In earlier time poisoning was a very common way to commit murder by both men and women, though probably more often by women. Then as time moved on it became mainly a woman’s murder weapon. But now, with such advances in technology, weapons, and the advancement of women in this modern world, it is rather rare to see poisoning as a murder weapon. We do see ricin used by terrorist/mentally ill to send via mail, but it is not your everyday poison.
However, we, as writers, can still use poisons as a murder weapon, especially if we can come up with a unique murder plot. It never hurts to have the information on hand just in case. Also, those of you who like to write mysteries set in Victorian days or even into the early 1900, it would be most appropriate to use a poison. Five poisons you might want to keep in mind are as follows:
1. Arsenic -- used since the Roman times in ancient history. It is tasteless, making it easily administered in a drink. In the 1800’s it was put in weed killer, fly papers, and rat poisons. It was used frequently in domestic murders and cited in many murder cases. Used as a yellow oxide or a white oxide or vapor, which smells of garlic. White oxide is virtually tasteless and easily masked by food or drink. It can be given accumulatively. The fatal dose builds up over time slowly. Symptoms can resemble food poisoning. The symptoms of white oxide starts with throat irritation, nausea, faintness, and depression. Then you have vomiting, tinged with blood and mucus, severe abdominal pain exacerbated by touch tongue is white and furry, throat is constricted. Diarrhea comes after 12-18 hours, cramps in leg, weak pulse, rapid but regular. Cyanosis (blue color) of extremities. Death comes when victim is conscious.
2. Strychnine -- Used to poison rats and other small animals, giving it easy accessibility. It has been cited in only a few domestic murders, and its availability suggests it could be used in many undiscovered murders. It is a colorless solution with a very bitter taste that is noticeable even in a very weak solution. Symptoms come on within 2-3 hours, sometimes faster. The symptoms are: restlessness, feeling of suffocation, contraction of facial muscles (victim looks as if he is grinning), violent and distorting contractions followed by a period of rest, then an attack of even more violent contractions. The victim is conscious, in agony and unable to speak. Pulse is very high, and death occurs during a convulsion from paralysis of the respiratory system.
3. Atropine -- (aka belladonna) In small doses it causes hallucinations. It has been used since ancient Greece. In larger doses it was one of the favorite poisons of would-be murderers in medieval Europe. The juice of only a few berries would be fatal. It can be absorbed through the skin as well as ingested. Symptoms are dry mouth and tongue, difficulty swallowing, flushed skin leading to rash on upper body, headache, giddiness, hallucinations, delirium, fast respiration and pulse, dilated pupils (most distinctive feature as the victim appears to have black eyes). Later there is paralysis, coma, and then death.
4. Cyanide -- Sodium cyanide is used in industrial chemicals and in mining. It has been used in mass murders, the 1980’s contamination of Tylenol capsules in the Chicago area being one of the most famous. It has been used in some domestic murders also. It causes death within minutes and is the fastest acting of all poisons. For this reason, it is the poison of suicide pills, such as the type carried by secret agents. It has also been used in executions. Cyanide (or Prussic Acid) interferes with the blood’s ability to absorb oxygen and has a faint smell of bitter almonds, though less than mystery writers indicate in their writings.
5. Thallium -- discovered in the 1860’s, it has been used in some domestic murders. In some countries it is used in rat poison, but it has been more widely used in assassinations. It is water soluble and tasteless. It takes several days for symptoms to develop and are generally attributed to other illnesses. This poison was used by Sadam Hussein and Russia’s KGB. Symptoms can easily be confused with the flu. The most distinctive symptom is hair loss.
These five are only a few of the poisons out there. The list is long. A writer can be quite creative with these resources at their hands.
Faye M. Tollison
Author of: To Tell the Truth
Upcoming books: The Bible Murders
Member of: Sisters In Crime
Writers on the Move