Friday, June 24, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 10: Castor Beans and Ricin

Castor oil was the subject of horror stories my mother told me about her youth. Apparently it tastes awful and whenever a kid was sick in the early 20th century, they were given castor oil as an all-purpose medicine. Its laxative properties were supposed to cure all ills.  

Castor oil has been used as a medicine for millennia. It was also used for lighting, and is still used today for multiple purposes, including cosmetics, insecticides and fungicides. In Brazil, it's being developed as a biofuel.

Luckily as a small child, my mother didn't know that the castor plant that provides that all-purpose oil also produces one of the most lethal poisons known to man, or she might have spit it out even more often. .

The castor bean (not actually a legume but a seed) not only
Castor "beans"
contains castor oil but it also produces the lethal toxin, ricin (ricinus communis.) Only a handful of the beans can render enough ricin to kill.

When ingested it is highly poisonous, but it's even more toxic when inhaled or injected. The poison acts by inhibiting protein synthesis in ribosomes, causing widespread cell death.

The name comes from the Latin word for tick, ricinus, because he seeds resemble a kind of tick. 

Ricinus Communis

A dose of purified ricin powder the size of a few grains of table salt can kill an adult human. The median lethal dose of ricin from injection or inhaling is about 1.78 milligram for an average adult.

It only takes four to six raw "castor beans" to kill a human, although accidental poisonings are rare.

Symptoms usually begin within two hours, but in some people they can be delayed up to a day or more. These include a burning sensation in mouth and throat, abdominal pain and well, what laxatives do. Within several days there is severe dehydration, a drop in blood pressure and a decrease in urine. Unless they are treated, victims die in about four days. But in most cases there can be a full recovery. 

It doesn't work fast, but it is hard to detect, which makes it a favorite with murderers and terrorists. 

Castor is also called "African Wonder Tree"
The plant (sometimes called "African Wonder Tree") is quite pretty and is often used for ornamental use. But simply being around the plant can be dangerous for some people, since it's one of the most powerful allergens around. It's a strong trigger for asthma because it produces abundant amounts of very light pollen, which easily become airborne and can be inhaled into the lungs, triggering allergic reactions.

The sap of the plant causes skin rashes. Individuals who are allergic to the plant can also develop rashes from merely touching the leaves, flowers, or seeds.

But it's an important cash crop in many parts of the world, especially India. And because the plants are hardy, they are used in decorative plantings in parks all over the world.

Lots of castor plants in Griffith Park 
Griffith Park in Los Angeles has abundant castor plants, and they have naturalized and now grow wild all over California. 

Californians with murder on their minds have an abundance of poisonous plants to choose from, with the oleander planted all over our highway median strips and hemlock growing wild in drying creek beds.

The biggest danger from the beans is to cats and dogs, so if you suspect your pet has been around the plant and displays symptoms, get to the vet asap. More on what to do from the Pet Poison Hotline

Ricin, when isolated, is considered a weapon of mass destruction. And it's often used for political murders. 
Georgi Markov

In 1978, the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was killed by a KGB agent using a weapon built into an umbrella. He jabbed him in the leg with the weapon in public on the Waterloo bridge. The weapon embedded a small pellet containing ricin into Markov's leg and he died four days later. 

It seems to be a special favorite with the anti-government terrorists who like to send toxins to government officials through the Postal System. 

Homegrown terrorists in the US and Britain seem to have a fascination with it. In 2009, a UK father and son, Ian and Nicky Davison, were arrested for possessing ricin as a part of a far-right terrorism plot. In April 2013, a letter addressed to President Obama tested positive for ricin, and in a bizarre incident that same year, actress Shannon Richardson pleaded guilty to sending ricin laced letters to President Obama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. She confessed, but claimed her husband made her do it.
Bryan Cranston as Walter White

It sometimes figures in domestic murders as well. In January 2006, a man named Chetanand Sewraz in Richmond, Virginia was arrested for possessing mashed castor beans, which he allegedly intended to use to kill his estranged wife. 

In 2014, a teenager sent a scratch-and-sniff birthday card laced with ricin to a man dating his ex-girlfriend. He bragged about the toxic card to a coworker at Target, who notified authorities.

And fans of Breaking Bad know that Walter White liked to use it to eliminate his competition in the drug trade. A cigarette provides a handy delivery device.

What about you? Do you have any ricin stories? Can you think of any books that use ricin as a murder weapon? 

Here are links to the other posts in this series. 


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 only 99c in e-book at all the Amazons iTunesGooglePlay  KoboInkteraScribd and NOOK.

It is available in paper at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

It is FREE at iTunesInktera, and Kobo

"Ghost Writers is set in a writers' conference in Santa Ynez Valley, where I've lived for twenty years.... This book is hysterically funny AND accurately depicts the Valley. Anne Allen gets it right, down to the dollar bills stuck on the ceiling of the Maverick Saloon. It was so fun to read as she called out one Valley landmark after another. Allen got the local denizens right, too, the crazy characters that roam our streets"...Sandy Nathan, award-winning author of The Bloodsong Series

Friday, June 17, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit, Part 9—Botulism

Botulism, the fatal condition caused by Botulinum toxin a.k.a. Botox™ , is something I was taught to fear when very young. Botulinum is a neurotoxic protein produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.

Badly Canned Green Beans Can Cause Botulism
It is the one of the most lethal toxins on earth, according to the Journal of American Medicine. It kills by paralyzing the muscles, including heart and lungs.

It's that ability to paralyze that has led to its current popularity as a deterrent to wrinkling in aging skin. But it must be administered by a professional, or the protein can go into the bloodstream and cause death.

When I was a kid growing up in rural Maine, botulism caused by tainted canned goods was a real threat. The bacterium grows in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) low-acid environment.

Everybody in our town had a garden and most of our moms "put up" the summer's bounty by "canning" it in Mason jars which were kept in the cellar during the long Maine winters. (Often along with big coffin-sized freezers full of venison provided during hunting season. But no, my patrician Latin-professor father did not hunt.)

My mom did a lot of canning, but she never canned green
Botulinum Toxin
beans. She'd had the fear of botulism instilled in her too.

I remember hearing a story about a whole family that was wiped out after eating three-bean salad at a family reunion picnic. Probably an urban (or in this case rural) myth, but it stayed with me.

To this day I can't stand canned green beans. And I have no desire to have the lethal toxin injected into my face to erase my wrinkles.

Hey, I've worked hard for these wrinkles. I display them proudly. 

But green beans are not the only source of the toxin. It occurs naturally in soil and can grow almost anywhere it's in an oxygen-deprived environment.

It was first isolated in pork products in the early 19th century and its name comes from the Latin word for sausage, botulus. 

Does 3-Bean Salad Kill?
It can kill whether it's ingested, injected, or inhaled. Drug addicts sometimes unknowingly inject themselves with it in tainted needles and it can be hard to diagnose.

The symptoms are double vision, slurred speech, muscle weakness, and droopy eyelids, followed by vomiting and difficulty swallowing. Sometimes the symptoms can be mistaken for intoxication.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the fatality rate from botulism was 60% or more, but it has been reduced to 15% because of modern treatments. But patients need to be diagnosed soon after poisoning and they can take several weeks to recover. 

Just today, I read of a case of botulism poisoning in a federal prison in Mississippi. 20 inmates have been hospitalized after drinking homemade moonshine. They are expected to live because of getting immediate treatment, but they are seriously ill.

In the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes series episode The Great Game, botulism features heavily.

(The series combines a number of Conan Doyle's original plots in each episode.) In The Great Game, a schoolboy is poisoned with botulinum in his eczema cream, and a housekeeper is murdered by her brother's lover, who increases the woman's Botox dose.

Botox would make a handy weapon in contemporary fiction, since it is so popular for cosmetic use. It's also used in treatment of an increasing number of medical issues, including bladder control, muscle spasms, excessive sweating, migraines, and bruxism (teeth clenching.)

Author Garry Rodgers, who's a former coroner, has written about what an awful death botulism causes. Here's his full story of the "Red Pepper Paste Man". It also might make you think twice about buying food from China at the Dollar Store.

Can you think of any other mysteries where botulinum is featured? Are you thinking up any plots where it might be used? 

Here are links to the other posts in this series. 

SHERWOOD, LTD: Camilla Mystery #2

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 only $2.99 in ebook from all the AmazonsiTunesGooglePlay ScribdInkteraKobo, Nook, and Smashwords
And it's  $11.99 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, June 10, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 8: Belladonna

Belladonna (atropa belladonna) is a deceptively named lethal poison. But the name means "beautiful woman" in Italian. 

Maybe its English name is more accurate: Deadly Nightshade. Agatha Christie used it in several of her mystery plots including A Caribbean Mystery and The Big Four. 

In the middle ages, women used it for cosmetic purposesit creates a reddish color on the skin, which made it an effective, if dangerous, form of rouge. But it was especially prized for making eye-drops that dilated the pupils, because appearing to be nearsighted was considered super hot in medieval Italy, apparently.

But it's a powerful killer. Its active ingredient is the alkaloid atropine. A single leaf can be lethal if ingested, and only a couple of those pretty berries can be fatal.

It has been used medicinally since ancient times as an anesthetic(insmalldoses, of course.)It is also used as a diuretic, anti-inflammatory, sedative, and an antispasmodic. At one time Belladonna leaves were held to be curative of cancer, when applied 
Dilated pupils were considered hot in Medieval Italy
externally as a poultice, either fresh or dried and powdered. The poultices were also used to treat gout and neuropathy.

Belladonna is still used to dilate pupils for eye examinations, and it is sometimes used to treat cancer patients undergoing radiation treatment, because it decreases swelling.

In ancient Rome it was also a popular method for disposing of one's enemies. Livia, the wife of Augustus, was rumored to have used it to rid herself of any number of rivals. And Plutarch reported that it was used to fell Mark Anthony's army during the Parthian wars.

Buchanan's History of Scotland from 1582  named deadly nightshade (also called "dwale") as the poison MacBeth used to drug King Duncan's guards so his men could later slaughter them. 
Did MacBeth get his belladonna from his witch friends?

The symptoms of ingestion include vivid, bizarre hallucinations, and people have been known to take it recreationallynot always with happy results. 

Belladonna was one of the ingredients in the "flying ointment" that witches were said to have applied in order to "fly" in their rituals. The hallucinogenic properties of the plant were probably the active factor here. Opium was usually involved as well. 

It's native to Europe and Asia and has been naturalized in North
Belladonna flowers
America and most of the rest of the world. 

The potency of belladonna is increased in combination with alcohol. Symptoms of belladonna poisoning are burning throat, delirium, mania, pupil dilation, blurred vision, fever, dry mouth, drowsiness, dizziness, constipation, and nausea.

It's a popular homeopathic remedy for many diseases, including asthma and arthritis, in highly diluted form.  It can be purchased over the counter in most countries and is touted
Belladonna berries
as a natural remedy for many common ailments from teething pain to the common cold. But most medical professionals recommend you only take it only while under a doctor's care. Supplements are not regulated so patients have no way of knowing the exact dosage in each tablet. Given the deadly nature of the plant, it's advised to use caution. 

On the other hand, would-be murderers would have a tough time doing away with somebody using over the counter belladonna. The homeopathic doses are so tiny you'd need a truckload to do damage. And even an overdose on the larger-dose supplements would be more likely to make a person hallucinate than harm them permanently. 

What about you, readers? Have you ever taken belladonna? Did you have any adverse effects? Can you think of other mystery novels or films where it was used as a poison?

Here are links to the other posts in this series. 

Part 4: Poison Dart Frogs
Part 5: Arsenic
Part 6: Oleander
Part 7: Cyanide


Ghostwriters in the Sky, Sherwood, Ltd. and The Best Revenge in a boxed set.

"Delicious wit, wonderful eccentric characters, and a beguiling plot. Camilla Randall is a delight!"...Melodie Campbell, "Canada's Queen of Comedy."

These mysteries are a laugh-out-loud mashup of romantic comedy, crime fiction, and satire: Dorothy Parker meets Dorothy L. Sayers. Perennially down-and-out socialite Camilla Randall a.k.a. "The Manners Doctor" 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.

$3.99 or the equivalent from these retailers:

Friday, June 3, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 7: Cyanide

Cyanide, also known as Prussic Acid, is one of the most notorious and deadly poisons. As hydrogen cyanide gas, it can be an instrument of mass murder and when swallowed in solid form, it causes a quick, nasty death. It's the legendary "poison pill" that spies are supposed to swallow if captured.

It's also the poison that gives off a tell-tale "scent of bitter almonds" that has signaled many a fictional sleuth that a death is not from natural causes. But not everyone can detect the scent.

It does not leave a pretty corpse. The victim often froths at the mouth.

Cyanide occurs in nature in many benign plants like apple and orange seeds, almonds, apricot kernels, bamboo shoots and cassava. Some insects also release cyanide as a protective mechanism.
Tobacco smoke contains cyanide

Hydrogen cyanide is present in tobacco and wood smoke, and burning plastic can send off enough of the toxic gas to make people sick or even kill.  A hydrogen cyanide concentration of 300 mg/m3 in the air will kill in as little as 10 minutes.

A hundred grams (about a quarter of a pound) of dried, crushed apple seeds yields about 50-70 mg of cyanide, which is enough to kill. But that's a lot of apples! Maybe your murderer could be a pie baker or a cider-maker....hmmm.

Cyanide kills by preventing the body from absorbing oxygen. The victim will first feel a headache, dizziness, vertigo and confusion. 
They will then have difficulty breathing and lose consciousness before suffering cardiac arrest. The face may turn a cherry red. A fatal dose for humans can be as low as 1.5 mg/kg body weight.
Apple seeds contain cyanide

The most common antidote, which must be administered immediately, is amyl nitrate, followed by intravenous sodium nitrate and sodium thiosulfate. 

It was first isolated as a component of the blue pigment, "Prussian blue" and sodium cyanide and potassium cyanide have been used for centuries in gold and silver mining and for electroplating. Cyanide has been long used as a pesticide, and has many industrial applications, including photography processes, like sepia toning. (So maybe the wedding photographer is the murderer?)

Bitter almonds contain 42 X the cyanide of sweet almonds 

Probably because it acts so fast, it's one of the most popular poisons with mystery writers. Agatha Christie used it in numerous novels, including Sparkling Cyanide and And Then There Were None. Raymond Chandler used it in The Little Sister and Ngaio Marsh used it in Death at the Bar.

In the Doctor Who episode about Agatha Christie, The Unicorn and the Wasp, the Doctor himself is poisoned with cyanide, but with his Gallifreyan metabolism, he was able to detoxify himself. 

Some people think the fictional poison "the Strangler" in Game of Thrones is based on cyanide, although others think it's more like strychnine. 

Do you have a favorite poisoning mystery? What poison was used? 

Other Posts in this Series

This week we have a very special deal. The first three books in the Camilla Randall series are available for 99c--that's 33c per book!


Ghostwriters in the Sky, Sherwood, Ltd. and The Best Revenge in a boxed set.

"Delicious wit, wonderful eccentric characters, and a beguiling plot. Camilla Randall is a delight!"...Melodie Campbell, "Canada's Queen of Comedy."

These mysteries are a laugh-out-loud mashup of romantic comedy, crime fiction, and satire: Dorothy Parker meets Dorothy L. Sayers. Perennially down-and-out socialite Camilla Randall a.k.a. "The Manners Doctor" 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.

99c or the equivalent from:

And it's at the regular price of $3.99 at these retailers: