During the winter of 1609-1610, nearly 90 percent of the residents of the Jamestown colony perished in an episode now called “the starving time.” But did the starving time actually have anything to do with starvation? A maverick pathologist says no. His theory: the deaths were the result of arsenic poisoning, perhaps at the hands of an operative of the Spanish government, which was intent on getting rid of the English colony.
Arsenic has been used as a poison for centuries. The element, a heavy metal like lead and mercury, attacks the body’s energy production machinery — specifically, the mitochondria, the tiny power generators in cells. Every cell in the body is affected by exposure to arsenic, and so every system in the body — cardiovascular, neurological, gastrointestinal, etc — is damaged. “Arsenic poisoning works like pulling a circuit breaker in your house,” says the pathologist, Frank Hancock, medical director of Laboratory Corp. of America in Burlington, North Carolina, “with the tissues shutting down as cells run out of energy. Eventually, the body’s systems shut down completely.” And then, you die.
Because arsenic affects every part of the body, it could account for the wide range of symptoms experienced by Jamestown’s settlers, Hancock says. He has pored through the historical accounts of those symptoms, and found striking parallels with the effects of arsenic poisoning. “I found six or seven categories of illness that fit with arsenic,” Hancock says. For example, the settlers reported “bloody flux” — bloody diarrhea — extreme weakness, and delirium. All are symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Some of the ill suffered from strange skin peeling — which, Hancock says, can also be caused by arsenic poisoning. In addition, the historical records contain accounts of sudden death. “People went to bed at night in adequate health and were dead in the morning. Arsenic poisoning will cause cardiac arrhythmias,” Hancock says, which can lead to sudden, fatal, heart attacks.
The Jamestown colonists did, in fact, have ratsbane — arsenic trioxide — to control their burgeoning rat population. But those rats might offer another explanation for the deaths, says archeologist Bill Kelso, head of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project, which is excavating old Jamestown. “It could have been the plague,” says Kelso. “One thing we’ve found are the remains of black rats, in with the food remains. They were being eaten. Black rats are common only in Europe. They are not an American species. And they are also the big carrier of plague. So that could have been brought over here, and been the real culprit. Certainly Jamestown’s leaders, who were trying to promote the place and get people to come, wouldn’t have said ‘hey come on over and catch the plague.'”
Kelso’s team has so far unearthed more than 70 skeletons from the early 1600s. Many appear to have been buried in a hurry, by people anxious to avoid contact with the bodies — which suggests the presence of some contagious agent. He and his colleagues plan forensic studies of 50 or so skeletons. The examinations could, in theory, reveal signs of plague, Kelso says, “but I’m not promising anything.”
The dangers of the plague could have been multiplied by the desperate conditions at Jamestown. The colony was located in a swampy peninsula; if the settlers ingested its brackish waters, some researchers have speculated, they could have become ill with salt poisoning. The early settlers also suffered through an extreme drought. In 1998, an analysis of tree rings from bald cypress trees growing in swamps near Jamestown revealed that at the same time that Jamestown was colonized the area was hit with the worst episode of drought in nearly 800 years. In addition to destroying crops and possibly contributing to nutritional diseases like pellagra and scurvy, the drought could have intensified the already difficult relations the colonists had with the native Algonquians.
Unfortunately, forensic tests can’t prove — or disprove — Frank Hancock’s arsenic theory. The heavy metal can be detected in urine (if ingested recently), hair, or fingernail samples. But it does not get deposited in bone — and bone is all that remains of the fallen at Jamestown.