What’s Your Poison? Strychnine!

Did you know:

  • Strychnine comes from the seeds of the Strychnos nux-vomica tree found in India and elsewhere.
  • It also appears in the bark of some species of this toxic tree.
  • The fruit is the size of a large apple, orange in color, has  a hard rind, and contains five flat seeds.

Strychnine

  • Strychnine poisoning causes stiffness in the jaw, neck, and belly, and eventually leads to muscular convulsions and death from asphyxiation.
  • There is no antidote, but early hospitalization can save lives.  If a patient survives the first 24 hours then a full recovery is possible.
  • This poison is used to kill rodents and small predators in Europe.
  • Strychnine has been called the “least subtle” toxin.  At first the symptoms resemble a tetanus infection but most people who ingest it know they have taken poison!  It is said to cause a great deal of suffering because victims remain conscious until death.
  • In the 1904 Olympic Games the marathon was won by Thomas Hicks.  He had been given a stiff brandy and two shots of strychnine to enhance his performance.
  • In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries this substance was used as a recreational drug.  It is also occasionally mixed with street drugs such as LSD, heroine, and cocaine.

But according to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Tobacco, coffee, alcohol, hashish, prussic acid, strychnine, are weak dilutions. The surest poison is time.”

Sources:

Inglis-Arkell, Ester. “Strychnine: A Brief History of the World’s Least Subtle Poison,” at http://io9.com/strychnine-a-brief-history-of-the-worlds-least-subtle-1727903421

Stuart, Malcolm. The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism (London: Black Cat, 1987)

Wikipedia. “Strychnine,” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strychnine

___.  “Strychnos nux-vomica at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strychnos_nux-vomica

 

What’s Your Poison? Arsenic!

Did you know:

Rice

  • The word arsenic comes from the Persian word for yellow, but it is better known as The King of All Poisons or The Poisoner of Kings.
  • Arsenic is highly toxic but nowadays it can be successfully treated in a hospital.
  • This poison occurs naturally in rice.
  • It is also found in leafy vegetables, apple juice, grape juice, and seafood.
  • One of the greatest natural threats is contaminated groundwater that has absorbed arsenic salts.
  • Long term exposure causes cancer of the bladder, kidneys, liver, prostate, skin, lung, and nose.
  • Symptoms of poisoning start with headaches, confusion, drowsiness and severe diarrhea.  Then comes vomiting, bloody urine, hair loss, stomach pain, convulsions, coma, and death.
  • Although this toxin used to be very difficult to detect it is now traceable in hair, blood, urine, and nail clippings.
  • For over 2,400 years arsenic was used in Chinese medicine, and in the West it was an early treatment for syphilis before penicillin became available.
  • For hundreds of years women mixed arsenic with vinegar and chalk to provide the desired white complexions of the ruling classes.
  • And because this poison has similar symptoms to cholera, many criminals throughout the ages have – quite literally – got away with murder!

Sources:

Authority Nutrition. “Arsenic In Rice” at  http://authoritynutrition.com/arsenic-in-rice/

GreenFacts, “Arsenic” at http://www.greenfacts.org/en/arsenic/

Wikipedia. “Arsenic” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arsenic

_. “Arsenic Poisoning” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arsenic_poisoning

What’s Your Poison? Cyanide!

Did you know:

  • Cyanide is found naturally in apple seeds.

apple

  • It also occurs in almonds, apricot kernels, lima beans, orange pips, cassava roots (tapioca), and bamboo shoots.
  • These seeds contain a toxic compound called amygdalin that degrades into hydrogen cyanide (HCN).
  • The form of cyanide found in cassava becomes harmless if the root is dried, smoked, or baked.
  • Cyanide is also found in cigarette smoke.  It can be chemically released from burning man-made products and  plastics in industrial fires.
  • It smells of bitter almonds, though not everyone can detect an odor.  Some people get bright-red faces.
  • Other signs of poisoning include dizziness, headaches, sickness, rapid body functioning, weakness, convulsions, unconsciousness, and lung failure.  Cyanide stops the body from absorbing oxygen.  Death comes from asphyxiation.
  • Long-tern exposure to small amounts leads to weakness, paralysis, miscarriages, liver, and kidney damage.
  • There is no natural antidote, but immediate hospitalization and medical intervention can prevent death in some cases.
  • Cyanide (Zyklon B) was used in the German gas chambers at Auschwitz, and for many judicial executions in USA gas chambers.
  • It is available in a quick-acting pill form for instant suicide.  Soldiers in high-risk-of-capture situations were sometimes issued with cyanide pills.
  • But don’t worry if you accidentally swallow some apple or orange pips.  They have a hard protective coat that passes through the human body intact so that any harmful chemicals are not absorbed!

Sources

CDC, “Facts About Cyanide” at http://www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/cyanide/basics/facts.asp

Snopes.com, “Apple Seeds and Cyanide” at http://www.snopes.com/food/warnings/apples.asp

Stuart, Malcolm. The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism (London: Black Cat, 1987)

Wikipedia, “Cyanide Poisoning” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyanide_poisoning

What’s Your Poison? Mushrooms!

Did you know:

  • Mushroom poisoning is called mycetism.
  • About 100 types of fungi are toxic to humans.
  • Most deaths occur from eating the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides):

Death Cap Death Caps

  • Death Caps are a sticky pale yellow or olive green color, and their caps measure 3-6 inches.
  • They are easily peeled and often mistaken for edible varieties like the Button or Caesar mushrooms.
  • Found during the Fall, this fungus grows in woods near the bases of trees.  It likes hardwoods, preferably oaks and pines.
  • Death Caps are pretty and taste pleasant.  The effects of poisoning do not appear until 2-3 days after ingestion.  Death occurs 6 – 16 days later.
  • Toxicity is not reduced by cooking, baking, drying or freezing.
  • Poisoning produces diarrhea, vomiting, delirium, seizures, coma, and eventually results in fatal organ failure.
  • Victims of mushroom poisoning may have included Emperor Claudius (AD 54), Pope Clement VIII (1554) and Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI (1740).
  • The Death Cap is closely associated with The Destroying Angel.  This all-white mushroom is just as deadly as its cousin.

DCF 1.0 Destroying Angel

Sources:

Adams, Cat. “Most Dangerous Mushroom” at slate.com

Fischer, David. “The Death Cap Mushroom” at americanmushrooms.com

Wikipedia. “Amanita phalloides” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanita_phalloides

 

 

 

What’s Your Poison? Mandrake!

Did you know:

Mandrake

  • Mandrake – Mandragora officinarum –  was historically known as Satan’s Apple.
  • The roots and leaves are highly toxic.  They result in coma and asphyxiation.
  • If ingested in large doses, mandrake causes delirium, madness, and death.
  • Its thin tuberous roots look like parsnips.  Ancient Greek and Roman physicians offered patients pieces of root to chew on before surgery because it acted as an early anesthetic.
  • This plant grows best on poor, sandy soil in full sunlight.
  • The greenish-yellow (sometimes purple) flowers are followed by round, orange seed pods.
  • Because mandrake has a narcotic, hallucinogenic, hypnotic effect, it has been aligned with Black Magic and mystical rites since the Dark Ages.
  • Also, the roots often resemble human figures.
  • Anyone who digs up a mandrake root is supposedly condemned to Hell, so animals were usually used to harvest it instead.
  • Legend claims that the mandrake root screams when it is pulled from the soil, and that anyone hearing this cry will instantly die.  This explains Shakespeare’s reference in King Henry VI, Part 1: “Would curses kill, as doth the Mandrake’s groan.”

 

Sources:

Grieve, M.  “Mandrake” at https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/m/mandra10.html

Medieval Bestiary, “Mandrake” at http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast1098.htm

Stuart, Malcolm. The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism (London: Black Cat, 1987)

Wikipedia, “Mandrake” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandrake

 

 

 

 

What’s Your Poison? Aconite!

Did you know:

Aconitum_napellus_JPG1a[1]

  • Aconite – Aconitum napellus – was used by the Ancient Chinese to poison the tips of their arrows.
  • All parts of the plant are extremely toxic.  Death occurs in 2 – 6 hours and is caused by the paralysis of the heart.
  • Poisoning produces symptoms similar to rabies – frothy saliva, poor vision, disorientation, and coma.
  • The helmet-shaped flowers are usually a violet- blue color, but they can also be white, yellow, or pink.
  • This plant grows in moist mountain meadows and has glossy, dark green leaves.  The root looks like small turnips.
  • Aconite was historically used to kill wild predators – hence the nicknames Wolf’s Bane and Leopard’s Bane.
  • It is also commonly known as Monkshood, Devil’s Helmet, and The Queen of All Poisons.
  • Cleopatra used Aconite to kill her brother Ptolemy XIV, in order to place her own son on the throne.

 

Sources:

Stuart, Malcolm. The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism (London: Black Cat, 1987)

Wikipedia, “Aconitum” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aconitum

 

What’s Your Poison? Ergot!

Did you know:

Ergot

  • Ergot is a toxic fungus that grows mainly on rye plants.
  • Claviceps purpurea can also infect barley, oats, and wheat.
  • It reduces the crop yield and causes a disease called ergotism, commonly known as St. Anthony’s Fire because it affects the blood circulation and creates a terrible burning sensation.
  • There are two forms of ergot poisoning: one type causes gangrene, and the other form manifests in hallucinations, convulsions, and seizures.
  • Because it causes the symptoms of madness, ergot may have been responsible for the large-scale outbreaks of mass hysteria that swept across Medieval Europe in the Middle Ages.
  • This fungus often triggered the symptoms of demonic possession that led to accusations of witchcraft.
  • Ergot occurs in high humidity, especially at the edges of a crop field.
  • It emerges in autumn, usually after an extremely cold winter and rainy summer.
  • The fungus manifests on rye seeds as a dark violet or black stain.
  • Severe epidemics seem to follow a 5 -10 year cycle.
  • The fungus also creates contractions of the womb and was traditionally used to induce abortions, or to help stop post-natal maternal bleeding.
  • Ergot is the natural form of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide).

 

Sources:

“Ergot of Rye” at http://www.botany.hawaii.edu/faculty/wong/BOT135/LECT12.HTM

Stuart, Malcolm. The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism (London: Black Cat, 1987)

Wikipedia, “Ergot” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergot