Thursday, December 27, 2012

Poison, Politics, and Passion


by Regina Jeffers
The German scholar, Albertus Magnus, is generally credited with the discovery of arsenic in or about 1250. All sorts of poisons have been used since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Greeks had a fondness for water hemlock, a plant in the carrot family, not the evergreen family. Plato celebrated the use of hemlock in his description of the death of Socrates.

Beginning with the Roman Empire forward, arsenic became the preferred poison. There are some references to the use of arsenic as far back as the 4th Century B.C., but Magnus perfected the compound in the 1200s. A metallic arsenic is mentioned in the writings of Paracelsus, a physician-alchemist in the late Middle Ages, who is often referred to a the “Father of Modern Toxicology.”

In the first century, Dioscorides, a Greek physician at the court of the Roman Emperor Nero, offers a brief listing of the advantages of arsenic for sinister uses: no odor or taste when mixed with food/drink and its lack of color. Arsenic is readily found in nature, which makes it easily accessible to ALL people. Arsenic poisoning mimics food poisoning, making it harder to detect, especially before physicians had full toxicology labs available to aid their diagnoses.

A single large dose of arsenic brought about diarrhea, vomiting, and death from shock, while smaller doses over a period of time resulted in loss of muscle control, paralysis, and mental confusion. As203 became the arsenic of choice for it could kill a man with a dose less than that of tip of a teaspoon in the powder.

Poison became the way to go about business in politics during the Roman reign. It became commonplace to deal with those who were disliked by slipping a dose of poison in their drinks or food. The poisons were so common that few believed in the natural deaths of kings, emperors, or clergymen. In 82 B.C., the Roman dictator Lucious Cornelius Sulla issued the Lex Cornelia, the first law outlawing poisons. Poisons were readily used during the Renaissance. A woman named Toffana from Florence, Italy, was renowned for making arsenic-laced cosmetics. Hieronyma Spara taught young married women how to rid themselves of their husbands of convenience.

The Borgias perfected the art of poisoning during the Middle Ages. Pope Alexander VI and his son Cesare easily rid themselves of interfering bishops and cardinals. Cesare’s half sister Lucretia is often thought to have mastered the art of poison, but many experts think her an innocent. Following the inevitable death of their victims, the Borgias profited by the law of the church, which reverted the victim’s property to the church (i.e., the pope).


The Borgias knew great wealth from their acquisitions, from Cesare’s position as a captain-general in the papal army, and from Lucretia’s three successful marriages for money and station. Ironically, the Pope and Cesare partook of some poisoned wine by accident. The Pope died. It is said that Cesare invoked the ancient superstition of encasing himself in an animal’s carcass. He had a mule slaughtered and wrapped himself in the animal skin. Surprisingly, the remedy worked. Cesare lived.

In 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte passed after suffering many of the symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Modern toxicology has never proven this rumor, but it persists. Trace amounts of arsenic were found in Bonaparte’s hair, but those amounts were in line with what could have been readily absorbed into the body. The official cause of death was stomach cancer.

Claire Booth Luce became a victim of arsenic poisoning when she was the U.S. Ambassador to Italy. Believe it or not, the arsenic-based paint from the ceiling of the embassy easily fell into the food. Luce resigned her position.

Carl Scheele developed “Paris Green,” an arsenic compound in 1775. It was used as a pigment in paints, wallpaper, and fabrics. Although thousands of people reportedly took ill from exposure to the compound, it was the end of the 1800s before Paris Green was recognized as a health hazard.

In the 1830s, a British chemist named James Marsh became the first to use arsenic detection in a jury trial. Marsh had developed a method for determining the level of arsenic in foods and beverages. Arsenic lingers in the urine, nails, and hair of the victim. Arsenic was an ingredient in Victorian fly papers. A deadly liquid was created when the paper was soaked in water. The liquid could then be used to cook food or mix with drinks. Arsenic is sometimes called “inheritance powder” due to its ready availability.

Arsenic is a favorite means to an end, especially in the hands of mystery writers. As late as the 1940s, arsenic was given to syphilis patients, as well as to those who suffered from yaws and leprosy. Today, it is used to remove color from glass, to promote growth in livestock, to preserve animals in taxidermy, and to create a metal alloy. 

13 comments:

  1. Chilling. I wonder how many people actually died of poisoning.

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    1. I used arsenic in one of my cozy mysteries.

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  2. It makes you wonder. Hopefully it isn't so available today.

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    1. In the Regency, arsenic was in some of the makeup women wore.

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  3. I'm sorry but most of what you say on the Borgia family is hearsay and rumour. It's actually more likely food poisoning rather than poison that killed the Pope and made Cesare ill and there's no clear cut evidence that the Borgias used poison at all. I actually had this out with our tour guide at the Vatican in the summe who called Rodrigo Borgia "the poisoner pope", it's all hearsay and rumours like most about the Borgia family.

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    1. I do not pretend to be an expert on the Borgias, Samantha, but neither do I think any of us can be certain. Speculation based on facts plays a large role in history. I assure you, I used legitimate research. However, I am cognizant that we are always discovering new information. Perhaps, you have more current information than my source.

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    2. Have been studying the family for many many years now and have a veritable library on them. Most are on the shelf, a few beside me. I'd like to know what sources you did use as a lot of the bios are from a long, long time ago and not too great on current knowledge etc. Bradford is the normal go-to, hers is very good although a tad dated but she does go against many of the rumours mentioned both in history and here, but most of the more well known ones are from long before she wrote her book. More recently Strathern and Hibbert have written some very good works, as has Hollingsworth.

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    3. I used several toxicology sites.

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  4. Interesting, Regina. On a lighter side, Agatha Christie loved using poison in her novels - many of her characters gasped their last from some deadly and often quite easily obtained poison.

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    1. I am a big Agatha Christie fan, Maggi. Most of my Austen mysteries are cozy mysteries in the vein of AC. I taught "And Then There Were None" (or "Ten Little Indians") on a regular basis.

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  5. Great post, Regina. Reading about the use of such deadly substances in everyday items is intriguing. Mind you, I'm sure our descendants will look askance at the present day use of Botox for cosmetci reasons!

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    1. What concerns me with the use of arsenic is how much is getting into the drinking water. Arsenic in the water is a concern in the agriculture area.

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  6. In cigarettes too I hear. Why on earth is that? Interesting post, thanks. Enjoyed a visit to the Poison Gardens in Anwick last year. Good for inspiration of a literary kind!

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