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. 


This week you can enjoy the first three Camilla comedies for only 99c or the equivalent in all Amazon stores.

1) Ghostwriters in the Sky—set in NYC and Santa Ynez, CA 
2) Sherwood Ltd—set in San Francisco and the English Midlands. 
3) The Best Revenge (the Prequel)—set in 1980s NYC and San Diego

The Camilla Randall Mysteries Box set is also available at
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.


  1. Fabulous post, as usual, Anne! How well I remember reading The Pale Horse, the first time. Scary scary stuff. Off to tweet this.

    1. Melodie--The Pale Horse is one of Christie's later ones and she got darker as she got older. Definitely not very "cozy." Thanks for sharing!

  2. I need to catch up with this series. With two looming deadlines it doesn't leave me much time.

    Suddam Hussein was a sick puppy, but I had no idea he used Thallium. I learn something new with each post. Thanks a million!

    1. Sue--You have plenty of time. I have about six deadlines looming, so this blog is going to once a month posts. People can play amongst the archives. I didn't know that about Saddam, either. He was a heavily into poisons. All those weapons of mass destruction were enhances poisons.

  3. Interesting post. I didn't know that about Saddam either. I read "The Pale Horse" years ago. Great story!

    1. Valerie--That's why these posts keep me from writing my WIP. I go down the rabbit hole of research finding out all this fascinating stuff. I'd never read a thing about Saddam and poisons. Sometimes I think I'd like to take a month off and get away from everything 21st century with a pile of old Agatha Christies and reread them all.

  4. True story, I had 4x reference range levels (but under toxic) of Thallium in my blood due to contamination in a generic medicine from India (thallium hasn't been produced in the States since the 80s but is produced still in other countries, like India). The medicine I was taking at only one tenth the dose so it is conceivable that someone taking the full dose could have reached toxic levels. Anyway the FDA came and took samples of all the medicine in my house and local pharmacy. Come to find out they don't even have the equipment to test for thallium anymore. Alas, that is my true and slightly crazy story about thallium and I will throw that out there as a potential plot device.

    1. Anon--Oh, My. God! What a plot! But it must have been terrifying when it happened to you. Yes, it was banned from the US and most "first world" countries in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

      But for it to show up in medicine! That is truly horrifying. That obviously wasn't a mistake. Somebody was sabotaging the meds. How often does that happen, do you suppose? How often do we get generic meds that are contaminated or diluted?

      Thanks for the story. Thank goodness you survived! I'm also really glad to hear the FDA was on it!

    2. It certainly was interesting, especially as I am a scientist myself (just remaining anonymous due to these medical details)! The toxicologist specialist I saw was really surprised at this whole thing. She had written articles before on the dangers of generics due to filler components not being tested and the FDA is just overrun. It's not that the true drug component isn't there, it's that the filler is modified. And they don't even bother looking for things like Thallium which as mentioned the FDA doesn't even have the equipment to recognize it. So they just test for the active drug but the fillers are where some potential problems are. Quite frankly, the FDA just doesn't have the resources or funding to test all incoming generics and drugs. And most of these issues have happened from foreign genetics from non first-world countries. I mean, I still buy generics most of the time, I haven't let it scare me or change my habits since I think the frequency is quite small, but this experience taught me that they aren't tested as much. To thicken the potential plot device, this drug at high doses is used to treat drug addictions and at low doses for autoimmune disease (which is what I was taking it for). But say someone was taking it at the high dose for a drug addiction, they are already facing withdrawal symptoms and have likely other social problems. Would they recognize the sabotage? Would the doctor?! Hmmmm, the plot thickens....Maybe I will write this up someday.

    3. Anon--Wow. This is amazing. And I've suspected stuff like this in a small way. I take one generic drug that just doesn't seem to work sometimes. I've often suspected it doesn't contain the full dose of the drug. But I never thought of what might happen if a filler were added that could be dangerous. What a terrible catastrophe that could be.

      Or maybe it has already happened. In the case of your drug, if a recovering addict died, they'd probably assume the death was caused by organ failure due to past drug abuse. Nobody would suspect the addiction drug had been tampered with.

      This could be a major true crime story as well as a rip-roaring thriller plot. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  5. Interesting. Got a first suspicion why crime fiction writers of higher skill level can easily end up on real world suspect lists... ;-)

    1. Andre--My search history could certainly get me in big trouble if I were ever suspected of a crime. Haha! :-)