- Education and Science
Poisons: Animal, Vegetable and Mineral.
The Often Preferred Method of Murder.
Throughout the ages, and certainly until the advent of firearms, the most popular way of ridding oneself of another human being was with the help of a poisonous substance. Especially when, back in the dawn of scientific knowledge, poisons were almost impossible to detect. Nowadays, we can identify nearly any foreign substance in the blood and how it was administered.
What is a poison? “It is a substance, animal, vegetable or mineral, that can kill, injure or impair an organism.” (excerpted from Webster’s Dictionary). A poison may also have the capability to alter the effects of any other substance, also causing trauma.
Apart from the obvious lethal advantages of poisons, knowledge of the substances that kill or maim, has been a boon to crime writers for centuries. Although many of the genre have tended to bend the truth regarding the effects of their chosen potion causing disbelief in their readers, often to the point of them loosing interest in the novel and it’s architect.
It is surprising just how much information on poisons is out there today. Apart from its use in fiction, it’s not hard to find detailed information on the internet about plants, especially fungi, that will almost certainly cause death if consumed, in fact, one of these, the Amanita Phalloides, contains two of the most dangerous poisons in the world, amanitin - causing low blood pressure and phalloidin, which quickly attacks liver, kidney and the heart. There is no know antidote for amanita poisoning and it causes a long, lingering death, or a slow, painful recovery over weeks or months. Amanita and the other poisonous toadstools can be found all over Europe and great care should be taken when collecting wild fungi for the pot.
Deeply imbedded in man’s psych, it would seem, is fear of snakes. A baby, shown a snake for the first time, often exhibits symptoms of alarm, suggesting this reaction has a genetic base. This is no wonder when we contemplate the horrendous effects of the venom of some snakes, the King Cobra and Taipan and Mambas in particular, although hundreds more can be deadly.
Despite modern antivenin, the bite of the king cobra is still fatal about 15% of the time. This is because of its great size and venom amount delivered; it’s fearlessness and willingness to attack and the fact that many of its victims are rural Asians who can’t get help in time. Curiously, it was a cobra that was reputed to have killed Cleopatra - the Krait is a small member of the family, Elapidae, the cobras.
The two kinds of Taipan in Australia, also of the cobra family, possess a venom even more dangerous than the King Cobras, but they are rarely seen, although willing to attack swiftly without warning, when even mildly provoked and sometimes inflicting several bites with their exceptionally long fangs. The taipan bite is considered 100% fatal without quick treatment with antivenin. It’s interesting to note that Elapid (cobra) venom is twice as toxic as strychnine, nearly five times stronger than the sometimes lethal Black Widow Spider, but only half as deadly as the toadstool toxin from the Amanita.
The worst spiders are the Brown Recluse, the Brazilian Wandering Spider, the Australian Trapdoor Spider (or Funnel web) and the infamous Black Widow, which is the least venomous of the four, but has attracted more attention. This might be because of its evocative name, or because it has a nasty habit of building an untidy web in outside toilets and biting people where the sun don’t shine! Few people actually die from Widow bites., and the creature rarely bites without extreme provocation., (Apparently, crapping on one is considered provocation enough!). In fact, spider bites are not usually fatal. Some are more dangerous because of the size they grow to, such as the Funnel web and particularly the Brazilian spider, which is a large and nasty-tempered arachnid which runs from the bush into homes and often attacks on sight.
Scorpions are universally feared, but many are either non-poisonous, or only mildly so. One easy way to tell is the dangerous scorpion has weak claws, it’s sting being so effective, it doesn’t need rugged grabbing armament. Approximately one out of every 1000 stings from the deadlier kinds have proved fatal, enough to take care when around them. They have a nasty habit of turning up where you don’t want them. I knelt on one on my car seat once and was mildly stung (about like a wasp sting). Also in Mexico, I set a cup of tea aside to cool, and was surprised to see a large scorpion’s sting sticking out from the surface when I raised the cup to drink. It asked me to pass it a biscuit before it went down for the third time!
Some of the planets deadliest creatures live in the sea, perhaps many we haven’t discovered yet. Heading this list is the Australian horror, the Sea Wasp. So venomous is this creature that it causes the closure of beaches for much of the year in Queensland. Those who have been bitten and survived describe the pain from the stinging nematocysts, found within the sticky threads, as the worst agony they have ever experienced or could imagine. In fact, many swimmers have died from heart attacks caused by the extreme pain before the venom itself took their life. And box jellyfish such as the Sea Wasp and their cousins are found all over the world, although the Australian type are considered the worst, with a venom that can be fatal in minutes. Those that survive the mindless attack of sea wasps are unlikely to ever forget the experience and will be reminded by the disfiguring, long, burn-like scars often left by the tentacles. The antidotes that do exist are kept by lifeguards on the beaches, as they must be administered immediately is a life is to be saved; alcohol is also poured copiously over the tentacles to neutralize the nematocysts and shrivel them allowing them to be brushed off. I would insist on a dram or two poured down my throat to ease the pain, as well.
The venom from the tiny Blue-Ringed Octopus, also found commonly in Australian waters, has been fatal. I was on a beach near Watson’s Bay in Sydney in 1967 and witnessed a victim bitten by one of these toy-like creatures. He had been playing with it (a common problem) until he noticed blood on the back of his hand. He had felt nothing, and not much was known about the creature back then. We saw him being carried off the beach after he had apparently dismissed the bite until he began feeling a prickling sensation around his mouth which rapidly led to breathing problems and paralysis. The victim was a young, very fit, soldier, which probably helped him to survive, but not before he had stopped breathing and was put on a heart lung machine for several hours. The octopus does “tell” you when you should immediately desist from molesting him: the blue bands begin pulsing with colour as the animal readies itself to bite you. Poisonous animals are well aware of what their bites mean to the victim and do not attack lightly.
The list of plants containing substances lethal to man is very long. As many are easily obtained, plants have been the killer of choice for many poisoners throughout history. Who has not heard of hemlock, deadly nightshade and, of course, Curare? This last entry may be the most deadly and fast-acting plant-poison known to man. It comes from several plants found in the South American jungles with Latin Names as long as your arm. All parts of these plants are poisonous, once a preparation from them get into the blood stream. Bushmen tip their arrows with curare because of its ability to kill within seconds. In fact, they is no known antidote for curare. There has been little interest in finding one, because its lethal effect is too quick and death arrives before any antidote could work.
Jimsonweed, Lily of the Valley, Monkshood, Oleander and Rhododendron, among several other well-known plants, all contain poison rated as the highest on the poison scale, number 6. Many are familiar to us because of their decorative properties and adorn our parks and gardens. Luckily, they have unpleasant, bitter sap and taste as if the plant is saying: “There you are, horrid isn’t it? So don’t bloody eat it then, stoopid, or you’ll be under the daisies you so admire!”
I went to live in a small village in Southern Baja, Mexico, some years ago. The rocky garden was filled with cactus and a verdant, white-flowering weed I rather took-to, to the extent I “weeded it” and saw that is was watered, etc. The plant payed me back by luxuriating in the attention and crowding-out everything else in the garden.
Later, I noticed my Mexican friends looking at me a bit oddly when I proudly showed them what I had done. One day, a normally taciturn old ex miner took me aside and said. “don Roberto, sabes que este flor que tienes esta muy venonosa.” “The plant you regard so highly is highly poisonous!" I expect some readers of this article are way ahead of me here and realize the Gringo tonto had been busily encouraging Jimsonweed to fill his life!
I read-up on Jimsonweed after that. It’s scientific name is Datura stramonium. It is known variously as Devil’s trumpet, stinkweed, thorn apple and mad apple. The apple comes from the round, green fruit it often carries. It is generally found in warm climates, but has invaded gardens in the south of England where, perhaps, it has received a warm reception by uninformed gardeners. It’s flowers are also purple as well as the commoner white. You could be warned all is not well with this plant by the unpleasant odour that emanates from it. The whole plant is deadly toxic: the poisons, hyoscyamine, hyoscine and atropine are especially virulent in the roots, leaves and seeds (the “apples”). It is said that smoking the dried leaves can be hallucinogenic, but users would be dicing with death and perhaps incurring a host of unpleasant symptoms, even leading to coma and death. Soldiers ate the weed in Jamestone, Virginia, during “Bacon’s Rebellion,” when they ran out of supplies: mass poisonings and fatalities were the result. Jimsonweed has been used by authors like Kellerman (“Over the Edge“) to cause death or mental collapse. Jimsonweed has also killed thousands of animals foolish, or starved enough, to partake of its luscious foliage.
The so-called “Classical Poisons” we are all familiar with are Cyanide, Arsenic and Strychnine. What schoolboy has not told the old joke about the bloke who killed someone by “Giving his arseanick!”
In fact, arsenic is an element found in hundreds of manufacturing processes all over the world, from paints to pesticides It is used by taxidermists and textile printing and, due to its accessibility, by poisoners for centuries. It was the scourge of choice by the Borgias and the Medicis, history’s most infamous assassins, as well as Dr. Crippen in Victorian times.
Not quite at the top of the poison tree in strength - it’s 5 - arsenic has often been used as a cumulative poison - in the morning tea, or the bedtime toddy, for example, until the victim expires from “gastric fever,” the commonest effect of long exposure to arsenic. Arsenic poisoning has also often been miss-diagnosed as jaundice due to the yellowing of the skin.
Cyanide, with the famous, almond odour, is another poison I am very familiar with; yes, I have used it on most of my victims! Heh, heh! Don’t worry, I literally don’t kill flies! The familiarity again comes from my time in El Triunfo, the little mining village in the South Baja mountains. The process of extracting silver, copper and gold from the pay dirt has been the cyanide method for 200 years, although little goes on today. The result has been leaching of the cyanide into the water table as well as standing water from the old mines, still with high levels of cyanide and deadly if drunk.
Death’s Head signs (skull and cross-bones) have been put up all over the place, but cattle often knock them over and several passers-by have become ill and died from drinking the contaminated water. The bones of cattle litter the hillsides, many due to them drinking from old mine sites. Potable water has to be tankered-in by the army each day for the 300 residents, although we bathed in the ground water without problems. (everyone has 12 toes, right?). It’s a great shame, because it detracts from the attraction of this lovely place.
The last poison I intend to deal with in this hub, which is already getting too long and the Turkish Grand Prix is about to start, anyway, is Strychnine. This is not particularly fast-acting, but back to 6 on the poison tree, it will reliably put you under the sod. And it’s effects can be horrifying. It has not been the poison of choice by murderers for this very reason, it causes the muscles to convulse, often bending the victim almost double - backwards - in agony. Today it is often found in rodent poison - poor rats. Strychnine can also be used in small doses as a stimulant and in products such as anti-nausea pills. As does cyanide, the poison often occurs naturally in plants, such as the evocatively named “Mole Death!” I would doubt many moles, rather smart creatures, are taken in by this.
Poison is often also associated with street drugs, which kill as well as get you high; pesticides, many, such as DDT, have now been banned in most countries; household cleaners, some of which are especially virulent and cause many deaths every year,.
Writers of crime fiction, seeking to enthral and entertain, have invented many of their own poisons - with the pen, not the chemistry set. They could not - or would not - appear in real life, but, hey, this is fiction, bring on the lethal coca-cola. (that stuff may kill ya anyway!)
I would recommend readers who want to know more about poisons to read the book, “Deadly Doses,” by Stevens and Klarner: much of the ideas for this humble hub was indirectly taken from this marvellous and compelling publication, (Writer’s Digest Books).