I’ll never forget the first time I saw Arsenic and Old Lace. We were about to study the story in my grade 7 Language Arts class and the play was, serendipitously, showing in Calgary. My English teacher jumped at the chance to take those from her class, and I immediately signed up – not because I was interested – I had no idea what it was about but the prospect of getting away from the runny-nosed guy with a crush on me who kept borrowing my eraser and returning it slick with nasal fluid was enough to have me scribble my name on the sign-up sheet.
Poison has always seemed to me to be a difficult murder weapon – one that takes planning and skill. A murderer who uses poison could probably not plead temporary insanity, or claim the crime was in the heat of the moment. There’s something controlled about murder by poison – something elegant. Poison is the cat burglar of all murder methods – reprehensible to be sure but one we all secretly think is cool.
I’ve studied toxicology off and on over the years, usually for custom mysteries. That’s the reason I find myself sitting at a table in Starbucks this afternoon Googling “Poison deaths Panama City”. But poisoning is not as simple as the comic books and CSI would have us believe. To set up a murder plot that involves poison, one needs time. It’s very rare for a victim to die immediately from the amount of poison one could administer unnoticed.
But with the modern-day availability of other types of murder weapons, the “artful skill of murder” has gone the way of the steam engine. But did you know that in the renaissance era, families such as the Borgias were renowned for just that skill?
And how’s this for a business idea: Hieronyma Spara, a Roman in the 17th century actually opened a school that taught wives how to poison their husbands undetected. Just as long as no one spotted them leaving the school, that is.
But many of the deadly poisons have for years been used as a treatment for numerous illnesses, like asthma and cancer, which gives new meaning to the phrase, “Everything in moderation.”
The most terrifying part of a poison death (or perhaps the beauty of it) is that it can be hard to determine the cause of death. There is a lot of evidence that Napoleon died of poisoning. There have been tests done on his hair that have come back positive for arsenic. Was he poisoned, or medicating another illness? This does seem one of the more likely hypothesis though, since others claim his wallpaper killed him.
Hamlet’s uncle poured poison in his brother’s ear. Hamlet himself was killed with Laertes’ poisoned sword, which he used to stab Claudius and then made him drink poisoned wine as he died… you know, just to be sure.
Of course, who could forget Cleopatra, who found a bit more in her basket of figs than just a high-fiber treat!
And who can forget sweet little Lizzie Borden? Before she (allegedly) hatcheted her parents, Lizzie tried numerous times to poison them.
While this “artful” type of murder is not typically used as it was in the 1800’s and earlier, it can be tough to plot a murder mystery game or novel by using poison as a murder method – at least, not easy without sacrificing your integrity. But poison murders are by far the most romantic type of murder method, whether the victim is Napoleon himself or one of the old men in the cellar of Abby, Martha and Teddy from Arsenic and Old Lace, and I’m always up for a challenge.