pretty poison

Scientistjenluc[NOTE: The Spousal Unit and I are off to Vegas for the next five days. It's book research, I swear! Well, mostly…. Here's an uber-long post to fill the gap in our absence.]

Elevators are an odd sort of public meeting space. I had an interesting exchange the other day when I stepped into an elevator with a couple of burly guys who were moving a few big boxes, and inexplicably debating the differences between the words "shiv" and "shank." One insisted they were both nouns for a makeshift stabbing weapon, while the other argued that the latter was a verb ("to shank"). (Dick Hickock, one of the murderers in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, purportedly fashioned a shiv out of a toilet brush during his imprisonment and hid it under his mattress. It was discovered and confiscated pretty quickly.)

Without thinking, I blurted out, "Actually, 'shank' can be used as both a verb or a noun, but the more common usage is as a verb — you know, to shank someone with a shiv." They stared at me in shock — not so much at the interruption, but at the fact that this information came from a slim, light-haired woman in downtown Los Angeles, wearing a flowered top and sandals and carrying a bright blue patchwork handbag. Then one of them shrugged, chuckled, and said, with just a hint of condescension, "Okay, then, I guess you learned that during your last stint up the river."

Well, no: I learned that from 10 years of jujitsu in deepest, darkest, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where folks know their shanks from their shivs, and the Club isn't so much a deterrent for car thieves, but a popular weapon of choice. The guy was quite friendly, and he didn't call me "sweetie" or "hon," plus, I'm used to men not taking me as any kind of threat, even after I tell them about my training. Usually, they think it's cute. ("Well, she's a feisty little filly, ain't she?")

There's just something about that Y chromosome that blinds them to the reality that a woman might actually be able to hurt them. (I got around this problem in the dojo by, well, hurting them — much to their surprise, and eventual respect. My nickname was "the headhunter.") Perhaps that's because they think aggression is all about force — in which case, superior size and strength do become significant factors. The laws of physics are pretty clear about that. Women throughout the ages have known, however, that stealth, cunning, and a concealed weapon can be far more effective — whether one's enemy's superior size and strength is physical, or a more intangible power advantage.

I don't fashion my own crude stabbing implements, but I do own a gorgeous, hand-forged poniard (dagger), with a small green stone set in the hilt. It's a traditional "woman's weapon": decorative, but deadly. Theoretically, one could dip the tip in a poison to make sure one's enemy didn't survive the initial stab wound. Not that I would ever do such a thing; mostly, I think it's pretty. And it reminds me of the sort of thing Lucrezia Borgia might have carried. By virtue of her gender and time period, she was pretty much doomed to limited social/political power in the lawless environment of 15th century Italy/Spain, but her name nonetheless became synonymous with corruption, infidelity, incest, and murder. Rumors about Lucrezia abound, and endure, even those lacking any historical evidence whatsoever.488pxlucrezia_borgia_bartolomeo_ven

My personal favorite is that she owned a hollow ring filled with poison (usually arsenic, a white tasteless odorless power first concocted by an Arab alchemist named Jabir) — the better to poison an offending guest's drink, my dear. Street vendors used to sell cheap replicas along St. Mark's Place when I lived in NYC. (I owned one that was shaped like a spider, and used to fill it with salt and offer to sprinkle it on friends' food when dining out. Because what's the point of having a pretend poison ring if you can't use it to pretend-poison people?)

There were rumors of incest with her brother, Cesare (who had her second husband strangled), and while her third marriage proved solid enough socio-politically, both partners had numerous affairs. Yes, the poor woman was treated like chattel and married off to one husband after another to gain political advantage for the male branches of the Borgia family tree. She died at age 38, after giving birth to her eighth child. Who could blame Lucrezia if she took her power wherever she could find it?

Lucrezia was blonde, beautiful, and able to charm hostile in-laws in a pinch. But she wasn't just a pretty face. I'm sure her poisoning victims — had one been able to ask them (and assuming the rumors are true) — would have substantially revised their assessment of her capabilities after dining chez Borgia. Apparently, she employed both a full-time chef, and a separate, full-time poisoner. Per Wikipedia: "During the Renaissance, social climbers would commonly boast, 'I'm dining with the Borgias tonight.' A smaller number would boast, 'I dined with the Borgias last night." (Incidentally, actress Brooke Shields is a descendant of Lucrezia, so maybe all the critics who panned Lipstick Jungle might want to hire official "tasters" during meals for awhile.)

Italy seems to have boasted several such conniving femme fatales. In the 1600s, for instance, a woman named Giulia Toffana (known in some sources as Teofania D'Adamo) had a thriving household business selling a poison of her own concoction — called aqua tofana ("Tofana water") — to female clients throughout Palermo, Naples, and Rome. No one knows the exact formulation, but the ingredients are common enough: mostly arsenic, with a touch of lead, and perhaps even a dash of belladonna (also known as deadly nightshade, but it's significant that the name translates as "beautiful lady"). The poison was colorless, tasteless, and easily mixed with wine or water so it could be administered to the unsuspecting target during meals.

Historians estimate some 600 victims may have died from Toffana's poisonous concoction — most of them the husbands of those aforementioned female clients. (There's a legend that Mozart was poisoned with aqua tofana, although most historians dismiss this claim outright.) Toffana was a particularly deadly sort of Renaissance feminist, who objected to the low social status of women in her culture, and their utter lack of legal rights when it came marriage (or divorce).

Eventually, one of her customers betrayed her to papal authorities, was tortured, and then executed in Rome along with her daughter and three other assistants. It might seem excessive, but Arsenic poisoning is a pretty ugly way to go. Basically, the poison inhibits certain key metabolic enzymes, and the victim ultimately dies from multiple organ failure. Before that merciful release, however, he will experience violent stomach pains, excessive vomiting (producing a greenish-yellow muck streaked with blood), diarrhea, pain when urinating, clammy sweats, convulsions, "excoriation of anus" (I don't even want to know), and delirium. Oh, and then death. Those unhappy Italian wives hated their spouses a lot. Because the symptoms so closely resembled those of cholera, arsenic poisoning often went undetected.

Arsenic has always been a popular toxin for would-be murderers. One of my favorite mystery novels is Dorothy Sayers' Strong Poison, in which the fictional Lord Peter Wimsey clears the name of a young woman, Harriet Vane, who has been accused of murdering her lover with arsenic.  Vane was a mystery writer, and had been working on a new novel involving arsenic poisoning at the time of her lover's death. Bad luck, that. In fact, she'd even purchased a tin of arsenic commonly used to poison rats as part of the "research" for her forthcoming novel.

I will not make the egregious error (this time) of spoiling the rest of the plot for curious readers. But I'd wager Sayers probably did something similar to research Strong Poison.  She may also have taken a look into the historical archives and stumbled upon the famous Lafarge murder case — a notorious trial in France in 1840 that put the still-young science of toxicology to a crucial test. (The first use of chemical tests to detect arsenic in a legal trial occurred in 1752.)

A young woman named Mary Lafarge was accused of poisoning her husband Charles (yet another unhappy marriage). She, too, bought arsenic ostensibly to poison rates, except certain witnesses testified they'd seen her stirring a white powder into her husband's food.

But the defense challenged the methods of the medical experts — lawyers never really change, do they? — because the doctors hadn't used a new improved test for arsenic developed by the English chemist James March in 1836. It was a far more sensitive test, able to detect tiny trace amounts of arsenic. (Arsenic deposits can be found in the hair follicles and nails once it enters the bloodstream, for instance –  a key plot point in Strong Poison.) The tests conducted when Charles' body was exhumed were negative for arsenic. But a chemical analysis of the leftover food and various white powders Marie carelessly left about the house "contradicted the negative finding." Zut alors! What to do? Clearly the big guns were needed. So they called in Mathieu Orfila, the world's greatest expert on toxicology at the time.

They couldn't have made a better choice. Orfila literally wrote the book on toxicology (Traites des Poisons) in 1814, and labored tirelessly to make chemical analysis a routine part of forensic medicine. He studied the effects of asphyxiation, for instance, the decomposition of bodies, and developed tests to detect the presence of blood. And he made a crucial finding about exhumation: arsenic in the soil around graves could sometimes leak into the bodies, leading to an incorrect finding of poisoning. To guard against this, he developed a method for testing soil to rule out accidental contamination in all exhumation cases.

Orfila brought this hard-earned expertise to bear on the Lafarge murder trial. He performed Marsh tests on the samples taken from the body, as well as the soil around the burial site to rule out any contamination from arsenic in the soil. There were definitely traces of arsenic in the body, and it didn't come from the soil. Marie Lafarge was found guilty of murder, although her death sentence was later commuted to life in prison.

Since then, we've seen the development of the alkaloid poison test (for detecting quinine, morphine, strychnine, atropine and opium); of spectrum analysis using spectroscopes; and of ultracentrifuges to separate particles by mass, making it possible to precisely measure the molecular weights of complex proteins. In the 1950s, ultraviolet and infrared spectrometry, along with x-ray diffraction and gas chromotography, found forensic applications, and in 1966, scientists introduced Fourier-transformed infrared spectroscopy and atomic absorption spectroscopy. 643pxarsenic_chlore

Science is still giving us new ways to test chemical substances like poison and solve all kinds of unsolved mysteries — or just to clear up some lingering rumors, like the one about Napoleon Bonaparte was poisoned by prison guards during his imprisonment at Saint Helena.  Samples of his hair did who high levels of arsenic, but, like the poison from soil leaching into exhumed bodies, it need not be the result of deliberate poisoning. Arsenic was used in lots of things, including as a pigment in some wallpapers at the time of Napoleon's death. Prolonged exposure could account for those high levels, along with the fact that his body was buried for 20 years on the island before being exhumed and moved to its final resting place.

Just this past May, physicists came to the rescue to resolve the issue once and for all. They used a small nuclear reactor at the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN), built to detect neutrinos for the Cryogenic Underground Observatory for Rare Events. Except instead of testing neutrinos, the scientists used the machine to study particles in Napoleon's preserved hair samples. Neutron activation established that all of the hair samples — including the control samples — contained traces of arsenic. While the levels were pretty high, apparently they weren't unusually so for the time: all the hair samples taken from 200 years ago had levels some 100 times higher than those taken from folks today. And there was no significant increase in those arsenic shortly before Napoleon's death, as there would have been if he'd been administered a fatal dose.

So Napoleon's guards have been exonerated by science (although who knows about that wallpaper?). The medical consensus now seems to be that he died of something less glamorous, like stomach cancer. Still, at least one historical case of suspected arsenic poisoning turned out to be true, when forensic scientists determined a few years ago that famed racehorse Phar Lap died after ingesting a massive dose of arsenic. Next they'll be telling us someone poisoned Seabiscuit, or worse — someone shanked Mr. Ed with a shiv.

6 thoughts on “pretty poison”

  1. Nice article! It sure kept me intrigued.
    (By the way, is this a typo?
    “She, too, bought arsenic ostensibly to poison *rates*, …”)

  2. The Belladonna reputedly used in Aqua Tofana got its name from its cosmetic use – the atropine contained in the plant, if diluted and a drop put in the eyes, temporarily paralyzes the iris, giving you wide, innocent, eyes, hence ‘Belladonna’. I’ve had it done with modern therapeutic doses for eye surgery, after rupturing my right eye, and it does indeed give a striking effect – After leaving the opthalmologist, people immediately notice your deep, wide pupils, and tend to comment on the way it changes your face. Unfortunately, it also tends to make you photophobic due to increased glare and difficulty focusing, so people also notice you walking into them, but that’s less of a problem in a dim, candle lit renaissance hall. Prolonged use is remarkably inadvisable.

  3. Time for the obligatory Ambrose Bierce reference, as in **The Devil’s Dictionary** he noted that in English belladonna meant a deadly poison but in Italian the same word refers to a beautiful woman — “A striking example of the essential identity of the two tongues.”

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