The line between true crime and legend can be a blurry one, and in a time before toxicology tests and forensic pathology, stories of mysterious poisons with chameleon-like properties abounded. Here are six legendary poisons, which may or may not have actually existed, and the one antidote to counter them all.
Gu was an ancient Chinese poison with magical properties that was said to have been created by enclosing multiple venomous animals such as snakes, lizards, scorpions, centipedes, and assorted insects in a box. They would eat each other until there was only one left, a creature now replete with the toxins of all its digested fellows. A supervenom could then be extracted from the beast and used to kill, cause disease, or create black magic love charms.
Victims of gu poisoning were said to die vomiting blood or when all the food they ingested came back to life inside their stomachs. Gu could even kill from a distance, its malevolent spirit doing all the work with no need for actual poisoning.
2. PARYSATIS'S ONE-SIDE-OF-THE-KNIFE POISON
Parysatis, mother of Persian King Artaxerxes II (435 or 445 BC-358 BCE), did not get along with her daughter-in-law Stateira. Furious that Stateira was taking her place in her son's affections, Parysatis hatched a plan to get her out of the way. A simple poisoning wouldn't do, because due to their mutual suspicion of each other, they both ate from the same dishes prepared by the same cook. To get past this obstacle, Parysatis smeared an unknown poison on one side of her knife and then cut into a small roasted bird which, according to Plutarch, "has no excrement, but is all full of fat inside; and the creature is thought to live upon air and dew." She gave Stateira the half of the legendary bird that the poisoned side of the blade had touched and ate the clean side herself.
Stateira died a painful death, but Parysatis's victory proved Pyrrhic. Wracked with convulsions on her deathbed, Stateira convinced her husband that his mother was responsible for her murder. Artaxerxes tortured his mother's servants and attendants, executed her most trusted maidservant, and exiled Parysatis to Babylon. They never saw each other again.
In Norse mythology, the liquid eitr is both the source of life and a means to end it. When fragments of ice from Niflheim (the primordial ice realm of the north) encountered sparks from Muspelheim (the primordial realm of fire to the south) in the Ginnungagap, the yawning void between the realms, the ice melted. This runoff was eitr, the generative substance which created the giant Ymir. The gods fashioned the earth from Ymir's flesh, the oceans from his blood, the mountains from his bones, the trees from his hair, the clouds from his brain. Midgard, the realm of men, was made from Ymir's eyebrows.
Eitr was thus responsible for the world and all life on it, but it was also a deadly poison, strong enough to kill gods. According to Norse mythology, at the great final battle of Ragnarök, the sea serpent Jörmungandr, which encircles Midgard, will rise from the ocean to poison the sky. Thor will slay the beast, but because Jörmungandr's blood is eitr, Thor will only walk nine paces before dying from the poison.
In Scandinavian folklore, the legendary liquid of life and death became synonymous with deadly toxins. Eitr is the word for poison in Old Icelandic, eitur in modern Icelandic.
4. THE BORGIA'S SLOW-ACTING WHITE POWDER/CANTARELLA
The Borgia family is now inextricably associated with poison. It all began with Cem, the half-brother of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II and thorn in his side. Bayezid kept his half-brother as far away from him as possible, with Cem eventually lodging with Pope Innocent VIII, and after his death in 1492, his successor Alexander VI (1431-1503), the infamous Rodrigo Borgia. In exchange for hosting his troublesome half-brother indefinitely, Bayezid paid a huge amount up front and another less huge but still enormous amount yearly.
The gravy train ended in September of 1494 when Charles VIII of France invaded Italy and marched down the boot to take the Kingdom of Naples, which he planned to use as a launching pad for a new crusade to recapture Jerusalem. The Pope, alarmed by Charles's rapid advance, allied with Florence and engaged him in a couple of skirmishes which Charles's army won handily. When he reached Rome on December 31, 1494, Charles forced Pope Alexander to hand over Prince Cem. The French left Rome on January 28, 1495, with Cem in tow. On February 25, after a week's illness, Cem died.
Rumors that Cem had been poisoned by the Borgia pope started almost immediately, despite the fact that the Pope lost 45,000 ducats a year and a most useful tool of manipulation against the Ottoman Sultan when Cem died. The long gap between the last time they were together and the Sultan's death was explained with a most convenient device: a mysterious slow-acting white powder of unknown composition that could be administered one day and kill weeks later. So handy was this device that it was soon employed to explain the death of anyone who ever brushed up against the Borgias.
The mysterious white powder soon evolved into a poison of legendary versatility. A single dose could kill instantly, in a few days or in months. It was white as snow with a pleasant taste that mixed easily and undetectably in any food or beverage. It could be imbued in objects like cups and boots, making them fatal to the touch, or in candles, making their smoke deadly. It was dubbed la cantarella, and rumor had it that Pope Alexander VI, his son Cesare Borgia, and his daughter Lucrezia Borgia all made ample use of it.
Some historians posit cantarella may have been an arsenic compound, or perhaps a cantharidin powder made from crushed blister beetles, but the sources are wildly inconsistent about who was killed when under what circumstances. One oft-repeated story, contradicted by contemporary diaries but promoted by chroniclers for centuries, held that Alexander VI died when he and Cesare were somehow served the cantarella-laced wine intended for one or more cardinals. Alexander fell forward, struck instantly dead. Cesare survived long enough thanks to his youth and strength to have himself stuffed into the carcass of a bull. The bull carcass saved his life, and he emerged from it fresh and dewy as a newborn babe while the blackened and bloated corpse of his father putrefied at an accelerated rate.
5. AQUA TOFANA
Reputedly the invention of a 17th century Sicilian woman named Giulia Tofana, Aqua Tofana was colorless, tasteless, and odorless, and sometimes believed to have been a compound of, variously, arsenic, Spanish Fly, pennywort, and/or snapdragon. It could supposedly kill with exceptional precision: doses could be calculated to kill immediately, in a week, a month, or years later, for the poisoner who wanted the plausibility of a slow decline. Some stories say victims gradually lost all their hair and teeth and shriveled up until they finally died in agony. Others insist there were no acute symptoms at all, that victims simply fell into a languor from which they never recovered. The poison was usually added to food, but it could also be applied to the cheek if the victim was likely to kiss it.
Giulia bottled her deadly liquid in innocuous-looking vials. Since most of her customers were women looking to do away with their husbands, the bottles appeared to be cosmetics, indistinguishable from the other nostrums and remedies on a lady's vanity. Most deviously of all, Aqua Tofana was sold as the "manna" of St. Nicholas of Bari, an oil said to ooze from the tomb of St. Nicholas, which was widely sold for its miraculous curative properties in a bottle painted with the image of the saint (see image above).
The story goes (and there are no reliable contemporary sources for any of this) that Giulia Tofana plied her trade from her teenaged years until her seventies, moving from Sicily to Naples to Rome, always a step ahead of the authorities. She fled to a convent where she lived for 20 years, still dealing in poison, under the protection of the abbess, until finally soldiers broke down the door and arrested her in 1709. Other versions of the story have her taking sanctuary in a church, where the soldiers busted her in 1659. Under torture, she confessed to poisoning 600 men. She and her accomplices, including her daughter, were executed. Or strangled by a mob—versions differ.
Pope Clement XIV (1705-1774) was rumored to have been a victim of Aqua Tofana, as was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In 1829, 38 years after his death, his widow Constanze told Mozart enthusiasts Vincent and Mary Novello that on his deathbed he had declared "I am sure that I have been poisoned. I cannot rid myself of this idea ... Someone has given me Acqua Tofana and calculated the precise time of my death."
6. POUDRE DE SUCCESSION
The poudre de succession, or "inheritance powder," was named for its prowess in disposing of troublesome heirs. It was supposedly the invention of one of France's most notorious poisoners, Marie-Madeleine-Marguerite d'Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers (1630-1676). Different sources claim the poudre was composed of ground glass, sugar of lead, a powdered version of Aqua Tofana, and everybody's favorite fallback, arsenic. It was said to be so deadly, a mere whiff of it would kill instantly.
Her career as a poisoner began when her father Antoine Dreux d'Aubray had her lover Captain Godin de Sainte-Croix imprisoned in the Bastille. Sainte-Croix's cellmate was an Italian fellow called Exili who had extensive knowledge of poisons, which he generously shared with his new friend. Upon his release, Sainte-Croix shared his newfound learning with the Marquise, who experimented with different compositions, handing out poisoned bread to unsuspecting paupers in hospital wards where she so charitably volunteered her time.
Her first deliberate target was her father. He died under her care in 1666. That was for revenge. When she killed her brothers Antoine and François d'Aubray in 1670, it was for the inheritance. Other mysterious deaths around them were later attributed to poisoned pigeon pies served at her elegant dinners. In 1672 Sainte-Croix died, perhaps of natural causes, perhaps from inhaling his own product. He left behind a red leather box full of poisons and all of Madame de Brinvilliers's correspondence, which detailed their nefarious activities.
She fled the country, finally winding up in a convent in Liège where she was found by a gendarme named Degrais who had disguised himself as a priest and arranged a naughty tryst with the suspect. When she showed up, Degrais arrested her. In Paris she was subjected to the water cure torture, i.e., forced to drink 16 pints of water, whereupon she confessed to all her crimes. She was beheaded and her body burned.
BONUS ANTIDOTE: MITHRIDATUM
King Mithradates VI Eupator of Pontus (134-63 BC) was paranoid, and justifiably so. His mother had poisoned his father to death and ruled as regent during his minority. Even as a child he suspected she was plotting to do to him what she had done to his dad so she could install his brother on the throne. When he found himself getting sicker and sicker, he ran away into the wilderness where he dedicated himself to developing an immunity to every other poison he could find.
It worked. As an adult, Mithradates was reputed to be unpoisonable. He supposedly created a universal antidote that could counter any poison. After his defeat in the Third Mithridatic War, Pompey the Great found a recipe in Mithridates’s own handwriting that featured dried walnuts, figs, rue leaves, and a pinch of salt. Pompey brought it back to Rome. In 30 CE, a version of this recipe was published in Book V of De Medicina by Aulus Cornelius Celsus.
Mithridatum, and its Greek cognate theriac, continued to be made in a wide variety of complex formulations for the next 1800 years. It had so many ingredients, some very hard to find, and took so long to produce that it was enormously expensive. Only the wealthy could afford invulnerability.