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Intellectual Adversaries: Scientists and the Poisoner

By Edited Aug 26, 2016 2 1

From the times before ancient Rome right up until today both men and women have chosen poison as their weapon to kill. Just as often as it used to kill, many poisons in the right dosage or delivery method were closer to medicines. Kill or heal, poisons have a very long history with humanity.

The earliest known use of poison would have been hunters using it to ensure kill of the game animal they were hunting. It didn't take too long for weapons to be developed specifically for poison uses, such as blow darts.

The Roman Empire is recorded as using it mainly as a form of assassination – family, political parties, rivals – and as early as 331 BC it's written that poisoning was in common practice and death at the dinner table was not uncommon. Nero's believed to have used poison to kill his brother to secure his place as leader of the country.

An Arab chemist in the eighth century AD created an odourless and tasteless arsenic powder that would escape detection for no less than ten centuries. In 1424 the Book of Venom was written by a monk named Magister Santes de Ardoynis. Which explained the poisons of the time, how they worked and how they could be treated.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, using classical bases of poisons, Italian alchemists experimented heavily with new concoctions and literally opened the can of worms that is poisons.

It spread through Europe like a plague.

By the mid to late sixteenth century no less than thirty thousand 'midwives', sorcerers, poisoners and healers of troubles were surging through the streets of just Paris alone[3].

Neopoliani Magioe Naturalis written by Giovanni Battista Porta was a publication that read like a textbook of poisons for poisoners. Acqua Toffana was created by a woman for women's family or finance problems. By early seventeenth century secret societies and even schools for poison learning were popping up all over Europe.

Poisoning was no longer murder but an art form.

The nobility of these times, and the usual targets of poisoners, found themselves quite concerned, frantic and even paranoid. No one was exempt – Queen Elizabeth I, King Henry the VIII and the wife of Carlos II. It became common to see the élite and even the royalty of the times, serve themselves food or use odd methods to ensure their food was safe. As in China, they inserted a silver plate in their food before eating, if it stayed silver it was safe. Some even made others eat their food first.

In Medieval Europe poisons were growing increasingly popular as a method of killing, as soon as one poison was outed to the masses or was able to be cured, it was replaced by another. Where there is money to be made – ethical or not – people tend to take it and justify the negative later.

The popularity of poisons was being fed or empowered by the plethora of apothecaries – ancient pharmacies with intent to sell medicines - which increased the availability of poisons to the average person. A medicine once used to settle a belly can now be used to harm, to kill and to make a seller of 'medicine' rich.

Poison Bottles

King Louis XIV tried to limit if not outright prevent the sale of poisons by passing a decree that all poisons sold must be accompanied by a name and address of who bought it and for what purpose. When that did not work, he established the Chambre Ardente – or Burning Chamber in English – to investigate poison based crimes. This resulted in the understanding that the rich can continue to use poison as they could buy their way out and it was the poison dealer who hung. Interestingly, it also raised such as fuss that many more people became more informed about poisons due to the attention drawn to the issue.

Even during the first World War, groups of people have used poison to solve problems, such as seen with The Angelmakers of Nagyrev – wives poisoning their husbands when they returned from war, so they could continue their liaisons with the ally lovers they took on. But women started using it as cure-all for home troubles, screaming kids, complaining sister, whining mother in law. People caught on.

And it was not just organizations or the élite classes. Use of poison was sexless, ageless and classless. No one was safe from it. Arsenic was so commonly used and available before the nineteenth century that it earned itself the nickname of 'inheritance powder'[4]. It was just too easy to get away with murder by poison, solved complicated problems like a relative living too long or that pesky unwanted spouse.

When you think about it, the poisoner and the scientist are at different ends of the same rod. They are permanent opposites, polar opposites even. For hundreds of years, the poisoner has had the upper hand. Till the Victorian era, the poisoners heyday as it is often called.

While the criminal poisoner was enjoying the spotlight, science's baby steps taken between the ninth and eighteenth centuries - was about to become running leaps and bounds.


While murder by poison reigned supreme and undetectable, the field of toxicology was about to be born. Science and the average person though were still miles apart when trying to understand each other. Science concepts can be complicated to explain to those without educational background in some sort of science. At the time of the birth of toxicology science was still trying to be 'liked' by the general masses and show its worth, to be accepted.

According to author Colin Evans and his novel, it started after a trial in 1751 that used testimony from toxicology experts or doctors of the day and other than being the first case to do so, it showed just how odd science was getting in detecting poisons and out of touch it was with the commoner.

A financially secure woman named Mary married a well-to-do man named William. William was not so well-to-do, nor single and when the first spouse made noise and took him to court, Mary's family was horrified at the audacity and gaudiness of the entire situation. But Mary was is in love with William and her fathers efforts to remove the man failed. As he fell deeper in debt he convinced Mary that he knew of some herbs that would see her family's estate and riches to them.

William tried to use it and failed, so he had Mary do it. When the old man refused to die he suggested using more. She did. The servant saw. Her father didn't believe the servant. Mary continued her care. Her father died. Servant told the law. William fled. Mary was apprehended.

Thus the trial. A brief one.

Four doctors testified that arsenic killed him. The 'preserved quality' of the organs and a sniff test with a hot iron and some of the powder found at the house (completely unreliable) verified arsenic presence. Declared guilty more because the servant said she saw her than anything these learned men of science had to say.

The problem was there was no true understanding of the fundamentals of chemistry as we know them today, even one of the early fathers of toxicology, Paracelsus, like many other chemists of his time believed all matter consisted of three things – mercury, sulphur and salt.

Science was trying to understand chemistry with only a quarter of the deck, it is no wonder the men of science were not listened to back in 1751 ... they did not have enough understanding themselves to explain it to others in a way they would understand.

Charles Norris
Hermann Boerhaave, was the first person to suggest finding a chemical detection method, the burning method was unsophisticated. He appreciated the 1751 trial medical witnesses for trying to offer a more sophisticated and science based response to the trial and not only him, but others, rose to the challenge of doing just that – finding a chemical detection method.

By this time poisoners had nearly perfected their art and were still quite ahead in the game.

For now.

Johann Daniel Metzger in 1787 originally devised a method to detect arsenic in solutions – not in the human body. By 1806 Valentine Rose showed how to detect it in the human body, reliably. In 1813 Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure Orfila published his book detailing all he knew about poisons including suggestions for classifications. In the 1830s James Marsh found himself unable to explain how he found arsenic to a jury and focused on creating tests that were more demonstrative and thus more easily used in a court of law.

At the same time chemists were learning how to isolate and identify basic or singular elements, gradually they built a catalogue of elements or the Periodic Table of Elements. In 1804 the elements Cerium, iridium, palladium, osmium and rhodium were discovered; 1807 saw the isolation of sodium and potassium; magnesium, barium, strontium and calcium in 1808; chlorine in 1810[2].

Once they understood the element, they moved on to understanding how it bonded with the other elements, then how it bonded with the human body, then how it reacted to other elements. It was a domino effect, once one part was understood more questions were raised and more people went looking for the answer, finding new questions and leaping through the learning curve.

But too, the very science helping to identify old poisons, brought forth new ones as well, and they were all lethal. Morphine came out in 1804; strychnine in 1819 as well as coniine - the lethal compound of hemlock; aconite was found in 1832[4]. Toxicologists described aconite as 'in it's purest state, perhaps the most potent poison known to man[8].'

Toxicology was starting to keep up with the poisoners, at the worst all they could do was identify how or with what poison, but science had weaponry now, in the form of knowledge. By 1860 the field of toxicology was becoming a force to be reckon with in both the laboratories and courts of law.

The poisoners heyday ever so slowly came to an end and returned to the dusty shelves of the apothecaries that born it. Case after case brought before the courts more often than not sided with the proof offered by science.

But the fight was not over yet.

The Fight

In 1886 one Adelaide Bartlett stood accused of poisoning her husband with chloroform (not easy to do). She was not convicted as science, actually no one could show how she managed to get a fatal dose of chloroform into her husbands stomach when it is notoriously hard to drink or pour down a throat without evidence of it being done, of which none was found. Even the man who acquitted her at trial is quoted as saying "since you can't be retried, tell us in the name of science how you did it".

Even in times closer to today poisons are still a popular homicide weapon – only it is no longer flypaper but rather modern-day drugs that are used to help the sick. Even though most classic and even newer poisons are easily detected, they are still used today.


Up until 1908 Belle Gunness used arsenic like rice at a wedding to take care of her suitor issues. Doctor Crippen hung in 1910 for his efforts to terminate his wife's ailment of living with hyoscin. Graham Young was a dedicated poisoner poisoning his family and friends killing at least three and sickening nearly seventy-five others with thallium and antimony in 1962 and in 1971 (they gave him a second chance – to live normal, not poison people). Angel of Death Donald Harvey, apprehended in 1987 used cyanide to 'free' some of his care patients. Ronald O'Brien in 1974 attempted to receive insurance money for his son, after he used cyanide in the sorbet, an old Victorian era trick. Even a poison society, masked as a matrimonial agency, existed in the 1940s. In the 1980s Shirley introduced a poison, antifreeze.

The race for a perfect poison and the leaping advances of toxicology keeping up with it ensure that no matter what or how the poison is, or used, a test to trace it will be developed. Progress in toxicology also helps to ensure that poisoners will – eventually – be apprehended.

The real question remains though ... how much damage will be done till the poisoner is caught?.

The crime will likely never cease ... For where there is a will there is a way.



Jul 24, 2015 8:55pm
Wow! Fascinating stuff.
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  2. John H Trestrail III Criminal Poisoning: Investigational Guide for Law Enforcement, Toxicologists, Forensic Scientists, and Attorneys. United States: Humana Press, 2007.
  3. John Parascandola King of Poisons: A History of Arsenic. United States: Potomac Books Inc, 2012.
  4. "A Brief History of Poisoning." The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. 25/09/2014 <Web >
  5. "Myth of Female Poisoner." Wired. 25/09/2014 <Web >
  6. Deborah Blum "A window on the world of homicidal poisoners." LA Times. 1/09/2013.
  7. "Poisoners Poison Tianle." SLATE. 24/09/2014 <Web >
  8. "Deadliest Poisons." Io9. 25/09/2014 <Web >
  9. "Power of Poison." American Museum of Natural History. 24/09/2014 <Web >
  10. Johnny Sharp "Graham Young." MurderPedia. 25/09/2014 <Web >
  11. "Poisoner Handbook." Documentary: Poisoners Handbook. 2012.
  12. "Graham Young: Teacup Poisoner." BBC Documentary: Teacup Poisoner. 2007.

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