POISONS OF CHOICE or by accident
During the 19th arsenic was readily found in the household. It was kept to rid the home of vermin, used in beer and wine, wrapping paper and paint used for toys. Clothing and stuffed animals contained arsenic, hence the Agatha Christie novel Arsenic and old lace. Farmers used it for sheep dips and insecticides, miners in hat ornaments and it was even prescribed by doctors in some medicines.
So you see it could either be used by someone to commit a crime or by some unknowing soul who had no idea of the danger.
The largest influence on the use of arsenic was the Industrial Revolution. Commonly found in ores, smelting released it, and once combined with oxygen it produced trioxide, a waste product used to make inexpensive tallow candles. Burning these released it into the air.
One of its common uses was also as a green dye used in clothing, named Scheele's green.
The white variety was simply called arsenic. This white powder was easily mixed with food to poison unsuspecting victims. At the time it was almost undetectable as it mimicked common diseases of the times. Causing gastrointestinal problems many thought the victim was suffering from cholera dysentery or even food poisoning..
Usually any suspected poisonings during this period were considered accidental, making it even easier to get away with the crime.
Arsenic was the most widely used poison of the Victorian age.
Wolfsbane or aconite
Until the 20th century it was the deadliest of the poisons.
We are all familiar with a perennial plant called monkshood (Aconite anglicum). This plant was used to poison arrows or darts. For a long while it was used in liniments to relieve neuralgia and rheumatism. In mild doses it numbed the affected areas. In larger amounts it had the same effects as if it were ingested and could be used by those who wished to rid themselves of someone.
It is so toxic that one-fifth of a grain is deadly. Attacking the cardiovascular, central nervous system and gastrointestinal tract it is most effective.
Its effects are quick. First numbness and tingling in the mouth and throat, and a parched feeling. Larger doses can cause much more severe initial reactions but the outcome is the same. Soon the whole body is affected and the extremities become cold and clammy. The victim however feels like the skin is burning and peeling off. Soon the sight and hearing is dulled and muscular twitching will result in convulsions. Next the pulse weakens and the pupils dilate. All organs are poisoned but death usually occurs from problems with breathing. The whole process takes from as little as eight minutes to as long as four hours.
Used in metal goblets for gourmand practices in Roman times. The reveller would gorge himself with food and then drink from the goblet which in turn caused severe vomiting. The gourmand could then continue to eat after having rid himself of the food he had just ingested.
This poison in large doses caused severe vomitingand diarrhoea but in smaller doses it would eventually kill the victim by mimicking common stomach ailments. It would cause stomach aches, accompanied by fainting spells and depression. Originally the pulse accelerates, but the decrease in blood pressure eventually causes the pulse to become slow and irregular. The victim will sweat profusely and his extremities with feel cold and clammy to the touch and exhibit cyanosis. Death results due to heart failure.
Moderate amounts cause headaches and heart palpitations. In larger doses it proves lethal. Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun used it to commit suicide. A 50mg dose will cause death in no more than five minutes.
A small dose can cause general weakness, confusion, shortness of breath, dizziness and seizures. A large dose causes the heart to be affected and seizure or coma ensue. Death follows rapidly as oxygen is prevented from reaching the cells. Cyanide pills were used by soldiers should they be captured by the enemy. Death would be the choice over torture.
The extract is a sedative and antispasmodic and can be used for several conditions such as strychnine poisoning , tetanus and hydrophobia. The juice was also used in the treatment of epilepsy, dental problems, cramps and spasms. Rheumatism, tumours and skin conditions were also thought to benefit from it.
Hemlock was inhaled to relieve whooping cough and asthma. It had to be administered with care not to take an overdose which would cause paralysis and death. The onset can occur in a little as twelve minutes.
If the plant is cooked it looses its poisonous qualities. Larks and quail eat hemlock and it was at onetime thought one should avoid these birds as food
Found also in nightshade, hyoscine was used to cause hallucination and a false sense of floating. In larger doses it is lethal causing heart failure.
Mercury is everywhere in the environment but at such low levels as not to cause concern. When ingested mercury is stored in the kidney and liver. Chronic exposure leads to digestive tract, nervous system and kidney failure. It causes oral problems such as ulcers and bleeding gums. Later it can lead to blindness, anaemia, edema, coma and wasting.
Taken in one larger dose would cause gastrointestinal disorders, including haemorrhage and real failure causing death.
We all associate opium with poppies which contain the drug morphine, a fine white crystalline alkaloid.
Used in pain relief, it was widely available to medical practitioners, some more scrupulous than others. There was also no way to detect it in the the bodies of victims allowing the perpetrator an easy way out of being caught.
Five grains could be fatal within a few hours. Symptoms take ten to thirty minutes to manifest, less it injected, causing drowsiness and euphoria, sometimes nausea and vomiting. The face may swell and become red and as the victim slips into unconsciousness his skin becomes clammy and extremities may have a bluish tinge. Breathing becomes laboured.
Morphine can also be injected through an open wound or anally
Due to its toxicity it was considered for use in chemical warfare during World War II. Recently it has been linked with trrrorist activity among anti-government militia in the USA as well as Al Qaeda.
It can be administered by inhalation, ingestion or injection. Inhaling the drug causes respiratory distress, fever, cough nausea and tightening in the chest, heavy sweating and eventually respiratory failure. Ingestion symptoms cause abdominal pain and gastrointestinal problems within a few hours. This leads to dehydration and a drop in blood pressure causing organs to shut down.
Strychnos nut vomica in plant form has dark shiny leaves and long cylindrical pods. The seeds are disc-shaped and convos on one side. They are covered with fine silky hairs and may be light brown, silver or greenish-grey in colour.
Powdered strychnine when mixed with liquid produces a bitter colourless solution and is highly poisonous.
If taken it causes feelings of restlessness and impeding suffocation. Then the facial muscles contract into a gruesome grin called rises sardonicus. The rest of the body becomes effected causing spasmodic jerks causing contortions of the body (opisthotonos). This can last for several minutes exhausting the victim and causing great thirst. Shortly after another attack ensues more violent than the other. Jaws clench, stomach muscles harden and the victims eyes denote the agony he is realizing. The victim is fully conscious during the entire time. The attacks continue each time worse than the last and eventually the victim suffocates. The time that may elapse between the administration of the drug and the spasms could be as much as three hours but once the symptoms begin death is speedy.
Until the 20th century there was no way to know if a person had been poisoned with strychnine.
The drug takes the place of potassium a vital sustenance in the system causing overall problems. At first it attacks the vascular space, then within forty eight hours it enters the central nervous system and other tissues causing the upset of vitamin B metabolism and inhibiting the absorption of iron and calcium.
It was used by dermatologists to treat fungal disease as it caused hair to fall out until it's toxic properties were known.
Symptoms include digestive tract problems such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea within the first few days followed by headaches, respiratory depression, nystagmus and muscle related problems. Convulsions, coma, delirium, dementia and psychosis ensue.
Death is not always imminent. It is treatable if caught early on.