As a child, I wanted to be a microbiologist or a chemist. These days, the sole vestige of my interest in chemistry is my slightly disquieting obsession with poisons. But don’t worry, I’m only an armchair poisoner. (Hide your kids. Hide your wife. Hide your red wing backs!)
All things in moderation
A poison is anything in a great enough quantity. Even water consumed in excess will dilute the electrolytes in your blood, leading to your premature demise.
My favourite poisons
Below are my favourite poisons, in no particular order. For the sake of society’s self-help and how-to mad contingent, I’ll also be detailing antidotes. Who knows, it might save your life one day.
‘Say what you like. Plutonium may give you grief for thousands of years, but arsenic is forever.’
— Terry Pratchett
Radioactive poisons settle into stable isotopes; organic poisons break down, but heavy metal poisons—they’re forever. After exhumation, forensic scientists are able to test for abnormally high levels of arsenic in the hair and nails of supposed victims—as they did for Napoléon Bonaparte (Smith, Hamilton, Sten Forshufvud, & Wassen, 1962).
Administered in the form of arsenic trioxide (a white powder), arsenic was once readily available in the form of rat poison. Arsenic kills through damage to the digestive system through interference with the functioning of vital enzymes, leading to coma and circulatory failure.
Chronic arsenic poisoning causes a host of unpleasant symptoms such as whole-body numbness, hair loss, nausea and jaundice before the inevitable cardiac arrest, a process that could take years depending on the level of exposure. Death from acute arsenic poisoning, on the other hand, can occur in a matter of a few hours.
Treatment in the first instance is with activated charcoal, as well as fluids to counteract the effects of vomiting and diarrhea. This is followed by chelating agents to bind to the metal and expel it from the body via urination, and, if kidney damage was sustained, use of a dialysis machine.
A real DIY poison, ricin is extracted from the humble castor bean. Here’s how—just kidding, though you’ll find no shortage of instructions on the internet, I’m sure. Ricin is extremely potent, you will die if you ingest as little as two grams.
There is no antidote.
An odourless and colourless killer. Carbon monoxide molecules bind to red blood cells until none are left over to carry oxygen. The cherry-red flush observed in fatal cases is due to the dark red colouration of deoxygenated blood.
Treatment involves exposure to 100% oxygen. Sometimes a hyperbaric chamber is used to increase the absorption of oxygen into the blood.
A friend’s husband is an ER surgeon so I’ve heard my fair share of medical hijinks, including that of a man who came in after dinner sweating profusely and suffering from delirium. His wife had served him deadly nightshade from the local park—urban foraging gone or something more sinister? I suppose we’ll never know.
Deadly nightshade causes dilation of the pupil. Hence, it was popular among Italian court ladies during the Renaissance wishing to give themselves a doe-eyed look, giving rise to its other common name of ‘belladonna’.
If you’ve consumed any part of deadly nightshade, drink an emetic (such as warm vinegar) to induce vomiting, followed by a stimulant like coffee. And of course, head to the emergency room of your local hospital.
Sarin is a highly volatile liquid that gives off deadly fumes. Exposure to the vapour has an instant effect, while a lethal drop of the liquid on the skin takes about a half-hour to begin to wreak havoc. Cause of death is asphyxia.
Sarin poisoning is combated by removing the victim from the vicinity as well as decontamination to stop the effects of droplets condescending from where they’ve settled on clothing. Atropine is commonly used to treat nerve gas poisoning, while seizures, if present, are treated with anticonvulsants such as Valium.
‘Well,’ replied Monte Cristo, ‘suppose, then, that this poison was brucine, and you were to take a milligramme the first day, two milligrammes the second day, and so on.’
— Alexandre Dumas
One can certainly build up a tolerance to some poisons—arsenic for one—à la the Count of Monte Cristo, though I’m not sure I’d recommend it.
Consider the tale of Mithridates VI of Pontus. King Mithridates deliberately developed immunity to common poisons but found that it foiled his own suicide attempt. In the face of certain and humiliating defeat, Mithridates was forced to recruit a servant into meting out a far less gentle end, though doubtless one less grisly than what his enemies had in store for him.
Building up a tolerance to poisons might have helped you gain admission into the Hellfire Club, supposing you were a British young man of means in the 18th Century, but it won’t help your resume one iota these days.
A secret garden
Oh, there are the cherry blossom groves and rose arbours too, but give me its Poison Garden any day. Home to a variety of toxic and narcotic plants, some kept in cages, all kept behind a locked wrought-iron gate. Visitors are cautioned from:
‘…smelling, touching, or tasting any plants, although some people still occasionally faint from inhaling toxic fumes while walking in the garden.’
Be still, my erratically beating heart.
A tree without roots
Reading about poisons overlaps with my other hobby of reading about history in order to understand the whys and wherefores of our world today. As intertwined in medicine, crime, and chemical warfare as poisons are, they make for an interesting lens into the past.
For example, consider the common narrative surrounding the failure of Prohibition. In 1920, the production and importation of alcohol were banned across the United States, leading to bootleg liquor, speakeasies, and the unfortunate side-effect of a vast criminal network to support such an enterprise.
What’s incredible to me, having read The Poisoner’s Handbook, is that so much of the impetus for repealing the 18th Amendment was over concern for the public’s health. Poor people were dying, and they were dying in droves, or else they were losing their eyesight from drinking industrial ethyl alcohol.
Prohibition rescinded due to concern for the dregs of society—who would have thought. It seems that so often when examining the past there is this paradox of human life being considered sacrosanct and yet treated as if it were utterly worthless.
Reading an excerpt from Perfume: The Story of a Murder got me thinking about this in a big way. The novel opens with the main character’s mother hauled off for attempted infanticide at the ignoble place of his birth: a fish market in 18th Century France.
And yet, consider the likely path of an unwanted child of that era: a workhouse from the age of seven, perhaps. Certainly, no protection would be granted from the industrial waste of the factory, nor the peddlers’ unsafe, and downright iatrogenic, remedies which would have followed. Almost certainly a life of suffering and an early grave.
That’s why I feel that the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration is a cornerstone of civilisation. (Or at least, its platonic ideal if not the operational realities of a regulatory body funded by the very industry it cannot, therefore, oversee without fear or favour.) If we are to extrapolate from anthropologist Margaret Mead’s claim that a mended femur is the first indicator of civilisation, then surely, the safeguard of every individual from potential harm is its pinnacle. And surely more so when that harm is incurred in war.
You see, sometimes the issue’s not industrial run-off but rather the deliberate weaponisation of chemistry. I’m talking about the scourge of chemical warfare, barred by the Geneva Protocol in 1925. The treaty bars asphyxiating and/or poisonous gases, and bacteriological methods of warfare (but not the stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons). The Protocol is surely one of the greatest humanitarian achievements of the 20th Century. (See also the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, which does prohibit development, production, and stockpiling.)
Nobel Prize winner and downright monster Fritz Haber was one such person deeply enmeshed in the history of poisoning on a grand scale. Haber’s contribution to the war effort included the development of chlorine gas, resulting in tens of thousands of casualties in its first deployment alone.
His first wife, a chemist named Clara Immerwahr, killed herself partly in despair over the trajectory of his career; Haber was back at work shortly after the funeral. It’s a pity this level of dedication did little to endear him to the new regime. Like other notable scientists of Jewish descent, Haber was forced to leave Germany in the 1930s amid the rising tide of antisemitism. He died in exile in 1934.
Apart from the irony of having created the first generation of what was to become Zyklon B, Haber is remarkable in another way. He has the dubious honour of being the human being who, through his scientific work, has contributed the most to humanity’s suffering and salvation, in equal and staggering measure.
The Haber-Bosch process enables the production of ammonia at an industrial scale through the reaction of plentiful (but inert) atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen, under specialised conditions. (Haber developed it, Bosch scaled it up.) Fertilizer produced from synthetic ammonia is vital, as sources of naturally occurring nitrate are not enough to sustain the world’s population.
Haber saved the millions who otherwise would have been the casualties of mass starvation. However, ammonia is also used in the manufacture of munitions. Coupled with his being the father of chemical warfare, this means Haber was responsible for the death and suffering of just as many as he helped save.
Fritz Haber—patriot, monster, saviour, murderer. Scientist.
‘We only want one limit, the limit of our own ability.’
— Fritz Haber
But perhaps, Herr Haber, one should also be curtailed by one’s conscience.
Haber’s granddaughter, Claire, perhaps in trying to right generational wrongs, attempted to secure funding for her research into an antidote for the effects of chlorine gas. Instead, the money was diverted to the development of an even more destructive weapon—the atomic bomb. She committed suicide as a result.
My poison hobby helps me navigate not only the past but the future too. You see, my know-how is going to keep me safe in the event of an apocalypse. While you’re all chowing down on exploded cans of beans in your nuclear bunkers, I’ll be steering well clear of botulinum toxin.
Do you have a favourite poison? Perhaps you have on hand the recipe for the Borgia’s deadly Cantarella, lost to the ages? Do let me know in the comments.
Blum, D. (2011). The poisoner’s handbook: Murder and the birth of forensic medicine in jazz age New York. Penguin.
Dar, M., Knapp, M., Lothrop, P., Medina, G., Parrott, K., Pugl, D., … & Tench, R. (2017). Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.
Emsley, J. (2006). The elements of murder: a history of poison. Oxford University Press.
Emsley, J. (2008). Molecules of Murder. Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry.
Goldblat, J., 2021. The Biological Weapons Convention - An overview - ICRC. [online] International Committee of the Red Cross. Available at: <https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/resources/documents/article/other/57jnpa.htm> [Accessed 22 September 2021].
Kean, S. (2011). The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. Random House.
Stevens, S., & Bannon, A. (2007). Book of Poisons: a guide for writers. Writer’s Digest Books. [Side note: I love this book, as it’s a guide for writers, it’s got nifty sections such as Chapter 14: Create Your Own Poison. Literary not literally speaking, of course.]
Smith, Hamilton, Sten Forshufvud, and A. Wassen. “Distribution of arsenic in Napoleon’s hair.” Nature 194 (1962). [Side note: these days the consensus is that these high levels are attributable to dye in the wallpaper rather than deliberate poisoning.]
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