Friday, September 6, 2013

Historic Poisonings

The discovery of poisons occurred when prehistoric tribes foraged for food; an often deadly experience. Primitive poison experts were people to be reckoned with, and they either served as tribal sorcerers or were burned at the stake, depending on whom they practiced.

Our first written accounts of poisonings are from the Roman era over 2,000 years ago, although the Chinese, Egyptians, Sumerians and East Indians had practiced the art of poisoning for centuries. Cleopatra allegedly used her slaves and prisoners as guinea pigs while searching for the perfect suicidal poison. She tried belladonna and found that it killed quickly but was too painful for her own personal demise. She also tried an early form of strychnine but it caused facial distortions at death, so she chose instead the bite of an asp, a small African cobra, which produced a quick and painless death.

People in some cultures were so afraid of being poisoned that they consumed gradual amounts of various poisons on a regular basis to build up their immunity. Dorothy L. Sayers, in her book, Strong Poisons, had her villain doing just that, as did Alexander Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo.

Food tasters were employed by most royals. If they survived after sampling each dish, the king would consent to eat his meal. The job must have paid well, or a steady stream of prisoners were employed against their will.

The use of poison-tipped arrows during the Renaissance period paved the way for modern pharmacology. Drugs such as astropine, digitalis and ouabain evolved from plant concoctions used for killing both people and animals. And as we now know, thousands of people are killed each year with pharmaceutical prescriptions.

The Roman Borgia family of the fifteenthnth century century was a dynasty of poisoners, according to Serita Deborah Stevens in her book, Deadly Doses. If Casare Borgia was offended by something someone said, the unsuspecting person was invited to attend a party and would leave seriously ill or in the back of a mortician’s wagon. Borgia's poison of choice was arsenic, the favorite of assassins of that era.

Bernard Serturner isolated morphine from opium in 1805, but the formal study of poisons began with Claude Bernard, a physiologist, who researched the effects of curare, a South American poison the Indians used to tip their arrows. Chemical analysis could detect most mineral compounds by 1830, although not organic poisons. By 1851, a Belgian chemist discovered the technique of extracting alkaloid poisons while investigating a homicide caused by nicotine, a very deadly poison. Jean Servais Stas was the first to isolate nicotine from postmortem tissue.

The use of poison as a means of murder declined when modern methods of detection were perfected and physicians began saving many of its victims.

~Jean Henry Mead


Mike Befeler, author of geezer-lit and paranormal mysteries said...

There was a fascinating poisoner in seventeenth century Rome, Giulia Tofana, who dispensed her special concoction, a mixture of arsenic, lead and belladonna called Aqua Tofana to women who sought a solution to abusive relationships. She was eventually executed and stood accused of helping to kill over 600 men.

Bill Kirton said...

Very interesting Jean, especially as I'm in the process of writing a sequel to The Figurehead and have just decided to change the cause of death from stabbing to arsenic poisoning. Fortunately for me, James Marsh (a Scot living in London), perfected the 'Marsh test' in 1836, 6 years before my story takes place. It was the first reliable way of detecting arsenic in flesh and liver samples. What fun.