Who would have thought that a home-made beef wellington, served up for lunch in the small village of Leongatha in Australia would have created much interest across the globe?

However, this particular beef wellington contained some death cap mushrooms and, as their name implies, are lethal if they are ingested by humans. And so it proved for three of the lunch guests of Erin Patterson in July this year, who has since made a statement to the Victoria Police explaining that it was all a terrible accident. She clarified that the mushrooms that she had used to prepare the meal were a mixture of button mushrooms bought at a supermarket and dried mushrooms purchased at an Asian grocery in Melbourne several months previously. She pointed out that she too had been hospitalised as a result of eating the beef wellington and had given the remainder of the lunch to hospital toxicologists for them to examine, although she had panicked when people started to become suspicious about what might have happened during the lunch.

It’s the summer and news - which I always like to remind people is the plural of “new” - is often “slow”. Journalists are on holiday like the rest of us and so stories that might ordinarily have been at best local and regional can take off and have an impact and reach that at other times would have been unthinkable.

Analysing this beef wellington story from a news values perspective does have its attractions but, no matter how it might all end for Ms Patterson - and one senses that there will be more details in the weeks to come - I suspect that the power and reach of this story is better explained by the deep, subconscious fears that we all have about poisoning in Western culture. For me, this is not really an Australian story at all but one which is much more universal. After all, there are scores of deadly species in Australia but it is rare for a shark or crocodile attack to make the headlines, or bites from the various venomous snakes that exist down under or even Sydney’s deadly funnel-web spider. No, it is our universal fear of poisoning that this story has tapped into, rather than anything exotically antipodean.

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We see manifestations of these fears in everything from Snow White falling into a coma after eating a poisoned apple in the eponymous fairy tale, to more recent - and all too real - poisonings in Salisbury by agents of the Russian state. In fact there’s even a clinical name for a phobia about being poisoned – toxiphobia. And of course, some of our most notorious murderers and serial killers, such as Graham Young - “the tea cup poisoner” - were adept at using poisons to kill their hapless victims. Young idolised the Victorian poisoner William Palmer, who was hanged for poisoning a friend in 1856, although there are suspicions about other murders that he may have committed. As far as we are aware, Young himself outdid Palmer by going on to kill three people by dosing their food and tea with antimony, before dying himself in prison in 1990.

However, it is perhaps Mary Ann Cotton - Britain’s most prolific female serial killer - that registers here, rather than Young, Palmer or any number of other Victorian poisoners. Two decades before Jack the Ripper was terrorising London, Mary Ann had already become a killing machine. Born in 1832 and originally brought up in Low Moorsley, County Durham she seems to have killed eight of her children, seven step-children, her mother, three husbands, a lover and a friend - a total of 21, although given the state of forensic science at the time it is impossible to be certain of the actual number. Starting in 1852, she seems to have killed at least one victim a year, although when the need arose, as when she moved into the house of a new lover in 1866, Mary Ann could be equally adept at ridding a household much more quickly – sometimes dispatching unwanted step-children on a monthly basis.

Mary Ann’s choice of poison was arsenic, which has been used as a means of murder for hundreds of years – largely because it can be dissolved into hot liquids like tea or soup. Beamish Museum even claims that it has Mary Ann’s teapot in their collection, although the provenance is suspect. If the arsenic dose was small and cumulative the symptoms a victim would display are vomiting, dehydration and diarrhoea and so a busy and unsuspecting doctor, especially if his or her patients were poor and under-nourished, was always more likely to diagnose this cluster of symptoms as gastroenteritis – which in itself could be fatal at that time. Mary Ann used all of this to her advantage and benefited from the deaths of her family, lovers and friends by pocketing small amounts of insurance money that came her way after their funerals and unsurprisingly therefore fits a type of female serial killer called a “Black Widow”.

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She was caught thanks to the steady development of Victorian toxicology and the introduction of the Reinsch Test – named after Egar Hugo Reinsch - and which involved simply cutting a thin strip of the stomach of the suspected victim, adding water and hydrochloric acid to the strip and boiling the mixture for about 30 minutes. A sheet of copper would then be added to the mixture and any arsenic present would form a grey/black coating to the sheet. This was done on several of Mary Ann’s victims by the wonderfully named Dr Thomas Scattergood who gave evidence at her trial, where she was found guilty and then eventually hanged in 1873.

These dates are important, for part of the reason that a fear of death by poisoning is now subconscious is that it is so rare. The heyday for this type of crime was the 19th century, because developments in toxicology meant that killers were increasingly caught and so they turned to other methods if they wanted to get rid of a victim. Over time we have forgotten that this was once the preferred method of murder and now it is even difficult to find statistics about how many people have been deliberately - or accidentally - killed using poison.

We have reacted with strange fascination to the beef wellington story, but I suspect our great-great grandparents would barely have raised an eyebrow.

Professor Wilson starts a theatre tour of Scotland in October talking about Murder at Home.