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Cyanide, the Classic Poison
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 in their deadly elderberry wine. One gallon of this toxic 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.
Cyanide, with its easily recognizable bitter almond scent, is one of the poisons used by fiction authors such as Agatha Christie. This classic poison was the instrument of death in her mystery, Sparkling Cyanide. In many spy stories, the spies carry cyanide pellets to be used as suicide pills in case they are captured. The most common forms of this classic poison are potassium cyanide, sodium cyanide, and hydrogen cyanide (prussic acid).
If cyanide is so easily recognized, why do fiction writers tend to use it so much? Death is pretty much guaranteed once the intended victim ingests it. What about the smell? It is so subtle that by the time the victim recognizes it, the poison is already at work.
Cyanide kills by keeping oxygen from getting to the body's red blood cells. When the cells are deprived of oxygen, they die. The heart and brain use a lot of oxygen, so cyanide is especially deadly to those two vital organs.
Liquid cyanide be absorbed through the skin. When cyanide is in the form of a gas, it is inhaled. When in the form of a powder, it can be mixed in food and eaten. No matter how you decide to have your character administer a strong enough dose to his (or her) victim, there is little hope of survival.
What symptoms will the victim show once the cyanide has been administered? If a toxic dose of cyanide gas is inhaled, the unfortunate victim will immediately lose consciousness, go into convulsions, and quite breathing between one and fifteen minutes later. If the toxic dose is swallowed, it can take up to twenty minutes to work, perhaps even longer, especially if the one who swallowed it has a full stomach. The victim's blood could also have a purple tinge.
If only a near-lethal dose is given in any way, the victim will show symptoms such as dizziness, flushing, gasping for breath, headache, nausea, rapid pulse, vomiting, and a drop in blood pressure which can lead to fainting.
Cyanide has been used in many real life murders. The police found traces of cyanide, in the form of prussic acid, in the sugar bowl of Lizzie Borden's father and stepmother after they were brutally murdered. Possibly she grew impatient waiting on the small doses she had been administering to her parents to work. During World War II, hydrogen cyanide was used in the Nazi gas chambers.
How would your murderer obtain cyanide? He could get it through a chemical supply company, although it would be easier if he had unlimited access to it himself at the place he or a close friend worked. Cyanide can also be found in some plants. Some of these plants are mahogany, Christmas berry, cherry laurel, chokeberry, pin cherry, wild black cherry, flax, yellow pine-flax, velvet grass, Johnsongrass, Sudangrass, arrowgrass, and small arrowgrass. For any of these plants to be poisonous, an extremely large amount would have to be chewed.
As an interesting side note, the elderberry plant that the sisters in Arsenic and Old Lace used to make their toxic elderberry wine with is poisonous. The poison found in the elderberry plant is cyanogenic glycoside, which causes cyanide poisoning. Before use in making elderberry wine, the ripe fruit is supposed to be cooked to make it safe.
However your murderer chooses to administer cyanide 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 this classic poison 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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