Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Poison at the dinner table

Mithradates of Pontus, the Royal Toxicologist, testing poisons on a prisoner. Robert Thom, 1951. US National Library of Medicine.

Putting poison in food has long been an expeditious way of disposing of one’s enemies. The many poisons traditionally available for this purpose include hemlock, aconitum, arsenic, cyanide, belladonna, and strychnine. Using food tasters to avoid such an undesired outcome was once a reasonably effective measure, as perhaps was King Mithridates’ approach of building tolerance to a specific poison by taking increasing doses of it. Yet history is replete with tales of successful poisonings, notably that of the reigning emperor Claudius. Sadly, his favorite mushroom dish was spiced with deadly poison by the notorious poisoner Locusta of Gaul, employed in AD 54 by Agrippina the Younger to ensure that her son Nero would inherit the throne. Later Nero himself recruited Locusta to likewise poison his brother and competitor for the throne, Britannicus.

Poison was widely used in the Middle Ages, notoriously by Pope Alexander VI Borgia and his son Cesare but probably not by their famous relative Lucretia. Though unfairly dubbed as being the most famous poisoner in history, she has been rehabilitated by more recent evidence, as has Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen consort of France, also maliciously accused of politically motivated poisonings. But in Italy we find the Sicily-born professional poisoner Giulia Tofana, who concocted “Aqua Tofana,” a cosmetic face cream consisting of arsenic, lead, and belladonna that she sold to women wanting to get rid of their husbands. Some sources have claimed that she was responsible for killing 600 men before being caught and executed around 1651–1659. In France, the fortune teller and poisoner Catherine Monvoisin (1640–1680), known as “La Voisin,” supplied poison to murder numerous nobles and members of the court of Louis XIV in the notorious Affair of the Poisons.

In England, “Prince of Poisoners” Dr. William Palmer used strychnine to kill several relatives to inherit their money and was hanged in 1856. Also hanged in 1873 in a bungled execution was Mary Ann Cotton, a hospital nurse and housekeeper who used arsenic to murder up to 21 people. In the famous but inconclusive Pimlico Poison Mystery, Adelaide Bartlett was tried for murdering her husband with chloroform, which was found in his stomach but none in his mouth or throat. After she was acquitted, Sir James Paget of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital remarked, “Now that it is all over, she should tell us, in the interest of science, how she did it” (1886).

Also acquitted was 21-year-old Madeline Smith of Glasgow, who, having failed to get certain love-letters returned from a previous lover, apparently poisoned him with arsenic in a cup of cocoa, but made such a good impression on the jury that she was acquitted (1857). But in Scotland, Dr. Edward Pritchard was hanged in 1865 for poisoning with antimony his wife and his mother-in-law, as he wanted to marry his pregnant servant girl.

In 1899, Florence Maybrick decided arsenic would be just the thing for her husband, but when a packet labelled “Arsenic. Poison for rats” was found in her room and arsenic in her husband’s stomach, she was sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment. Christiana Edmunds, described as an ill-tempered spinster, fell madly in love with her doctor, and when he refused her advances she sent his wife a box of chocolates full of strychnine. Described as the “Chocolate Cream Killer,” she later laced chocolate pastries with strychnine and returned them to the vendor to sell to the public. She was sentenced to death, which also was later commuted to life detention on grounds of insanity.

Beginning in 1971, Dr. Harold Shipman, a British general practitioner known as “Dr. Death,” killed some 250 people by injecting them with diamorphine and certifying their death as natural causes. Sentenced to life in prison, he commited suicide in his cell in 2004. Within living memory, the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in 2006 with radioactive polonium. Finally, there is the case of the mentally unbalanced “Teacup Poisoner” or “St. Albans Poisoner” Graham Young (1947–1990), obsessed with poisons from an early age and using tasteless, odorless thallium along with more traditional arsenic, antimony, and digitalis to poison colleagues, school friends, and relatives. He was eventually apprehended and died in prison, wherein lies the end of this sad tale.



GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief


Summer 2023 | Sections | Food

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