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


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


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


99c at Amazon for a limited time! 

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.

"A page turning, easily readable, arrestingly honest novel which will keep you laughing at yourself. Who doesn't remember crashing on a mattress at a friend's apartment with the stereo blasting Iron Butterfly and no idea where you'll stay the next night? A cultural masterpiece for the discerning reader."...Kathleen Keena, author of Adolescent Depression, Outside/In

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


99c at Amazon for a limited time! 

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.

"A page turning, easily readable, arrestingly honest novel which will keep you laughing at yourself. Who doesn't remember crashing on a mattress at a friend's apartment with the stereo blasting Iron Butterfly and no idea where you'll stay the next night? A cultural masterpiece for the discerning reader."...Kathleen Keena, author of Adolescent Depression, Outside/In

Available in ebook from:

Friday, July 8, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 12: Strychnine

Strychnine features in many classic mysteries
Strychnine is one of those poisons that finds its way into a lot of mystery novels. It has been the weapon of choice in classic murder mysteries from Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles to the movie Psycho.

Maybe it's popular in fiction because it works very fast. And it's equally lethal when eaten (although it has a very bitter taste), injected, or inhaled. The symptoms of strychnine poisoning are unmistakable. They include convulsions, a strange arching of the back, and a clenching of the jaw muscles that leave the corpse with a ghoulish grin.

Arthur Conan Doyle described the signs of strychnine poisoning in his Sherlock Holmes mystery The Sign of the Four:

"By the table, in a wooden arm-chair, the master of the house was seated all in a heap, with his head sunk upon his left shoulder, and that ghastly, inscrutable smile upon his face. He was stiff and cold, and had clearly been dead many hours. It seemed to me that not only his features but all his limbs were twisted and turned in the most fantastic fashion."

The poison comes from the Strychnine tree (Strychnos nux-vomica),
known as "the suicide tree" in its native habitat in India and the tropics of Southeast Asia. The tree has a crooked, short, thick trunk and the fruit has an orange color and is about the size of a large apple with a hard rind. It contains five seeds, which look like flattened disks.
Seeds of the Strychnine fruit

These seeds are the most dangerous part of the tree. They contain alkaloids that can disrupt the heart’s rhythm within hours of consumption. They also cause convulsions and stimulation of nerves in the spine, making it a very nasty way to go. The onset of respiratory failure and brain death can occur in 15 to 30 minutes.

Strychnine seeds were first imported to and marketed in Europe as a poison to kill rodents and small predators as far back as 1640. 

Strychnine was also discovered in the Philippines a century or so later in a shrub called
Strychnos Ignatii
St. Ignatius Bean (Strychnos Ignatii.) The fruit of this shrub contains 25 seeds that have even more of the toxic poison than Strychnos Nux Vomica. The fruits themselves are not toxic and are a favorite snack of monkeys, which is why they are sometimes called "monkey apples."

In Malaysia and Java, people extracted the seeds of the Ignatius fruits and utilized them as dart poison for their blowguns

Like most poisons, strychnine has also been used for medicinal purposes. In the Philippines it was believed to be a cure for cholera, and it is still used in homeopathic doses in some places today. 

In the 19th century, people used it as a recreational drug and thought it had performance-enhancing abilities. H. G. Wells discussed its use in his novella The Invisible Man. The title character says: "Strychnine is a grand tonic ... to take the flabbiness out of a man." Um, no thanks. I guess people have always liked to poison themselves with the hope it will give them a competitive edge. 

Strychnine was the poison of choice of Dr. William Palmer, the notorious 19th century murderer Charles Dickens called "the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey."
Poisoner Dr. William Palmer

Dr. Palmer was hanged for poisoning his friend John Cook with strychnine, and was suspected of feeding it to several other people including his brother and his mother-in-law, as well as four of his children. Palmer made large sums of money from the deaths of his family members after collecting on life insurance, and by defrauding his wealthy mother out of thousands of pounds, all of which he lost through gambling on horses.

Arthur Conan Doyle makes mention of Palmer in the Sherlock Holmes short story, The Adventure of the Speckled Band. And Dorothy L. Sayers mentions him in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. 

Another notorious poisoneralso a physicianDr. Thomas Neill Cream,"the Lambeth Poisoner" famously fed strychnine to many of his patients. He was also suspected of poisoning his pregnant wife. He left victims in such far-flung cities as Toronto, Chicago and London. Later he poisoned a number of London prostitutes and tried to pin the the murders on W. H. Smith, founder of the UK bookstore chain. But he was convicted of the murders and hanged in 1892. With his last breath, he claimed to be Jack the Ripper, but not many people believed him. Poisoners generally stick to their murder weapon of choice. 

Strychnine is not as readily available today, but it is still legal in some places as a rodent poison that can end up harming pets and other wildlife. It's illegal in the UK, but an unidentified man was
found dead on Saddleworth Moor on Dec 11, 2015. The cause of death was ruled to be strychnine poisoning. 

Can you think of any other mystery writers who use strychnine? What about famous poisoners? 

Here are links to the other posts in this series. 

BOOMER WOMEN: Three Comedies about a Generation that Changed the World

The Lady of the Lakewood Diner, Food of Love and The Gatsby Game, available in one boxed set. 

Friday, July 1, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 11: White Snakeroot

White Snakeroot is a deadly poison
White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) is a poisonous plant I'd never heard of before starting this series. Not a lot of deaths from white snakeroot have been reported in the last 100 years or so, but it was a major killer in the American Midwest in the early days of European settlement.

That's because the poison contained in its leaves and flowers (tremetol) can be passed on to humans in the milk and meat of animals who have ingested it. The indigenous Shawnee people knew of its dangers, but the settlers did not.

The plant is native to the Americas and grows all over the Midwestern United States. It grows in woods and brush thickets where it blooms from midsummer into the autumn.

It looks like a harmless wildflower, and the root is used to treat snakebite. (Hence the name.) 

Ageratina altissima
But it is a deadly poison when ingested. It causes tremors, vomiting, thirst, delirium and death. It is toxic to most mammals, especially horses and cattle. Goats are affected too, although their digestive systems fight the toxin more easily so their milk is not affected.

Animals poisoned with White Snakeroot will tremble, show an odd placement of hind feet close together, and have difficulty breathing. But they may not die immediately, so they continue to produce milk.

The fact that the toxin tremetol can pass through cattle into their milk was the cause of many deaths of early settlers in the American Midwest. They called the cause of death "milk sickness" and didn't discover the cause for many decades.

Abraham Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, died of milk sickness at the age of 34, when Abe was only 9. 

Dr. Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby, the original "Medicine Woman," revealed the cause of milk sickness in 1830, having learned it from a Shawnee woman, but her findings were not accepted by the medical establishment until 1928.

BTW, Anna's second husband, Eson Bixby was a notorious outlaw who led a double life. According to local Illinois legend, when Anna discovered who he was, she hid her life savings, which apparently were substantial, in a local cave, for fear he'd try to kill her for her money. And he did just that, but she escaped, only to die a short time later. The treasure is supposedly buried in Rock Creek, Hardin County, Illinois and has never been found. Anna's ghost is said to haunt the area. 

There's a great novel in that story!

There has to be a good story in white snakeroot, too. Maybe a vegan wife on a Midwestern farm kills off her husband by feeding his favorite milk cow some of the toxic herb. Nobody would suspect, since this kind of poisoning is so rare these days.

What about you, readers? Have you ever heard of White Snakeroot poisoning, or "Milk Sickness." How about Dr. Anna Bixby? Isn't that a story that needs to be told? 

Here are links to the other posts in this series. 

Reading about pioneer doctor Anne Bixby reminded me of my own pioneering great, great grandmother, Roxanna Britton. My mom wrote Roxanna's story into a gripping novel that brings that period of American history to life.  


by Shirley S. Allen  (my mom)

"Jane Austen meets Little House on the Prairie"

The true tale of a powerful woman who pioneered the American West: Anne's great-great grandmother,  Roxanna Britton, born in Western Reserve, Ohio in 1833. This gripping novel based on Roxanna's extraordinary life was written by Anne's mother, novelist and scholar, Shirley S. Allen.

Widowed as a young mother, Roxanna breaks through traditional barriers by finding a husband of her own choice, developing her own small business, and in 1865, becoming one of the first married women to own property. We follow her through the hard times of the Civil War to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 to a homestead in Nebraska to her final home in Elsinore, California. 

"This has become one of my all time favorite stories of "real" people. Ms. Allen's adept use of dialogue and her clear eye for drama and suspense kept me compulsively turning the pages. Her evocation of a bygone era, rich with descriptive details--the historical Chicago fire is one vivid example--is absolutely brilliant. I will never forget Sanny and her family, especially her struggle and her daughters' struggle to become individuals in a male dominated world. 

"But it is family that triumphs in the end; and the need for it to survive resonates most deeply in my mind and heart. An excellent novel that I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys reading true stories about people who not only overcome adversity with grace and integrity but through strength of character also prevail. Well done, Ms. Shirley Allen!" Ann Carbine Best

Roxanna Britton is only $2.99 as an ebook at all the AmazonsKoboiTunes, Inktera, and Scribd.