Friday, September 30, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 21: Henbane

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) doesn't sound terribly dangerous, does it it? It might be something that would irritate a chicken, but nothing too scary.

But the truth is it's a deadly poisonous plant in the nightshade family (solanaceae.) Smelling it can cause dizziness—and eating it can result in delirium, coma, respiratory paralysis, and death.

Unfortunately others have made the mistake of thinking henbane is harmless, too. In 2008, the British celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson recommended henbane as a "tasty addition to salads" in the UK's Healthy and Organic Living magazine.

Fat Hen, not, Henbane
It turned out he'd confused henbane with fat-hen, (Chenopodium album) a nutritious food, usually treated as a weed, that's related to quinoa.  

The magazine sent subscribers an urgent message telling them that eating henbane is a really bad idea. Nobody died as a result that they know of, but it was a scary moment for all concerned.

Henbane, Hens, and other Farm Animals

But it turns out henbane has nothing to do with poultry. The word first appeared in England in 13th century and probably has Germanic roots.  The prefix "hen" probably meant "death." The word may have been a corruption of a Dutch word "henneblomen" meaning "death flowers."

Death Flowers?

The Greek name Hyoscyamus means "pig beans" from húos, "pig" and kúamos, "bean." This may have been because hogs enjoy eating henbane seedpods. One of the many weird things about henbane is that it is not toxic to pigs, but it will kill most other livestock as well as birds, fish, and people.

Some say henbane was the "hebenon" of Shakespeare—the potion poured into the ear of Hamlet's father to kill him while he slept.

Medicinal and Ritual uses of Henbane

Henbane has a long and rich history in folklore because of its painkilling and hallucinogenic properties. Along with mandrake, deadly nightshade, and Datura it was used for millennia as an anesthetic in traditional medicine in Europe and Asia.

It also played a part in rituals because of its hallucinogenic properties. The oracle of Apollo in ancient Greece took henbane and Pliny the Elder talked of henbane being "of the nature of wine" in achieving a buzz.

It was also used in Germany until the 16th century to give some of their beers a more than usual kick.

The Anglo-Saxons thought henbane was especially useful for treating toothache. This was because the seedpods of henbane are shaped like a jawbone.

Anglo-Saxons thought henbane good for toothache

This is an example of "sympathetic magic," which can still get confused with sound medical research today. This is the way the sugar industry did such a great job of convincing us all that
eating fat would make us fat

Henbane was considered something of a cure-all in the middle Ages. Besides its use as a pain killer, it was said to be good for asthma, cough, nervous diseases, and upset stomach.

Today it can still be obtained by prescription in some places. It's used in massage oils, and a bandage containing a small dose of henbane oil, put behind the ear, is supposed to cure sea-sickness. I think I'd rather take my chances with Dramamine.

Did Dr. Crippen Murder His Wife with Henbane?

In 1910 London, Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen was executed for murdering his wife with henbanethen carving up her body, burying it under his house and attempting to run off to Canada with his lover Ethel Le Neve. The two were apprehended just as they were embarking on their ship by a new-fangled wireless communication device invented by one Mr. Marconi.
Dr, Hawley Harvey Crippen

The case was the super-trial of the era. The mild-mannered homeopathic doctor insisted that his wife Cora, a flirtatious music hall performer with the stage name Belle Elmore, had run off with another man and that the body under the Crippen house was not hers. 

But the fact he possessed henbane seemed enough to convict him. Many thought he was innocent, and had been tried and convicted in the press.

Recently, forensic scientists have examined the evidence anew, because it seemed so odd to them that a poisoner would dismember a body. The point of poisoning is generally to make death appear an accident. 

It turns out they were right about Dr. Crippin's innocence. Not only was the body found under the house not poisoned with henbaneit wasn't even a woman.

Dr. Crippin's descendants have petitioned the British government to pardon the doctor and clear his name.

Endangered Species

You can find henbane at the poison garden at Alnwick Castle

If you're writing a contemporary mystery your villain would have trouble getting hold of henbane. It's not something you can go out and pick in the wild. Although it once grew all over Europe and Asia, henbane is now an endangered species. But you can see it in the famous poison garden at Alnwick in the UK.

What about you, readers? Have you run into any stories about henbane? Have any good ones to share? Do you have any opinions on Dr. Crippin's guilt or innocence?

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Friday, September 2, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit: Part 20—Thallium

Thallium is especially popular with evil assassins since it is colorless, odorless, tasteless, slow acting, and its symptoms can be mistaken for a wide range of other illnesses. Poisoners can slip it to their victims and make a clean getaway before anything is suspected. 

People can be poisoned by ingestion, inhalation, injection or even simply by touch. The touch thing makes it awfully easy to administer.
That may be why it's called the "Poisoner's Poison."

It is a metal: a chemical element with symbol Tl. It is a bluish metal that oxidizes to gray and resembles tin. It is only found in trace amounts in nature.

It was discovered by two chemists independently in 1861 as a byproduct of sulfuric acid production. It emits a green color when produced, and the name "Thallium" comes from the Greek meaning "green twig or shoot."

It has been a murder weapon of choice in many classic mysteries.

Agatha Christie used it in her 1961 mystery The Pale Horse, one of her Ariadne Oliver novels. 

In 1977, a nurse named Marsha Maitland was able to diagnose a sick child who had been accidentally poisoned with a pesticide poisoning containing thallium. The child's disease was a mystery to her doctors, but Nurse Maitland had been reading The Pale Horse and correctly diagnosed thallium poisoning and saved the child's life. 

Don't ever let anybody tell you that reading mysteries is a waste of time.

The first telltale symptom of thallium poisoning is hair loss, followed by damage to peripheral nerves, which can give the victims the feeling of walking on hot coals. 

It used to be a more common household item than it is now, since thallium sulfate was used as a rat and ant poison from the late 19th to mid-20th century. It was banned for use as a pesticide in the US in 1975 and has not been produced in the United States since 1984, but is imported for use in the manufacture of electronics, low temperature thermometers, optical lenses, and imitation precious jewels. It also has use in some chemical reactions and medical procedures. 

The Thallium Craze

In the 1950s, especially in Australia, there was a spate of murders that became known as the "Thallium Craze". It was chronicled in a 2011 documentary Recipe for Murder Between 1952 and 1953, five women in different parts of Sydney were convicted of poisoning over a dozen family members with thallium. The city had a serious rat problem at the time and the poison was readily available at any market. 
A plague of rats in Sydney led to lots of rat-poison murders

In 1971, a man named Graham Frederick Young, known as "The Teacup Murderer" poisoned 71 people in a village in Hertfordshire, mainly with thallium. A film was made about him in 1995 called The Young Poisoner's Handbook.

In 1988, a family in Florida was murdered by a neighbor, who served them Coca Cola laced with thallium.

Thallium is Very Big with Evil Tyrants

Thallium continues to be popular with bad guys all over the world.

Saddam Hussein was said to have poisoned dissidents with thallium before "allowing" them to leave the country. Because it is slow-acting, they would die soon after arriving on foreign soil, so he could claim no culpability in their deaths.

In 2007, American citizens Marina and Yana Kovalevsky were poisoned with thallium while visiting their native Russia. In fact, Thallium seems to be one of Russia's favored ways of dealing with dissidents, and anybody else they don't happen to like that day.

And as most journalists in Russia know, publishing anything the Kremlin disapproves of often results in a mysterious deaths due to "unknown causes." Thallium is often suspected. But never proved, because, hey, they're in Russia. 

Thallium is also Popular in Fiction.

Besides the famous Agatha Christie novel, The Pale Horse, many classic mysteries make use of thallium.

I think I first ran into it in Ngaio Marsh's 1947 novel Final Curtain, where a thallium compound meant to combat lice is substituted for the victim's heart medicine. 

And it's still quite popular in film and TV scripts today.

In the 2015 James Bond film SPECTRE, the bad guys kill Mr. White by coating his cell phone with thallium.

In the NCIS episode "Dead Man Walking" a man is killed with thallium-laced cigars.

In Season Three of Royal Pains, the Larson brothers' mysterious benefactor, Boris, is poisoned with thallium in his pool water.

Treatment of Thallium poisoning 

According the the Center for Disease Control, the antidote to thallium poisoning by ingestion is Prussian Blue, a synthetic iron compound (yes, the one used for painting) which binds to the thallium in the intestinal tract and removes it. 

If someone has inhaled it, oxygen needs to be administered ASAP. 

What about you, readers? Have you read any mysteries or thrillers recently where thallium plays a part? Have you used it in your own work? Have you heard of any other incidents where a novel provided the diagnosis that saved a life?

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

NOTE: I have been having way too much fun with this blog, so I am going to have to back off to once-a-month posts while I work on my already-overdue WIP, Camilla #6, which has the working title THE QUEEN OF STAVES. I promise there will be poisons. 

Meanwhile, you can always find me at my other blog,, where I hang out with NYT million-seller Ruth Harris. 


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Perennially down-and-out socialite Camilla Randall is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but she always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way. Usually with more than a little help from her gay best friend, Plantagenet Smith.