Kate on Poison – Which Poisons Fit Your Story

poison, characters, writing

Which Poison should your character use?

Most of us know about Arsenic, cyanide, or radiation, but what about the others. The reality is that anything can be poisonous in the right quantity, but what is that quantity and is what you’re thinking a plausible way for your character to poison someone?

There are, of course, obvious times when you would choose cyanide or arsenic and sometimes the simple answer is the right one.

And many different reasons you might give your character for using the poison. But make sure you know as much or more than your character would know about the poison you decide on.

Poison is often considered the softer choice when wanting to ‘do someone in’ but when you look at how those poisons behave in the system it’s really not a nice way to die. Supposedly used most often by women my research proved this wasn’t the case at all.

Known Poisoners

Enter Dr Edward William Pritchard, the year is 1865, and after a fire and an investigation into the remains of a maid found in the attic, Dr Pritchard and his wife, Mary Jane, move to a new home.

Where follows what must seem like a series of unfortunate events. First Mary Jane becomes ill and goes to convalesce in the home of her parents.

Then, after she has returned home well again, she falls ill for a second time and her mother comes to her bedside, after eating tapioca pudding Mary Jane, her mother, and her maid all become ill. Her mother falls into a coma. The medication she took regularly for her neuralgia was not what it appeared to be and had added ingredients not in the original recipe.

Her daughter, Mary Jane, died not long after. Having taken a ‘pick-me-up’ prepared by her husband, which was also tasted by a maid who became violently ill.

If it wasn’t for an anonymous letter to the police the poisoning would have gone unreported and Dr Pritchard would have got away with murder.

His poison of choice: Antimony.

Another Doctor, Dr Robert Buchanan, married the wealthy heiress of a brothel, Ms Anna Sutherland. But in 1892 Anna fell seriously ill and died. A previous patron didn’t agree with the verdict of brain haemorrhage and suggested to the medical examiner that the death could have been due to morphine. But due to a lack of pinpointing in the eyes he was told it couldn’t be.

Buchanan might have also got away with murder had he not been a show off. Pointing out another man’s mistake in not using belladonna to prevent the pupils changing. It was one witness who recalled Buchanan had administered belladonna drops to his wife, for no obvious reason, not long before her death.

A further autopsy was carried out and a fatal dose of poison found.

His poison of choice: Morphine

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, friends with Wordsworth, Blake, and Dickens, wrote for journals and magazines but he had such an extravagant lifestyle that he was soon in debt.

After trying forgery he turned his hand to murder.

First his uncle, then his mother-in-law, and next his sister-in-law. All for the house and insurance money. After speculation about the deaths, he left for France where a fellow lodger died and left Wainewright £3k. When he returned to England he was arrested.

He got away with murder but not forgery and after a spell in Newgate Prison was transported to Tasmania.

Poison of Choice: Strychnine

The above three poisoners were found amongst a collection on h2g2 The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy: Earth Edition (don’t grown, they’re real historical poisoners).

poison, characters, writing
What poison could you dissolve into someone’s food or drink? Photo by Vee O via Unsplash

Turns out the majority of poisoners are men, not women as often thought (probably put about by men), and -I hate to say it – clever men. But equally they could be in a caring profession.

Given that 1 out of 5 verified murders by poisoning is never solved, it’s hard to draw a definitive psychological profile of the typical poisoner.  Those who’ve been caught and convicted give us some clues – clever, sneaky, emotionally immature, methodical, and self-centered.  Many of them are amazingly skilled at pretending to be something they’re not – a doting husband, caring nurse, or devoted friend.  Behind the mask, though, lies a psyche that is propelled by childish needs and unencumbered by moral restraints.

-Joni E Johnston Psy.D. Psychology Today

What does the poison do…

So now we know a few poisoners and have a psychologists profile but what about the way the poison acts. The symptoms can be very similar to common illnesses, especially when the poisoning is a gradual thing.

Cyanide binds the iron in the blood and prevents oxygen flow around the body. Once used in gas chambers for carrying out death sentences, the victim of cyanide gas will cough and choke, writhe and drool for several minutes before death takes them. It also smells like almonds and can be smelled on the corpse by those with a sensitive enough nose.

It can be in gas form or crystals. Being exposed to cyanide in a small dose could make the victim appear as if they’ve drank too much, they may experience dizziness, nausea, vomiting, headache, a racing heart or heart palpitations, restlessness, and/or weakness. But if it’s a large dose all at once the symptoms become much more severe resulting in convulsions, a slow heart rate, low blood pressure, lung injury, respiratory failure, and death.

Ricin, from the castor bean, only a low dose is required for this poison to kill. It prevents the production of proteins and has often been reported as the choice for assassinations. Ricin has the uncommon ability to continue to be absorbed by the victims digestive tract even after death and can become untraceable over time.

Ricin can be a powder, mist, or pellet, and dissolved in water or weak acid. A character dosed with ricin as an inhalant could show symptoms not dissimilar to the fast onset of flu – respiratory distress, fever, cough, nausea, and a tight chest. And if ingested they may suffer from vomiting and diarrhoea, seizures, and low blood pressure. There’s no antidote to ricin poisoning.

Arsenic, because it would be wrong to miss it out, produces symptoms very similar to cholera. The amount of arsenic and the length of time an individual is dosed for can vary the symptoms. It works by binding the ATP in human cells and causing gastroenteritis symptoms in the first instance, leading to dehydration and shock. And for those who don’t die directly of arsenic poisoning may later die as a result of cancer, heart disease, or diabetes caused by it.

Strychnine is usually used to deal with infestations of rodents. It attacks the spinal nerves causing uncontrollable spasms not unlike fitting. Eventually the muscles tire and the victim is unable to breath. The nasty part is that they are conscious to begin with. The symptoms will begin within the first thirty minutes of exposure.

Strychnine is a powder that can be taken into the body in a number of ways. Once used as a medication in tablet form it’s now often found in street drugs.

A low dose may appear like a bad trip, agitation and fear, easily startled, muscle pain and soreness and being aware of their symptoms, which may also include muscle spasms, jaw tightness, difficulty breathing, and the uncontrollable arching of back and neck.

Other things to take into consideration: The length of time the victim is exposed to the poison. The way in which it is administered – the form it takes. The amount of poison given. Environmental conditions which could worsen or lessen the effect. Other illnesses/conditions that could cause the same symptoms.

poison, writing, characters
How long does it take to have an effect? – photo by Petradr via Unsplash

A beginners guide is all I’ve given you

There’s far more information out there than you will find here, but I’ve tried to give you the basics for these few poisons. A little knowledge can go a long way – as can a little poison.

The CDC site has a lot of good and detailed information on poisons and some of the information above has been gathered from their site.  I suspect they have information on any poison you could think of using in your story.

I’ll leave you to pick your poison.

Kate xxx