Friday, August 26, 2016

Poisoning people for Fun and Profit: Part 19—Rosary Pea

Abrus Precatorius sounds like the name of a faculty member at Hogwarts, doesn't it? But it's a poisonous plant, also known as the rosary pea. It contains abrin, which is the most toxic substance found in nature. It is nearly 100 times more toxic than ricin.

But actually killing somebody with it is tougher than you might think, because extracting the poison from the very hard-shelled seed isn't easy.

The plant is also commonly known as jequirity, or crab's eye creeper. It's a hardy, perennial legume that thrives in tropical and subtropical climates. The climbing, invasive plant, native to India, is best known for its brightly colored seeds—usually red and black—which are used in jewelry making.  Crafters can order 100 of the seeds online for about $6.

One seed, sufficiently crushed, contains enough abrin to be fatal to an adult human.
The colorful seeds are used as beads

The seeds are also used in percussion instruments in many parts of the world, especially for maracas.

The plant is popular in the Caribbean, where it's supposed to ward off evil spirits, and in China, where the seeds are a symbol of love. In southern India, where it's known as kundu mani, the leaves are used in traditional Siddha medicine to bring down fevers. An oil made from it is thought to be an aphrodisiac.

The rosary pea is classified as an invasive weed in the American southeast.

It has many colorful names all over the world, including cock's eyes, paternoster pea, love pea, precatory bean, prayer bead, John Crow Bead, coral bead, red-bead vine, country licorice, Indian licorice, wild licorice, Jamaica wild licorice, Akar Saga, coondrimany, gidee gidee, Jumbiebead, rettee, and weather plant.

Symptoms of poisoning from ingesting the plant include nausea, vomiting, convulsions, liver failure, and death, usually after several days.

But, according to the National Institute of Health website, people who try to use it to kill usually fail because the outer shell is so hard they are not able to crush the seeds sufficiently. Most people who ingest the seeds end up with mild symptoms and recover.
Abrus Pecatorius also has a pretty flower. 

The seeds are most dangerous when they have been pierced to make beads, or when they are fresh in the fall and their shells have not hardened. So most rosary pea poisonings are accidental. Jewelry makers have died of it, as have children attracted by the bright colors of the seeds.

They have been used to kill, but people need to know what they're doing.

In India abrus seeds have been used for centuries by the Chamar—one of the "untouchable" castes—in a clever, undetectable scheme for illegally killing cattle for their hides. The tradition is to make a paste of the seeds and then coat sharp spikes called suis with it and dry them in the sun. When a cow is stabbed with the poisoned spike, it dies about a day and a half later. The cause of death is usually undetectable. 

Abus poisoning can be made to look like snake bite

And apparently this is practice has been used to kill humans in an even cleverer scheme. Two suis coated with the toxic paste could be mounted on a wooden handle about as far apart as a snake's fangs. The victim would be hit (presumably while in a crowd) with the mounted suis, and would die a day or so later.  Cause of death, snake bite

But contemporary would-be killers don't seem to plan so well. In Australia in 2001, a man apparently tried to kill his family for their life insurance money by feeding them abrus seeds, but when that didn't work, he had to resort to old fashioned stabbing.
Not the best way to murder a family 

During the investigation, the police found an order for abrus seeds on his computer and contacted the seller, who at first was afraid he might be accused of being an accomplice. He tells the whole story in an interesting online forum thread at an Australian site called Corroboree .

But deaths from abrus pecatorius are rare, considering its toxicity. The seeds won't do much more than give somebody a stomach ache if swallowed whole, as they pass through the body pretty much intact. And strangely enough many people survive ingesting ground-up seeds. Some have died, but a remarkable number survive. Scientists think this is because the toxin abrin is absorbed very slowly. That means people survive if given timely medical care. There's no antidote to abrin, but the normal treatment for poison ingestion—gastric lavage, charcoal, IV fluid and electrolyte replacement—can have positive results.

Maracas usually contain rosary peas

Inhaled or injected abrin is much more dangerous, like the lethal paste injected with the sui by the Indian Chamar. So if you're planning an exotic fictional murder, a connection to India might be a plus. 

Although if abrin were weaponized as ricin has been, it would be a danger to all of us. So far that hasn't happened but in 2014, an enterprising teen sold what he claimed was pure abrin online (along with methamphetamine and a pipe bomb.) Unfortunately for him, he sold them to an undercover FBI officer and the Feds never disclosed whether it was the real deal. 

What about you, readers? Have you read a thriller with a plot involving Abrin or Abrus Precatorius? How about that Indian fake snakebite thing? That could make a very interesting plot, couldn't it? Have these rosary peas got any plot wheels turning for you? 

NOTE: I've been having way too much fun with this series, which means I haven't given myself time to finish my WIP. My publisher is getting nervous. So after next week's post, this blog will go on hiatus for a while. I'll go to once a month posts here until Camilla #6 is ready to go off to my editor. You can still find me weekly at my big blog (with the wonderful Ruth Harris) and on Facebook, GooglePlus, Twitter, and other social media. 

THE CAMILLA RANDALL MYSTERIES: Ghostwriters in the Sky, Sherwood, Ltd. and The Best Revenge The first three books in the series in a box set for only $3.99. That's only $1.33 per ebook!

The Camilla Randall Mysteries Box set is available at all the Amazons, Kobo, iTunes, Smashwords, Google Play, Inktera, NOOK, and Scribd.

Sample Reviews:

"Anne Allen had me laughing unexpectedly and sometimes out loud with her wonderful crafting of her words into sentences that became alive and three dimensional throughout these stories." John Williamson

"These stories are so carefully crafted and so cleverly presented that virtually every page offers a unique insight, experience, or perspective, that grabs my attention, tickles my imagination, and makes me laugh out loud."--Bruce West

And you can read a review of the boxed set at Breath of Life Books, by Kim Justice.

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.

Ghostwriters in the Sky is available in e-book at all the Amazons iTunesGooglePlay  KoboInkteraScribd and NOOK.

It is available in paper at Amazon  Barnes and Noble 

and it's now available at Walmart! 
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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
Blue lips and fingernails
High blood pressure (at first)
Low blood pressure (later)

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! ) 

A Woman was arrested in January 2020 for killing her husband by putting Visine in his water. She said she only wanted to give him diarrhea. 

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,  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.


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


Free on all the Amazons from August 4th-August 8th

a short book of short stories

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…

Great for your driving commute!
Narrated by C.S. Perryess and Claire Vogel