Friday, May 6, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 3: Hemlock

Hemlock (Conium maculatum) is most famous as the poison used to kill the Greek Philosopher Socrates in 399 BC. 

He was fed a strong infusion of hemlock by the democratic government of Athens to punish him for "impiety," which modern scholars tend to read as "political infighting." 

Hemlock is an especially nasty poison, since it paralyzes the victim first, so they know what is going on but can't speak or move.

It's another deceptively pretty plant, with lacy white flowers that resemble Queen Anne's Lace. It is native to Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa, but can now be found almost everywhere. It thrives in a Mediterranean climate and loves poorly drained ditches, roadways and stream beds.

Hemlock is deceptively pretty

In Ireland it's called "Poison Parsley" and in Australia it's called "Carrot Fern". 

It's in no way related to the evergreen, coniferous tree that's also called "Hemlock" (Tsuga) which is the only hemlock I knew when I was growing up in New England. Apparently the hemlock tree's needles, when crushed, give off a similar scent to the toxic hemlock shrub.

This kind of hemlock is nor related to the poisonous kind
As a kid, I had a hard time picturing Socrates being forced to eat pine cones.

But now that I live on the Central Coast of California, I see the poisonous type of hemlock everywhere. It grows all over Montana de Oro, the state park that's just up the road from me. Hemlock is flourishing there now, after the winter rains. The plants can reach 3-5 feet in a good, wet year. 

I'm thinking of using it in the next Camilla mystery, since hemlock would be so handy now Camilla is staying in the Central Coast area.

Apparently hemlock is a good deal less potent in dried form, but six fresh-cut leaves can kill a person and the fresh seeds and roots are even more toxic. Socrates was probably fed a tea made of an infusion of the roots and leaves. 

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David

Hemlock works like another nasty poison, curare, in that it paralyzes the muscles, which eventually leads to paralysis of the lungs and respiratory failure, so the victim dies of suffocation. But death is not quick and drinking hemlock tea only makes a person feel drunk at first. It can take up to 72 hours for the toxins to stop lung function..

This means a victim can be saved if they get to a hospital in time to be put on a ventilator that allows them to breathe. It takes several days on a ventilator for the poison to leave the system. 

For more on Hemlock on the Central Coast of California, see this article from The Cambrian by Kathe Tanner.

I haven't used hemlock in a mystery yet, although it does seem to beg to make it into my Central Coast mysteries. I can't think of a mystery novel where hemlock is used. Does anybody out there know of one?

for more of this series: 
Part 1: Digitalis
Part 2: Wolfsbane

FOOD OF LOVE: a Comedy about Friendship, Chocolate, and a Small Nuclear Bomb.

There's also some poison involved: epibatidine, which comes from the South American Poison Dart Frog. I'll be talking about that in another post in the series. 

Two sisters: one white, one black. Two worldviews: one liberal, one conservative. But these two women have one goal in common—one they share with most women in modern society: the urge to diminish themselves by dieting. Food of Love is a historical comedy-mystery-romance set in the 1990s that carries a powerful message. It offers some of life’s darker truths—told with a punchline.

After Princess Regina, a former supermodel, is ridiculed in the tabloids for gaining weight, someone tries to kill her. She suspects her royal husband wants to be rid of her, now she’s no longer model-thin. As she flees the mysterious assassin, she discovers the world thinks she is dead, and seeks refuge with the only person she can trust: her long-estranged foster sister, Rev. Cady Stanton, a right-wing talk show host who has romantic and weight issues of her own. Cady delves into Regina’s past and discovers Regina’s long-lost love, as well as dark secrets that connect them all.

Available in eBook from:
Available in Audiobook from:


  1. Maybe MacBeth when mentioned by Banquo as the insane root? Don't forget Polonium, discovered in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie and used to kill Alexander Litvinenko, former KGB officer, in London. So much more modern than Hemlock, don't you think? Maybe when Camilla solves a murder in Silicon Valley? ;-)

    1. Ruth--I'll have to check that out about Banquo! Lots of good poisons in Shakespeare. Polonium is certainly the poison of choice with evil spies these days. I'll have to put that on my list to research!

  2. Did it take Socrates 72 hours to die?

  3. Cathy--Plato described it taking about a day, but he didn't put in the nasty parts about vomiting and stuff, so people assume it was a romanticized version of his death. What the medical books say is it can take up to 72 hours, so there is still hope after a couple of days if the person is still alive, but it doesn't always take 72 hours, and if the dose is strong enough, it can be a matter of minutes.

  4. No, I can't say I do know of a mystery that used hemlock. You grew up in New England? I thought I sensed an East Coast vibe. Small world.

    1. Sue--I grew up in Waterville, Maine. A great place to be a kid. Lots of snow days. :-) We could flood the backyard every winter and have a skating rink. We had two Macintosh apple trees in our front yard--best apples I ever ate. I do miss it sometimes. My novel The Lady of the Lakewood Diner is my love-letter to Maine.

  5. Considering how poisonous it is, I'm surprised that Hemlock is found so easily.

    1. Lynda--It's just a weed that grows pretty much all over the world. It does need moist soil, so with our drought in Central California, I suppose there hasn't been much in recent years. But anybody who wanted to do a little murder could go out and pick enough to kill several people at Montana de Oro State Park, just a few miles from my house. Gotta figure out a way to use that in my next book..hmmm.