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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  1. Interesting and useful series. Good work.

    1. JR--Thanks! I've been having so much fun with this. I was first only going to do ten, then twenty, but then I realize there was so much more to explore. It started taking too much time from my writing and my other blog, so I had to cut back to once a month, but I'll keep them coming!

  2. Please do keep them coming. I expect they will play a part in one of my WIPs. This is painless research (fun read)as opposed to some that I have been doing. And I respectfully repeat my request/suggestion that you put this up in a ebook/pdf/paperback. This will be a great reference to have next to my computer.

    1. David--My publisher has made the same request. I will put this together as an ebook when it's finished. Thanks for the pep talk!

  3. Wow. It has to be one of the more poisonous plants if it's toxic by merely smelling the blossoms, no? Seems like a fantastic way to drive the medical examiner nuts, trying to figure out cause and manner of death.

    Ooh, love David's suggestion of collecting these posts into an ebook!

    1. Sue--I think it would be great for bamboozling the coroner, because it's so rare in modern life, too. I will definitely put a book together when I get the series done.