6 Legendary Poisons and 1 Legendary Antidote

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iStock.com/AurelianGogonea

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.

1. GU

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.

3. EITR

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.

Scientists Just Created 3D Digital Replicas of John F. Kennedy’s Assassination Bullets

NIST
NIST

Part of the National Archives and Record Administration’s duty is to provide the public with access to its billions of pages of texts, maps, photos, film, and other artifacts of American history—but some of them aren’t so easy to view. The bullets from John F. Kennedy's assassination, for example, have long been considered too fragile for anything but sitting in a climate-controlled vault in Washington, D.C.

However, they recently took a field trip to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where the ballistics team there used advanced microscopic imaging techniques to create breathtakingly accurate 3D digital replicas.

jfk bullet 3D replica
NIST

According to a press release from NIST, the collection includes two fragments from the bullet that killed Kennedy, the so-called “stretcher bullet” that hit both Kennedy and then-governor of Texas, John Connally; two bullets from a test-fire of the assassin's rifle, and a bullet from an earlier unsuccessful assassination attempt on Army Major General Edwin Walker that might have come from the same rifle.

As you can probably imagine, the two fragments from Kennedy’s fatal bullet are the most affecting pieces of the collection. They also give you a pretty good understanding of how difficult it must have been to recreate them—the bits of metal are twisted into gnarled, asymmetrical shapes that look different from every angle.

jfk bullet 3D replicas
NIST

To replicate each miniscule mark, ridge, and divot, NIST physical scientists Thomas Brian Renegar and Mike Stocker spent hours rotating the artifacts beneath the microscope, capturing images from all perspectives, and then combining parts of the images to create full 3D versions of them.

“It was like solving a super-complicated 3D puzzle,” Renegar said in the release. “I’ve stared at them so much I can draw them from memory.”

Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, has generated no small number of conspiracy theories over the years, but NIST and the National Archives made it clear that the project to replicate the bullets was “strictly a matter of historic preservation,” and not in any way a reopening of the case. But once the complete 3D scans are made available in the National Archives’ online catalog in early 2020, members of the public are free to analyze them however they like.

“The virtual artifacts are as close as possible to the real things,” Martha Murphy, the National Archives’ deputy director of government information services, said in the release. “In some respects, they are better than the originals in that you can zoom in to see microscopic details.”

And while Kennedy’s case is closed, the cutting-edge technology used on his bullets will be used in the future.

“The techniques we developed to image those artifacts will be useful in criminal cases that involve similarly challenging evidence,” NIST forensic firearms expert Robert Thompson said in the release.

12 Fascinating Facts About Queen Victoria

Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

Much like Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Victoria was never expected to ascend to the British throne. Born on May 24, 1819, the young royal known as Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent defied all odds when she became Queen Victoria on June 20, 1837, less than a month after her 18th birthday.

Victoria ruled the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland for more than 60 years, and in 1876 she adopted the title of Empress of India. Victoria didn’t oversee her empire alone, though. In 1840 she married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and together they had nine children (including Victoria’s successor, King Edward VII). Here are 12 things you might not have known about Queen Victoria.

1. Queen Victoria was born fifth in line to the throne, which made her an unlikely ruler.

Princess Victoria and her mother in 1834
Princess Victoria and her mother in 1834.
George Hayter, The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

When Victoria was born, she was fifth in line to the throne, just behind her father, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, who was fourth in line behind his three older brothers (none of whom had any living children—or at least no legitimate issue). Victoria's position in the line of succession placed her ahead of Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, her father's younger brother, which proved to be problematic.

When Victoria's father died on January 23, 1820, the future queen was barely eight months old. And when her grandfather, George III, died just a week later, the tot became third in line to the throne, which reportedly enraged Ernest Augustus. Fearing for the safety of her daughter, Victoria's mother chose to raise her away from the influence of Prince Edward's family—especially once rumors began to circulate that Ernest Augustus had designs on murdering his young niece to ensure that he, not she, would ascend to the throne. Whether or not there was any veracity to those rumors didn’t matter; on June 20, 1837, following the death of her uncle William, Duke of Clarence, 18-year-old Princess Alexandrina Victoria became Queen Victoria.

2. Queen Victoria was the first sovereign to rule from Buckingham Palace.

In 1761, Buckingham Palace was not yet a palace—it was simply a house. King George III bought the property for his wife, Queen Charlotte, to use as a family home. But when King George IV took over, he had bigger aspirations and decided to create an extravagant palace; costs ballooned to £500,000 (or more than $65 million in today's dollars). George IV died in 1830, however, which meant he never even got to live in the palace. When Queen Victoria took over in 1837, she became the first sovereign to rule from Buckingham Palace. In 1851, she was the first recorded royal to appear on Buckingham Palace’s balcony, a tradition the royal family still continues today.

3. Queen Victoria survived eight assassination attempts.

Queen Victoria sitting in a carriage car
Culture Club/Getty Images

Being in the public eye has its advantages and disadvantages, and for Queen Victoria that meant being the frequent target of assassination attempts. Over the course of her reign, she survived eight of them. In 1940, Edward Oxford shot at Victoria and Prince Albert while they rode in a carriage; Victoria, who was pregnant at the time, was thankfully not harmed. (Oxford was later judged to be insane.)

Two years later, John Francis attempted to shoot the couple not once, but twice—two days in a row. Again, neither was harmed. Just five weeks later, a teenager named John William Bean fired a pistol loaded with pieces of tobacco pipe at the Queen. In 1850, she was eventually injured when ex-soldier Robert Pate hit her over the head with an iron-tipped cane while she spent time in the courtyard of her home. Pate gave her a black eye and a scar that lasted for a long time.

4. Queen Victoria first met Prince Albert on her 17th birthday.

In May 1836, on Victoria’s 17th birthday, Prince Albert and the future queen—who were first cousins—met for the first time when Albert and his brother visited Kensington Palace with their Uncle Leopold. (Albert would turn 17 years old in August.) “He is extremely handsome,” Victoria wrote of the prince in her diary. But it would take almost four more years for the couple to tie the knot. And because royal rule stipulated that a reigning monarch could not be proposed to, Victoria had to be the one to pop the question. On October 15, 1839, Victoria proposed to Albert, who happily accepted. The couple married on February 10, 1840.

5. Queen Victoria popularized the white wedding dress.

Queen Victoria of England - Her Majesty 's wedding to Prince Albert in 1840
Culture Club/Getty Images

If you've ever wondered where the white wedding dress tradition originated, look no further than Queen Victoria. In 1840, Victoria wore an off-the-shoulder white satin gown covered in lace when she married Prince Albert. Though Victoria wasn’t the first royal to wear a white wedding dress—Mary, Queen of Scots wore white, too—wearing white became a status symbol following Victoria and Albert's nuptials.

6. Queen Victoria ensured that no other bride could replicate her wedding dress.

After Victoria’s wedding, she had the pattern to her dress destroyed so that no one could duplicate it.

7. Queen Victoria had nine children, but had some harsh opinions of motherhood.

Queen Victoria And Prince Albert With Five Of Their Children in 1846
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Nine kids is a lot, and even though the Queen had a lot of help, she at times seemed indifferent to motherhood. In personal letters, she wrote about her children, mainly about their looks. She once wrote: “I am no admirer of babies generally—there are exceptions—for instance (your sisters) Alice, and Beatrice were very pretty from the very first—yourself also-rather so—Arthur too ... Bertie and Leopold—too frightful. Little girls are always prettier and nicer.” She also said “an ugly baby is a very nasty object.”

8. Queen Victoria was fascinated by Jack the Ripper.

In 1888, the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper began brutally murdering women—mainly prostitutes—in London’s Whitechapel district. Victoria received a petition signed by the women of East London urging the Queen’s “servants in authority” to “close bad houses” a.k.a. brothels, and passed it to the Home Office. When final victim Mary Jane Kelly was killed, Victoria contacted the Prime Minister and urged that better detectives be employed.

9. Queen Victoria’s grandson was suspected of being Jack the Ripper.

Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, c1890s
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

To this day, no one knows for sure who Jack the Ripper was. However, some people have theorized that Victoria’s grandson Prince Albert Victor was the killer. In the 1976 book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, author Stephen Knight wrote about how Victoria’s grandson might’ve contracted syphilis from a prostitute, which turned him mad. Another theory suggests the grandson secretly married a Catholic commoner and fathered a child, and it was the royal family who murdered the women to cover up the family secret. (Yes, that one seems a little far-fetched.)

10. Queen Victoria served as her grandson’s alibi.

Queen Victoria gave her grandson an alibi in her journal, thus exonerating him from accusations of being one of the world’s most famous serial killers.

11. Queen Victoria is the second longest-reigning British Monarch.

For 51 years, Victoria held the title of longest-reigning British monarch. But on September 9, 2015, Queen Elizabeth II took over the reins, so to speak, and bumped Victoria to second place. Victoria ruled for 63 years, 7 months, and 3 days; Elizabeth—who is Victoria’s great, great granddaughter—has ruled for almost 68 years.

12. Queen Victoria spent 40 years mourning the death of Prince Albert.

Queen Victoria with her great-granchildren at Osborne House, Isle of Wight, 1900
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

A couple of years before his death, Prince Albert began experiencing stomach cramps, and he almost died in a horse-drawn carriage accident. He told Victoria his days were numbered: “I am sure if I had a severe illness, I should give up at once. I should not struggle for life. I have no tenacity for life,” he said.

On December 14, 1861, Albert succumbed to typhoid fever, though some people believe that stomach cancer and Crohn’s disease were the more likely culprits. Victoria blamed their son Edward for Albert’s death, as Albert was worried about a scandalous affair Edward was said to be having with an actress in Ireland.

Victoria lived for another 40 years and mourned Albert’s death the rest of her life by wearing black, becoming a recluse (she was often referred to as the Widow of Windsor), and keeping Albert’s rooms just the way he had left them.

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