Killing someone with poison—and getting away with it—requires precise planning, cunning, and subterfuge, as well as a certain creativity, intelligence, and finesse to pull off successfully. That’s horrifying. So are all those adjectives! Deadliest poisons in history could be an encyclopedia, and maybe it is. I went down a deep, dark rabbit hole to write this post and came up, more intrigued than ever!
You can blame ‘Criminal Minds’ reruns. We started watching it, yes, 15 seasons behind the rest of the world. Pushing my initial horror aside, sneaky, horrific crimes intrigued me. I am also intrigued by science. Poisons came to mind. Poisons have been alongside us throughout history.
MAN AND POISONS
The strong connection between man and nature, including poisons, takes us back to ancient times. Prehistoric people applied poison to spears for hunting animals. We don’t know if they turned their poisoned sticks toward each other.
We do know that in 399 B.C., when Socrates was found guilty of heresy, a tribunal sentenced him to ‘death by hemlock.’
Hemlock is nothing to sneeze at but it’s not the king of poisons.
ARSENIC : THE POISON OF KINGS AND THE KING OF POISONS
From the time of the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, until modern toxicology found a way to detect arsenic in the deceased, arsenic ruled as the king of poisons.
ARSENIC FAST FACTS
FAMOUS ARSENIC VICTIMS
HOW POISONS WORK: ARSENIC
ENTER...CLEVER PHYSICIANS AND CHEMISTS
In 1851 in the United Kingdom, a law passed called The Arsenic Act, stating that arsenic had to be colored with indigo or soot. This was in response to the alarming number of accidental (or deliberate) poisonings due to its lack of color.
Murder by arsenic became rarer because, at last, it left a detectable trace at the crime scene. The King was dead.
If arsenic is the king of poisons, wolfsbane is its queen.
MONKSHOOD OR WOLSFBANE
Monkshood, or Aconitum variegatum is considered the most poisonous plant in Europe. (The genus aconitum grows all over the northern hemisphere!)
Monkshood was already in our yard when we moved in. Our voracious bunnies and deer don’t touch the monkshood in our garden. Now we know why! (good thing I always wear gardening gloves!)
This poisonous plant contains a potent alkaloid called aconitine. Aconitine is everywhere in monkshood, flowers, leaves, stems, and roots.
Historically, aconitine was used to hunt animals, the Aleuts for whales, in Japan to hunt bear and somewhere hunting wolves, which is how ‘wolfsbane’ got the name.
Later the common name changed to ‘monkshood,’ as it resembled hoods that monks wore in the middle ages. Yes, the flower resembles monks’ hoods but what about the death element?
HOW POISONS WORK : ACONITINE
When any part of the plant is ingested or absorbed via the skin, the aconitine goes to work.
A dose of 1-2 mg of aconitine is fatal. That’s 0.00007055 of an ounce. Aconitine qualifies as one of the deadliest poisons in history. This is a SERIOUS poison. (What poison isn’t?)
CLOSE TO AN UNTRACEABLE POISON
Aconitine is not often used in murder but finding trace amounts of it in tissue postmortem (after death) is no easy task. Aconitine also has the untraceable mystique!
“Murder most foul,” wrote Shakespeare of the poisoning of Hamlet’s father. During that time period, poison was a common method of murder. Shakespeare also used poison as a metaphor in many of his plays.
In one scene, King Henry IV advises his underlings to speak gently “… Mingled with venom of suggestion–As, force perforce, the age will pour it in–
Shall never leak, though it do work as strong as aconitum…”
I’m not a Shakespeare expert, but in this verse, aconitum (aconitine) is as an analogy about harsh words doing harm.
That’s true but I’m more worried about the poison.
In 1882, George Henry Lamson was hanged after being found guilty of murdering his crippled brother-in-law for his inheritance. At that time, aconitine was an untraceable poison. Lamson didn’t cover his tracks, however. Police found raisins in Lamson’s cake, eaten by the deceased, laced with aconitine.
Severus Snape used aconitine in a potion he made for Remus Lupin, to keep him from violence during his monthly wolf transformation. So if you have any werewolf friends, you could look into this.
Let’s move on, not to the half-blood prince, but to the prince of poisons. The Evil Prince.
In keeping with our royal classification, let’s look at a poison perpetrator. William Palmer is dubbed Prince of Poisoners.
Bodies were exhumed but no evidence found. Circumstantial evidence convicted him.
Palmer tried to bribe several people involved with the coroner’s inquest. The fact that convinced the judges was Palmer’s purchase of strychnine shortly before Cook’s death.
Maybe I should take back my statement that poisoners are clever.
Strychnine is another plant alkaloid. There are many strychnos species. Strychnine is found in many of them, most abundantly in the seeds of Strychnos mux-vomica, a tree native to India. It was previously used as a pesticide.
HOW POISONS KILL: STRYCHNINE
As it happens so often in toxicology, strychnine targets a receptor in the nervous system.
Death occurs quickly, between one and three hours. Often the victim has paralysis of their jaw muscles, their lips drawn back in a horrific parody of a grin.
I have no clue how this passed by the authority figures of the time. Apparently, they assumed the death was due to tetanus or severe epileptic fits. It sounds to me as if they were all gullible. Hindsight is 20/20 as the saying goes. (I’m still not happy with Palmer’s wife.)
TREATMENT FOR STRYCHNINE POISONING!
It was hopeless in the 19th C, but today, anti-convulsive drugs such as diazepam (valium) are administered along with assisted respiration to maintain breathing, since respiratory muscles are also affected. (being skeletal muscles, after all.) Unfortunately, anyone with strychnine poisoning did not have this option before 1963, when diazepam was available.
CURARE : POISON AND ANTIDOTE
Before valium, curare was used as an antidote. Curare is a potent poison in its own right, affecting nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. (Look at this! I can sneak in another poison!)
Curare causes paralysis of the skeletal muscles. Remember, this is the exact opposite of strychnine, which causes muscles to fire constantly. Curare is a large molecule and broken down orally, so it can only affect muscles if injected or absorbed through a cut. That’s why anyone using curare for arrows or darts can taste the poison to see how concentrated the brew. (More bitter=more concentrated)
Cyanides are one of the most rapidly fatal poisons known. They have an affinity for hemoglobin that is a couple hundred times greater than oxygen. It doesn’t matter how old you are or what your BMI is, cyanide will get you.
Let’s dub it the Joker of Poisons! It’s always going to get the last laugh.
HOW TO CONCENTRATE A POISON
INFAMOUS POISONERS WHO USED CYANIDE
CYANIDE FAILS THE UNTRACEABLE POISON LIST
Unlike some of the other famous homicidal poisons (I’m thinking arsenic here) cyanide is strong and bitter.
The gel-casings of the Tylenol capsules blocked the taste of the poison.
Cyanide leaves an obvious trail of evidence. From a telltale bloody froth dribbling out of the victim’s mouth to convulsions and a lingering scent of almonds, alerting physicians, police, forensics specialists and toxicologists. It is not a kind way to die.
It is not a good way to get away with murder, either. Cyanide does not make any untraceable poison lists. It does make the ‘Deadliest Poisons in History’ list.
The pale horse. Okay, I’m stretching it here with an animal analogy, but all this royalty needs to ride out on something! (Not the joker. He’s walking.) I sure don’t want to ride that horse. Our king, queen, and prince would, though.
Thallium is the 81st element on the periodic table, right next to another poisonous element, mercury. Actually, thallium tucked between mercury and lead. Three poisons in a row. (I’ll save those two for another time!)
Thallium is dubbed ‘the poisoner’s poison’ because the wide range of symptoms are easily attributed to other causes, making diagnosis perplexing. Not only that, it dissolves invisibly and has no taste.
HOW POISONS KILL : THALLIUM
Maybe our royalty needs something to wear….
DEATH CAP MUSHROOMS Amanita phalloides
The death-cap mushroom has a long history as a tool of murder and suicide, going back to ancient Roman times.
FAMOUS VICTIMS OF DEATH CAP MUSHROOMS
Amanita phalloides produce one of the world's deadliest toxins : α-amanitin.
HOW POISONS KILL : α-AMANITIN
Symptoms don’t appear for hours! (it takes a little time for the α-Amanitin to stop the cells from replicating via RNA bashing)
Stomach issues ensue, followed by jaundice, seizures, coma, and death.
There is no antidote. Repeat: no antidote.
Please don’t pick wild mushrooms!
ON TO PARENTAL ANALOGIES: THE FATHERS OF TOXICOLOGY
Let’s end on a more positive note! With all these poisoners running amok, we need heroes! (not just that knight above) There are too many heroes to mention them all –many working as you’re reading my post! Since I’m writing about ‘Deadliest Poisons in History’ I’ll stick with historical heroes and keep it going with analogies, not of royalty, but father figures.
The brilliant Mathieu Orfila, and the amazing Dr. Alexander Gettler.
DEADLIEST POISONS IN HISTORY
I had far too many poisons to choose from! For this post, I stuck with the king, queen, prince, joker, a knight in not-so-shining armor, a pale horse to ride, and a cap to keep the wind off. (which none of them deserve.)
Perhaps the reason I find poisons so intriguing and horrifying is the thin line between life and death. As toxicologists are fond of saying, “it’s not the poison, but the dose.” Heck, water can kill us if we drink enough.
No murderers get a pass! It’s just that poisoners slink closer to the monsters lurking in our nightmares. The thoughtful intelligence, the cold-blooded calculation of a person who tricks their friend, co-worker, or loved one into swallowing something that will dissolve tissues, blister skin, or twist muscles into convulsive agony, shows humanity at its worst.
The fact that we find it horrifying and revolting reminds us that human decency prevails! Let’s go back to smelling the flowers, not grinding them down into a paste. And have a cocktail– made by our own hand, of course!
Unless you want me to stop by?