Friday, June 29, 2018

A Serial Killer Poisoned the Lunches of 23 Co-Workers—Why?

Most of the poisonings I've talked about in this blog are old news: Victorians poisoning their families with strychnine and 1920s housewives using household rat poison as an alternative to divorce court.

But this week a new and spectacular case of serial poisoning has made the international news.

A 56-year old man identified as “Klaus O.” of Schloss Holte-Stukenbrock in northwestern Germany was arrested in May for poisoning the lunch of a colleague. The engineering worker is also suspected of killing 21 more of his co-workers at a metal fittings company over a period of 18 years. Two other possible victims are alive but on life support.

Klaus was caught on camera adding a mysterious white powder to his co-worker’s lunch.

The intended victim had sensed something “funny” in his lunch and told his boss, who wisely called authorities. They studied the company’s security footage and caught the culprit red-handed, sprinkling a whitish powder into the man’s sandwich. 

The village of Schloss Holte-Stukenbrock, where Karl O. perpetrated his crimes

At first the police thought the food tampering was just a prank, but when they tested the food, they found it had been laced with lead acetate.

Lead acetate—once known as "sugar of lead"—is colorless and not unpleasant in taste. (It's slightly sweet.) But it's highly toxic. It would have caused organ failure and likely the death of the victim, had he finished his sandwich.

When the police investigated Klaus O’s home, they found a home poison-making lab equipped with mercury, lead and cadmium.
He poisoned the sandwich with Lead Acetate 

They also discovered there had been 21 mysteriously premature deaths at the company since 2000 and are now investigating them as possible homicides.

A number of the victims died young of cancer or heart attacks, which could have been the result of heavy metal poisoning. Two other possible victims are still alive, b
ut one is in a coma and another on dialysis, according to Deutsche Welle

They report that the authorities are considering exhuming all 21 bodies.

But there is no information on the possible motive of this model employee of 38 years, whom the personnel manager called “conspicuously inconspicuous.” A colleague said that Klaus “always stayed by himself, did not speak and had no friends.”

Quiet serial killers in Arsenic and Old Lace.

It’s always the quiet ones, isn’t it?

Klaus has refused to comment since his arrest. But this story could provide a fascinating challenge for mystery novelists, couldn’t it? I can imagine a mashup of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Arsenic and Old Lace.

The quiet Klaus Ordinary takes the everyday bullying and jostling for power that happens in the workplace, and then one day decides to deal with the guy who’s been stealing his lunch by adding a little “something extra” to the sandwich.

When his victim drops dead of a heart attack and nobody suspects foul play, Mr. O. is emboldened. He decides to deal with the nasty woman in supplies who has refused to upgrade his squeaky uncomfortable chair. And that whiny one who is always claiming he gave her a cold, when he really only had an allergy attack. Then there’s the guy who took all the credit for the project they did as a team...and it's so easy.

A Homicidal Walter Mitty? 
He keeps working at the same job. 38 years. Because hey, there are no nasty bullies or whiners at the company anymore. He’s eliminated them all. 

A lot of us have probably fantasized about solving office problems that way. 

What about you? Does anybody have a scenario to suggest that would cause a quiet man like Klaus O. to become a serial poisoner?


No Place Like Home: Camilla Randall Comedy-Mystery #4
(But it can be read as a stand-alone)

SALE! 99c on All the Amazons until July 15th

Wealthy Doria Windsor is suddenly homeless and accused of a murder she didn't commit. But Camilla, with the help of a brave trio of homeless people, the adorable Mr. X, and a little dog named Toto, is determined to unmask the real killer and discover the dark secrets of Doria’s deceased “financial wizard” husband before Doria is killed herself.

"A warp-speed, lighthearted comedy-mystery"...Abigail Padgett
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Friday, May 25, 2018

Carbon Monoxide: Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 35

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a gas that’s odorless, tasteless, colorless, and slightly less dense than air. 

A Carbon Monoxide (CO) molecule

It is also deadly. Some people call it the “Silent Killer.”

The gas has an unfortunate affinity for hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying molecule in our red blood cells. CO binds to hemoglobin much more easily than oxygen does, so oxygen gets displaced and the victim suffocates.

According to the Center for Disease Control, it’s responsible for at least 20,000 trips to the emergency room per year in the US. At least 400 of them die.

The first carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms are described as “flu-like”: headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. But people can die of it without feeling symptoms if they’re asleep, drugged or drunk when the gas is released.

One of the tell-tale signs of CO poisoning is that the skin turns a vivid pink and the blood is a bright cherry-red. Other forms of suffocation leave the victim pale. 
CO victims have cherry-red blood

Carbon monoxide detectors are required in 26 US states, and many countries. But even when not required, sensible people should install them. Any heating system can get a glitch that releases CO into the home.

Sources of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

CO is found anywhere people burn fuel. That’s in vehicles, generators, stoves, fireplaces, grills, furnaces, etc. It can build up indoors and poison people and animals who breathe it.

But it also can affect people in open spaces. There have been cases of people dying while working on their cars in a driveway, if they’ve been working close to car’s exhaust pipe .

Powerboat exhaust can also poison swimmers and water skiers who spend a lot of time on the back of a powerboat with an idling engine.

According to the EPA, the most common sources of CO poisoning are

• Unvented kerosene and gas space heaters

• Leaking chimneys and furnaces

• Back-drafting from furnaces

• Gas water heaters, wood stoves and fireplaces

• Gas stoves

• Generators and other gasoline powered equipment

• Automobile exhaust from attached garages

• Tobacco smoke

Cigarettes produce CO

Recent High Profile Deaths from Carbon Monoxide

A number of high profile deaths have happened in recently from badly ventilated rooms in hotels and apartment buildings where the heating or plumbing systems were compromised.

In March of 2018, an Iowa family that had mysteriously disappeared while on vacation in Mexico turned out to have been killed by carbon monoxide poisoning in their rented vacation condo.

In 2013, a series of mysterious deaths in a North Carolina hotel room had people speculating about curses and homicidal ghosts. But the death of all three people who had stayed in that room were found to be caused by CO poisoning.

In January, 37 people in New Jersey got sick and one died when a heating system went wrong and In June 2017, a NYC apartment building was evacuated after 32 people were poisoned with CO.

Everyone is at risk for CO poisoning, but small children, the elderly, and people with chronic breathing problems are more likely to die if exposed to CO.

Celebrity Deaths from Carbon Monoxide

There have been many famous deaths from CO—mostly from suicide. Breathing gas from an oven or attaching a garden hose to a car’s exhaust and directing it into the interior of the vehicle were the most common methods.
Thelma Todd died of CO--was it murder?

Writers especially seem to choose this method to check out. Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Kennedy Toole, William Inge, Amy Levy, Nobel winner Yasunari Kawabata, and Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist Kevin Carter are some high-profile writers who chose that way out.

Emil Zola is thought to have died of CO poisoning which was accidental.

But it’s not just writers. Brad Delp, of the rock group Boston killed himself by lighting two charcoal grills in a bathroom with no ventilation. Politicians Dan White and John Porter East chose the garden hose in the car-exhaust method, and Hollywood stars Libby Holman and Thelma Todd went that way.

Although some thought Thelma Todd’s death was simply accidental. And over the years a lot of people have speculated that the actress was murdered, perhaps on the orders of mobster Lucky Luciano. 

Murder by Carbon Monoxide

Although it’s best known for suicide, CO isn’t an uncommon weapon of homicide.

The drugging-and-car-exhaust method that may have been used on Thelma Todd can be pretty foolproof. A drugged or drunk victim usually isn’t aware of the gas until it’s too late..

And unless the victim has been subdued by force, it can be pretty hard for authorities to detect a homicide by CO, since many suicides will drink or take a drug to hasten death

In the Gaslight Era, lots of people died of CO poisoning when their lighting fixtures developed leaks. 
The Gaslight Era gave murderers a tempting murder weapon

This gave murderers a tempting method for fairly undetectable homicide.

One man killed his victim by forcing a gas tube into his mouth until the carbon monoxide killed him. He then put the body in a bathtub and reported the death as an accidental drowning. Unfortunately for him, the autopsy revealed a curious lack of water in his victim’s lungs.

Another man of the Gaslight Era suffocated his wife with a pillow, then filled the room with gas after breaking apart a gaslight fixture.

But he was caught when the coroner noticed the woman’s face was deathly pale, not pink. Further investigation showed no CO in the victim’s blood.

More recently, a UK college lecturer killed his wife by using the gas from a cylinder from the college lab. He got her to spend the night alone in their travel trailer and fed a tube from the cylinder in through the window of the trailer while she was asleep. He blamed her death on the faulty stove in the trailer’s galley. But the coroner found the level of carbon monoxide in her blood was too high for it to have come from a faulty stove.

There are also some tragic stories of murder by CO that turned out to be suicide pacts gone wrong. 
Hemoglobin prefers CO to O2

In 2014, A 30 year old PA man was found disoriented but alive in a house full of gas, lying by his mother’s corpse. She had left a suicide note saying they were going home to God because they couldn’t afford their medical expenses. He was charged with murder, but later dismissed with probation and time served.

Treatment for CO Poisoning

The treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning is oxygen. In the emergency room, the patient is given pure oxygen to breathe. If the poisoning is severe, they are put in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber.

Most victims recover if they get out of the contaminated space and into the emergency room in time.

But people who survive carbon monoxide poisoning can develop long-term health problems associated with brain injury.
The brain is extremely sensitive to lack of oxygen. Symptoms of brain damage may not show up for several weeks. The most common injuries from CO poisoning are chronic headaches, memory loss, blindness, confusion, disorientation, poor coordination, and hallucinations. 

Not a good gas for humans. Get one of those CO detectors if you don’t have one yet.

Do you know of any famous mystery novels or films where CO is used as a murder weapon? 

Here's a list of all the poisons in this series



On Sale on Amazon from May 25--June 8

SHERWOOD, LTD: Camilla Mystery #2

Snarky, delicious fun! The Camilla Randall 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.

Sherwood Ltd. takes aim at the world of small press publishing and all things British. It's a madcap tale of intrigue, romance and murder set near the real Sherwood Forest in the English Midlands.

After discovering a dead body near the dumpster where she's been diving for recyclables, down-on-her luck socialite Camilla Randall escapes to England, enticed by the charming Peter Sherwood—a self-styled Robin Hood who offers to publish a book of her etiquette columns at his unorthodox publishing company. 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. 

Sherwood, Ltd. is also available in ebook from iTunesGooglePlay Scribd24SymbolsInkteraKobo, Nook, and SmashwordsAnd in paper from Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Friday, April 27, 2018

Gelsemium : Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 34

Gelsemium is a plant that Arthur Conan Doyle believed might provide a break-through painkiller and anti-anxiety medicine. 

Gelsemium sempervirens aka Carolina Jessamine
Instead, it nearly killed him.

Gelsemium is a flowering plant native to North America and Asia. It’s a beautiful, hardy landscaping plant that can be found all over the warmer parts of the US. Yellow Gelsemium (Carolina Jessamine) is the state flower of South Carolina.

It’s also a deadly poison.

All parts of the plant are poisonous to humans and most mammals. The nectar is even poisonous to honeybees.

Gelsemium is a Latinized form of the Italian word for jasmine, gelsomino, but it’s not related to the classic jasmine plant Jasminum officinale, which is NOT poisonous. In fact “official” jasmine is related to the olive tree, and as most people who have been a Chinese restaurant know, makes a lovely tea.

Arthur Conan Doyle experimented with Gelsemium

But don’t make tea out of gelsemium! 

Two species of gelsemium are native to North America, and one to China and Southeast Asia.

1) Gelsemium Sempervirens, Carolina jessamine, is found all over the US and Central America, and often used in landscaping. Yellow jessamine is sometimes called “evening trumpet flower.” As I walked around my neighborhood recently, I saw it everywhere. It’s hardy enough to survive the salt air here at the beach. It’s intriguing enough I may reconsider the murder weapon in my next Camilla mystery.

2) Gelsemium Rankinii, known as Rankin's jessamine, swamp jessamine, or Rankin's trumpet flower is native to the southern US. If you’re writing a southern gothic mystery, swamp jessamine might make a great plot device.

3) Gelsemium elegans, native to China and Southeast Asia, which is nicknamed "heartbreak grass,” grows in Asian foothills and mountains. It’s the most deadly of the species. 

Gelsemium Rankinii or Swamp Jessamine

The active components of gelsemium are alkaloids. Mostly a gel called emine, which is a poison related to strychnine.

Like most poisons, gelsemium has historically been used for medicinal purposes in small doses. It was once used topically to treat many ailments, including skin eruptions, facial tics, and measles, and it was ingested in a tincture to treat rheumatism, various tropical diseases, headaches, nerve pain, and psychological disturbances.

That's why the 20-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle decided to experiment with it. He hoped a tincture of gelsemium would alleviate the headaches and depression he suffered as a young medical student. Showing that his Sherlock Holmes stories may have been more than a bit autobiographical, he tested the newly discovered drug on himself—observing and taking notes as he increased the dosage. Eight years before he created Sherlock Holmes, he was a medical sleuth himself. 

In 1879, he reported his less than encouraging results in the British Medical Journal. He discovered the drug caused paralysis along with alleviating the pain and caused a constellation of life-threatening side effects including debilitating intestinal distress. 

Gelsemium Elegans--the deadliest species
But young Conan Doyle’s experience didn’t dissuade others from using gelsemium. As late as 1906, a drug called Gelsemium D3 (made from Gelsemium sempervirens) was used in mainstream medicine. It was considered a safe treatment of facial tics and malaria. It is still used as a homeopathic remedy, but it is not considered safe in any discernible doses.

It is, however very effective as a poison. It’s fast acting, and symptoms appear within minutes.

Breathing and vision are affected first. Then the victim suffers dizziness, nausea, and convulsions, and eventually paralysis and cardiac arrest. It appears that the victim has simply had a heart attack.

That may be while gelsemium has become popular with contract killers and political assassins. There have been two high profile victims of gelsemium in the past decade.

Long Liyuan. In December 2011 Chinese billionaire Long Liyuan died after lunching with business rivals. The cat-stew he was eating had been poisoned with Gelsemium elegans. (I tend to think it serves him right for eating kitties.)

Alexander Perepilichny. Perepilichny died at age 43 after going out for a jog in London in November 2012. He had escaped Russia after blowing the whistle on a major tax fraud involving high ranking Russian officials. Although he had been warned of Kremlin death threats, his death was first ruled a heart attack by the British authorities. 

But a later autopsy done by his insurance company found traces of Gelsemium elegans in his stomach. Gelsemium elegans does not grow in England, but is a favorite weapon of Kremlin assassins.

In 2017, a U.S. intelligence report to Congress stated with "high confidence" that Perepilichny was assassinated with gelsemium on the orders of the Kremlin.


Here's a List of All the Posts in the Poison Series

Part 32: Mercury
Part 33: Nerve Agents


The Gatsby Game, is only 99c at all the Amazons this month 

A paper version is available for $10.99 at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

The ebook is available for $2.99 at Barnes and Noble for NOOKInktera and Kobo. It's also available at Scribd

When Fitzgerald-quoting con man Alistair Milborne is found dead a movie star's motel room—igniting a worldwide scandal—the small-town police can't decide if it's an accident, suicide, or foul play.

As evidence of murder emerges, Nicky Conway, the smart-mouth nanny, becomes the prime suspect. She's the only one who knows what happened. But she also knows nobody will ever believe her.

The story is based on the real mystery surrounding the death of David Whiting, actress Sarah Miles' business manager, during the filming of the 1973 Burt Reynolds movie The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Nerve Agents: Sarin, Tabun, Vx, and Novichok—Poisoning People for Fun and Profit #33

On March 4th of this year, a former Russian spy named Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia collapsed near a park bench in the quiet English cathedral town of Salisbury. Luckily Yulia is now expected to recover, but her father is still in critical condition. 

A man who found them described the scene to CBS: "Her eyes were just completely white. They were wide-open but just white
Salisbury Cathedral
and [she was] frothing at the mouth. Then the man went stiff. His arms stopped moving, but he’s still looking dead straight.” These are the signs of poisoning with a nerve agent, aka a “Weapon of Mass Destruction.”

The best-known nerve agent is Sarin. As a gas, it has been used for mass murder, like Saddam Hussein’s attack on the Kurds in 1988 and the attack by a religious cult on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. Its use is also strongly suspected in the Syrian civil war.

Exposure to nerve agents is lethal even at very low concentrations, and death can occur within one to ten minutes after direct inhalation of a lethal dose. They can be inhaled, ingested, or swiped on skin or clothes. A police officer who handled the Skripals was also hospitalized after entering the Skripals' home. Police think the poison had been smeared on their front door, where they found the major concentration of the nerve agent. 

Many British lives were put at risk by the brazen attack.

What a nerve agent does to the body is basically disable the “off” switch on the nervous system. This means regular body functions go on overload. The victim starts sweating, vomiting, and frothing at the mouth. Followed by convulsions. Eventually, the muscles give out and they fall. This can lead to paralysis and suffocation.

There is an antidote, atropine. Yes, that’s the atropine thatI mentioned earlier in this series. It comes from plants of the Solanaceae family like nightshade, datura, Jimson weed, mandrake, and belladonna.

Atropine can be found in Datura
The first nerve agents were discovered by Nazi scientists who were working on developing pesticides. In 1936, one of the German chemists synthesized a molecule that was highly efficient at killing insects. The only problem is that it was great at killing people, too.

It also means nerve agent poisoning can be mistaken for pesticide poisoning.

Hitler’s military got hold of the dangerous pesticide and named it “tabun” after the German word for taboo. Tabun is now known as GA. The G-series nerve agents are so named for their discovery by Germans: sarin (GB), soman (GD), and cyclosarin (GF). Although the Nazis stockpiled nerve agents during World War II, they never deployed them. 

During the Cold War, scientists worked on developing even deadlier nerve agents. And they have been used for individual murders as well as mass killings.

VX, “venomous agent X,” was discovered in Britain in the 1950s.  For years, a similar chemical called VG was sold as the insecticide Amiton, before it was pulled off the market for being too toxic.

Nerve agents were developed as insecticides
VX was the nerve agent used to assassinate Kim Jong Un’s half-brother in 2017. In spite of the fact that Kim Jong-nam had atropine with him at the time of the attack, he died of the toxin.  The poison made him immediately incoherent and he wasn’t able to tell authorities what was wrong before he died 15 minutes later. (The atropine tablets probably wouldn’t have helped anyway. Only an injection could have fought off such a lethal attack. ) 

There were long rumors that the Soviets had developed an even more powerful nerve agent, “Novichok” or “newcomer” later during the cold war. It was supposed to be undetectable by the lab tests of the time.

But there was no proof of the existence of Novichok in the west until the attempted murders in March. But now British scientists say that the weapon that attacked the Skirpals and the British policeman was indeed Novichok.

Of course the Russians deny they have any Novichok and insist know nothing of the assassination of their turncoat spy.

They are shocked, shocked at such an accusation.  

But the US, UK and European Union have retaliated against the alleged Russian attack by expelling hundreds of Russian diplomats, and the Russians have responded in kind. The poisonings have caused what is now a major international diplomacy crisis. 

Although the Russian denial is more improbable than any Ian Fleming plot, if the Novichok really didn’t come from the Kremlin, the Russian story would provide a rip-roaring plot for a spy thriller.

What if the Russians really had destroyed all their WMDs after the fall of the Soviet Union? What if one rogue spy got hold of all the Novichok, and was intending to murder everybody who knew about Novichok and frame the oh-so-innocent Russians in order to start a world war? 

All the rogue spy would need is a fluffy white cat and then he could move on to World Domination!

Where is James Bond when we need him?

Here's a List of All the Posts in the Poison Series


ON SALE for only 99c for a limited time!!

SO MUCH FOR BUCKINGHAM: Camilla mystery #5

This comic novel—which takes its title from the most famous Shakespearean quote that Shakespeare never wrote—explores how easy it is to perpetrate a character assassination whether by a great playwright or a gang of online trolls.

It's 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.

In this hilarious episode she makes the mistake of responding to an online review of one of her etiquette guides and sets off a chain of events that leads to arson, attempted rape and murder. 

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

"Both a comedic romance and a crime suspense thriller, it presents the 'Perils of Pauline' adventures of a modern author, Camilla, whose mad-cap follies are hugely entertaining. But the novel has a serious undertone of social comment. Even the craziest of its zanies have their counterparts in the real world and the author faithfully depicts their grim, and often deadly, sub-cultures behind a veneer of knockabout wit. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys romance, and crime suspense, with a lethally satiric edge." Dr. John Yeoman.

"Anne Allen's ability to weave throughout her stories a current social commentary easily and throughout the story amazes me. She does this without jeopardizing her plot or her characters' development."...
blogger Sherrey Meyer

So Much for Buckingham is available in ebook at all the Amazons,
And in paperback it is available at

The Audiobook, narrated by CS Perryess and Anne R. Allen is available from 

Friday, February 23, 2018

Mercury: Poisoning People for Fun and Profit #32

19th century hat makers often suffered from mercury poisoning
Mercury, also known as “Quicksilver,” is an elemental metal with the symbol Hg and the atomic number 80. It’s another one of those heavy metals that’s toxic to humans—a neurotoxin that is dangerous in all its forms.

Mercury is a liquid at room temperature (which seemed really cool to me as a kid.) But that liquid easily vaporizes into the air around it. Breathing that air can poison you. Who knows how many of us destroyed brain cells by breaking a fever thermometer to play with the liquid inside when we were curious (and naughty) children?

The metal is usually found in deposits of something called cinnabar (mercuric sulfide). The red pigment called vermilion is made of ground cinnabar.

Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter was inspired by real 19th century hat makers who “went mad” with a form of mercury poisoning. It was caused by a mercury compound used in processing felt. (Although the Mad Hatter doesn’t actually show any signs of mercury poisoning.)

Uses of Mercury

Luckily, mercury is no longer used in felt, and other industries are phasing it out of use. Mercury filled fever thermometers were outlawed in the US in 2002 for over-the-counter sales

It was also in use for many years for dental fillings. I know I’ve got some.

Mercury vapor is still a very important component of fluorescent lighting. When electricity passes through mercury vapor, it produces short-wave ultraviolet light which causes the phosphor in the tube to “fluoresce” and create light.

Compounds of mercury are still found in some over-the-counter drugs, including topical antiseptics (especially as Mercurochrome.) It’s also still used in stimulant laxatives, diaper-rash ointment, eye drops, and nasal sprays. It can also be found in cosmetics, like mascara. (In 2008, Minnesota became the first US state to ban the use of mercury in cosmetics.)
The only metal that's liquid at room temperature

Mercury is also a byproduct of a number of industrial processes, such as burning coal. Vaporized mercury from coal burning can make its way into soil and water, where it poses a risk to plants, animals, and humans. 

The Three Forms of Mercury

Mercury can be found in three forms:

#1 Elemental mercury. That’s the one in glass thermometers. It’s not harmful if touched, but can be lethal if you inhale the vapor it emits.

#2 Inorganic mercury is the kind of mercury used to make batteries. It’s deadly if you eat it.

#3 Organic mercury known as methylmercury, is the kind found in fish that are high on the food chain, like tuna and swordfish. (consumption should be limited to 170g per week). It can be deadly when ingested over long periods of time, because it builds up in the system. Methylmercury is highly toxic and it forms when mercury dissolves into the water.

High level exposure to methylmercury is known as Minamata disease. 

Qin Shi Huang

Mercury in History

Ancient people all over the world seem to have  been as fascinated by mercury as I was as a child.

China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, believed that mercury could give everlasting life and managed to cut his own life short by drinking a mixture of mercury and powdered jade while aiming for that immortality thing.

The ancient Maya and other pre-Colombian peoples were also enamored of mercury and large quantities of it have been found in Mayan ruins and the pyramids at Teotihuacan.

In Ancient Egypt and Rome, cinnabar was used as a cosmetic, and the ancient Greeks used it as an antiseptic.

In Moorish Spain, it was used to make stunning reflective pools.

Mercury in Medicine

Did Mozart die of mercury poisoning? 

Mercury compounds have also been used since ancient times as a medicine. Chinese traditional medicine uses cinnabar to treat a number of ailments.

Mercuric chloride was used from the 17th-19th centuries to treat syphilis, although it is so toxic that sometimes the symptoms of its toxicity were confused with those of the syphilis it was believed to treat.

Many people believe Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died of mercury poisoning from the medicine he took to treat his syphilis.

Mercuric chloride and a mercury-honey syrup called “Blue Mass” were prescribed throughout the 19th century for a whole bunch of conditions including constipation, depression, and toothaches. 

Abraham Lincoln took Blue Mass to treat constipation. He may also have hoped it would treat his depression.

In the early 20th century, people gave their children a mercury compound as a laxative (and dewormer.) It was even used in teething powders for infants.

Mercurochrome contains mercury, but not chrome 
Mercurochrome, (the commercial name of the mercury compound merbromin) was a common item in most medicine cabinets in my childhood. 

We used it as topical antiseptic for minor cuts and scrapes. It's now banned in the US, but still widely used elsewhere.

Symptoms of Mercury Poisoning

Mercury affects the nervous system, leading to neurological symptoms:

  • anxiety 
  • irritability 
  • numbness 
  • memory problems 
  • depression 
  • physical tremors 
As the levels of mercury in the body rise, more symptoms will appear. Adults with advanced mercury poisoning may experience symptoms such as: 
  • muscle weakness 
  • metallic taste in the mouth 
  • nausea and vomiting 
  • loss of motor skills 
  • numbness in the hands, face, or other areas 
  • loss of vision, hearing, or speech 
  • difficulty breathing 
  • difficulty walking or standing straight 
  • kidney failure 
  • decrease in cognitive ability. 


There’s no standard cure for mercury poisoning. Eliminating risk factors by making changes in diet and work or living environment may help reduce the levels of mercury so people can recover.

Besides elimination of sources of exposure, severe cases of mercury poisoning can be treated with chelation therapy.

The drugs used in chelation therapy bind to heavy metals in the bloodstream so they can be eliminated. But chelation therapy comes with its own risks and side effects, so doctors use this kind of medication only when it’s absolutely necessary. 

Mercury: The Perfect Murder Weapon?

Mercury poisoning is a "zebra diagnosis"
Mercury poisoning like what might have killed Mozart happens by accident over a period of time, as the metal accumulates in the body from frequent exposure.

People suffering from depression sometimes attempt suicide with mercury. That usually turns out to be a bad idea on many levels because the poison is so slow-acting.

One man took a large dose of mercury that ended up accumulating in his appendix. An appendectomy plus chelation cured him and he was sent home from the hospital three weeks later. (I couldn’t find out if there was enough residual poison to kill him eventually.)

There aren’t many reports of deliberate murder by mercury poisoning. That’s probably because the symptoms are cumulative and can also be ascribed to many more common diseases.

Heavy metal poisoning is a considered “zebra” diagnosis. It’s so rare that most doctors don’t consider it. (The “zebra” comes from an old saying used in teaching medical students: 'When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.')

I found one case of a woman murdered by mercury poisoning, which wasn’t diagnosed until six years after her death.

This would make mercury an ideal murder weapon for a mystery novel. It’s slow acting, has few symptoms early on, and most doctors would never consider it as a cause of death. 

What about you? Have you ever read a mystery novel where mercury was used as a poison? Do you know of any real-life situations where mercury was suspected in a deliberate poisoning? 

Here's a List of All the Posts in the Poison Series

Part 28: Mustard Gas
Part 29: Antimony
Part 30: Lead
Part 31: Opium Poppy


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