The wafers made the skin fashionably pale by destroying red blood cells. Although it was possible to build up a tolerance for arsenic by taking regular small amounts, it is no surprise that the cosmetic use of the substance did not always end happily.
In July 1880 the Indianapolis Sentinel reported the case of ‘a young lady, handsome and intelligent,’ who had gradually lost her sight as a result of taking arsenic. Her engagement to a ‘young physician of good prospects’ was on hold while he waited to find out if her sight could be restored.
Deaths also occurred, such as that of 18-year-old Hildegarde Walton of St Louis, who died in 1911 having taken several boxes of wafers in an attempt to clear up a skin complaint.
of Dr. MACKENZIE’S IMPROVED HARMLESS ARSENIC COMPLEXION WAFERS will produce the most lovely complexion that the imagination could desire, clear, fresh, free from blotch, blemish, coarseness, redness, freckles, or pimples. Post free for 4s. 6d. ; half boxes, 2s. 9d.— S. HARVEY, 5, Denman St., London Bridge, S. E. Use Dr. MacKenzie’s ARSENICAL TOILET SOAP 1s. per Tablet; No. 2, unscented, 6d. per Tablet. Made from Purest Ingredients, and Absolutely Harmless.
BEWARE OF THE MANY IMITATIONS. Have Dr. Mackenzie’s or none.
MacKenzies’s was the British version, while the main US brand was Dr Campbell’s Safe Arsenic Wafers, which the proprietor supposedly used to cure his own sallow complexion. Until the age of 19, he ‘was the possessor of a remarkably clear skin and bright English complexion, so much so as to excite comment among my fellow college students, who used to say “they wished I were a girl.”‘ Yellow fever put paid to this excitement, and Dr Campbell ended up ‘a far deeper yellow than Oscar Wilde’s favourite sunflower.’ (New York Times, 10 April 1887)
After experimenting unsuccessfully with various arsenic products, he developed his brand of wafers and apparently regained his pale skin – thus inspired to help others, he began advertising to the public. The wafers were still around as late as the 1920s.
Sources: Dr MacKenzie’s Arsenic Wafers from The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times (London) 7 March 1896. Dr Campbell’s Arsenic Wafers from The World (New York) 25 Feb 1894
UPDATE: You can find lots more information about Dr MacKenzie’s Arsenic Wafers in my book, The Quack Doctor: Historical Remedies For All Your Ills.