By Dean Jobb
For centuries, arsenic was so effective in hastening the deaths of wealthy parents that the French christened it poudre de succession—inheritance powder. To dispatch the victim in her first mystery novel, Agatha Christie drew on her experience in a hospital dispensary during World War One and settled on deadly strychnine. Here’s a roundup of four books that explore poison’s long history as a murder weapon—and how advances in forensic science helped to bring poisoners to justice.
It takes a lot of information to overload the formidable “little grey cells” of Christie’s beloved Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. But the mystery she devised for him to unravel in her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, almost succeeds. When strychnine is used to kill Emily Inglethorp at her home in the English countryside, there’s no shortage of suspects who had access to the poison, leading the exasperated super-sleuth to exclaim, “There is altogether too much strychnine about this case.”
And there’s no shortage of poison in Christie’s novels and short stories. The world’s best-selling mystery author killed off more than 300 characters during her career, and poison was her preferred weapon. It was readily available in her time (small amounts were still being used to formulate some medicines) and it was easy to administer. Poison could make anyone a killer, allowing Christie to tease readers with an array of suspects and red herrings.
British chemist-turned-author Kathryn Harkup delves into the science behind the murder plots in A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie (Bloomsbury Sigma), published in 2015. Harkup focuses on fourteen poisons in Christie’s lethal arsenal, from the old standbys arsenic and cyanide to rare culprits such as thallium (an element used in making glass and electronics) and Veronal, the trade name for the barbiturate that dispatches the eponymous victim of her novel Lord Edgware Dies. The author’s knowledge of poisons was so impressive that one pathologist cited a Christie novel in a real-life poisoning investigation. “She carefully checked the symptoms of overdoses,” Harkup writes, “and was as accurate as to the availability and detection of these compounds as she could be.”
Harkup’s book also explores notorious poisoning cases that inspired Christie’s fiction. The novel Ordeal by Innocence, for instance, echoes the unsolved murder in 1876 of British lawyer Charles Bravo, which left his widow, doctor, and housekeeper under a cloud of suspicion for the rest of their lives. Harkup explains the chemical properties and uses of each poison, then reviews how Christie used it in her mysteries. And, like her subject, she makes the science accessible and easily understood. The result is not only a treat for Christie fans—A is for Arsenic is a great primer for writers of true crime and crime fiction on the history of poisons and poisoning.
The nineteenth century could be renamed the poisoner’s century. Poor sanitation and rudimentary understanding of health hazards meant food and drink were often tainted. And death from diseases such as cholera and dysentery, with symptoms similar to poisoning, was common. It was a recipe that could make it shockingly easy to get away with murder. In The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder (Yale University Press), published in 2016 and released this month in paperback, Linda Stratmann chronicles how forensic science met the challenge of this “grave threat to society.”
Arsenic, cheap and widely used to kill vermin in the 1800s, was also effective for eliminating unwanted humans. But its rein as the “king of poisons” ended mid-century, when a reliable laboratory test to detect it was developed and Britain required druggists to record purchases. Anyone foolish or desperate enough to use arsenic to kill left a paper trail for the police to follow.
Stratmann, who writes detective fiction as well as true crime, shows how the discovery of plant-based toxins such as strychnine and morphine put new weapons into the hands of murderers. What followed was the scientific equivalent of an arms race. “Even as chemists devised increasingly sophisticated methods to detect toxins in human remains,” she explains, their research breakthroughs “isolated and refined new and powerful methods of murder.”
Many of the early tests were crude and even dangerous—one British analyst, Dr. Thomas Stevenson, sampled extracts from corpses in order to identify poisons by taste. And judges and jurors were hesitant to send suspects to the gallows based on scientific tests and procedures they barely understood. Expert witnesses became a common feature of poisoning trials, and their conflicting opinions on guilt and innocence sowed further confusion. Even the august British Medical Journal decried “the spectacle of professional men stabbing each other’s reputation over the bodies of malefactors.”
Stratmann brings a thorough knowledge of Victorian-era crime and her experience as a pharmacist to this informative and engrossing study of the birth of forensic science. She focuses on key cases, from the controversial execution of servant Eliza Fenning in 1815 for attempting to poison her employers to the lesser-known 1892 trial of New York medical student Carlyle Harris, who almost got away with the murder of his wife with an overdose of morphine. Scientific breakthroughs and laws restricting access to toxic substances reduced the number of homicidal poisonings by the turn of the twentieth century, she notes, but did not eliminate them. Murderers too “desperate or angry” to think twice or cover their tracks would continue to use “whatever came to hand,” from acids and turpentine to rat poison.
Among the pivotal cases recounted in Stratmann’s book is the trial of William Palmer, a poisoner so infamous that he rated a mention in a Sherlock Holmes story. A doctor in the Staffordshire town of Rugeley, Palmer raced horses and lost heavily at the track. He was hanged in 1856 for murdering a friend and fellow racing enthusiast, John Parsons Cook, in a clumsy attempt to plunder Cook’s winnings on a race. It may have been the last in a string of murders—Palmer was suspected of poisoning his wife and brother, to collect on life insurance policies, as well as several infant children and one of his creditors. “As brutally hard-hearted and sensual a wretch as it is possible even to imagine,” was the assessment of the eminent judge Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, who attended the trial. Queen Victoria was elated when she learned of the conviction of “that horrible Palmer.”
Stephen Bates, a British author and a former journalist with The Guardian and other major newspapers, puts Palmer under a microscope in his 2014 book The Poisoner: The Life and Crimes of Victorian England’s Most Notorious Doctor (Overlook Duckworth). The trial is believed to be the first in Britain to feature strychnine, a deadly poison that was little known at the time (some doctors mistook the convulsions it causes for symptoms of tetanus). In fact, the leading toxicologist of the time, Dr. Alfred Swaine Taylor, was unable to find traces of it in Cook’s remains.
The Poisoner begins with a simple question: “How could a man be hanged for poisoning when not a grain of strychnine had been found in his victim’s body?” With no physical proof of foul play, the prosecution built its case on a firm foundation of circumstantial evidence. Palmer bought strychnine shortly before the death and supplied the victim with food, drink and medicine as his condition worsened. And he helped to seal his own fate through his suspicious behavior—he insisted on attending the autopsy, then tried to tamper with a jar containing Cook’s stomach before it was sent to London for analysis.
Bates investigates the case with an open mind and a determination to leave no stone unturned; he even enlisted forensic experts to review the evidence and offer fresh insights. While it’s clear Palmer poisoned Cook and tried to cover up the crime, doubts remain about his role, if any, in previous deaths. His longstanding reputation as “a ruthless, predatory serial killer,” Bates concludes, may be overblown.
Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist and academic Deborah Blum brings the story of poison and forensic science into the twentieth century in her 2010 book The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York (Penguin Press). “A gun may be fired in a flash of anger,” she notes, “but a homicidal poisoning requires a calculating intelligence.” Identifying and convicting those responsible required just as much skill and ingenuity. New York found the expertise it needed in Dr. Charles Norris, who became the first trained pathologist to head the city’s medical examiner’s office in 1918, and toxicologist Alexander Gettler. They are the stars of Blum’s book—“trailblazing scientific detectives” who transformed forensic investigation in the United States into “a formidable science.”
Like Harkup, Blum devotes each chapter to a specific poison, such as the arsenic added to pies sold at a city diner and wood alcohol, a constant hazard during Prohibition, when many drinkers resorted to quaffing homemade booze. And like Harkup, she offers engaging mini-courses on the history and science of each poison, and what it does to the bodies and internal organs of the unlucky humans who ingest them.
The work of Norris and Gettler not only sent murderers to the electric chair—it also ruled out homicide in some cases and exonerated innocent people. And The Poisoner’s Handbook ventures beyond murder. New York’s pioneering forensics team also identified chemicals that were sickening and killing factory workers, including lead added to gasoline and radioactive paint used to make luminous watch dials.
Poisoners, Blum notes, are “most like the villains of our horror stories.” What could be more evil, she reminds us, than a killer who “thoughtfully plans his murder ahead, tricks a friend, wife, lover into swallowing something that will dissolve tissue, blister skin, twist the muscles with convulsions.” Each of these books explores how scientific and forensic breakthroughs transformed poison from a near-perfect murder weapon into one only the most brazen or foolhardy villain would dare to use.
Dean Jobb’s next book (coming in 2020 from Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada) recreates the crimes of Victorian-era serial killer Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who preyed on women in Canada, the U.S. and England and became known as London’s feared Lambeth Poisoner. He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb