A Brief History of Poisoning
Created | Updated Jul 24, 2013
A Brief History of Poisoning | Classic Poisons | Infamous Historical Poisoners
A poison in a small dose is a medicine, and a medicine in a large dose is a poison.
– Alfred Swaine Taylor, 19th-Century toxicologist.
No other form of murder in the history of homicide has been as dramatised, documented, romanticised, disparaged or has achieved such a high level of art as poisoning, which was described as 'the coward's weapon' by the Jacobean dramatist John Fletcher. Dating all the way back to the ancient Sumerians who, in 4500BC, were probably among the first to document its effects1, poisoning has long been a way of stealthily ending life. The ancients initially used plant substances like curare and aconite to poison their hunting arrows and darts; somewhere along the line somebody figured that what could bring down a beast would kill a man as well.
What is a poison?
The word toxin is derived from the Greek word toxicon, which refers to poison arrows. The word intoxicated, derived from it, meant being sickened by the said poisoned arrows. Today, poison is, by definition, a substance that causes injury, illness or death to organisms by chemical reaction or molecular activity. This distinguishes it from a toxin, which in the context of biology refers to naturally-produced substances that will kill quickly in small quantities. (These include both plant and bacterial substances, such as belladonna and botulinum toxin). However, for the poisoner and toxicologist, both terms are synonymous as substances that, when administered, bring an unnatural end to life, and that is how they will be considered in this Entry.
The early history of poisoning is very much intertwined with mythology and belief. As early as 2500BC, the Sumerians worshipped a goddess of poisons called Gula, who was also regarded as the mistress of charms and spells2. Many references are to be found in Greek mythology as well, among which is the story of Medea, granddaughter of Helios the sun god, who made a failed attempt to trick her husband Aegeus into killing her stepson Theseus (Aegeus's son) with poisoned wine by claiming the latter was an enemy and pretender to the throne. At the last moment, however, Aegeus recognised Theseus's sword, and dashed the goblet from his son's lips.
Many ancient civilisations were intimately acquainted with poisons and their effects. The earliest records of poisoning in Egypt date back to around 3000BC, and document the research of Menes, the earliest recorded Egyptian king, on the subject of poisonous plants. Although the documentation and release of detailed accounts were punishable by death at the time, it is now known that the Egyptians were among the first masters of distillation, knew about many classical poisons, and were no strangers to the extraction of poisons (probably cyanide) from peach kernels – a papyrus translated by Duteuil records the preparation of poisonous substances for the purpose of killing.
The Greeks were certainly conversant with poisons as well, being the ones who introduced poisoning as a form of capital punishment they called 'State Poison' – it was by this method that the philosopher Socrates was executed. During the age of the Roman Empire, poisoning became a common activity at the dinnertable, especially in the high circles of society. It was certainly a convenient way of getting rid of unwanted family members, as Nero demonstrated.
A knowledge of poisons was also developing in the east. Around 246BC, the Chinese developed a drama form known as the Chou Ritual3, which comprised six ceremonial dances carried out with feathers. The ritual involved the burning of five poisons: cinnabar (mercury), realger (arsenic), green vitriol (copper sulphate), lodestone and an unknown poison – and the catching of the fumes on a bunch of feathers for external use. The Persians were similarly interested in poisons, as shown by Queen Parysatis who, during the reign of Artaxerxes II (405 - 359BC), demonstrated her love for her daughter-in-law Statira by poisoning the knife used to carve a bird at her dinner table. The Indians, whose secret service was among the first of its kind in the ancient world, used visakanyas ('poison damsels') to assassinate monarchs, cleverly exploiting the human weakness for sex. These were secret service women whose bodies were saturated with gradual doses of poison, or who flirted their way into the trust of their victim, only to mix poison in his food or drink4.
However, not every civilisation was simply obsessing about the application of poisons. As early as 500 years before the birth of Christ, Indian physicians were already writing the first forensic texts on how to detect poisoners via their personality traits. The author Nicander of Colophon5 (fl130BC) penned Theriaca and Alexipharmaca, the two oldest extant works on the subject of poisons. Similarly, in 40AD, Dioscorides classified poisons and differentiated their origins in his treatise Materia Medica, which for fifteen centuries was the authoritative textbook on the subject of poisons. The king of Pontos (now Turkey), Mithradates, contributed greatly to the subject of antidotes, although it must be said that he had his own interests at heart in carrying out the research – living in constant fear of being poisoned by enemies, he experimented with poisons and possible antidotes on condemned criminals, and dosed himself with small quantities of various poisons daily to build up immunity. This ironically backfired when, during the invasion of Pontos by Rome, Mithradates attempted suicide by poison, failed, and had to resort to ordering a soldier to stab him to death.
By 82BC, poisoning had apparently become so much of a scourge in the Roman Empire that the Roman dictator and constitutional reformer Lucius Cornelius Sulla found it necessary to issue the world's first law against poisoning, called the Lex Cornelia6. A fat lot of good it did. The incidences of poisoning continued to escalate at an alarming rate to their peak in the 1st Century AD, when the Julio-Claudian emperors reigned. Among the emperors who were subsequently murdered by poison were Vitellius, Domitian, Hadrian, Commodus, Caracalla and Alexander Severus.
The Middle Ages
In the 8th Century AD, poisoning took another step forward when an Arab chemist successfully transformed arsenic into an odourless, tasteless powder that would elude detection for at least ten centuries, thus providing the sinister world of poisoners with the convenient and deadly 'inheritance powder'.
By the Middle Ages, poisons were common trade in apothecaries, and available to the general public. While knowledge in other fields degenerated in the West as a result of religion, knowledge of poisons continued to bloom. Many academic texts were written on the subject by monks, among them The Book of Venoms (1424) by Magister Santes de Ardoynis, which told of known poisons at the time, how they worked, and how they could be treated.
Though most of these texts were unavailable to the public, the populace had their own (dubious) knowledge of poisons as well as equally (dubious) bizarre methods of dealing with poisoning, which included drinking from vessels with alleged magical properties and using charms and religious talismans to ward off poisoning. Most of these were obtained from the Jews7.
As the Renaissance surged through Europe, so did the popularity of poison as a method of disposing of people who were in the way. You could almost say that poisoning had become fashionable – certainly it was the most convenient way of migrating into the upper circle of society. The most infamous example from this era is that of the Borgia family, who migrated from Spain to Italy around 1455 and whose name became synonymous with dinner-party executions. The most well-known member of this family was the notorious femme fatale Lucrezia Borgia8, who formed a ghastly poisoners' triumvirate with her father Pope Alexander VI9 and brother Cesare, and whose reputation as a poisoner has achieved a sort of mythic immortality.
The study of poisons during the 14th and 15th Centuries, coupled with the experimentation by Italian alchemists to create more potent poisons from classical bases, spread from Italy to Paris, thanks to the efforts of Queen Catherine De Medici10, and paved the way for a boom in the poisoners' industry as the poisoning epidemic (and, subsequently, paranoia, especially in the upper class) surged through Europe. By 1572, at least 30,000 self-named poisoner 'sorcerers' were running rampant in the streets of Paris. A poisoner-assassins' guild called the Council of Ten was established in Italy during the 16th Century by a group of alchemists, to provide 'elimination' services for a fee. A publication called Neopoliani Magioe Naturalis (1589) by Giovanni Battista Porta served as a textbook for poisoners, especially with regard to lacing wine with a deadly concoction called Veninum Lupinum, composed of aconite, taxus baccata, caustic lime, arsenic, bitter almonds, powdered glass and honey, and shaped into walnut-sized pills. An arsenic-infused solution called Acqua Toffana, invented by a Neapolitan woman by the name of Toffana, was marketed as a ladies' cosmetic under the guise of a 'miraculous substance oozing from the tomb of St Nicholas di Bari', but was famous among widows for more sinister purposes11. By the 17th Century, schools of poisoning had been established in both Venice and Rome, and women who had been elbow-deep in poisoning schemes from the start, now took their murderous crimes to a higher level by forming secret societies in which they received not only instructions on the administration of poison, but the weapons themselves. Poisoning had transcended murder to become art.
Meanwhile, members of nobility were becoming frantic – and with good reason, as many of them were targets of poisoning. Several attempts were made on the life of Queen Elizabeth I, including a botched attempt by a Jewish physician called Dr Lopus (who was hung, drawn and quartered for his efforts) and a failed plot to smear opium-based poison on her saddle pommel. Henry VIII was also reportedly targeted by Anne Boleyn, his mistress-turned-wife. One successful murder involved the poisoning by arsenic of Marie Louise12, wife of Carlos II of Spain, in September 1689.
Even members of the royal household who weren't poisoned began imagining they were: when Princess Henrietta Anne of England, wife of the Duke of Orleans, fell ill due to peritonitis, she automatically assumed that her condition was caused by deliberate poisoning, and not a duodenal ulcer, as was actually the case. Others were taking steps that went past precaution into sheer paranoia. Henry IV was said to shun served food while at the Louvre, preferring to cook eggs himself and draw his own water from the River Seine. Meanwhile, in the East, the Qing Dynasty emperors in China were practising their own interesting method for avoiding poisons: they inserted small silver plates into their food before tucking in. Apparently these plates, which were supposed to change colour in the presence of poison, were not failsafe. The emperors further protected themselves by making court eunuchs partake of the food first.
An attempt to limit the sale of poison to the populace was made in 1662 by Louis XIV, who passed a decree forbidding apothecaries to sell poisonous substances to persons not known to them, and requiring purchasers to register their purposes for the substance. When priests at Notre Dame informed the king of all the horrifying confessions of poison homicide they were receiving, Louis XIV established a body called the Chambre Ardente ('Burning Chamber') to investigate poisonings, with the result that 442 persons were charged with murder. This series of investigations had two consequences: the public learned that anybody with influential contacts could get away with murder, while the poison vendors earned a date with the hangman; and much attention was drawn to the subject of poisons, with the result that even more people learned how to use them.
The Golden Age of Poisoning
The Victorian era is generally regarded as the heyday of poisoners. Indeed, it is the period from which many of the world's most notorious poisoners hail. While people who poisoned for personal gain are to be found through the ages, now that poison was readily available to commoners, potential poisoners now had a new incentive: life insurance. In fact, poison was so popular as a homicide weapon, and so readily available in various forms (from flypaper to rat poison), that laws such as the Arsenic Act of 1851 had to be introduced to bring the crime under control. An earlier bill had been brought up in 1819 to regulate the distribution and sale of arsenic, but it had been heavily opposed by the Committee of Associated Apothecaries on the grounds that it would 'embarrass the dispensing of medicines, and [was] not calculated to effect the object intended.'
Meanwhile - developing in conjunction with the rise of poisoning as fashionable murder - was the field of toxicology. Recognising the weaknesses of current methods for detecting poisons, scientists rose to the challenge to develop reliable standards for poison detection. Among them were Marsh and Riensch who, in 1836 and 1841, independently introduced methods of detecting arsenic. Thanks to this research, many poisoners were eventually apprehended – although not before they had done considerable damage.
Interestingly, one of the most well-known contemporary deaths by arsenic may not have been homicide after all. When Napoleon became ill in the autumn of 1820, he was convinced that he was the target of poisoning. For years it was believed that he had been poisoned by French and British conspirators. It wasn't until recently that it was shown that the wallpaper in his house contained arsenic13, and that the metabolism of mould on the wallpaper would likely have caused release of the poison in gaseous form. It should also be pointed out that many medicines of the period contained arsenic, which could have also contributed to Napoleon's demise.
By the 20th Century, literature concerning the manufacture of poisons had left its cobwebby corners in the apothecary for the bookshelves of those who sought the knowledge. And it wasn't just about getting rid of unwanted family anymore. Governments were carrying out research into the possibility of using poisons as weapons. On the other hand, the growth of the field of toxicology also brought about the controlled use and circulation of poisonous substances.
Despite the fact that most classic poisons are easily detectable today, the use of these poisons still persist as both homicide and suicide weapons, whether in their pure form or in flypaper and in rat poison – a popular homicide weapon in rural China, it seems. The infamous Dr Crippen chose to take care of his wife with hyoscine, and Belle Gunness, whose long line of disappearing (rich) suitors were found buried all over her farm, used arsenic with great gusto. Thomas Young's victims met their end through antimony and thallium. Care assistant Donald Harvey killed several of his 24 victims by cyanide, as did the mob hitman Richard 'Iceman' Kuklinski. Ronald O'Brien, who, in the tradition of Victorian poisoners killed his own child for insurance money, spiked the child's sherbet powder with the same poison in 1974. In 1998, arsenic trioxide in pots of curried beef was found to be responsible for the deaths of four people and the morbidity of 40 others at a village festival in Japan. New poison societies were also being established, including the notorious Philadelphia Poison Ring, disguised as a matrimonial agency.
At the same time, new and obscure poisons were beginning to emerge in the market, many of them legal medical drugs such as fentanyl14, insulin, and various muscle relaxants including succinylcholine and Pavulon. New methods of poisoning were introduced, as well the resourceful use of common household chemicals such as antifreeze. Antifreeze was introduced as a murder weapon in the 1980s by Shirley Allen, who used it to kill off her husband for insurance money.
The race between the quest for the 'perfect poison' and advances in toxicology keeping pace with new poisons continues. Today, we can be sure that, no matter the poison, a method can and will be developed to trace it. The question is how much damage can be done before the perpetrator is caught. But while the progress of toxicology will guarantee apprehension of the poisoner every time, it is doubtful that it will put an end to the crime altogether. For, after all, where there is a will, there is a way.
- Bartrip, P 'A "pennurth of arsenic for rat poison": the Arsenic Act, 1851 and the prevention of secret poisoning'. Medical History 36(1): 53-69. 1992.
- Smith, W Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. Scanned by the University of Michigan. 1870.