Friday, March 29, 2019

Lily of the Valley—Poisoning People For Fun and Profit #40

No series on poisons would be complete without a mention of lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis), which featured prominently in the TV series Breaking Bad.

In the fourth season of the series, Walter White does away with a drug kingpin by poisoning him with berries from the pretty little potted plant on his patio: lily of the valley.

So is that possible?

You betcha. Lily of the valley contains the same kind of poison found in foxglove (digitalis) and oleander. All parts of the plant are deadly.

Yes. Those pretty little spring flowers, also known as May Bells, May Lily, or Mary’s Tears—which are related to one of my favorite vegetables, asparagus—can be lethal to humans and pets.

Lily of the Valley in Folklore

Traditionally, the tiny white flowers have been considered a symbol of rebirth, and were sacred to Maia, the goddess of spring. Christians consider it a symbol of Christ's resurrection.
Lily of the Valley is sacred to Maia

The flowers also have a long history of symbolizing tears. They’re mentioned in the Bible many times, especially in the song of Solomon. They are said to represent the tears of Eve after the banishment from Eden, of Jacob for Rachel and Joseph, and of Mary at the cross.

Other stories connect the flowers with fairies and woodland nymphs. (Fairies find them handy as drinking vessels.) One legend says they protect a garden from evil and the spells of bad witches.

And there’s an English folktale that tells how they sprang up from the blood of a dragon slain by St. Leonard of Sussex.

German and Scandinavian tradition sees them as bringers of good luck. 

Muguet de Bois

Convallaria majalis is highly prized in perfume-making, where it’s often referred to by its French name, Muguet de Bois.

It was Christian Dior’s favorite flower and his signature perfume Diorissimo strongly features the scent of muguet.

It’s also prized by florists. Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge had a bouquet of lily of the valley at her wedding to Prince William. 

Lily of the Valley Grows in Rainy, Cool Climates

The plant is native to Northern Europe and Eastern Asia. It grows all over northeastern North America, too, although whether it’s native is a subject of debate.

Walter White found it growing in a New Mexico patio garden, where an attentive gardener would have had to keep it in the shade and monitor its watering carefully. It likes well drained, but
Kate Middleton's bridal bouquet
constantly moist soil and can only tolerate partial sunlight.

I understand why someone would want to grow lily of the valley, even in the desert. The scent is delightful and the tiny flowers are adorable. I loved the carpet of lily of the valley that bloomed under the maple tree in our New England garden when I was as a child. I don’t remember anybody’s parents telling us not to eat it, and luckily none of us tried. 

Keep Those Pretty Flowers Away From Children and Pets

Our parents didn’t know any better, but now poison experts recommend that parents and pet owners keep lily of the valley out of their gardens. 

The plant is classified as a “1” on the poison scale, which means it’s so toxic it can kill. It is also classified as a “3” because it can cause really nasty rashes.

As little as two leaves can kill a small pet or young child, and more can kill an adult or large animal. Anyone who has swallowed any part of the plant needs to get to a hospital immediately.

Even the water in a vase containing lily of the valley flowers can contain a lethal dose of poison.

The main toxins in Convallaria majalis are convallatoxin, convallamarin, and lokunjoside. 
All are cardiac glycosides. They also contain saponins, which have been used for millennia as fish poisons, although their effect on humans isn't as powerful. 


The berries Walter White used

The symptoms are pretty nasty: diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, headache, drooling, rash, heart arrhythmia and then death.

It may be a pretty plant, but it's not going to make a pretty corpse. 

What to Do

As I said, if a pet or human eats any part of the plant, you want to get them medical attention ASAP. They’ll need activated charcoal and intravenous fluids and perhaps a breathing aid. They may be given an electrocardiogram to see if they need a temporary pacemaker.

Lily of the Valley in Traditional Medicine

Like most of the toxic plants I’ve listed in this series, lily of the valley is also used in traditional medicine.

The convallaria chemicals, known as cardiac glycosides, can help the heart if administered very carefully. Like digitalis, it has been used for centuries in European herbal medicine to treat heart conditions like mild heart failure. It improves the efficiency of the heart muscles and takes some of the workload off the heart. In the UK, a tincture of convallaria is legal to buy as a “scheduled” herb

Lily of the Valley in Crime

Faberge egg with pearl lilies of the valley

Lily of the Valley is a popular murder weapon for authors of crime fiction. I think the fact it’s a symbol of purity and such a pretty little flower offers some appealing irony. Obviously the Breaking Bad writers found it a handy weapon for Walter White. And Anne Perry uses it in one of her William Monk novels, Weighed in the Balance.

I’ve read comments by several indie authors recently who planned to use lily of the valley in their WIP.

But I have not been able to find any real-life reports of lily of the valley murders. It probably isn’t a reliable form of poison because the level of toxicity can vary so widely depending on soil and other conditions of the plant’s environment.

Plus the plant almost immediately induces vomiting, so the victim may expel it before the poison starts to work. It also doesn’t accumulate in the body the way heavy metal poisons do, and it has a short ‘half-life’ so the power of the toxins fades fast.

Also, it is detectable with modern scientific methods, so it’s probably more fool-proof in historical mysteries than contemporary ones.

Have you read any mysteries that featured lily of the valley poisoning? Have you heard of any real-life murders using the plant? 

I'm wrapping up my poison series. It will be available soon in a handy ebook. Keep tuned for an exciting new series coming in the next couple of months. 

Poison Series

Friday, February 22, 2019

Did Burt Reynolds Murder David Whiting? New Interest in the Hollywood Mystery that inspired “The Gatsby Game”

I had a series of weird coincidences happen last Saturday.

I went to a get-together with neighbors where we tried on Gatsby-era costumes for a party we’re planning. (I live in a great neighborhood.)

When I got home, I found a manuscript in my mailbox from the biographer Jonathan Agronsky, who had contacted me a couple of years ago about my book The Gatsby Game, a novel inspired by one of my college boyfriends, a Gatsby-obsessed Haverford student named David Whiting.

One of the 10 Most Notorious Sex Scandals in Hollywood History

David died under mysterious circumstances during the filming of the Burt Reynolds movie, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, in Gila Bend, AZ in 1973.

David’s body was found in the motel room of the film’s leading lady, Sarah Miles, which caused what has been called one of the “10 Most Notorious Sex Scandals in Hollywood History.” It destroyed Miles’ marriage and seriously damaged her career.

Rumors that swirled around the news stories of David’s death have refused to die. Although the coroner ruled his death an accidental drug overdose, stories that David was murdered, or committed suicide, or have never gone away.  (The “Notorious Sex Scandals” article says he committed suicide, although that is the least likely of the rumors, IMO.)   

This article about that night from AZCentral  has more accurate details. 

The Gatsby Game

David Whiting was an odd duck. He was charming and funny in a
way that always seemed touched with tragic undertones. Which appealed to my 19-year-old self. He could be hilarious. And wildly entertaining. He lived his life as if he were a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Every date with him was a kind of performance art. He dressed in three piece bespoke suits in the era of tie dye and love beads.

He was constantly quoting Fitzgerald and singing Cole Porter songs. He also told me he identified with Jay Gatsby, because he too was a loner standing on the outside looking into the world of the careless ultra-rich.

Like Jay Gatsby, David created a fantasy world around himself that helped him climb social ladders, but never got him close enough to the top to satisfy him. He once referred to his own social climbing as “playing the Gatsby Game.”

When I decided to write a novel based on David and his mysterious death, I had to call it The Gatsby Game.

The David Whiting Story 

I was eager to read Agronsky’s manuscript as soon as I found it in my mailbox, but since I’d been gone all afternoon, I had to check my messages first.

And there I found a note from Walter Reuben, the filmmaker whose movie “The David Whiting Story” won the LA Film Critics prize in 2014.

Walter’s film isn’t so much about David as it is about the frailty of human memory. There was an excellent article about it in the Haverford Alumni magazine in 2015.

And here's Walter Reuben's inspiring interview for this blog from the same year. 

But I thought was odd that I heard from Walter within minutes of getting the Agronsky manuscript. Walter wanted to tell me that a tabloid was running a series accusing Burt Reynolds of David Whiting’s murder.

And other gossip sites had picked up on the story. 

David Whiting’s story was hot again.   

The Tabloid Accusations Against Burt Reynolds.

The rumor that Burt Reynolds killed David Whiting has refused to die over the past 46 years. Burt Reynolds was a tough guy. He got his start in Hollywood as a stuntman and was known to have a hair-trigger temper. After I published The Gatsby Game, a number of people contacted me to say they were sure Reynolds killed him.

And I suppose that now Mr. Reynolds is no longer with us, the temptation to run the story would have been too much for a tabloid. It is a juicy story. The recent article accuses Reynolds of killing David in a fight over Sarah Miles. There were several reports at the time about some sort of fist fight breaking out between them on the night David died.

The police didn’t pay much attention to that fight in their inquiries. And it’s not impossible that David was injured in an altercation with Reynolds (who was more fit and an experienced fighter.) David might later have died of his injuries.

But I know the situation was a great deal more complicated than the tabloid’s lurid premise that, “RAGING monster Burt Reynolds brutally beat love rival David Whiting to death with his bare hands in a jealous brawl.”

Dying for Love: The Short Unhappy Life of David Andrew Whiting

But I don’t think Burt Reynolds killed David. Neither does Jonathan Agronsky. His book, Dying for Love, doesn’t have a publication date yet, but keep an eye out for it. I found it unputdownable, even though I don’t agree with all of his conclusions.

Agronsky talks about those reports from some of the local law enforcement people in Gila Bend who thought that Sarah Miles’ nanny Jane Evans—who was also David’s girlfriend—had killed David. Or at least that she was the one who inflicted the wound that may have resulted in his death.

But if that were true, Agronsky shows the nanny would not have hit David to punish him for dallying with Sarah Miles, but to protect Sarah from David’s violent outbursts.

Agronsky’s book has a lot more information about David’s violent side than I was aware of. The David I knew only vented his aggression passively. He was always Gaslighting me, moving things around while I was gone, so I’d think I was going crazy. But I didn’t take it as aggression at the time. I thought it was more of his performance art—a little obnoxious, but not meant to be unkind.

Later, I realized there was always an undercurrent of belligerence in David's bizarre persona. Reading Agronsky’s book, I understood that better, and saw how that belligerence might indeed have exploded into violence.

But Agronsky finally leans toward the drug overdose theory, and in the end, leaves the conclusion up to the reader. 

Did the Nanny Do it?

The premise of The Gatsby Game is that the nanny was not involved in the death of the David Whiting character (whom I call Alistair Milbourne), although she did seem the most obvious suspect.

I'm grateful that there's new interest in David's story, and that this complex, brilliant and troubled young man won't be forgotten. 

What about you? Do you think Burt Reynolds killed David? Have you heard about this Hollywood mystery? 

You can see if you agree with my conclusions if you read The Gatsby Game, only $2.99 for the ebook and $10.99 in paper.

The Gatsby Game

"In The Gatsby Game, Anne R. Allen blends a perfect combination of witty, sharp narration, a plot that won't let the reader go, and nuanced characters that evoke our caring. A genre novel that artfully transcends its genre.”- Catherine Ryan Hyde, NYT and Amazon #1 best-selling author

THE GATSBY GAME (Romantic Comedy-Mystery) When Fitzgerald-quoting con man Alistair Milborne is found dead a movie star’s motel room—igniting a world-wide 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 Gatsby Game is available in ebook at all the Amazons, and also at the regular price at Barnes and Noble for NOOK. It's available at Scribd.

And available in paper on Amazon, and Barnes and Noble

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Bloodroot: Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 39

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria Canadensis) is a pretty little plant that’s native to North America and blooms in spring from February to May. It’s also known as Canada puccoon, bloodwort, and pauson. (I hadn't ever heard of puccoon or pauson. Those names may be more in use in Canada.)
Bloodroot in bloom
In the wild, it has white flowers with yellow centers and roundish, multi-lobed green leaves. The flowers only last a few days, but the leaves form an attractive carpet effect on the forest floor

The showy double-petal version is used in ornamental garden plantings.

But beware! The sap of both versions of this plant is blood-red and extremely toxic. It is especially dangerous to dogs and cats, and herbivores generally avoid it.   

Bloodroot is found on the east coast of North America from Canada to Florida and its habitat extends to the Mississippi.
Bloodroot leaves form a carpet on the forest floor
The Algonquin and other Native Americans used it for a dye, especially for baskets, and in various medicines.

The plant produces a toxin called sanguinarine.  It’s found mostly in the rhizome root structure, which is sweet-potato orange when cut open. But the sap is so caustic it burns the skin on contact. In folk medicine, it was used as an antiseptic, and also to burn off warts and tumors.

Charlatans hawked a tincture of sanguinarine as a cancer cure, and “black salve” was sold widely as a cure for various skin ailments.  It is still available on the Internet, but is not recommended by the medical community.  

It’s been used in various types of medical quackery since the early 1800s.
18th century drawing of bloodwort with rhizome
In the mid 19th century four patients at Bellevue Hospital in New York died after drinking sanguinaria tincture they mistook for a more benign alcoholic beverage.

A cure-all called “Dr. Pinkard's Sanguinaria Compound” was sold as a “nerve tonic” that was supposed to cure everything from pneumonia to hepatitis, It's inventor, herbalist John Henry Pinkard was convicted in 1931 on charges of misrepresenting its powers, but due to his standing in the community, his fine was only $25.  

Sanguinaria is used more efficaciously to induce vomiting, reduce inflammation, and calm tooth pain. In toothpaste, it is said to reduce plaque and bacteria. Until 2001, it was an ingredient in an anti-plaque toothpaste called Viadent, which I used in the 1980s. Unfortunately, it was linked to a kind of oral cancer called leukoplakia, so it is no longer an ingredient in Viadent.

But other toothpastes do use it, so check the ingredients of your toothpaste carefully.
Ornamental double flowered bloodroot
Bloodroot is also still used in “holistic” medicine, but users should be aware that long term use or overdose is dangerous and can be fatal.

If you're writing a mystery with  a character who’s trying to kill off an eccentric herbalist or holistic practitioner, an overdose of bloodroot might do the trick and look like an accidental incident.

Although bloodroot and bloodroot tincture probably wouldn’t make ideal murder weapons, since sanguinaria is so caustic it immediately causes drooling, vomiting, eye irritation, dizziness and convulsions, which would signal the need for urgent medical attention. 

If the victim gets to a doctor, fluid therapy can flush the toxin out and an antiemetic can keep vomiting under control.

But untreated, the body will go into a coma. Death from organ failure soon follows.