The latest Google Doodle celebrates Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 141st birthday with scenes from the life of her most famous creation, Anne of Green Gables. One shows Anne Shirley taste a cake and promptly turn green. Given the chemistry of the time, that may be more sinister than we imagine.
We’ve talked before about the poison-heavy mishaps of Anne Shirley. In the doodle above, she’s in another mess. The minister and his wife come to tea, and Anne makes a cake with what she believes is vanilla. The minister’s wife is actually the one who turns green when eating the cake, but determinedly keeps eating until Marilla, Anne’s guardian, takes a bite and says, “Mercy on us, Anne, you’ve flavored that cake with anodyne liniment. I broke the liniment bottle last week and poured what was left into an old empty vanilla bottle. I suppose it’s partly my fault—I should have warned you—but for pity’s sake why couldn’t you have smelled it?”
Anodyne liniment sounds wholesome and nice, but when you look into its history, things can get dark. True, some liniments were to be taken externally, and they were often a harmless mix of castile soap, alcohol, cotton seed oil or olive oil, and camphor. Other anodyne liniments used aconite, also known as monkshood and a potent poison, or belladonna. It wasn’t unusual for liniments to have lead or ammonia in them.
There’s yet a more disturbing option. Marilla automatically assumes that Anne would recognize the bottle that the anodyne liniment came in, which means it was probably a brand name liniment. The most famous anodyne liniment in 1908, the year Anne of Green Gables was published, was Doctor Johnson’s American Anodyne Liniment.
Now, Anne of Green Gables is a Canadian book, and it was set in the late 1800s, not the early 1900s. Still, Johnson’s Liniment was famous, not anomalous. Its recipe wasn’t different from other liniments available at the time. Some sources say its main ingredient was ether, which says enough about the Cuthbert household. Other sources gets a little more specific, and more worrying. The liniment was 18.5% alcohol, 6.25% ether, and had half a grain of opium to the fluid ounce.
That does explain why the minister’s wife keeps eating the cake.