Jane Austen has been dead for nearly two centuries, but she’s still making news. You may have seen the alleged portrait of the English author that surfaced last week, but British crime novelist Lindsay Ashford doesn’t care much about what Austen looks like. Instead, she wants to figure out how Austen died. And in true crime novelist fashion, she thinks it might have been arsenic.
After combing Austen’s letters for clues, Ashford claims to have come up with evidence to support the arsenic claim. And although it would make a better story, Ashford isn’t claiming that the alleged arsenic poison came from an Austen enemy; instead, she points out that many medications of the time included arsenic. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds, either — early Austen collectors Alberta and Henry Burke were said to have tested her for arsenic poisoning.
That’s where Goucher comes in: after the Burke’s deaths, they donated their collection to Goucher College. When Ashford asked Goucher librarians to find evidence of the rumored arsenic test, none turned up. Luckily, some of Austen’s hair has been preserved at the Jane Austen house Museum in England. Ashford wants it tested to find out for sure whether it was arsenic that did her in (most other experts blame Addison’s disease). What do you think, readers? Does it matter what malady killed off Austen?