Know Your History! Kensington’s Lead Bun Bakers
In Philadelphia in the late 1800s, consumers in Kensington demanded yellow buns made from the extract of eggs. Bakers in the neighborhood worked tirelessly to produce a product that met the needs of their customers. When the right ingredients were unavailable or too expensive, bakers were forced to protect their livelihood by any means necessary.
Between 1884 and 1887, 11 people in Kensington died from lead poisoning that was traced back to poisoned buns. In total, 78 people were confirmed to have lead poisoning that had eaten these harmful products. There are stories from all over the country about people adulterating food, and in this neighborhood, two bakers were found guilty of that crime and served time in prison.
Replacing the eggs in their batter with yellow lead chromate, George M. Palmer and Frederick Schmid sold their baked goods to customers for several years. Lead poisoning was a common occurrence in Kensington, and some physicians attributed this medical phenomenon to “tainted drinking water, canned or foil-wrapped foods, lead-based ointments on nursing mothers’ breasts or faces, and lead nipple shields, or from sugar of lead taken as a quick medical remedy.”
Palmer (504 Lehigh Avenue) and Schmid (1830 Frankford Avenue) surrendered themselves to police after a warrant was issued for their arrests. The New York Times reported that the two men “were greatly agitated when they walked into the office of the magistrate.” Although Palmer’s case was considered more serious, reports poked fun at Schmid, stating that his “pale, cadaverous face plainly shows the results of eating his own buns,” and he looked especially troubled in his appearance.
Both men had their bail set at $600, and they were found guilty on the following Tuesday by a jury who believed “the deaths…were undoubtedly due to chrome lead poisoning…in buns and other breadstuffs.” The American Society for the Prevention of Adulteration of Food dictates three punishments for offenders of the crime: six months in jail, a fine of $100, or both.
Schmid never admitted that he was guilty, but his business was ruined, just like Palmer’s. All Philadelphia bakers experienced financial troubles when the news of lead-infused buns was published in the media. In order to save the reputation of bakers all throughout the city, one man visited the coroner’s office and “dissolved several ounces of the yellow paint in a bowl of water and offered to drink it.” However, when the coroner responded with “Go ahead,” the man was too nervous to fulfill his bold claim. The coroner stated that he would not have allowed the man to actually drink the lead, but he wanted to prove that it was dangerous.
Palmer’s case is much more disheartening than Schmid’s, who had almost zero evidence against him that he was guilty of knowingly using lead in his baked goods. George M. Palmer was a German immigrant who came to Philadelphia with his wife Catharine in the early 1860s. The couple lived on Otter Street together, and they had five children: George, Anna, Emma (possibly adopted), Clara, and William. Both George M. and Catharine had cases of lead poisoning along with three of their five children. George’s second wife, as well as his children William and Emma, died of lead poisoning between 1884 and 1886.
A man named Hans Hannis lived with George until June of 1887, and he had a confirmed case of lead poisoning in that year, as well as Palmer’s journeyman John Rosenberger (who lived with Palmer at Lehigh Avenue). Two other relatives of George M., George and Mary (both lived with him as well), died of lead poisoning caused by his yellow buns.
Dr. David Denison Stewart investigated Palmer’s home and found a pitcher of yellow lead chromate in his cellar, but Palmer denied using it in any of his baked goods. Dr. Stewart made Palmer promise not to use it, and warned him of the consequences he would face if he were to continue.
Following the divorce from his first wife and the death of his second, Palmer was on to his third wife. Allegedly, she “urged him to use [chromate] again, because…the customers demanded yellow buns.” After disobeying the warning from Dr. Stewart, Palmer was discovered, along with Schmid, and the two men faced the penalty of selling dangerous products to innocent people.
Schmid was responsible for poisoning 38 people with 1 resulting in death. Palmer was responsible for poisoning 40 people with 10 resulting in death (including 5 family members and 1 friend). Even with a lack of evidence against him and far less harm connected to his bakery, Schmid was forced to pay the $100 food-adulterating fine as well as serve six months in jail. Palmer had to serve six months in jail, but he did not have to pay the fine, even though his product killed ten times as many people. Schmid was vocal about his dissatisfaction regarding the sentencing.
Regardless of the time in history or the product being sold, businesses do whatever they deem necessary in order to generate as much revenue as they can. Whether the act is manipulating crop DNA to make GMOs, fracking for oil near underground water reserves, or dying breadstuffs with lead chromate, punishments do not always fit the crime. On February 27th, 1888, it was determined that the poisoning of 78 people and the deaths of 11 of them was worth a combined punishment of 12 months in jail and $100.
Information in this article was taken from: Ancestry.com, Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning by: Christian Warren, Geneology.com, Kennethwmilano.com, Official Documents of Pennsylvania 1888-1889 Comprising the Department and other Reports made to the Governor, Senate, and House of Representatives of Pennsylvania Vol. VI, July 9th, 1887 Philadelphia Press, July 14th, 1887 Monroe County Mail, July 10th, 1887 New York Times, and ushistory.org.