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Friday, January 25, 2008

Weekend Curiosities and Wonders: A is for Apothecary

"But while they were eating the stew, they cried out, 'O man of God, there is death in the pot!"
-2 Kings 4:40

"If you drink too much from a bottle marked 'Poison,' it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later."
-Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

From biblical plagues of poison quail and the treatment of venereal diseases with mercury, to history's infamous poisoners like Catherine de Medici and H.H. Crippen, there's no shortage of interesting accounts and fun facts in the annals of poison.

Dieter Martinetz's Poison: Sorcery and Science, Friend and Foe (1987) is notable for its particularly lovely collection of etchings, illuminations, Victorian advertisements, and art prints depicting poison in history. Here, I learned of the physical effects of the "flying mixture," an ointment of henbane, deadly nightshade, and thornapple which, rubbed over the chest produces the a rather dramatic sensation.

Following a 1954 experiment, Siegbert Ferckel reported that after applying the ointment, "the walls and ceiling began to undulate and to crash together with a loud bang... Faces came towards me out of the darkness... I soared upwards at great speed..., and I saw hazily, through a pink veil, that I was floating above the town."

Equally curious and entertaining is the Howdunit Book of Poisons, a book for writers that details the exact toxicity, symptoms, and treatments for hundreds of poisons, including case histories about how various poisons have been used in literature and in real crimes and accidental overdoses. Here, I learned that both the leaves of the rhubarb plant and the bite of an adder will cause bleeding from the nose and eyes. Additionally, I found what is quite possible the weirdest use of poison in literature:

"Someone at the picnic had really given Thea an oleander branch. With three notches in it.. to let the deadly sap escape?... And she skewered her frankfurter on it?"
-Lucille Kallen, The Piano Bird

According to our authors, poor Thea would shortly thereafter face unconsciousness, respiratory paralysis, and death.

And fans of true crime and historical oddity will enjoy Peter Macinnis's Poisons, a highly readable collection of accidental and criminal poisonings in history.

Take the tragic story of Humbug Billy, a sweets vendor in Bradford, England in the mid-19th century. A poor confectioner, Billy stretched the sugar in his peppermint candies with a powdered filler of limestone or plaster of paris called "daft," -- perhaps dishonest, but certainly not dangerous. Until the day that the local druggist accidentally substituted Billy's daft with a sack of arsenic. Approximately 200 people became ill, and 20 died from the sweets.

And with that little tale, I leave you for the weekend. May all your foods be pure, and your cordials unadulterated.

1 comment:

Gwen said...

This woman in my hometown once tried to poison her husband by putting rat poison in his food. He didn't die and they stayed married for a while afterward but later divorced. She went on to open a restaurant in town, which everybody ate at without evident harm.