18 January 2016

A Little Ditty About Poisons

When I thought I'd been misspelling “arsenic” in my newest Milt Kovak, I thought I'd write an article on how how bad spellers of the world should untie. But then I found I'd actually been spelling it correctly and thought, well, hell, there goes that thought. (Although if it weren't for spell check I'm sure I'd never have gotten published in the first place.) 
Then I thought about the fact that I'd been spelling “arsenic” at all – in the new Milt there's arsenic found in the peach melba. (Don't ask. Buy the book.) A couple of semesters ago I taught a series of class on writing the mystery and had one class exclusively on poisons. So I've got the research and you're going to have to deal with that. (Info dump, anyone?)

First off, poisons have been around and used about as long as there have been human beings. One fun fact is that Cleopatra reportedly did a little experimentation on poisons before selecting the asp as her way of doing herself in. She did her experiments on her prisoners and slaves. (Fun lady.) She at first tried henbane and belladonna, but, despite their rapid action, they appeared to cause too much pain in her subjects. She ditched the per-curser to strychnine (strychnos nux-vomica) – also rapid action – because it produced convulsions that left facial features distorted at death. (And who doesn't want to be a pretty corpse?) But the asp, her final selection, supposedly produced a serene and prompt death.

Then, of course, there were the Borgias who fine-tuned the act of poisoning, bringing it to the height of its art. In defense came the establishment of the position of food taster in royal households. If nothing happened to him after a short period of time, the royal would go ahead with his meal. Unfortunately, this did little to stop the serious poisoner.

Formal study of poisons began in the early nineteen century, with the isolation of morphine from opium and research into the effects of curare – a vegetable poison used by South American Indians to poison their arrows. Matthew J.B. Orfila, considered the founder of modern toxicology, experimented with and cataloged poisons and their effects. Arsenic, the poisoner's favorite, was tracked down by James Marsh around 1836. But Orfila, using Marsh's test on biological specimens, was an expert witness who helped convict Madame Lefarge. Remember her?

With the increase of industry at the beginning of the twentieth century, new and niftier chemicals became available to the poisoner. Then came synthetic drugs, which only added to the problems of the toxicologist. With the increase of barbiturate use after WWII, the suicide rate increased.

Currently the trend indicates that medicines for internal use are the favorite for both suicide and homicide, while external use goodies – such as cleaning fluids, pesticides, and vegetable alkaloids – run a close second, with gas and fumes running behind.

Unfortunately concentration on antidotes has not been as thorough as one would hope. The old wives tales of using milk (it really only dilutes the poison), and salt water (which can be dangerous as large amounts of sodium chloride can bring on fatal heart attacks), are just that – old wives tales. Basically, get medical attention when poisoning is suspected.

And on that happy note, have a nice day.


  1. Royals must have eaten a lot of cold meals.

    A fun column from, I'm happy to learn, another spelling challenged writer.

  2. Great post, Susan! I keep hearing a lot about antifreeze - looks pretty and tastes sweet, never mind that the death is hideous. I'm keeping it in mind for future fiction.

    Janice, royals did eat a lot of cold meals, because the kitchens were always a huge distance away from the dining hall (less fear of fire consuming everything, and most cultures didn't like - or said they didn't like - the smell of cooking), so the servants were trotting up to a mile to bring the food to the table. And then there was the tasting element...

  3. Can you imagine a beefeater explaining his career to his family? “I get these fancy threads, see, and get to eat at the king’s table.”

    “But what do you do?”

    “Just eat. Even the king follows my lead.”

    “Yeah, but why?”


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