Monday 8 July 2019

'Ten Handy Ways to Poison your Spouse - Part 3' by Karen Maitland

Poisoning of Queen Bona of Poland (1528-1572)
Artist: Jan Matejko (1838-1893)
The queen was murdered by her trusted officer
on the orders of King Philip II of Spain.
We are now in the Dog-days of summer, when the dog-star, Sirius, rises with the sun and was once thought to increase the sun’s heat “making dogs mad, women wanton and men commit foul crimes.” So, this seems a good month to add another Top Ten to my list of ‘Ways to Poison your Spouse.’ (8 June 2016). This month we look the bizarre means by which murderers in history have attempted to introduce the poison to their victims.

Poisoning your victim’s food or drink is most obvious method, but you have to have access to the food intended for the victim, which is not easy if you are attempting regicide. And what if the victim can’t be relied upon to eat that cake you sent them, without offering a first slice to someone else?

1) Poisoned Chalice – Rather than poison the food or drink, why not make the goblet or trencher itself poisonous, so that any innocuous food or liquid served in it becomes lethal. That was the goal of François Belot, a member of the French King’s bodyguard in the 17th century. He claimed to have devised a method that would make a silver vessel permanently lethal so that no matter how many times it was washed or how many victims drank from it, it would still kill. His method involved stuffing arsenic into a live toad, then crushing the toad in the vessel, while reciting spells. Unlikely as it seems, he was believed and acquired a great reputation for procuring the means of murder. Even the Commissioners of the Chambre Ardent or Chamber of Poisons, thought him guilty, and in 1679, sentenced him to be executed by being broken on the wheel. Though by then Belot was protesting he’d merely done it as a means of obtaining silver cups and trenchers.

2) Poisoned Flower – This was a medieval fiction, which in later centuries was not thought possible, except that there have been two cases which might make it seem more credible. In 1909 in Austria, suspicions were aroused when a ‘pious’ prisoner kept demanding flowers to put on an altar he’d made in his cell. It transpired that he had instructed his wife to obtain atropine or hyoscyamine, put it in a quill and insert the quill into the calyx of a carnation, binding it with thread as a florist would do. The poison did reach him by this method.

In the 1930’s, a London lavender seller was found to be hallucinating and taken to hospital where he died. His pocket contained a bottle of oil of mirbane (nitrobenzene) which he had sprinkled on the lavender he was selling to increase the perfume. It was thought that he’d inhaled the toxic vapours given off and poisoned himself.
Catherine of Medici (1519-1589)
Artist: Workshop of Frances Clouet (1510-1572)
Musee Carnavalet

3) Poisoned Dagger – Obviously the simplest method is simply to coat the blade in poison, thereby ensuring that even a flesh wound is fatal. But more subtle were the knives made in the late 16th and 17th century, designed to murder the user of the knife. The knives had a mechanism concealed inside the handle. When pressure was exerted on the cutting edge, three sharp spikes sprang out of the handle and pricked the hand or fingers of the person holding the knife. The moment the pressure was relaxed or the knife dropped, the spikes vanished. If the murderer was lucky, the spikes might even inject the poison straight into a vein.

4) Poisoned Bed – In 1908, Mary Kelliher went on trial in Boston, charged with the murder by poison of her husband, three children, sister and sister-in-law over a period of three years. After the death of her daughter, all the other family members were exhumed and found to have died of arsenic poisoning. No one knew how it had been administered until the bed was examined in which all the victims had at some time slept. The mattress was found stuffed with hair impregnated with arsenic which, the prosecution claimed, had been deliberately put there by Mary, so that her victims would absorb it while they slept. But the jury weren’t convinced and Mary was acquitted, though only after she been held for 15 long months.
Hercules poisoned by the Shirt of Nessus
Painting 1413-1415

5) Poisoned Marriage – According to an Indian legend, the Queen of Ganore murdered Rajah Bukht by impregnating his marriage robes with poison, which, when he sweated in the intense heat, caused severe and fatal burns. There are many legends of poisoned robe murders in India, which are probably more allegorical than literal, similar to the classical tale of Hercules and the shirt of Nessus. Nevertheless, forensic researchers in India have shown than impregnating cloth with cantharidin, which in India is extracted from the telini fly, can cause severe blistering, excruciating pain and necrosis resulting in death from shock.

6) Poisoned Glove Box – In 16th century France, the fear of poisoning had reached epidemic proportions. It was suspected in almost any death where the cause was not immediately obvious, and while most stories were unfounded, they do reveal that the rich and noble were almost afraid to touch anything in case it might prove fatal. For example, when Jeanne d’Albret, mother of Henry IV of France, died after a four-day illness, rumour spread that she had been murdered by Catherine de’ Medici who sent her a pair of gloves in a box with a false bottom containing belladonna, henbane, opium and a few other nasties, which not only poisoned the gloves, but released a fatal vapour while poor Jeanne slept. But an autopsy revealed Jeanne died of natural causes.
Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre (1528-1572)
Portail des collections des musees de France.

7) Poisoned Gold – Cardinal of Lorraine was another supposed poison victim of Catherine de’ Medici. He was rumoured to have sicken and died after handling gold coins on which nicotine had been smeared, though more likely he died of respiratory illness brought on by walking barefoot in a procession.

8) Poisoned Candle – Pope Clement VII is said to have been poisoned by an arsenic-impregnated torch or candle carried in front of him in the procession. This has long since been discredited, but in 1810, Michel Eugene Chevreul invented a process for making cheap composition candles. In 1835/36 these were very popular in England, until a Professor Everitt, working late one night, noticed a strong garlic odour from the candles, indicative of heated arsenic, which subsequent testing proved to one of the ingredients. Not healthy to breathe in, though amount it released probably wouldn’t kill you. But perhaps inspired by this, Edgar Allan Poe, in The Imp of the Perverse (1845) had the narrator murder his victim with the fumes from a poisoned candle.

9) Poisoned Shoe – Legend has it that John, King of Castile, died after wearing a pair of boots impregnated by poison by a Turk. This is undoubtedly pure fiction, but more recently a man did accidently poison himself with his footwear. In 1904, a young man became unconscious and died four hours after going to a dance. It was found he’d been poisoned but no knew how, until bottle of shoe blacking was discovered in his room. He had cleaned his shoes and as he danced, the blacking had soaked onto his socks and been absorbed into his skin via his feet and ankles. The blacking had contained nitrobenzene, which had passed rapidly through hot, sweaty skin.
The Wanstead or Welbeck Portrait of Elizabeth I
Artist: Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder 

10) Poisoned Saddle – Edward Squire, a scrivener from Greenwich, was persuaded by a Jesuit, Richard Walpole, to try to kill Queen Elizabeth I. Squire was instructed to take a bladder of poison concealed in his gloved hand, prick it and press it down on the pommel of the Queen’s saddle, where she would be sure to rest her hands and afterwards would transfer the poison to her mouth and nose by touching her face. He did as instructed, but the plot failed, because the queen didn’t arrive at the stables. Having inveigled his way aboard a ship with Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, Squire then smeared the rest of the poison on the wooden arms of the dinning chair used by the Earl in an attempt to murder him, only to find it had no effect. Nevertheless, he was denounced, and hanged, drawn and quartered for his attempts.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Oh, dear, people have great imaginations in ways to get rid of each other! I rather liked the story told by Suetonius about the murder of Emperor Claudius - edible mushrooms covered in a sauce made of a poisonous variety... You’d think he would have had a taster - but then, quite a few Roman Emperors were murdered anyway.

Thanks for sharing these entertaining tales!

Karen Maitland said...

How ingenious! Worthy of Agatha Christie. Thank you so much for adding this tale.

Susan Price said...

Highly entertaining, as always, Karen. Some flowers are highly poisonous, all by themselves:--

This was the deadly monkshood or wolfsbane, which is so dangerous that if you look at it funny, it comes over and beats you up. I have an ambition to grow one in my garden because I have people poisoned by it in my book, Sterkarm Tryst -- but so far, haven't persuaded one to grow, and my partner's sleeps easier at night.

Becca McCallum said...

Isn't there a fairy story where a queen kills a prince with a poisoned coat/cloak? I'm sure I remember reading it as a child.