Written by: Andrew Lundeen
Primary Source: The Special Collections Provenance Project at MSU
What is the deadliest book on your shelves?
Of course, every library holds a great deal of sensitive material – works which have unfortunately inspired violence, such as political manifestos, controversial religious texts, and so on. But what about a book that could actually be physically dangerous to handle?
This is the story of MSU’s toxic book, a work that was produced not out of a desire to cause harm, but out of an altruistic concern for public safety.
Shadows from the Walls of Death came about due to the work of Robert C. Kedzie, a distinguished Civil War surgeon and professor of chemistry at MSU from 1863 to 1902. In this seminal study, Kedzie described the deadly effects of the arsenic-based pigment known as Paris Green, a popular coloring agent in 19th century wallpaper. Literature included with our copy summarizes his findings:
Kedzie showed through chemical analysis that the Paris Green pigment was poisonous and that it was only weakly bonded to the paper. As a result, it detached from the wallpaper easily, floating into the air as fine dust particles. Those who breathed in the poisonous dust suffered from bronchitis, rheumatism, weight loss, severe headaches, and ultimately death.
Kedzie immediately reported his findings to the Michigan Board of Health. To spread the word about the dangerous pigment, widely used throughout the country, he cut up samples of the arsenical wallpaper and bound them together in books. Kedzie produced 100 such volumes, which he sent out to state libraries along with his scientific data and conclusions.
Before long, Kedzie’s shocking study had made its mark, and Paris Green was banned from use as a wallpaper pigment.
Most of the 100 copies of Shadows from the Walls of Death were eventually destroyed due to their poisonous content. MSU Special Collections houses the only complete copy of the wallpaper book known to have survived, and it sits unassumingly on our vault shelves.
Fortunately, our conservators have worked to lessen the threat of this deadly arsenic-laced volume. Each wallpaper specimen has been individually encapsulated to protect library staff and patrons.