5 Classic Poisons and the People Who Used Them

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Long before our modern industries developed the cleaning products, industrial solvents, and drugs that can kill when misused, people used simple plants to murder each other. Some plants were especially effective.

1. Nightshade

Atropa Belladonna is also known as deadly nightshade. The flowering plant is native to Europe and can grow up to ten feet tall if left to grow for years. Although all parts of the plant are poisonous, the shiny black berries are most poisonous. The words bella donna mean pretty woman in English. This name may have come from the use of belladonna to dilate the eyes in order to make a woman more attractive to men. Image by Flickr user peganum.

180MacBethThe alkaloid Atropine is one of the the active ingredient in nightshade. Atropine is used during surgery to regulate the heartbeat, decrease salivation, and paralyze muscles. In eye surgery, it relaxes the muscles and dilates the eye. Another drug found in nightshade is scopolamine, which has some of the same properties as atropine, and (in very dilute quantities) is also used for motion sickness and to combat drug addiction. Famous users of nightshade are not confirmed, but legend has it that when Agrippina the Younger hired the serial killer Locusta to kill the Roman emperor Claudius, she used nightshade. Before he became king in 1040, Macbeth supposedly used nightshade to poison an army of Danes who invaded Scotland.

2. Hemlock

Poison hemlock (conium maculatum) is a flowering plant with fleshly, carrotlike roots that can grow up to ten feet tall. This hemlock is no relation to the coniferous eastern hemlock tree in North America. All parts of the poison hemlock plant contain poison alkaloids. If ingested, conium will cause paralysis of various body systems. Paralysis of the respiratory system is the usual cause of death. Meanwhile, a victim can't move but is aware of what is happening as the mind is unaffected until death is imminent.
The most famous case of hemlock poisoning was that of Greek philosopher Socrates in 339 BC. The 70-year-old was found guilty of heresy in a trial in Athens. His sentence was death by hemlock, and he had to drink the poison by his own hand. Socrates drank up, then walked around until he noticed his legs were heavy. As shown in this 1787 painting by Jacques-Louis David, Socrates was surrounded by students and adherents as he died.

3. Strychnine

Strychnine is made from seeds of the plant Strychnos nux vomica, found in Asia and Australia. The poison was first isolated from the plant in 1818 by two French chemists. Pierre-Joseph Pelletier and Joseph-Bienaimé Caventou, who also isolated quinine (used to treat malaria) from its source. Strychnine has been used as a homeopathic remedy (in very diluted form), a performance-enhacing drug for athletes, a slight hallucinogenic used to cut street drugs, and most commonly as rat poison.

150creamStrychnine is an alkaloid (like hemlock or atropine) that paralyzes the victim and causes death by respiratory failure. There is no antidote for strychnine. Dr. Thomas Neil Cream killed at least seven women and one man, possibly many more, between 1878 and 1892 by giving them strychnine as medicine, both in the US and England. After serving ten years of a life sentence in America, he returned to London to continue poisoning his patients. Cream was convicted of murder in England and executed in 1892. Some have speculated that Cream might even be Jack the Ripper, but records indicate that Cream was in prison in the US when the Whitechapel murders occurred.

4. Curare

Curare is a mixture of various South American natural resources used for poison arrows and blowgun darts. One of the main ingredients is an extract of the plant Chondrodendron tomentosum.  Curare is used for medicinal purposes in a highly diluted form. The main poison is an alkaloid, which causes paralysis and death much in the same way as strychnine and hemlock. However, after the respiratory system becomes paralyzed, the heart may continue beating for quite some time.

180blowgunDeath by curare is relatively slow and horrific, as the victim is awake and aware but cannot move or even speak. However, if artificial respiration is performed until the poison subsides, the victim will survive. Indigenous tribes of the Amazon basin used curare-laden arrows to hunt game for food. Curare does not affect those who eat the animals who were killed by it. A slightly different recipe for curare is used when the intended target is human, such as that used during tribal war. Curare has also been adapted for use as a muscle relaxant during surgery.

5. Arsenic

Arsenic is a metalloid element, atomic weight 33. It occurs in small amounts in air, water, and soil, and in greater amounts in volcanic ash and in copper and gold mines. Because it kills insects, a compound called chromated copper arsenate, or CCA was used from the 1950s to 2003 to preserve pressure-treated wood. Arsenic has been used in medicines (it was once the indicated treatment for syphilis), chemical warfare, and as a pesticide. Various arsenic compounds are used to color paint and fireworks and as a semiconductor in integrated circuits. It is also used to harden metal for ammunition and the process of bronzing. Image by Flickr user James Laing.

159borgiaArsenic kills by inhibiting the production of necessary enzymes. Small amounts of arsenic ingested over time (possibly through drinking water) can raise the probability of cancer. Acute poisoning causes stomach cramps, diarrhea, confusion, convulsions, vomiting, and death. Murder by arsenic was popular in the Middle Ages as the substance was easy to procure and the symptoms of poisoning resembled those of cholera. Now, evidence of arsenic poisoning is easier to find. Chronic arsenic ingestion can be found months, even years later in the victim's hair and fingernails. The most famous arsenic poisoners were the Borgia family in the Middle Ages. It was said that a little arsenic improved the taste of wine, and the gracious Borgias made sure their guests had the best-tasting wine possible.

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November 3, 2009 - 3:23am
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