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Arsenic, the King of Poisons
Arsenic, cyanide, and strychnine are the classic poisons. The seemingly innocent little old ladies in Arsenic and Old Lace, one of my favorite movies, used these three poisons together in their deadly elderberry wine. One gallon of their elderberry wine contained one teaspoon of arsenic, half a teaspoon of strychnine, and just a pinch of cyanide. Unsuspecting gentlemen were never able to finish their glass of wine; they died first.
One of the favorite poisons used by authors, the 'King of Poisons' and the 'Poison of Kings', is the perfect poison. It is no odor, no taste, and no smell. Arsenic trioxide could easily be mistaken for sugar. Stirred into a drink or mixed in some food, it is deadly. It can even be mixed into ointments that will be applied to the skin. Not a problem for anyone to obtain, it is present in almost every household in some form. If you have weed killer, you have arsenic. If you have rat poison, you have arsenic. Anyone, regardless of age, can buy some form of this lethal poison. The arsenic compounds used in these household items are far more lethal than arsenic in its pure form and are absorbed easily by the body.
Arsenic is used in the preservation of wood. Because it is highly poisonous, it is very effective at getting rid of bacteria, insects, and fungi. It is used to manufacture ammunition because it makes the bullets harder and rounder.
The world of medicine has even made use of this deadly poison. Before the discovery of penicillin, arsenic was used to treat syphilis. Solutions made with arsenic were recommended for the treatment of malaria, rheumatism, arthritis, and tuberculosis. Even today, it is used in the treatment of leukemia and to cure psoriasis. Did you realize that this poison was used in so many ways?
The 'King of Poisons' has been used over and over again to murder people down through the years. Napoleon Bonaparte thought that he was being poisoned. His body did show an unusually high amount of the substance, but arsenic was a common ingredient used in the dyes of the wallpapers of his time, so vapors from this wallpaper could account for the higher levels of arsenic.
Mary Ann Cotton reportedly killed more than 20 people between 1852 and 1872. Who were her victims? Four husbands, ten of her children from these various husbands, five stepchildren, her mother, her sister, and her lover. Although she was only convicted for the murder of her 7-year-old stepson, they are pretty sure she killed the others, too. She even has a rhyme to keep her memory alive: "Mary Ann Cotton --She's dead and she's rotten! She lies in her bed With her eyes wide open. Sing, sing! Oh, what can I sing? Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string. Where, where? Up in the air -- selling black puddings a penny a pair". One way she killed her victims was to serve them tea laced with arsenic.
Nannie Doss, otherwise known as 'Arsenic Annie', is suspected of murdering her four husbands, two of her four daughters, one of her mother-in-laws, as well as other unfortunate family victims who must have upset her in some way. How is she suspected of killing them? Her favorite food was prunes. She would sprinkle arsenic, in the form of rat poison, on them and serve her favorite food to the unsuspecting victim.
I would not want to have been related to either Mary Ann Cotton or Nannie Doss, but what they did and apparently got away with for quite some time does show how easily your characters could use arsenic as their weapon of murder.
It is possible that Jane Austen died from arsenic poisoning. She was only 41 when she died in 1817. Letters that she left behind have lead many people to believe that she had been dosed with the 'King of Poisons'.
There are many more cases of arsenic poisoning I could tell you about, but what you need to know are the symptoms arsenic poisoning cause and how long it is before the poison does its job of killing the person who has ingested it.
Arsenic can be administered slowly over time to kill. Added daily to the intended victim's tea, coffee, or whatever else is drank in the morning would be a convenient way to do this. It could also be mixed in one of the breakfast foods. This would mess up the victim, but is not guaranteed to kill. There is also a possibility the intended victim could also build up an immunity to arsenic; this is something the murderer would not want to happen.
Symptoms from a massive dose of arsenic would take about 30 minutes to appear. Death could happen in as short a time as a few hours or possibly take as long as 24 hours.
What are the symptoms? The symptoms could vary depending upon how strong of a dose was given to the person. The victim could feel a burning sensation in the hands and feet, numbness throughout various parts of the body, swelling and skin irritations, a flaking rash, loss of hair, cirrhosis of the liver, jaundice, nausea, vomiting, cramps, weight loss, visual impairment, and cardiac failure. Blood could be vomited, the skin cold and clammy to the touch, and the victim could become dizzy and weak from a drop in blood pressure.
However your murderer chooses to administer arsenic to the intended victim, be sure to do your research. The symptoms are easy to find and read about, but you want to find accounts of those who have been fatally dosed with the 'King of Poisons' and read about how they reacted before they died. Make your readers feel as though they are witnesses to the death of your victim.
Content copyright © 2013 by Lisa Binion. All rights reserved.
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