Friday, August 19, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 18: Polonium-210



Polonium-210 is a nasty murder weapon. It's a slow-acting 
radioactive isotope, a dose of radiation sickness with no cure. A microgram of itthe size of a speck of dustis enough to kill a human.
The most famousand only provencase of a polonium-210 murder was that of ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Polonium was found in his tea cupa dose 200 times higher than the lethal ingestion dose. He died in three weeks. But other cancer deaths are suspected of being caused by deliberate poisoning with polonium-210.

It's also one of those awful radioactive things that could wipe out large segments of humanity if released into the drinking water or the air, so it makes for some good apocalyptic sci-fi.

One gram of vaporized polonium can kill about 1.5 million people slowly over a couple of months.

Marie and Pierre Curie with daughter Irene
Polonium is an element discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie. It was named for her home country, Poland. Its symbol is Po and its half-life is 163 days. It decays into lead. As it decays, it emits alpha particles, which are the stuff that kills you.

Some think the Curies' daughter Irene died of polonium poisoning caused by a lab accident, although her death took 15 years.

Symptoms of Polonium Exposure


Polonium is classified as a "group one" carcinogen—that is, it's known to cause cancer, rather than simply a suspect. In sufficient amounts, polonium can be lethal within days or weeks.

Once it's absorbed into the blood, it's distributed through the body mainly in soft tissues, especially bone marrow.

The symptoms are those of radiation poisoning. It first causes unexplained vomiting and gastrointestinal distress, followed by low white blood cell count due to bone marrow damage and hair loss. Different organs and tissues will slowly show radiation damage.


Polonium Occurs Naturally in the Environment


But this wildly toxic substance is actually found everywhere in the environment.
 We all have low levels of polonium in our bodiesespecially smokers and people who eat a lot of seafood, because tobacco plants have concentrated amounts of polonium as do some shellfish.
Tobacco smoke contains concentrated polonium.

Polonium itself isn't a poison. The danger comes from the radiation it emits. And the radiation isn't dangerous under normal circumstances because the radioactive particles have a very short range and they don't pass through other materials easily. They're stopped by something as thin as paper, as well as the top layer of our skin.

The only way polonium is toxic is if it's injected, inhaled or ingested. (Or a person can be accidentally poisoned through broken skin or a wound.) 


Treatment for Polonium Exposure



The best hope for treating polonium poisoning, if it is a reversible case, results from prompt diagnosis. Initial gastric lavage can help if it hasn’t' been absorbed into the bloodstream, then blood and platelet transfusions.

Before the Litvinenko assassination, polonium wasn't likely to be suspected as a method for murder and he was only found to have high levels of polonium-210 in his blood hours before his death, having been in hospital for several days.

Alexander Litvinenko, victim of Polonium Poisoning

And even now, it's very rare, and diagnosis requires the use of special wands and detectors only found in specialized laboratories, so it's not likely a person will be diagnosed in time to prevent death.


Polonium is Very Expensive


As much as polonium is headline grabbing, it won't work well in most murder mysteries. It's prohibitively expensive, for one thing. 

It can be found in the same ore as uranium. But to produce even a dust-speck quantity needs a nuclear reactor. So you kind of have to be a James Bond evil world-dominator with your own private evil-island world to come up with it.

The polonium used to kill Mr Litvinenko would have cost “tens of millions of dollars” if bought on the open commercial market. So he's got to be a super-rich evil world-dominator, too. 


Are you a fan of spy thrillers? Have you read one where polonium is used as a murder weapon? 


Here's a list of all the posts in the poison series

Part 17: Visine


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GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY:  Camilla Mystery #1 

After her celebrity ex-husband’s ironic joke about her “kinky sex habits” is misquoted in a tabloid, New York etiquette columnist Camilla Randall’s life unravels in bad late night TV jokes.

Nearly broke and down to her last Hermes scarf, she accepts an invitation to a Z-list Writers’ Conference in the wine-and-cowboy town of Santa Ynez, California, where, unfortunately, a cross-dressing dominatrix named Marva plies her trade by impersonating Camilla.

When a ghostwriter’s plot to blackmail celebrities with faked evidence leads to murder, Camilla must team up with Marva to stop the killer from striking again.

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Friday, August 12, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 17: Visine


Visine, the "get the red out" eye-soother, is popular with pranksters and poisoners alike these days. Tetrahydrozoline—the active ingredient in eye drops like Visine, Murine, Eyesine, Tysine, and similar generic products as well as some nasal sprays—is rumored to have laxative properties when ingested. It has no taste and is undetectable in water.

This was a plot point in the wildly successful 2005 film comedy Wedding Crashers, starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. It was hilarious when Bradley Cooper's character's water was laced with Visine and he disappeared with a case of the green-apple quick-step. 

An eye-drops joke in this film has led to tears
Screenwriters Steve Faber and Bob Fisher probably came up with the idea from an old "urban myth" often shared by restaurant and bar workers. They'd tell stories of the bartender or cocktail waitress who dealt with obnoxious clientele by sending them into a "time out" in the restroom with a few drops of Visine in their cocktails.

It's a good story. The problem is tetrahydrozoline does not cause diarrhea. 
It does, however have a number of other effects on the body. Like, oh…

Difficulty breathing
Blurred vision
Rapid heartbeat
Headache
Blue lips and fingernails
High blood pressure (at first)
Low blood pressure (later)
Vomiting
Tremors
Seizures
Coma
Death

Not all that funny. It disrupts the entire central nervous system. 

Not a laxative. But it is poisonous.

Unfortunately the film has inspired many people to do amazingly stupid things to perpetrate what they thought were relatively harmless pranks, funny revenge scenarios, and highly misguided attempts at weight loss.


Pranks Gone Wrong


In 2006, a group of Wisconsin high school boys thought it would be fun to pull a "Wedding Crashers" prank on a pal in the lunchroom. The pal ended up in the hospital in need of a defibrillator and the boys landed in the pokey.

In 2007 a feud between employees at an Oregon nursing home resulted in the poisoning of two employees with Visine in a "gift" of strawberry soda.

The pranks have even resulted in death. In 2009 a Vermont woman died after a Halloween party from what were presumed to be natural causes, but later a co-worker confessed to spiking the punch with Visine as a joke. The co-worker was later arrested for third degree assault.


Others Have used Visine Knowing its Lethal Effects.


Earlier that year, a woman in Missouri was charged with first-degree assault for dumping half a bottle of eye drops into her husband's tea in an attempt to murder him.

In 2012, a Pennsylvania woman was sentenced to up to four years in prison for poisoning her boyfriend with Visine over a period of three years.

In 2013, a man in California laced his girlfriend's drink with Visine when he suspected her of cheating. She lived, but he went to jail for domestic violence. (He made the mistake of texting all his friends to brag about it. It's amazing how many killers get tripped up by their own stupidity.)

A Wyoming teen was poisoning her stepmom with Visine in 2013 and might have succeeded in bumping her off—she'd already gone through 5 bottles of the stuff—but the ailing stepmom looked into the girl's search history and found a bunch of searches on Visine poisoning. (If anybody checks out my search history, I'm in real trouble! ) 


How to Treat a Victim of Visine Poisoning


If your characters (or you) suspect somebody's been lacing your beverages with eye drops, there's help. Most cases do not result in death if they are caught soon enough. 

In the US, you can call the poison hotline at 1-800-222-1222.

And according to Medline.gov,  if someone is suffering from Tetrahydrozoline poisoning they need to get to a hospital asap. They will be treated with gastric lavage, IV fluids, oxygen and probably a ventilator. 

Visine in Fiction


Visine poisoning appears in fiction too. Besides the legendary scene in Wedding Crashers, there's an episode of CSI, "Revenge Is Best Served Cold," where a drink spiked with Visine results in death. And the laxative myth about Visine is perpetuated in the movie  I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.

***


What about you? Do you know of any other fictional cases of Visine poisoning? What about in real life?



Here's a list of all the posts in the poison series



SHERWOOD, LTD: Camilla Mystery #2


For mystery lovers who like a good poisoning murder


Suddenly-homeless American manners expert Camilla Randall becomes a 21st century Maid Marian—living rough near the real Sherwood Forest with a band of outlaw English erotica publishers—led by a charming, self-styled Robin Hood who unfortunately may intend to kill her. 

When Camilla is invited to publish a book of her columns with UK publisher Peter Sherwood, she lands in a gritty criminal world—far from the Merrie Olde England she envisions. The staff are ex-cons and the erotica is kinky. Hungry and penniless, she camps in a Wendy House built from pallets of porn while battling an epic flood, a mendacious American Renfaire wench, and the mysterious killer who may be Peter himself.


Sherwood, Ltd. is available in ebook for only $2.99 from all the AmazonsiTunesGooglePlay ScribdInkteraKobo, Nook, and Smashwords
And it's available in paper from Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Sample Reviews:

"A wily tale of murder, deceit, and intrigue that can stand with the best of them. Her characters are all too real and her dialogue took me from laughter to chills" David Keith on Smashwords

"Smartly written and nearly impossible to put down, I found myself counting the hours until I could leave work and get back to reading! Well done!" T.L. Ingham on Smashwords

"An intriguing and fast paced novel that demands you read on to the next page and beyond. The characters are well constructed and believable and I enjoyed the difference between the USA and UK people. The plight of our heroine is complex and well -managed and in the beginning I was striving for her to find some genuine help and support. The flip over to the UK added more spice! Highly recommended."—David L. Atkinson, author of The 51st State

Friday, August 5, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 16: Antifreeze



Antifreeze, (Ethylene Glycol) has been the weapon of choice in some recent high profile domestic murders. In earlier posts, I've concentrated on the poisons of classic mysteries that were more common in a 19th or 20th century home than in a contemporary one, but now I'm going to move on to some more modern toxins.



The Advantages of Antifreeze as a Murder Weapon


For the contemporary murderer, antifreeze has a lot of plusses.


1) There's nothing suspicious about having it around.


You can always keep the stuff in the garage with the intention of using it to protect the car for a ski trip or winterize that mountain cabin. (Some people like to put antifreeze in the toilets of summer cabins to avoid breakage from hard freezes. Unfortunately, pets drinking from the toilets the next summer may have to be rushed to the vet. Beware: Ethylene Glycol is toxic to pets, too.)

2) The victim won't suspect a thing.


Antifreeze has a sweet, not unpleasant taste (unless a bittering agent has been added, which is now mandatory in some countries and states.) But if the unbittered kind is put into a sweet beverage like sweet tea or a whiskey sour, the victim won't have a clue that anything is amiss.
It's undetectable in sweet tea


3) It works fast.


Unless an antidote is administered within an hour of ingestion of a lethal dose, a human victim's fate is sealed (dogs and cats have digestive systems that give them a little more leeway.) The usual anti-poison measures, such as charcoal, gastric lavage and bicarbonate of soda will not work and can make matters worse.

4) You can blame the victim.


The initial symptoms of antifreeze poisoning appear to be the result of overindulgence of alcohol.


5) Death usually doesn't appear suspicious.


Most antifreeze poisoners have been caught because of snitches or mistakes by the killers. The victims appear to have died of heart attacks or kidney failure, so there's no reason for an autopsy.

 The Symptoms


Ethelyne Glycol poisoning symptoms occur in three stages.

 
The victim will first appear drunk
1) Intoxication—the victim appears to be drunk, with slurred speech, uncoordinated movements, confusion, and drooling.

2) Elevated Heart Rate—plus hyperventilation, muscle spasms, and heart failure. Sometimes the victim dies during stage 2 of what appears to be a heart attack.

3) Kidney failure. Often indicated by severe lower back pain—and eventually, death.

Treatment


So how is this kind of poisoning treated if it's caught it in time?

The treatment for antifreeze poisoning
The antidote of choice is pharmaceutical grade ethanol given intravenously, but, if your character can't get to a hospital, it’s handy to know that the victim can also be saved by administering a strong oral dose. In other words, a number of good, stiff drinks. Plus a lot of water.

The reason this works is that the body prefers pure alcohol to the antifreeze and will absorb it instead. So the victim may live, but he'll have one bear of a hangover.

A Few Well Known Cases of Antifreeze Poisoning


In 2013, a mother-daughter team in Missouri, Diane and Rachel Staudte, were convicted of killing two relatives and attempting to kill a third with antifreeze cocktails. They might have got away with it if a nurse in the hospital of the third victim hadn't told the police that the women seemed way too happy for members of a grieving family.

NBC's Dateline recently ran a 2-hour special on the Holly McFeeture case. Ms. McFeeture was convicted of poisoning her fiancĂ© Mathew Podolack in 2006 with antifreeze-laced iced tea over a period of months. Because the poisoning was slow, he didn't know anything was amiss until it was too late. Unfortunately, by the time he went to a doctor for lower back pain, his kidneys were already failing. 


The "Black Widow" poisoned her husband with antifreeze in Jell-O
One of the most notorious antifreeze poisoners was Stacey Castor, "The Black Widow" who poisoned two husbands with Jell-O made with antifreeze. She then poisoned her own daughter and tried to pin the murders on the young woman with a fake suicide note. Thankfully, the daughter survived.

In 2014, Dr. Ana Gonzalez-Angulo was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the attempted murder by antifreeze of her lover Dr. George Blumenschein in a Fatal Attraction style love triangle. She'd laced his coffee with the stuff. He survived, but lost 60% of his kidney function. Now if he'd taken his coffee with no sugar…

In 2008, after a decade of legal wrangling, Mark Jensen was found guilty of the slow poisoning of his wife with antifreeze. She had left a letter with a neighbor saying that if anything happened to her, she feared her husband was trying to kill her, but this was kept out of court as "hearsay evidence" until the last minute. The defense argued that she was slowly committing suicide, but that seems unlikely, since suicide tends to be a spur of the moment thing rather than a long drawn out process. Also, Jensen admitted to the murder to a jailhouse snitch.

What about you? Have you read any mysteries that featured antifreeze as a murder weapon? Are any antifreeze plots planting seeds in your heads? 


Here's a list of all the posts in the poison series


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Humorous portraits of rebellious women at various stages of their lives. From aging Betty Jo, who feels so invisible she contemplates robbing a bank, to neglected 10-year-old Maude, who turns to a fantasy Elvis for the love she's denied by her patrician family, to a bloodthirsty, Valley-Girl version of Madame Defarge, these women—young and old—are all rebelling against the stereotypes and traditional roles that hold them back. Which is, of course, why Grandma bought that car…



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Narrated by C.S. Perryess and Claire Vogel

Friday, July 29, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 15: Seafood Poisoning



Seafood poisoning provides a wealth of plots for mystery writers. Naturally poisonous seafood can often lead to death, so a carefully planned murder can easily be blamed on accident.

Gonyaulax as a murder weapon?
Plus there are lots of varied and unusual kinds of poisonings—and seafood contamination is growing with climate change.

Good for mystery writers. Not so good for seafood lovers.


Red Tide Algae


Actually, red tides aren't always red and aren't tidal. They are dangerous blooms of toxic algae that poison shellfish and the predators—including humans—who dine on the shellfish, especially mollusks.

Toxic algae blooms of various sorts have increased in recent years with climate change, so deaths of marine mammals and humans from eating seafood are increasing, making it difficult to prove intentional murder when a person dies after ingesting "bad seafood."


The "Red Tide"
In Shirley S. Allen's mystery, Academic Body, a professor is studying one of the species of algae that causes the red tide, the dinoflagellate gonyaulax, which turns out to make a handy murder weapon.

Dinoflagellates are one-celled organisms that have both plant and animal characteristics, so they're sometimes placed in a phylum of their own rather than with the algae. When the water warms, like with the recent El Nino, it brings a rich nutrient supply from deep ocean and the dinoflagellates get so dense, they overpopulate. That's when they can turn the seawater red by day and phosphorescent at night. (But some dinoflagellates can poison water without turning it red.) 



Domoic Acid


An especially intriguing toxin found in the algae/dinoflagellate blooms is domoic acid, first isolated in red algae in 1959. It is a neurotoxin that inhibits neurochemical processes, causing short-term memory loss, brain damage, and, in severe cases, death.

Were "The Birds" poisoned with domoic acid?
Unfortunately, domoic acid is a heat resistant and very stable toxin, so it isn't destroyed by normal cooking methods or freezing. There is also no known antidote, so if you want your character to survive, then them to a hospital asap.

Animals can behave strangely when they have eaten seafood contaminated with domoic acid. About a decade ago a bunch of brown pelicans flew directly into car windshields on the Pacific Coast Highway. They were found to be poisoned with domoic acid. Just this week, a friend told me a seal was found disoriented on a local beach, moving as if it were swimming in the water. Domoic acid from a nearby red tide bloom was the suspected culprit.

There was also a famous incident in Santa Cruz, California in August of 1961, believed to be caused by domoic acid. The town was invaded by what people described as "chaotic seabirds" who attacked people for no apparent reason. Although Alfred Hitchcock's film The Birds was losely based on a 1952  Daphne Du Maurier Story set in Cornwall, the California incident gave a bit of horrific credibility to Hitchcock’s film which came out in 1962

More recently, domoic acid was used to poison a witness in the TV series Elementary, episode The Red Team.



Pufferfish (Fugu)


Sushi is always good for a nice poisoning. There's always a little fear that things might not be right with the refrigeration or if you really want to get nasty, there's…puffer fish, which the Japanese call fugu.



The super-toxic poison in puffer fish is tetrodotoxin. It's 1200 times more lethal than cyanide. There's enough of the stuff in one pufferfish to kill 30 humans. 
Its poison is 1200 times more lethal than cyanide

Hey, that's a lot of bad boyfriends your villainess could wreak her revenge upon.

It's pretty amazing that people eat this stuff on purpose. Apparently about five people a year make it their last meal, even though it takes two years to be certified to prepare it.

It's not a very nice death. Like domoic acid, it's a neurotoxin, so it starts with the tingling, then the paralysis, and then you get slowly zombified, but you're aware the whole time. Not a great way to go.

The poison is manufactured in the fish's body by bacteria they ingest from their environment, like the toxins in the poison dart frog. So scientists have been working on a way to raise the fish in a bacteria-free environment so they don't produce any of the poison.

But apparently the safe fish isn't anywhere near as appealing to the fugu-loving public, in spite of the fact it apparently tastes the same. Somehow that element of danger is what gives it the flavor they crave.

What about you? Any good seafood poisoning stories? Have you ever eaten a Pufferfish?



Here's a list of all the posts in the poison series


ACADEMIC BODY


by Dr. Shirley S. Allen, Anne's mom

(1921-2013)

Retired Broadway director Paul Godwin longs for the life of a college professor, but can he woo his famous actress wife away from the New York stage to become part of his academic life in small-town Maine? 

Not easily, especially after the dean accuses him of having a fling with a student. When said dean is found dead, Paul becomes a prime suspect. Paul's efforts to discover the real culprit provoke dangerous reprisals, but he must succeed to save his new career, his marriage...and perhaps his life.




Academic Body is only 99c or the equivalent at all the Amazons, Kobo, iTunes, and Nook

Friday, July 22, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 14: Mandrake



Mandrake (mandragora officinarum) is a real thing. Not just the product of J.K. Rowling's rich
imagination. But the roots don't actually look like human babies the way they do at Hogwarts. More like small troll-y roots. Sometimes.

But there is an ancient myth that says mandrake roots scream when pulled from the earth—and that anybody who hears the scream will die.

The historian Josephus of Jerusalem (circa 37–100 AD) wrote the following instructions for digging up the mandrake root to avoid the scream-dying-thing curse.

"A furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is
A Harry Potter Mandrake
exposed, then a dog is tied to it, after which the person tying the dog must get away. The dog then endeavors to follow him, and so easily pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this, the root can be handled without fear."


Not a great time to be a dog.

The reason the irresponsible pet owners wanted to pull up the plants was probably the purported medicinal properties of the mandrake root, which were considerable. It was used as a sedative, laxative, painkiller, aphrodisiac, fertility aid, and a cure for erectile dysfunction.


Mandrake flowers
But like all the plants I've been exploring in this series, the root is also deadly in larger doses. Symptoms include blurred vision, pupil dilation, dehydration, dizziness, headache, vomiting, flushing, hyperactivity, and a rapid heart rate.


Like foxglove and Jimson weed, Mediterranean Mandrake, mandragora officianrium, is a member of the nightshade family. Like them, it affects brain chemistry and produces frightening hallucinations.
 
A real mandrake root--not all that human
English Mandrake, Bryonia alba, is a member of the cucumber family, and all its parts are extremely poisonous. It produces a bluish berry, forty of which can kill.


The myths surrounding mandrake are as varied as they are bizarre.
  • Ancient Anglo-Saxons carried the root as a talisman to repel evil
  • In the Bible, it is mentioned as a coveted fertility aid. (Genesis 30: 14-16) 
  • In ancient Persia, couples put the roots under their beds in order to conceive. 
  • Medieval witches smeared an ointment containing a tincture of the root in order to fly. 
  • Joan of Arc was accused of carrying an amulet made of the dried root in order to communicate with Satan. 
  • In medieval Europe it was said that the plants originated near gallows, where they sprang from the semen of hanged men.
Mandrake figures strongly in pagan rituals and many indigenous religions ascribed it mystical powers. It would have been common in medieval households, so it would make a good murder weapon for a medieval mystery.


English Mandrake aka bryonia alba 
Arthur Conan Doyle used mandrake in the Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Devil's Foot. In it an extract of "Devil's Foot Root" also called mandrake is the cause of two related murders.

Mandrake's rich mythology appears quite often in literature. I remember being puzzled as a young teen by John Donne's poem of impossible goals:

"Go and catch a falling star
Get with child a mandrake root"

And Shakespeare loved the stuff:

"Shrieks like mandrakes' torn out of the earth."...Romeo and Juliet IV.iii

"Would curses kill, as doth the mandrake's groan"...King Henry VI part II III.ii

"Give me to drink mandragora ...That I might sleep out this great gap of time my Antony is away." ...Antony and Cleopatra I.v

Do you have some Mandrake stories to add? There's so much folklore attached to this strange looking plant!

Here's a list of all the posts in the poison series

Part 13: Datura

THE LADY OF THE LAKEWOOD DINER

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A comedy that pokes fun at the myth of a Golden Age, making parallels between the Grail legend and the self-mythologizing of the Baby Boomer Generation.

Someone has shot aging bad-girl rocker Morgan Le Fay and threatens to finish the job. Is it fans of her legendary dead rock-god husband, Merlin? Or is the secret buried in her childhood hometown of Avalon, Maine?

Morgan's childhood best friend Dodie, the no-nonsense owner of a dilapidated diner, may be the only one who knows the dark secret that can save Morgan's life. And both women may find that love really is better the second time around.




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Available in ebook from:

Friday, July 15, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 13: Datura


Datura (Datura Stramonium) a.k.a. Jimson Weed or "Moonflower" is another beautiful but deadly plant in the nightshade family. As a murder weapon it's not terribly popular at the moment, but according to Agatha Christie it was once a classic way to do away with unwanted husbands in India and Southeast Asia.


The lovely but deadly Moonflower
The flowers are large and trumpet shaped and come in lovely colors, from pure white to lavender, pink, red, yellow and peach.

Like most poisons, it has medicinal as well as toxic properties. In Ayurvedic and Chinese traditional medicine it is used as a treatment for asthma and inflammation and is used as a painkiller.

Datura also has recreational and spiritual uses (seriously not recommended for the uninitiated.) It has unusual effects on brain chemistry, including highly realistic, often terrifying hallucinations, bizarre, sometimes violent behavior, amnesia, and hyperthermia (which often leads to throwing off of clothing.) Overdoses are common. Death comes from cardiac arrest.

A tell-tale sign of Datura intoxication is highly dilated pupils and the inability to tolerate sunlight.


(Maybe your character isn't really a vampire. He's just been experimenting with Datura.) Because of the pupil thing, if an experiment with Datura doesn't kill you, it can result in blindness—usually temporary.

Datura blossoms are night-blooming, hence the "moonflower" name. The flowers, seeds and roots are the most dangerous. They contain the toxic tropane alkaloids atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine, which are categorized as "deliriants."

A deliriant differs from a hallucinogen because it blocks certain neurotransmitters in the brain and creates an all-encompassing delirium. It's impossible for the victim to tell reality from fantasy. 



Various species of Datura are known by other fanciful names like Devil's Weed, Devil's Trumpet, Devil's Snare, Devil's Cucumber (I see a theme here) as well as locoweed, Angel's Trumpet, stinkweed, thorn apple, pricklyburr and my favorite, Hell's Bells. 

But it may best be known by a corruption of "Jamestown weed": "Jimson weed." 

Some species of the plant have a nasty odor, but the blossoms give off a pleasant fragrance when they bloom at night, which seems to embody the essence of the plant, which seems to be equal parts nasty and off-putting. 

The plant is found all over the world, and will grow pretty much everywhere there is dirt and warm weather, but is native to North America and South Asia. It was used as a mystical sacrament by indigenous North American people, and Hindus believe Lord Shiva enjoys smoking it. It is still part of sacred rituals in Nepal and parts of India. 


In Haiti, Datura is sometimes called the "Zombie Cucumber" and in his book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Canadian ethnobotanist Wade Davis identified Datura as 

a central ingredient of the concoction voodoo priests use to create zombies.

Datura grows all over my own neighborhood on the central coast of California. The native Chumash tribes here used it in their sacred rituals and believed it allowed them to communicate with the gods. The goddess of Datura was called Momoy, who was pictured as a wild-looking old woman. She brought young tribal members visions of their spirit animals and could foretell the future.


One of the plant's names, "Jamestown weed", comes from the town in
 Virginia, where British soldiers were drugged with it while attempting to suppress Bacon's Rebellion. They spent eleven days appearing to have gone insane, as this contemporary account describes:

"The James-Town Weed (which resembles the Thorny Apple of Peru and I take to be the plant so call'd) is supposed to be one of the greatest coolers in the world. This being an early plant, 
Datura turned the soldiers into "Dutch drolls"
was gather'd very young for a boil'd salad, by some of the soldiers sent thither to quell the rebellion of Bacon (1676); and some of them ate plentifully of it, the effect of which was a very pleasant comedy, for they turned natural fools upon it for several days: one would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows [grimaces] at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll." (Yes, that's spelled right. A Dutch droll was rather like our little toy "trolls" of the 1970s—grotesque funny toys will silly smiles.)  


"In this frantic condition they were confined, lest they should, in their folly, destroy themselves – though it was observed that all their actions were full of innocence and good nature. Indeed, they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallowed in their own excrements, if they had not been prevented. A thousand such simple tricks they played, and after eleven days returned themselves again, not remembering anything that had passed." --The History and Present State of Virginia, 1705



The unfortunate soldiers seem to have eaten the leaves of the plant. If they'd eaten the seeds, they probably would not have recovered. The seeds, which come from small burr-like seed pods, contain about .1 mg. of atropine each. 10 m or less of atropine is lethal to humans.


Sometimes Datura is ingested by accident. In India people sometimes are afflicted by eating honey during the Datura blooming season.

In some parts of Europe and India, Datura is still a popular poison for suicide and murder. In 1996, 120 people in India were poisoned by a cafeteria meal that contained rice tainted with Datura. It was never ruled whether the incident was an accident or murder. 



In 2008, a family in the U.S. poisoned themselves when they ate cooked Datura root and leaves in an "all natural" stew made from ingredients found in their backyard. (Makes Micky-D's take-out look like a better choice than we realized, doesn't it?) 

I don't know of many uses of Datura in fiction. As I said above, Miss Marple mentions it in A Caribbean Mystery, but it doesn't play an important part. Here's the quote:

"'They believe what they are told,' said Miss Marple. 'Yes indeed, we're all inclined to do that,' she added. Then she said sharply 'Who told you these stories about India, about the doping of husbands with datura . . . .?'"


The scent of the Datura blossom is favored by perfume makers as an exotic note in dramatic perfumes. Over 50 commercial perfumes contain Datura, including "Datura Noir", a "kaleidoscopic" scent from master perfumer Serge Lutens. 

Many thanks to Janet Boyer for the suggestion of Moonflower for this series! 

What about you? Have you heard any Datura stories? Do you know anybody who has taken it recreationally and lived to tell the tale? Can you think of any mysteries that use Datura as a plot device? 



Part 11: White Snakeroot
Part 12: Strychnine



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