Early signs of cyanide poisoning are palpitations, headache, and drowsiness followed by coma, convulsions and death. The face typically becomes florid and most victims die within 15 minutes.
A contemporary case of cyanide poisoning involved Richard 'Iceman' Kuklinski (right) in New Jersey, USA. A scam artist and Mafia hit man, Kuklinski is believed to have killed over two hundred people using a variety of methods including using cyanide. He was convicted on five counts of murder after an undercover operation and died in Trenton State prison just before he was due to testify against a Mafia boss. The post-mortem ruled out poisoning as a cause of his death.
Other cases of cyanide poisoning
Other infamous cases of cyanide poisoning include Grigori Rasputin who was shot by those who felt that he exerted undue influence over the Russian Royal family after consuming cake and wine laced with cyanide failed to have any effect. Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering are also both reputed to have taken their own lives using cyanide.
Strychnine is an alkaloid extracted from the Strychnos Nux Vomica plant which is native to India, Sri Lanka and Australia. Officially discovered in 1818, it had been in use in medicine as a tonic to restore appetite in the sick, and was also accidentally or intentionally responsible for many cases of poisoning of both animals and people.
Strychnine works by blocking inhibitory (glycine) receptors in the central nervous system so that any stimulation produces a massive, uncontrolled effect. It kills by producing painful convulsions, and as a result of respiratory arrest due to spasm and paralysis of the respiratory muscles.
The contortions produced were characteristic so that the affected individual arced backwards so that only their heels and head touched the ground and they died with a fixed grin known as the risus sardonicus. Strychnine poisoning is considered to be the worst way to die.
Thomas Wainewright was a writer who moved in elevated circles in Georgian London. Living beyond his means, his debts mounted and after marrying Frances Ward, he started forging money which only compounded his financial problems.
And then people in his circle started dying. The first to go was his Uncle George from whom he stood to inherit his house.
He then invited his mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law to live with his family, and insured one of the sisters-in-law, Helen, with five different companies. His mother-in-law, who objected to his efforts to increase Helen's life insurance died from a mysterious illness, after which Wainewright increased the life insurance on Helen's life to £20,000. Not surprisingly, Helen was dispatched not long after her mother in 1830.
The insurance company, however, suspected fraud and Wainewright fled to France where his roommate died of a mysterious illness leaving £3,000 of insurance money to Wainewright.
His modus operandi was thought to rely heavily upon strychnine and he had several books on poisons in his library. Upon returning to England he was arrested for the earlier forgeries although the murders were never proved and he ended up being transported to Tasmania and working in a chain gang.
Dr Thomas Neill Cream
Dr Thomas Neill Cream arrived in Victorian London from Canada where he is thought to have poisoned his first wife whom he had been obliged to marry having got her pregnant.
He too mixed in high social circles, but then three of his patients died in mysterious circumstances. An affair with the wife of one of his patients led to the man's murder by means of strychnine-laced pills, and subsequently to Cream's incarceration, thanks in part to the testimony of the wife involved.
Once released from prison he appears to have taken to meeting with 'women of the night' about whom he would express concern giving them some strychnine pills, promising to come back later and promptly disappearing while they died.
It was only when he became involved blackmail, implicating others for the murders and befriending a detective to whom he displayed an uncanny knowledge of the details of the murders that the police exhumed the body of one of his victims and he was caught. He was hanged for his crimes in 1892.
Ricin is a protein produced by the castor oil plant, and while the whole of the plant is poisonous, the seeds are the most toxic part. The seeds also contain a purgative oil and have been used for centuries as a laxative. Ricin has apparently been used historically to poison neighbour's livestock and to kill unwanted children.
Ricin works by binding to sugars on the cell's surface, entering the cell and arresting protein synthesis. This causes widespread haemorrhaging, inflammation and necrosis in the liver, kidneys and pancreas and degeneration in the muscle of the heart usually killing the victim within 24 hours. All of which goes to show how important constant protein synthesis is! There is no antidote to ricin poisoning.
On 7th September 1978, a Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov, died after being stabbed in the leg by an umbrella whilst waiting at a bus stop in the streets of London. He thought little of the incident at the time, but fell ill that night with fever and vomiting.
A writer, he worked for the BBC World Service commenting on the communist regime in Bulgaria. It is thought that Bulgarian spies, assisted by the KGB, had previously made two failed attempts on his life while he was living in London.
On being admitted to hospital the doctors noticed the small puncture wound but investigations were unremarkable. However, at the time of his death four days later his white blood cell count was found to be triple the normal level and a pellet was found in his thigh. By a process of elimination and investigation the poison ricin was eventually found to have been the cause of death.
Another similar incident had also recently occurred in Paris to a Bulgarian dissident who died and the Soviet KGB were implicated in that death also. Several suspicious deaths and one suicide have attended those suspected of involvement in destroying evidence relating to Markov's murder, but to date no one has been charged.
According to the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry (ATSDR) priority list arsenic is rated as the substance about which the agency is most concerned.
Symptoms of arsenic poisoning include headaches, confusion, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, cramps, hair loss, convulsions, neurological disturbances, drowsiness and white patches on the nails. The lungs, skin, kidneys, and liver are primarily affected leading to coma and death. Arsenic is known to cause heart disease, cancer, strokes, chronic respiratory diseases, and diabetes. For more information please refer to the article Arsenic: King of Poisons.
Arsenic poisoning, accidental or deliberate, has been implicated in the illness and death of a great number of people throughout history. Just some of the more infamous cases are listed below.
Marquise de Brinvilliers
The Marquise de Brinvilliers and the man with whom she was having adulterous affair - Sainte-Croix - were a famous poisoning duo in seventeenth century France. They specialised in taking baskets of arsenic-poisoned food to patients in hospital. Eventually Sainte-Croix was imprisoned in the Bastille where he is said to have learned more about the art of poisoning from an Italian man called Exili, who is thought to have caused the deaths of 150 people in Rome. On release the couple continued their poisoning until the marquise was arrested and put on trial in 1676.
Catherine Deshayes was a purveyor of poisons who moved in aristocratic circles and who was involved in The Affair of the Poisons (L'affaire des poisons) which was a major murder scandal in 17th-Century France. A great number of the aristocracy were implicated and a total of possibly 2,000 infants and husbands met their ends using her mixture of arsenic, aconite, belladonna and opium. She was finally found out after a failed attempt to poison King Louis XIV and the affair led to the execution of 36 people and the burning at the stake of Catherine Deshayes in 1680.
Madame Guilia Toffana
A 17th-Century Neapolitan woman named Madame Guilia Toffana distributed an arsenic-based white foundation which killed the husbands of her rich female clients when worn on their cheeks. It took a trail of an estimated 600 dead husbands to track her down before she met a sticky end in prison in 1709.
Frederick Henry Seddon
Another nineteenth century English poisoning case involved Frank Seddon who was married with five children, and who had a live-in father and a spinster lodger, Miss Barrow, whose nephew Ernest came to stay one summer. First, he started siphoning money from his lodger via various transactions under the guise of giving her 'financial advice'. Then the whole family plus lodger and young charge went on holiday together and one of their daughters was dispatched to buy arsenic-based fly-paper. Miss Barrow died shortly thereafter and Frederick Seddon became the sole executor and guardian of her nephew, Ernest, appropriating her remaining assets. Her family demanded that Miss Barrow's body be exhumed and damning evidence of arsenic poisoning was found. Seddon was subsequently hanged in Pentonville Prison on 18 April, 1912.
Mary Ann Cotton
Mary Ann Cotton evidently holds the prize for poisoning the greatest number of family members at a whopping 21. After a childhood of poverty, her first husband and four of her five children by that marriage died in infancy. Her second husband too died not long after the marriage, whilst her third husband survived, but three of his children died. In the meantime her mother died of stomach problems as did her daughter by her first marriage. It seems that Mary Ann had been particularly keen to insure the lives of her husbands and acquired children and had persuaded her husbands to leave everything to her in their wills (often shortly before their demise). Later autopsies of her victims revealed the presence of arsenic and she was executed in 1873.
A twentieth century aristocrat from Bucharest, Vera Renczi, is thought to have poisoned two husbands, a son and 32 lovers using arsenic and then had them entombed in coffins in her wine cellar. She may have been the inspiration for the film Arsenic and Old Lace.
Another murderous French couple were Marie Dvaillaud (who had previously murdered her first husband) and Leon Besnard, her co-conspirator, who after securing their place in the wills of various relatives bumped them off one by one. They also murdered a wealthy couple - the Rivets - who lived next door who had left everything to the couple in their will. Marie then poisoned Leon's wine in 1947 and when rumours started to spread that she had killed her mother things came to a head and the bodies of her dead relatives were exhumed and found to have been poisoned using a variety of toxins including poisonous mushrooms, arsenic and caustic soda. Being now extremely wealthy through her ill gotten gains, she was able to hire the top defence lawyers in France and a series of trails between 1951 and 1961 all resulted in hung juries.
Other cases of arsenic poisoning
Recent analysis of hair samples has revealed that Napoleon Bonaparte, Francesco I de' Medici (the Grand Duke of Tuscany), 'mad' King George III of Great Britain, the Venezuelan independence leader, Simón Bolívar, and Emperor Guangxu (the second-to-last emperor of China) may all have died of chronic arsenic poisoning although whether this was intentional or from environmental sources is unclear.
Aconite, aconitine or Wolfsbane is a deadly plant that was used as an arrow poison by the ancient Chinese. Known as the 'Queen of Poisons' aconite causes chest pains, anxiety, low blood pressure, palpitations, difficulty speaking, fatigue, muscle weakness, nausea and vomiting, pinpoint pupils, numbness of various body parts and ultimately death due to respiratory arrest.
Dr Henry George Lamson
After graduating from medical school in Paris, Dr Lamson went on to be decorated for his service as a volunteer in the Balkans by both the Serbian and Romanian governments. Just two years later, he married Kate John, a wealthy ward of Chancery.
Unfortunately, his medical career began spiralling downwards as his addiction to morphine, which had started during his stay in the Balkans, took hold. He became involved in a number of destructive activities ranging from investing his wife's money in a series of failed medical practices to masquerading as a famous doctor and issuing false cheques. His financial crisis led him to consider alternative means of acquiring money and this resulted in the poisoning of his wife's youngest brother, Percy using aconite to gain the boy's share of inheritance money through Kate. The police eventually smoked out Lamson, and he was hanged in April, 1882.
Toxic metal poisoning
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry (ATSDR) prioritises many metals as posing a risk to human health including lead (2), mercury (3), cadmium (7), white phosphorous (19), beryllium (43), cobalt (52), nickel (57), zinc (75) and chromium (78).
Elizabeth Woolcock's father had objected to her choice of Thomas Woolcock as a husband and when he died a few years later large amounts of mercury were found in his intestines. In spite of no conclusion being reached as to whether she or their notorious drug-addicted physician might have been responsible for this state of affairs, she was hanged in 1874 in Adelaide jail.
Graham Frederick Young
Although nobody realised it at the time, Graham Young's first poisoning victim was his stepmother who he had killed by the age of 14 using a mixture of antimony and thallium. Years later he confessed to the murder but it was his attempts to poison his father, sister and friend that earned him a decade in Broadmoor secure psychiatric hospital.
As soon as he was released he attempted to kill a 34 year old man he befriended, Trevor Sparkes. He then found employment as a shopkeeper in Bovingdon, Hertfordshire where one by one his co-workers were struck down with mysterious illnesses.
His boasting brought the police to his door and the lethal dose of thallium found in his pocket was more than enough to incriminate Young and he was found guilty of murder in July 1972 and sentenced to life imprisonment. He died of a heart attack aged 42 in Parkhurst Prison in August, 1990.
Dr Edward William Pritchard
Suspicions were first aroused when, in the middle of the nineteenth century following a house fire at the home of Dr Edward William Pritchard, the charred remains of a maid were found in the attic. To escape the ensuing scandal the family moved house. However, shortly afterwards Mrs Mary Jane Pritchard became ill and went to convalesce with her parents. She recovered but her symptoms returned when she went back to the familial home.
During this time her concerned mother came to stay with her and mother, daughter and cook all fell ill after eating some tapioca pudding. Mrs Pritchard's mother died a little while later and the sedative she had been taking for her neuralgia was found after her death to be laced with aconite and antimony.
Mary Jane then died after consuming a 'tonic' prepared by her husband and the servant who tasted it also became violently ill. Although Mary Jane's death was recorded as being due to a gastric fever at the time, the bodies of both women were later exhumed after a tip-off and found to contain large amounts of antimony. Dr Pritchard was hanged for his crimes in 1865.
Other cases of toxic metal poisoning
It is now thought that many of the pigments used by artists including Emerald Green (arsenic), Vermilion (mercury), lead white and Egyptian Blue (lead), Chrome yellow (lead and chrome) and solvents including turpentine may have accounted for many disorders and erratic behaviour including Van Gogh's neurological disorders, Monet's blindness, and Cézanne's diabetes.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry has prioritised some radioactive elements including uranium (97) and radium (100) as posing a threat to human health.
Alexander Litvinenko was a former political officer of the Russian Federal Security Service, FSB and KGB, who escaped prosecution in Russia and received political asylum in the United Kingdom. He wrote books critical of the Russian regime and after meeting a contact for lunch in a London restaurant in November 2006, Litvinenko suddenly fell ill and was hospitalised. He died three weeks later, becoming the first confirmed victim of lethal polonium-210-induced acute radiation syndrome.
Diplomatic difficulties ensued between the British and Russian governments and the chief suspect in the case, a former officer of the Russian Federal Protective Service (FSO), Andrei Lugovoy, remains to this day in Russia where as a member of the Duma, he now enjoys immunity from prosecution.
Morphine is a narcotic derived from the opium poppy. Opium has enjoyed considerable popularity over recent centuries and the populace became heavily addicted in many countries leading to the Opium Wars in the nineteenth century between the British Empire and the Chinese.
Morphine was named after Morpheus, the god of dreams, and other opium derivates include codeine and diamorphine (also known as heroin). Morphine and heroin work by stimulating the opiate receptors in the brain and tolerance can develop so that the amounts that could prove fatal in one individual may have little to no effect in an abuser. Accidental or deliberate overdoses of codeine-based analgesics such as dihydrocodeine and dextropropoxyphene can prove lethal.
Some of the doctors charged with poisoning using morphine over the years may have brought about an early demise in their patients by accidentally underestimating the potency of the drug. Nearly half of all recorded poisonings in the mid-nineteenth century can be attributed to opiates in one form or another.
My own maternal grandmother told the doctor that she had "Had enough" whereupon the doctor gave her some medication, told the family to leave her to rest and she was found dead the next morning. And who knows how much of that used to go on?
Dr Harold Frederick Shipman
One of the most infamous poisoners certainly in the UK in recent times was Harold Shipman and it is fair to say that his activities have led to far-reaching changes in the way medicine is practised in Great Britain.
A cosseted childhood with an ambitious and superior mother whom he ultimately watched die with a cup of tea and a dose of morphine may have turned Harold Shipman into a mass murderer.
He studied medicine in Leeds, and worked at a practice in Yorkshire. Suspicions about his behaviour were first aroused when he was found to have been forging and pilfering drugs. He was fired and worked in a drug rehabilitation centre for a while before being employed in another Medical Centre. He eventually opened his own practice in Hyde and this proved the perfect opportunity for the crimes that were to follow to go unquestioned by colleagues.
Eventually a local coroner became suspicious of the high death toll in Shipman's patients, however evidence was thin on the ground because many of his possible victims had been cremated.
He subsequently forged the will of a patient, the former mayoress of Hyde, Katherine Grundy, in his favour. However, he hadn't reckoned on her solicitor daughter who was handling her affairs uncovering the forgery. An autopsy on Katherine Grundy revealed morphine poisoning and relatives of other deceased and usually elderly female patients came forward with accounts of Shipman administering morphine unnecessarily and being quick to pronounce his victims dead.
Shipman had been updating his electronic patient records to tally with his account of events, not realising that the computer was logging every alteration and this formed part of the evidence that subsequently lead to his conviction.
He was ultimately found guilty on 15 counts of murder and one count of forgery, and was serving 15 consecutive life sentences when he committed suicide in Wakefield Prison in January 2004. Reappraising his career the number of victims was thought to total 284 although he is said to have confessed to at least 508 murders in prison all of which makes him the most prolific serial killer on record.
Poisoning using other pharmaceutical drugs
Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen
Dr Crippen was a homeopathic physician from New York married to an aspirational American opera singer, Belle, in late nineteenth century London. Both he and his wife became involved in illicit affairs - Dr Crippen with both his secretary and bookkeeper and his wife with a prize fighter. His bookkeeper, Ethel Le Neve, became pregnant during the affair and his wife, Belle, found about about it.
In January, 1910 Dr Crippen purchased hyoscine hydrobromide which was a drug used to sedate the insane but overdosed his wife who became frenetic whereupon he shot her cutting up and distributing her body parts as he saw fit.
After friends of Mrs Crippen became suspicious of her disappearance, Dr Crippen and Ethel fled to Canada. However, the captain spotted the wanted couple and contacted police. They were arrested upon disembarking, Ethel was acquitted and Dr Crippen executed for his crime.
Other common poisons
Curare is the term used to apply to a family of toxins extracted from Chondodendron plants discovered in South America. Used by hunters on their blowpipes and arrows it killed animals in less than a minute according to the early explorers. The tribesmen had also worked out that the meat was safe to eat as the curare is not absorbed orally. It acts by competitively blocking acetyl choline receptors preventing transmission of signals across the neuromuscular junction. It produces a flaccid paralysis which affects the eyes, then the limbs and trunk and ultimately the processes of respiration. It is used as a muscle relaxant during various procedures and surgery.
Deadly nightshade or belladonna is a member of the Solanaceae or nightshade family that bears dark fruit and flowers. The name belladonna came from the practice of Italian ladies of using drops of distillate of deadly nightshade to dilate their pupils. All of the plant is toxic, but particularly the berries which contain alkaloids including hyoscyamine, scopolamine and atropine. These alkaloids bind to acetyl choline receptors causing blockage particularly of the vagus nerve. The symptoms of deadly nightshade poisoning are a racing pulse, thirst, difficulty in swallowing, restlessness, fatigue, headache, dry hot skin, difficulty urinating, blurring of vision, hallucinations, convulsions, disorientation and eventually and coma.
Hemlock is a herb native to Europe which contains several alkaloids including coniine which is thought to account for its toxicity. All parts of the plant are toxic and symptoms of hemlock poisoning include nervousness trembling, incoordination, dilated pupils, weak heartbeat, cold extremities, coma and death caused by respiratory failure. This plant is best known as one of the official Athenian state poisons and was used for the execution of luminaries such as Socrates.
Reflections on chronic poisoning
Obviously the roll call of rogues and victims listed above represents identified cases of poisoning, but who knows how much poisoning has really gone on over the years? Poisoners, it seems often successfully commit their crimes but then feel obliged to gloat about them or give themselves away at a later date. You literally couldn't make any of these stories up and be believed, and all of these tales lend credence to Tsun Tzu's advice to "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer."
Many lethal poisons are still available over the counter today as pest control products, weed killers, and wood preservatives and accidental poisoning of young children from consuming these products is the fourth leading cause of death in the young and also frequently causes the poisoning of wild, farm or domestic animals.
The poisons listed above all exert their deadly effects in a variety of different ways. So why is it that chronic exposure to small amounts of toxic substances and especially the cocktail of toxins to which we are all exposed is not considered as a cause of chronic illness? The effect of many of these toxins is to poison processes such as energy production, nerve impulse transmission, oxygen transport, and protein synthesis all of which are seen in illnesses such as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Also, since toxic metals are afforded such priority by the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, why is their role in disease so massively overlooked?
Alongside the substances already mentioned, the ATSDR also prioritises a great variety of man-made products mostly derived from petroleum including vinyl chloride (4), polychlorinated biphenyls (5), benzene (6) polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (9), DDT (13), and Dieldrin (18).
A staggering 2.5 million tons of toxic industrial pesticides are used each year with the average child estimated to be exposed to 100 mg (3.5 oz) of chemicals every day. The blood of most adults and even babies tests positive to at least 300 toxins, many of which are highly synergistic. As a result, the average adult is now thought to carry 700 times the levels of toxins of their forefathers most of which is stored in their body fat, joints and other ‘non-essential’ body compartments.
What is interesting is that many poisons have appeared to have at least some (albeit short-lived) therapeutic effect over the years, hence their inclusion in 'tonics'? If nearly all symptoms are understood as being detoxification reactions, then the introduction of a massively toxic agent may mobilise the resources of the body to deal with the life-threatening onslaught and the processes of detoxification may be temporarily suspended leading to what appears to be a resolution of the 'illness'.