A recent spate of acid attacks has made headlines in London, with harrowing reports of victims suffering disfiguring injuries after corrosive substances were hurled at them. What's particularly disturbing about these attacks is their arbitrary nature, although one common trend is that women and curiously scooter delivery drivers have frequently been the targets.
Assaults involving corrosive substances have more than doubled in England since 2012 police figures show; the vast majority of cases were in London, with 454 reported incidents in the capital in 2016.
Such attacks are shocking, but are they anything new? As it turns out, acid attacks — or 'hurling or throwing vitriol' as it used to be called — was a common method of assault even 200 years ago. The prevalence of acid attacks first became apparent in Britain during the embryonic stages of the industrial revolution. From the late 1700s, acid was used by the textile industry to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, therefore it became widely available to the general public. The most commonly available type was sulphuric acid – a highly corrosive liquid known as 'oil of vitriol'. The second half of the 19th century was the worst period for acid attacks; from 1850 to 1899 there were thousands of reported incidents of vitriol hurling in the UK. With many of them occurring in the capital.
In fact, such attacks were so common in the 19th century that they were even depicted in popular culture. In Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of an Illustrious Client, Baron Gruner has vitriol thrown in his face by his former mistress Kiitty Winter. As late as 1938, Graham Greene's novel Brighton Rock saw his disturbed character Pinkie attack his would-be captor Ida Arnold with a phial of acid, before falling to his death.
In reverse of today's trends, the perpetrators of acid attacks in the Victorian and Edwardian period were frequently women. According to research by Katherine Watson of Oxford Brookes University, between 1837 and 1913 almost twice as many women as men stood trial at the Old Bailey for throwing a corrosive fluid.
Perpetrators of vitriol throwing were intent on maiming or blinding — and not necessarily murdering — their victims. They were often motivated by jealousy or revenge for some romantic misdemeanour on the behalf of their partners.
A report published in the London Evening Standard on 19 October 1868 describes an episode of "Love, Jealousy, and Revenge in St Giles." Appearing at Bow magistrates court that morning was Bridget Dwyer, 18, "a rather pretty, but untidy young woman," who stood accused of attempting to throw a "phial of vitriol" at John Bloman, described in the Standard as a 'labouring man'. On the night of the attack, Dwyer saw Bloman on King Street with some of his friends — she beckoned him away from them indicating that she wanted to talk. While speaking to her Bloman noticed the phial in her hand which she was lifting as if to throw at him, but he managed to seize her wrist just in time before she managed to hurl the contents of the phial onto his face.
The court heard that in the struggle, the bottle broke and the acid poured out onto Bloman's trousers, burning them.
Dwyer only received eight months for the attack, and before she was led out of the courtroom, she rounded on Bloman with — according to the Standard — "a look and tone of indescribably intense malignity," and hissed: "never mind. I'll let you have it when I come out and I shan't miss your face next time." Bloman, who probably was feeling quite helpless at this point, asked the judge what was he to do when she came out of prison. Sinisterly, the judge reassured him "she will be an altered woman by then." (We must, of course, wonder why women like Dwyer were driven to such lengths in the first place — often, perhaps it was the only way they felt they could be heard.)
One thing that's remarkable about acid throwing in Victorian Britain, is that it wasn't punished all that heavily by the courts. Whereas Bridget Dwyer got eight months for attempting to permanently disfigure her former lover, eight years earlier in 1860 another Victorian, William Parkins, who committed the rather trivial crime of stealing an axe in Dunstable received 12 months hard labour.
Back to the present, and acid attacks are becoming the weapon of choice in gang related violence. Sentences for acid attacks are not as punitive as those handed out for knife attacks, as knives often carry the risk of trumping an assault charge with attempted murder. And unlike a knife attack, police are less likely to find the perpetrators' DNA following an acid attack; a plastic bottle being much easier to dispose of than a knife.
London's spiteful crime of yore has reawoken in an ugly way.