Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry

Throughout history women have used cosmetics to make themselves more beautiful. Many of these efforts have taken the form of painting the face. Over the centuries, women have learned to paint their faces in such a way as to accentuate those facial features that communicate emotion. Thus, darkening the eyebrows greatly amplifies the communicative power of the face; eye shadow has much the same effect. Simultaneously, whitening the facial skin exaggerates the contrast of the facial features, further magnifying their effect. Women have also learned to redden the lips, both to increase their visual impact and to suggest greater blood flow, which normally happens when a person is emotionally aroused. Similarly, emotional arousal often causes the cheeks to redden, so women through the centuries have been reddening their cheeks. In other words, cosmetics do for the face what amplifiers do to sound: they increase the emotional signal strength. 

However, it’s difficult to find just the right cosmetics to obtain the proper color. After all, the wrong shade of red can make your lips look stupid, not voluptuous. A grayish white color on the facial skin makes you look dead. It took centuries to zero in on the compounds that offered the best colors and staying power. By the eighteenth century, the fashionable woman had a broad range of cosmetics from which to select. Among these women was Maria Gunning. She was stunningly beautiful, and her beauty netted her a true matrimonial catch: the 6th Earl of Coventry. They were married in 1752, when Maria was just 19 years old, and her new husband was 30.

Maria was quite taken with her good looks, and so she used the cosmetics of the day to maximum effect. She liked to use a compound called ceruse to whiten her skin. This is a compound composed of lead oxide, hydroxide, and carbonate. The lead is, of course, poisonous, and the hydroxide and carbonate combine with the moisture in the skin to form acids that eat away at the skin, requiring increasingly heavy applications of the compound. To redden her lips, she liked mercuric fucus, and of course mercury is also quite poisonous. The lead and mercury seeped into her blood through the skin and slowly poisoned her.

The poisonous nature of these compounds was not well understood in those days because most women used them only on special occasions. But Maria was a particularly vain woman, and used the cosmetics heavily all the time. Her husband was none to pleased with this and would occasionally chase her around the dinner table with a napkin, trying to wipe the goop off her face. 

She died just eight years later, at the age of 27. It is all but a certainty that she died of heavy metal poisoning from the lead and mercury.