When Did People Start Using Acid as a Weapon?

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Feb. 4 2013 5:47 PM

Throwing Vitriol

When did people start using acid as a weapon?

Sergei Filin (L), pictured performing 'Swans' Lake' with Galina Stephaneko (R) at Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 2001.
The Bolshoi Ballet's artistic director Sergei Filin speaks to journalists as he leaves a hospital in Moscow, on Feb. 4, 2013

Photo by AFP/Getty Images

The artistic director of Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet said this weekend that he knows who is responsible for an acid attack on Jan. 17 that disfigured him and damaged his eyesight. When did people start using acid as a weapon?

In the 18th century. Sulfuric acid, more commonly known historically as “vitriol,” was first manufactured on an industrial scale in England in the 1740s, and people began using it for violent purposes in Western Europe and the United States once it became easily obtainable. (It was sold as a bleach and a cleaning agent.) By the 1830s, a Glasgow periodical editorialized, “The crime of throwing vitriol has, we grieve to say, become so common in this part of the country, as to become almost a stain on the national character.”

In addition to being favored as a weapon in labor clashes, sulfuric acid was a common weapon in domestic disputes. For instance, in 1865, the New York Times reported that a jealous husband was arrested for disfiguring his wife with acid after threatening to “spoil her figure.” In other 19th- and early 20th-century cases, women threw acid on the men who impregnated them outside of marriage, on former lovers who spurned them, or on their husbands’ mistresses. Throwing vitriol was a way not only of causing someone immense pain, but also of rendering him or her unattractive, which goes partway toward explaining its use in sexually charged disputes. (A strong base, such as lye, can also blind and disfigure a victim.)

Acid fell (mostly) out of favor as a weapon of domestic assault in the United States and Western Europe by the mid-20th century, thanks both to better regulation of potentially dangerous chemicals and to women’s increasing economic autonomy. But throwing acid gained prevalence in other parts of the world in the late 20th and early 21st century. In particular, reports of acid violence have increased since the 1960s in South Asia, Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America. Human rights scholars note that acid violence is correlated with gender inequality, acid’s cheapness and accessibility, and the failure of courts to convict perpetrators. The Acid Survivors Trust International estimates that 80 percent of victims of acid violence are women, and many perpetrators are men who throw acid as revenge against women who have rejected them sexually. However, thanks to increased reporting, the creation of NGOs in support of victims, and increased media and academic scrutiny of acid violence, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cambodia, and India have adopted new laws over the past decade increasing penalties for acid violence and regulating the sale and transport of potentially lethal acids.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Elizabeth Brundige of the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell University and Jaf Shah of Acid Survivors Trust International.

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

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