from death to try to fill it. Or maybe she wanted to be sure her story was told. Ghosts make for interesting stories, whether you believe in them or not.


The Whaley House, San Diego, CA