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Was Jane Austen poisoned?

A pencil drawing of British author Jane Austen, c. 1810, by her sister, Cassandra Austen.
A pencil drawing of British author Jane Austen, c. 1810, by her sister, Cassandra Austen. National Portrait Gallery

(CBS) Talk about a cold case.

It has been almost 200 years since "Sense and Sensibility" author Jane Austen died mysteriously at age 41, and now a British crime novelist is claiming that the author was poisoned with arsenic.

Novelist Lindsay Ashford, who has been living and working for the last few years in Austen's hometown, has told The Guardian newspaper that Austen's symptoms, outlined in a series of letters Austen wrote to friends, are consistent with arsenic poisoning. She also points out that arsenic was readily available at the time and was even found as an ingredient in medications.

Ashford, who has researched poisons for her crime novels, said she formed her theory after reading Austen's letters.

"When you look at her list of symptoms and compare them to the list of arsenic symptoms, there is an amazing correlation," Ashford told the Guardian, saying she was surprised no one had come forward with the theory before.

She said arsenic poisoning more closely resembles Austen's symptoms than any other cause of death that has been put forward. Austen's death has been alternately attributed to Addison's disease, Hodgkin's disease and lupus.

Ashford said it is most likely that Austen ingested the poison accidentally, perhaps while being medicated for another ailment, like the rheumatism is often complained of.

But she hasn't ruled out the idea of murder. In fact, she's exploring that in her next book, "The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen."

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